A Plague Tale: Innocence Review

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I want to like Plague Tale, but the game makes it hard sometimes. For the most part it’s a solid horror character piece about a young girl and her even younger brother on a journey through misery. Then sometimes it turns into a supernatural action thriller that throws all sense of subtlety out the window. With boss fights.

You play Amicia De Rune, a fifteen year old noblewoman in fourteenth century France whose family is targeted by the Inquisition. They’re after Hugo, Amicia’s five year old brother whose mysterious ill health has meant the two siblings have grown up apart from one another, now thrust together in dire circumstances. Exacerbating the situation are huge swarms of flesh-eating rats who can only be kept at bay with light, presenting a lethal threat any time the De Runes enter the shadows, doubly so at night. The story is interesting to begin with, as Amicia seeks out potential explanations for Hugo’s ailment, and the two gain a small group of allies, each with their own skills and backgrounds. That stuff’s good, the allies are all likable, what’s going on with Hugo and how it ties into the Inquistion is intriguing, and Amicia’s relationship with Hugo is a well handled mix of affection and frustration in certain situations. Unfortunately as the game goes on, the supernatural elements merely hinted at in earlier parts come to the forefront, and the game fully shifts gears into absurdity by the end, which dulls the impact, and threat established early on. Most of this revolves around the rats themselves, portrayed less as a zoological menace and more of a force of nature; some act of vengeance carried out by an angry god. They literally explode out of the ground and strip men in full plate armour to the bone in seconds, they frantically sprint towards any flesh they can find, and bump up against the invisible walls created by light sources as they clamber over each other, desperate to rip Amicia and Hugo to pieces. The best level in the game is navigating a misty battlefield covered in corpses, with rats all over the place that first appear by bursting out of a dead horse. A lot of the game revolves around navigating groups of rats and using them to your advantage; destroying light sources to kill guards, moving revolving lanterns into positions to form safe paths, that sort of thing. For the most part, the gameplay relies on stealth and light puzzle solving with the rat hordes. Amicia has a sling with which to launch rocks at unprotected guard heads, and her allies present her with a variety of alchemical tools that provide various effects. Knock guards out up close, ignite light sources, extinguish light sources, melt helmets, that sort of thing. These items all have to be crafted, and which one to use for which situation is a fun little element that pops up every now and then in the stealth sections, when the game isn’t pushing you towards one or another. Where the gameplay falls down is when it attempts combat, especially boss fights. Amicia’s sling requires auto-aim, which when combined with having to quickly swap between different ammo types can lead to some frustrating deaths as the soldier you’re not aiming at charges across the room to stab you or, even worse, throws a spear through your heart. One section in particular right near the end was the worst for this, in which I had archers to shoot in the head, certain types of light sources to extinguish and other types to outright break. The game’s combat system is not built to handle spinning plates like this, and it becomes painfully apparent whenever you leave stealth to do anything more than loudly kill one or two enemies. Worse still are the boss fights, especially the final boss which is both annoying and completely ridiculous. It marks the culmination of the game’s descent from “This is neat” to “Oh god what happened here?”

That said, the game does have its strengths. The way the rats are presented is excellent, as are their nests made from a black, tar-like substance that corrupts and warps whatever it’s built onto, and is laced with bits of bone and entire human skeletons. Amicia isn’t anything special but two of her companions are cool; Alchemist’s apprentice Lucas and thief Melie. That’s about it really, I’ve come away from the game feeling quite disappointed overall.

So then, for the most part Plague Tale is good: the horror elements are strong thanks to the rats, the stealth and puzzling are neat and the characters are all likeable enough and the story is intriguing enough to keep you interested, but then more and more combat sections creep in, and the game leans into absurdity and the whole thing falls down a bit. Not a bad game overall and an interesting experience, but it bites off more than it can chew.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

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Layers of Fear 2 Review

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Remember Layers of Fear? It was a first person horror game about an artist trying to complete his masterwork while mental illness turns the house into an impossible space of ever-changing rooms and corridors filled with lore about his backstory. It was good, eschewing Amnesia-style weaponless stealth in favour of mood and atmosphere. Now there’s a sequel, so here we are.

Continuing with the theme of tortured artists wandering around being reminded what bastards they are, this time you’re a celebrated film actor named James, exploring a luxury cruise ship where filming was taking place. In place of the Artist’s Magnum Opus is the ultimate character James was meant to play, with each psycho-journey getting him closer to fully inhabiting the role. Unfortunately James’ story is hinged entirely on a traumatic moment from his childhood, and the game is spent waiting to be told what it was even though you figured it out hours ago. The original didn’t have a central mystery as such, it used the run time to hint at what happened to result in The Artist roaming around his house using body parts to paint a portrait; filling in the gaps gradually to give you details about a situation it’s already outlined to you.  To have a grand reveal on which to have hours of references that are purposefully vague because there’s barely anything to conceal absolutely butchers the game’s minute-to-minute pacing. A game like this is about the journey, capped off by the destination, something Layers of Fear 2 fails to heed. Worse still, James being an actor doesn’t really have any relevance to the plot, besides four moral choices of a sort that are linked to taking or refusing direction, and collectable posters of films he was in. I think. They might just be of films whoever put them up liked.

Apart from a couple of changes, the game mostly takes place on the ship, which quickly gets boring. Unlike the original’s constantly changing architecture and use of colour the environments here are mostly in black and white, have nothing of note or interest in them and are populated exclusively by manikins, which are woefully unequipped for all the symbolism heavy lifting the game asks of them. The second of five acts is particularly bad for this, just being stretch after stretch of dark corridors. There are moments when the game tries to spice things up a bit, but they’re all underwhelming. There are now rudimentary enemy encounters with a faceless humanoid monstery thing with no real sense of internal consistency or logic. Sometimes you have to run away from it, sometimes you have to hide from it, sometimes you have to run towards it which then somehow turns into running away from it; it’s clearly been designed to work around how the horror and exploration work, to its detriment. The enemy in the original popped up now and then as a scare and nothing more, and that worked so much better. There’s a short part chase, part hiding sequence with it in a maze near the end of the game and it’s dreadful. Every time the thing turned up it was annoying and, crucially, never scary. That goes for the game as a whole, and it’s due in large part to everything being so bland and lifeless. The original kept you on edge, built up an atmosphere of unpredictability and dread. Nothing of the sort here, not even close. Also manikins aren’t scary apart from that one bit in Condemned. Ah Condemned. What a banger.

Oddly, there are modern film references, despite seemingly being set in the early twenty first century. Se7en gets an extended, explicit shout-out that feels completely out of place, the Shining gets one, there are probably more but by the time I realised they were there I was rushing towards the end of the game.

As I write this I’ve just finished Layers of Fear 2 and I’m already struggling to remember it. How Bloober team went from something vivid, atmospheric and interesting like the original Layers of Fear to something so dull, bland and boring, that’s such an uneventful slog to play is beyond me. It’s a shame.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

Tomorrow is in Your Hands – Thoughts on Death Stranding’s Release Date Trailer

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So Death Stranding got a nearly nine minute trailer yesterday, with a good look at the world, character interactions and a release date: November 8th. I’ve already pre-ordered the ridiculously expensive replica baby version (of course that’s a thing), and although it won’t be a full breakdown I would like to give some impressions on the game at this point.

I’ve always been into Death Stranding but I’ve had it on the back burner: I  left the dissection and speculation to others, content in the knowledge that it looked good and that I’d find out all I needed to by playing the game, whenever it came out. This trailer is what’s finally made me engage with it more actively, mainly because it’s given me the best grasp of the game so far. Norman Reedus’ Sam Bridges is a courier schlepping large boxes across a hostile, barren landscape by placing ladders over gaps and hiking over rocky hills, this much we know. Turns out he’s on a first name basis with the terminally ill U.S President, a woman named Bridget, so maybe Bridges is actually a government agency? She wants him to unite the remaining people of the U.S so they can stand together against “BTs”, the shadow ghosts from previous trailers, who are revealed through the use of the tank babies seen before, here revealed to be called “Bridge Babies”, which come from “The other side”. Presumably that’s what the “Death Stranding” is; a link between the living and dead. Sam thinks this is a lost cause, and rebuilding the country is both unnecessary and won’t do anything about the BTs, but it’s currently unclear how and why they’re here. Troy Baker’s character Higgs is the leader of a terrorist group who roam from settlement to settlement killing people, Lea Seydoux’s character is named Fragile, which leads me to believe that both she and Sam are named after their respective companies, as are all employees, and Mads Mikkelsen’s character Cliff gets a proper look in. He’s a scientist it seems like, reassuring and softly singing to a Bridge Baby in a lab, but also has those skeletal soldiers seen in previous trailers. They aren’t present when he’s in the lab, but there are shots of him in a warzone that looks like something from the first world war, covered in tar and seemingly naked, as well as rising from oil “Apocalypse Now”-style, lighting a cigarette that then sets said oil on fire, which doesn’t effect him or his soldiers. It’s interesting that he can be in two completely different states, and the title cards “Those bound to Hades” and “Those who struggle to stay connected” suggest said soldiers are some kind of malevolent power from the other side, barely kept in check by Cliff. Sam appears in the WW1 mud and blood-covered trenches in his uniform, alongisde ghost soldiers and one with a physical form he shoots, so clearly that warzone plays a part in current events and he’s capable of taking part in a conflict. Speaking of conflict, we get a look at combat out in the world as a group of goons chase after Sam: he knocks two out, dodges one and they reluctantly call off the hunt when it begins raining: a sign of the BTs’ arrival. At one point the cheery baby inside Sam’s body turns into a doll, which makes him drop to his knees and hold a gun to his head: that same doll is seen earlier strung up near Cliff, and given his clear links to BBs it’s not a stretch to think he has the ability to replace one, he may even be the one who brought them over in the first place.

Okay, so, the broad strokes I’ve gleaned from this trailer are that basically the U.S and perhaps the world is in ruin and full of shadowy ghost monsters from the land of the dead, babies from said land help the remnants of humanity see them, a terrorist group lead by Troy Baker is threatening said remnants and a courier disagrees with the President that the U.S is worth rebuilding. Also there’s a war and Mads Mikkelsen is involved. Also there’s a character in it called Die-Hardman. Now I’ve got something concrete I’m finding it easier to engage with Death Stranding, and I look forward to more information and footage coming out, hopefully a series of escalating trailers like MGSV had, all of which were ace. I’ll be reviewing it, obviously, and in the meantime I’ll probably write about any key new info or trailers, I’ll judge them on a case-by-case basis.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Days Gone Review

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I wasn’t expecting much from Days Gone. The initial footage didn’t get me anywhere near as hyped as everyone insisted it should have, and as the release date grew closer I was anticipating competent but boring; well-made, but not enough to draw me in. Something like Horizon Zero Dawn. Turns out it’s an engaging good time, and although it doesn’t do anything new it does what it does well.

There are a lot of elements from other games here. The tone, environments, crafting, combat and stealth are highly reminiscent of The Last of Us. You rely on a vehicle that starts off bare bones and is upgraded over the course of the game after your personal, custom vehicle is scrapped, like in the Mad Max game. Certain smaller elements are similar to ones in Red Dead 2, The Walking Dead comic and Far Cry. It is, to be charitable, heavily influenced by other media, but that’s not a criticism. Anyway, you are a man the game insists is named Deacon St.John, a Nomad member of the Mongrels Motorcycle Club surviving in post-apocalyptic Oregon with his best friend and fellow Mongrel Boozer. The world is overrun with virus infected humans called “Freakers” and Deacon works as a bounty hunter, killing as many infected as he can as well as any antagonistic humans who kill or kidnap people from survivor camps. Each camp has their own politics and direction, dictated by their leader: Copeland is a libertarian truther who thinks mass shootings are a small price to pay for gun rights, Tucker runs a work camp repeatedly referred to by other characters as slave labour, and Iron Mike runs a camp with the only doctor around, and is determined to unite the remaining human groups against the Freaks. This includes the Rest-in-Peace “Ripper” cult, who get all messed up on PCP, slice themselves to ribbons and want to be just like the Freakers. They seem to have it in for Deek and Boozer, and the bikers hate them in return, which makes them at odds with Iron Mike’s attempt at a treaty with the Rippers. Deacon himself is surprisingly interesting as a character. When interacting with other people he’s fine, albeit prone to sarcasm and deflection, but when he’s out in the world by himself he’s constantly jabbering and swearing to himself about what he’s doing as part of some aggressive coping mechanism. He’s extremely capable, having seen combat in the Army and spent a long time controlling the one vehicle everyone in this new world uses, but rather than being stoic and above-it-all he’s flappable, angry and frustrated with his situation. It’s like the Resi 2 remake, but much more prevalent and more the result of having to do this for an extended period of time rather than a panicky response to being dropped into an extreme situation. There’s more going on in the story but it’s hard to talk about without spoiling things, so I’ll leave it at that.

So it plays like a cross between TLOU and Mad Max, and it turns out that’s a winning combination. You ride around on Deacon’s bike and clear out camps of marauders, find objects and missing people and burn out nests made by Freakers. The bike has a durability meter and a fuel gauge, both of which can be improved, so you’ll spend a fair amount of time rooting through abandoned towns and outposts looking for materials. Fortunately the bike can be refilled and repaired at outposts, scrap can be found under car bonnets or dotted around the place and unlimited-use fuel cans and petrol pumps aren’t particularly hard to find. It’s more a tool to add tension and a touch of realism rather than an annoyance, and having to creep around potentially dangerous areas looking for gear is effective. The combat is straight out of TLOU: the shooting, the melee weapons and attacks, the crafting medkits, molotovs and IEDs, the stealth; it’s all here, and it all works well. The core gameplay loop of driving out, having a gunfight and smacking Freakers over the head with a spiked bat is engaging, particularly once you start to get better gear and upgrade your bike. It’s made more interesting by the presence of the Freaks, especially groups of them, and TWD comic-style hordes; huge swarms of infected that until late in the game you have no chance against and must be avoided at all costs. There was one camp I cleared out with a large group of infected right below it, waiting for any sign of my presence so they could rush up and rip me apart. The horror elements are surprisingly strong given that you can just run back to your bike and bugger off, it’s a testament to the atmosphere the game creates.

I don’t normally talk about graphics, but it’s worth pointing out just how beautiful Days Gone can be, particularly when the real time weather system kicks in. This is the first game I’ve seen to have real time snow that actually settles and covers the ground, and the falling snow is absolutely gorgeous; many times it combined with nighttime runs through a hostile world bathed in moonlight to create a wonderful atmosphere the likes of which open world games never manage for me. One mission in particular will stick with me for some time for that very atmosphere, it was glorious. Augmenting this is the excellent soundtrack, which provides a real sense of dread when you’re out in the open, vulnerable while searching for fuel, scrap and crafting items.

Unfortunately despite the sizeable patch the game still has technical faults; objects not loading in, I fell through the world once and the framerate often drops, sometimes freezing altogether briefly. Despite the game’s overall quality it’s far too long, and what looked to be a move towards a finale turned out to be a lead-in for a whole extra chunk of story. Important things happen during that time, but having dealt with the game’s main villain another one has to be hastily introduced in order to give the unresolved plot threads and obvious foreshadowing time to be paid off. Twice I was all geared up for a final showdown of some kind only for the game to go “Woah, that was a close one, good thing everything’s calmed down again, eh?” There’s enough here for Days Gone and a sequel, and a split between the two would make things flow better. I can’t describe it for spoiler reasons (might put that in a follow up article) but there’s a definite place to split the story into two parts, which I personally think would have been for the best.

Overall, despite a few issues, Days Gone is a good game. It owes a whole lot to other IP, but everything it takes it does well, and presents them in a way that’s an engaging, fun time. Strong atmosphere, enjoyable gameplay and solid character and story combine to make Days Gone worth checking out.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Mortal Kombat 11 Review

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Mortal Kombat made a comeback that’d give Resident Evil a run for its money back in 2011. After several crap PS2 entries and whatever the hell MK vs DC was trying to achieve (I’ll give it one thing: it has possibly the worst fatality in the entire series in it) MK9 was a genuinely brilliant reboot and started a new, diverging timeline. It’s not without flaw, particularly in the creepy way it treats all its female characters, but it was a much needed shot in the arm and a great fighting game. MKX was a step up from that and is, in my opinion, a modern classic of the genre. Now Mortal Kombat 11 is upon us, acting as a conclusion to the trilogy MK9 started and a culmination of this new era of MK.

The story follows on from MKX: starting with Dark Raiden taking the fight to Netherrealm rulers Liu Kang and Kitana. Raiden and company succeed, only for their progress (and Raiden) to be undone by new villain Kronika and her control of time. Kronika’s plan is to rewind events to the beginning of time because Raiden decapitating Shinnok has undone her careful “balance” that basically entails good and evil being at war forever. Living versions of Revenants, past versions of characters and Shao Kahn are all brought into the present day, with the original, good Raiden arriving to replace his dark counterpart. Factions quickly establish themselves: Kronika and the villains in the cast vs Raiden and the heroes, with the thunder god desperately seeking to avoid losing himself to anger and avoid his fated cock ups. The story has fun with time travel shenanigans, but a surprisingly large amount of it is dedicated to carrying on character development from X. Cassie and Johnny Cage remain the hearts of the story, Raiden, Liu Kang, Jax and Kotal Kahn (among others) all make real progress when they have their time in the sun and it feels like a satisfying continuation to the much-needed advancement MKX presented. It’s a good story, all told.

The biggest change to the game is the inclusion of Injustice 2’s gear system, albeit with less of a focus on stat boosts, and using said gear to create custom variations. Each character has two to start, and while moves can be freely attributed to custom loadouts extra fatalities, gear, skins, intros and outros must be unlocked either in the Krypt or the “Towers of Time”. The Krypt is as it was in X; a sort of dungeon crawler mode with puzzles and a load of chests to unlock with in-game currency. The Towers are similar to the ones in X, only they have modifiers carried over from the now missing “Test your luck” mode, and until a recent update (on PS4 at least) unfair difficulty. They still can be tricky, but they’re a lot more feasible now, and you earn a lot more money for doing them. I tried them before the update and some of them were utter bullshit, so while their initial inclusion was frustrating I am glad NetherRealm have taken feedback on board and solved the issue so quickly. The Krypt is mostly random now apparently, and while on the one hand it is likely you’ll get something good, you might end up opening several boxes in a row filled with ToT power ups and concept art. One point in the Krypt’s favour is that it takes place on Shang Tsung’s island, and it’s neat to freely explore the setting of the original Mortal Kombat.

Fortunately none of this has any real bearing on the gameplay, which is as fun as ever. For me Mortal Kombat, at least this modern run, is a series that’s unique in that it requires me to learn combos involving strings of button presses. Of the big, mainstream series Tekken incorporates movement in such a way that I never bother with long strings and in Street Fighter I use a combination of special moves and normals strung together with proper timing. I play other fighting games too, but the two examples above are enough to make my point, and in the interest of time I won’t go off on a detailed tangent. I find MK’s special moves a tad finicky and occasionally prone to failure given their input method, and while I do use them I prefer to learn a handful of attack strings and use those, again with proper timing. This approach to combos makes it easier for me to try different characters and branch out. In MKX I ended up with Erron Black and Mileena as my mains, and though I haven’t had that long with 11 I’ve settled into a comfortable groove with Scorpion and Sub Zero (the best they’ve ever been) and now I’m playing around with Erron’s new moveset and Kabal: drawn to his aesthetic, situation and powers. A big part of fighting games for me is their characters, and it’s nice to be able to pick ones I find likeable or cool and then be able to learn them well enough to feel like I can actually play them.

It plays a lot like MKX, but with two main differences: firstly, stamina has been replaced with a recharging two use bar for environmental interaction. Secondly EX attacks are governed by a similar meter, and X-Ray moves have been replaced with “Fatal Blows”, which can only be used when you drop to a certain amount of health, like rage arts from Tekken 7. I like this change; having EX attacks be separate makes me more prone to using them, and Fatal Blows are a double edged sword that can give you a way to come back from the brink, but make beating down your opponent increasingly risky as you race to the bottom of their health bar. Custom variations are a great idea; choosing special moves to layer on top of a standard set is inspired and feels like a natural progression for variations, and the gear and skins feel more natural than the Injustice 2 method of just gluing bits of tat to character’s outfits.

Mortal Kombat 11 is great. The changes have a positive effect on gameplay while it retains the same high standard it’s had for eight years now and the addition of custom variations is fantastic. Now that the Towers of Time have been toned down they’re an enjoyable part of the game, and the core fighting gameplay is satisfying and fun. The story is good for the most part and great when it focuses on character development, and as a conclusion to the trilogy MK9 started it works well, and has me hyped for potential future games. In a genre crowded with excellent series Mortal Kombat absolutely still belongs, and it’s more than willing to show you why.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Blood-Soaked Memories: My Five Favourite Bosses in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

 

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Having just finished Sekiro for the second time and taken the other fork in the road, I thought I’d talk about one of the game’s best aspects: boss fights. Note that to get the best spread possible I’m including both full-fat bosses and mini bosses in this, because in terms of my personal enjoyment there’s no real difference between the two groups. So without further ado, let’s get into it. Obviously there are major spoilers from here on out.

5. Armored Warrior 

At last, Fromsoft does a puzzle fight well. It’s a simple puzzle, but one that ties into the game’s mechanics and provides a tweaked challenge: an opponent head to toe in thick, metal armour that protects his vitality from any and all damage. The puzzle is you cannot kill him with conventional means, and must instead fill up his posture bar and use a deathblow to kick him off the side of the bridge you’re on, something that can only be achieved when you’re close enough, at the right angle and if the Warrior has smashed a hole in the wall. He hits hard and erratically, and it becomes a close battle of positioning, dodging and combos. It’s a really fun fight, and its short length makes it a nice, snacky interlude midway through Senpou Temple to show off a neat idea FromSoft had.

4. Genichiro Ashina 

After cutting off Wolf’s arm and kidnapping his master Kuro, Wolf is understandably out for Genichiro’s blood. Waiting for you at the top of Ashina Castle, the Samurai acts as the first greatest test of skill and your grasp of the game. Telegraphed combos that provide a great opportunity to raise his posture, all three kinds of unblockable but punishable attacks and practice with a dangerous long-range foe. While Lady Butterfly is a good fight, Genichiro is far better as a human on human duel, with the game’s best example of the give and take, push and pull nature of the combat up to that point. I’ve seen people say that Genichiro is where the game really clicked for them and it’s easy to see why, as it expects you to have learned the combat and rewards you for it with a challenging, satisfying fight. When you finally beat him he switches to his “Way of Tomoe” form, in which he strips to the waist and gains the power of lightning strikes. This is where the game introduces Lightning Reversal; a trick where you leap into the air to sever a connection between the lightning and ground and send it back into Genichiro for heavy damage. A great boss, and his low position on the list speaks volumes to the quality of the fights in this game.

3. Great Shinobi Owl

At the three-quarter point Wolf must make a choice: side with his adoptive Father and turn against his master Kuro, or decide to follow his own code and stay loyal to the young master. Choose the latter and Wolf must put down his old man, who fights with a Katana longer than Wolf is tall and every dirty trick in the book. Owl fights Wolf with his own tactics and some of his own Shinobi moves thrown in: shuriken, firecrackers, bathing the arena in smoke, bombs that stop you healing, all on top of that massive sword. Unlike Genichiro before him, the tactics for defeating Owl are more focused on nailing the step-dodge timing to avoid the Shinobi weapons, move in close and punish. Owl is higher on the list because of the story implications of the fight, as if you’re taking the “good” path through the game this marks the point where Wolf makes an extremely difficult decision in benefit of his master, showing just how much he cares about the boy. I love Kuro and Wolf’s relationship and often took the time to have them talk, so it feels like a natural progression to maintain loyalty to him and reluctantly fight a father who’s cloaking malevolent, selfish desires in disappointment that you’ve broken the iron code. I like how if you die, while he’s waiting for you to revive he barks out tenants of the code; filled with unrighteous indignation at a son who’s thinking for himself and has chosen a better path. A cool fight between two master Shinobi and a key moment in Wolf’s character development.

2. Guardian Ape

Sekiro has a strong grasp of horror that is used sparingly, peppered into the fights with humans and the odd gun-wielding monkey. Mibu village, the two long-arm centipedes, the headless; they’re all cool, but they lack the visceral punch of the Guardian Ape, a unique boss with two vastly different stages, a great design and interesting lore implications. First you fight a giant, white ape with a huge sword through its neck who alternates between ferocious hyper-aggression and scrabbling to flee like a frightened animal when you gain the upper hand. He throws boulders of poisonous shite at you, he farts poison clouds, he clobbers you with his giant ape arms and he has two different, brutal grab attacks. It is, as the name suggests, a fight with a giant ape. He only has one deathblow marker, and once you activate it Wolf uses the giant sword to sever the ape’s head. “Shinobi Execution” appears on screen, job’s a good’un. But then he gets back up. Round 2, a giant, parasitic centipede controlling the ape’s body picks up the severed head in one hand, the sword in the other and engages in clumsy, eerie swordplay. The ape in this form has a completely different moveset, and can hold his severed head above his neck stump and let out a harrowing, piercing scream that rapidly causes vitality damage and fills the insta-kill terror meter. It’s a fight unlike any other in the game, obviously discounting the subsequent rematch with him and his backup. Shout out to the start of that fight where he’s standing facing the wall of a cave deep in Ashina and creepily turns towards you when you enter. Anyway it’s a fight unlike any other; two entirely different fights with the same boss sequentially, in a beautiful arena, and if you go there before Senpou Temple it’s the first glimpse at exactly what this universe’s other form of immortality looks like. The game is at it’s best when you’re fighting other humans, but the Guardian Ape is so unique and such a cool, creepy fight that it stands shoulder to shoulder with them.

1. Emma, The Gentle Blade and Isshin Ashina

Side with Owl and forsake the young master and you’re treated to the best boss fight(s) in the game, among the best Fromsoft has ever done. Unlike the alternate route in which you fight Genichiro again and then fight a resurrected, full-power, three deathblow marker Isshin, here the still-living old man takes up his sword alongside Emma, one of Wolf’s closest allies. They both engage with the Shinobi sensing that he’s on the verge of becoming a bloodthirsty monster who kills on a whim; desperate times call for desperate measures. First comes Emma, who has a strong offence but only one marker and a fairly easy to break posture. Once she falls it’s Isshin’s turn, who has two markers and similar posture, but a trickier moveset, and in his second phase he uses the flaming arena to augment his attacks.

Mechanically, Isshin is Fromsoft’s best boss. Punishing, challenging and a keen test of everything you’ve learned so far; the better you’ve adjusted to Sekiro’s combat style, the better you’ll do. Rather than overpowering you with superhuman brutality like his Keisen counterpart, this older, wiser Isshin is craftier and more nimble, dodging and luring you in, adding fire to his moves for extra oomph to his attacks. Rather than just chucking Genichiro at you again you have to deal with Emma, who fits with Isshin beautifully and though short the duel with her is excellent. Trained by Isshin and using many of his tactics, Emma is an elegant fighter who, like her master, works as a test of what you’ve learnt throughout the game: if you know what you’re doing you’ll handle her fine, if you haven’t, you’ll have a bad time. But because the combat mechanics in Sekiro are so specific and the game pushes you to learn them more so than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, it feels like more of a fair fight. At least to me anyway. Also the location is so much better than the Sword Saint fight: you’d think that white field would stand out but it ends up feeling more generic and drab than the top of Ashina Castle, framed against snowy mountains, its towering presence fuelling the drama of the desperate struggle to put down Wolf before he becomes a Shura. In a game of excellent boss fights, Emma and Isshin are the best, hands down.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

The Power of Fluffy Boys Shines Within You – Thoughts on Deltarune Chapter 1

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Deltarune is the new game from Undertale creator Toby Fox, chapter one of which had a sort of stealth release on PC a while ago and came to PS4 recently for free. Apparently the rest of the game will be released as a whole package in the future, so I’ll be reviewing that too, but for now let’s take a look at what’s currently on offer. This’ll just be a quick one, because I want to keep my in-depth opinions for the full review.

I’m a big fan of Undertale, and based on Chapter 1 Deltarune has the potential to be just as good. The new characters are great for the most part, particularly best boy Ralsei and Susie, the reuse of Undertale characters in different circumstances is intriguing and I loved Sans’ reappearance. The new additions to the combat system are neat, in particular having to warn enemies about Susie’s unyielding attempts to smash them. For me the villainous King isn’t anything special; his fight teaches the protagonists a valuable lesson but lacks the sustained “but thou must” heartbreak of fighting Asgore. I’m a tad trepidatious about the ending cliffhanger, but at the same time intrigued. I like the whole “No one can choose who they are in this world” angle, and I’m interested to see how that affects things going forward. I know this was very brief and light on detail but initial attempts read too much like a review, and I don’t want to do that twice. So for now just know that I really liked Chapter 1 and I eagerly await the full release of Deltarune, whenever that is.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18