Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 Review

Tony Hawk's™ Pro Skater™ 1 + 2

As I’m sure plenty of reviews for this game will start: the Tony Hawk games were a huge part of my childhood. I never had the first two, but three, Underground, Underground 2 and American Wasteland were some of my favourite games when I was young. That was as far as I got though, because by all accounts every game after that was hot garbage. Fortunately they seem to know that, so they’ve taken the smart route and gone back to the good ones.

For the uninitiated, the Tony Hawk games are a fun, arcade-y approach to skateboarding; big air, easy flips and spins, chaining together preposterous combinations of tricks mid-grind/manual/lip, that sort of thing. Alongside an endless “Free skate” mode, both games are split into a series of missions and skate park competitions. Missions take place in urban areas not designed for skating; schools, city streets, a warehouse and the like. Some of them have challenges based around doing tricks in certain places and interacting with objects in the environment and all of them have collect-a-thon challenges; the ubiquitous S-K-A-T-E and secret tapes being joined by an assortment of floating tat to find. They also have a series of high score challenges, which is where the first of my issues with the game arises, though this is a small one. Free skate, while fun, lacks a sense of direction, whereas in the missions the only reliable way to get a high enough score is chaining together a load of grinds, manuals and lip tricks; keep the balance meter in the middle and mash buttons to cycle through different tricks. This is also how I beat the competitions; find a lip, hit it, chain together a bunch of tricks, revert, manual, hit the lip on the other side, repeat. It’s not a big deal, but it does feel like I’m forced into playing it in one way rather than in a way I would find fun. This also plays into my other, biggest problem: some of the challenges are really annoying. For example; four ramp tranfers in Venice Beach, one of which involves a massive jump from one half pipe, over another and landing in a third. One time I tried this and the game insisted it was the correct thing to do, but I bailed. Then when I actually managed to do it but the game gaslit me and gave me points for a completely different thing, like I wasn’t doing it right. One challenge I had to consult a guide for involved jumping off roof ramps; two of them are just jumping from building to building, the third requires you to ramp off a building in just the right spot so you can land on and grind a rail otherwise it doesn’t count, something the game doesn’t tell you at all.

On the plus side, the skating itself is as satisfying and moreish as it used to be; that holds up really well. It’s easy to pick up, responsive and fun; flip tricks, manuals and grinds, the retrofitted wallplants, wallrides and reverts, it all feels great. By avoiding a simulation approach and getting you into levels quickly, it has that same pick-up-and-play quality that fighting games have; the kind of thing that I like to load up and mess around with for an hour or so while listening to a podcast. It understands that the reason people play these games is for the skating, so it brings that to the forefront and builds everything else around it. There’s a character creator that’s pretty neat, but if you prefer you can play as a variety of real life skaters instead. I picked Leo Baker and stuck with them because the game has an RPG-lite stat system fuelled by pick ups; if you want another character to be on the same level skill-wise, you’ll need to replay every level and find the stat points dotted around. Not that it mattered to me; I was Baker all the way, but it is worth mentioning, particularly as stats can have a pretty big impact on certain challenges, especially ones involving get up to high places. One of those aforementioned roof jumps would have been nigh-on impossible had I not improved my speed and air stats, and accruing high scores was made easier by maxing out my balance when doing grinds, manuals and lip tricks.

Tony Hawk’s 1+2 is good fun. Parts of it haven’t aged that well, in particular some of its mission challenges, and at times it can be annoying, but the core gameplay is as good as it’s ever been. If you remember the series from back in the day, the annoyances don’t stop it being a sweet hit of nostalgia. If you’re new to it, this is a good jumping on point for when they hopefully remake some of the other games, too. Fingers crossed for THPS3.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Mortal Shell Review

Mortal Shell on GOG.com

I heard two things going into Mortal Shell: that it’s a Soulslike that’s good for beginners, and that it’s a really good Soulslike. Such praise and an intriguing enough premise made me pick it up for review, and I’m ready to share some thoughts on it.

It’s crap. Utter crap. You are “The Foundling”; a pasty white, squishy being that inhabits one of four “Shells”; human bodies with different amounts of health and stamina. A stand-in for the various flavours of Firekeeper from Dark Souls unlocks the name of each Shell and skills specific to each one in exchange for two types of currency, but there are no RPG elements besides that. You’re in a place called Fallgrim, where irritatingly vague scraps of lore imply some kind of higher, ethereal beings have transcended the dead landscape filled entirely with hostile NPCs. You meet a giant bird man thing that’s chained up and asks for three glands taken from temples and once you get him them, he’s the final boss. I didn’t beat him, because one time I got really close to doing so but I glitched through the world and died. I had another quick go, got ganked to death by his minions and decided the game had had more than enough of my time. The vague lore isn’t helped by the world just being so uninteresting. A swampy woodland acts as the main hub area; connecting to a temple, a snowy mountain and a mass of obsidian stones hanging over a void. None of them are remotely distinct (apart from each other, obviously) or have any interesting detail. The woodland area is a right pain in the arse to find your way around sometimes, and the whole thing just feels so devoid of any reason to care. There’s no real context or explanation for what’s happening, something the game’s inspiration avoids; its item descriptions are far shorter and less informative than those in Dark Souls, there’s no intro cutscene or expository dialogue to give you at least some indication of what’s happening and why you should care, no friendly NPCs speaking plain English to glean a bit of info from, or at least a sense of place or personality. It’s drab, it’s boring and if it wasn’t so short I’d have stopped playing it long before I did. I’ve seen this called the new gold standard for Soulslikes, which I find genuinely baffling. This is what someone who’s never actually played Dark Souls, only heard a vague overview of it, thinks that series is like. This is not “Dark Souls without the baggage”, as I’ve seen it called, it’s Dark Souls with all the intrigue, detail and care taken out of it.

To give the game some credit, it does have a new take on the combat formula in this mini-genre. You have a parry, but instead of a block or shield you have the ability to turn to stone; this can be done at any time as governed by a cooldown, including mid-attack, and negates all damage. When you die you’re forcefully ejected from your shell, every enemy turns to stone and you have a brief window to climb back in and get one full life bar’s worth of second chance. Unfortunately the time it takes for The Foundling to get back on their feet and over to the shell is roughly the amount of time it takes for enemies to unfreeze, so the time buffer is practically useless. This extra chance mechanic is nice, but feels somewhat negated by one of the main reasons I think this isn’t a Soulslike that’s good for beginners; how healing works. You’ve got two ways to heal: successfully parry and riposte, the timing for which is awkward and inconsistent, or use two items, one of which is rare, that restore a piddling amount of health over a period of time, not instantly. Think Life Gems from Dark Souls 2, but they can’t be bought and they only restore a tiny amount of health. They’re basically useless. There’s a familiarity system where the only way to find out what items does is to use them, with their effects changing as your familiarity increases. It’s a neat idea, but a pain when you only have one of an item, use it to find out what it does and won’t find another for a while. The combat doesn’t have any real weight to it, it just feels dull and unsatisfying. There are only four weapons, one of which felt like the obvious best one to me (the very first one), and to unlock them you have to fight some dickhead in a suit of armour in a dreamscape. The same dickhead each time. Despite the aforementioned short length the game is oddly padded; there are only four unique boss fights, with armoured dickhead and a werewolf popping up a few times so the game can pretend it has more bosses than it really does.

I don’t get the appeal on this one at all. My experience with Mortal Shell elicited boredom at best and hatred at worst. Its combat is dull and unsatisfying, its world is boring, drab and without anything of interest, and its story and lore are frustratingly vague for the sake of it. Mortal Shell is shit, and I consider the amount of my finite time on Earth spent playing it a waste.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

DLC Review: Nioh 2 – The Tengu’s Disciple

NIOH 2 Will Get at Least 3 Major DLC as THE TENGU'S DISCIPLE ...

You may remember roughly half an hour ago when I reviewed Nioh 2. I said it was really good, and that I had the first piece of DLC installed, so here it is: my review of Nioh 2’s “The Tengu’s Disciple” content.

While out Yokai hunting with Mumyo, Hide inspects a shrine that sends her back in time to the 1100s, where she encounters historical figure and fellow shiftling Minamoto no Yoshitsune, currently embroiled in a war with the Taira clan. The DLC’s story covers this campaign in rushed, scant detail; after you help him win the fight you stumble upon, narration reveals that he won another, returned to the capital a hero then fled because he was falsely accused of being a spy. From there the game’s second of two story missions involves helping him fight off the treacherous clan that sheltered him, then fighting him in his Yokai form when he flies into a rage after his most loyal companion is killed. Much like the main game, the actual story is kept firmly on the back burner, framing the action. As I said there are only two story missions but they both take place in entirely new areas; a series of destroyed war ships forming a broken, convoluted path around a besieged beach, and a series of buildings deep in a forest; built around a large spirit stone mine. There are side missions in other locations, the mine area is re-used but cloaked in snow, and apart from a few returning enemy types everything’s new, including new takes on existing enemies. Aberrant Soldiers are now sea-themed and fire pressurised jets of water, there’s a giant enemy crab with a mean face, and a giant mass of walking tumours with a mouth that looks like the yellow circle in Gipsy Danger’s chest, only full of teeth. These things are few and far between, which is good because they’re a pain in the arse to fight. You can also eat their flesh, which makes you go berserk, because of course you can, and of course it does. There are four new bosses, one of which is Nue from the first game, and another is reminiscent of Ume-Boze, but with a giant face in its slime, and proxy it sends out when you’ve depleted its ki. The other two are humanoid; the aforementioned Yoshitsune, who’s a fun boss with a varied moveset and lots of opportunities to counter, and his loyal companion Benkei, who is an absolute nightmare. You fight them both twice; as part of the story, and in optional side missions, and the story version of Benkei is possibly the hardest boss in the game. He’s a hulking great warrior monk with a pot full of weapons strapped to his back, where all of his combos are like that one the Soul of Cinder’s second form in Dark Souls 3 does (you know, that one where if you get caught in it you just get ragdolled for ten seconds while your health sprints off like it’s just heard there’s free ice cream down the street), and despite being over the recommended level by seven, and having put points into three stats that raise health, his grab attack killed me without fail, regardless of how much health I had. Most of the time I could dodge it, sometimes I did so and the game ignored me. But it never annoyed me: I always just got back up, ran back to the boss room and had another go, which is a testament to Nioh 2 feeling like a fun challenge.

There’s new gear to be found and a new weapon type, which unfortunately used a skill I hadn’t put points into, and so couldn’t use effectively. It’s called the split staff: a polearm where holding the attack buttons makes it split off in different ways; the ends are attached by wire so they can be swung around like nunchaku, the whole thing splits in half like escrima sticks, it’s really cool, and a shame I couldn’t make the most of it.

Tengu’s Disciple is more Nioh 2: new locations, weapons, enemies, gear, if you enjoyed the main game, it’s more of that. I could have done with it having more story missions, especially given how much of Yoshitsune’s campaign it glosses over, but I enjoyed what’s on offer.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Carrion Review

CARRION | Xbox

Carrion is a killer idea for a videogame. Set in a sprawling, underground laboratory where experiments are being performed on a monster you play not as a scientist, security guard or the like, but as the monster itself; angry and determined to escape. It caught my eye on a Devolver Digital showcase where they said it would be PC only, but it recently came out on Xbox, so I got my hands on it.

You are the monster; a fleshy, blood red goo beast covered in tendrils and toothy maws skittering around the place with an eerie ease, ripping apart screaming civilians, dealing with armed guards and robotic security and taking on new powers as the game progresses. It’s a metroidvania, which works to both the game’s credit and detriment. On the one hand it’s how the majority of the puzzles work; the creature increases in mass and each size has its own powers like invisibility, the ability to ram objects, that sort of thing, and you’ll often have to deliberately drop weight to navigate an obstacle, making yourself more vulnerable in the process. That’s all fine; it’s where the meat of the gameplay lies, because chewing up scientists is effortless and fights with security, drones and mech suits are brief affairs often won or lost in seconds because the monster is, surprisingly, a glass cannon. Where it hurts the game is that firstly, there’s no map and due to the art style, which otherwise looks good and suits the tone of the game really well, it can be easy to lose track of where you’ve not been. For the most part it isn’t a huge issue, but it can be annoying trying to track down the one environmental item you couldn’t interact with an hour ago, and a map would make that so much easier. Why it doesn’t have one I don’t know. Secondly, the game only saves to your last checkpoint, which can be incredibly frustrating when you’ve gone through several screens of traversal and puzzles only to misjudge a combat situation and get blasted to pieces. Doubly so in the late game when at full size the creature is unwieldy, especially when trying to choose one of multiple gaps to squeeze through.

The game can be frustrating at times, but there’s a lot to like. The monster looks really cool, the way it moves by rapidly shooting out tendrils looks great, and I like how you save by seeping intro cracks and spreading your biomass through the area; unlocking doors and in some cases just tearing massive holes in the walls with nightmarish meat moss. As I said earlier the graphics, reminiscent of Lone Survivor, suit the tone of the game nicely, it’s just a shame that sometimes interactable objects don’t stick out enough; a problem I had early on with noticing grates that you pull away with a tendril persisted throughout much of the game. There isn’t much of a story to speak of but I think the ending is fantastic; it’s simple and low key but really effective.

Overall Carrion is pretty good. Its metroidvania elements are unfortunately a double-edged sword, but its central conceit of being the monster tearing around a science facility mulching people and using a variety of neat powers to progress is a good one. While the execution doesn’t quite live up to the premise, there’s enough fun to be had here to recommend giving it a look, and its originality is definitely to be commended.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

 

 

 

Nioh 2 Review

Nioh 2 Review - GameSpot

Nioh was Team Ninja’s foray into the Souslike mini-genre; taking the difficulty, checkpoints and general approach to combat from that series and putting their own spin on things. A faster, more aggressive style and three stances with their own attacks varying in speed and damage gave it a touch of character action, alongside its USP of the “Ki pulse”; a sort of active reload that makes your stamina refill faster. It was like Dark Souls, sure, but fighting enemies was faster and more fun, plus it was set in Feudal Japan which is demonstrably, factually the best time period. I liked it a lot, though in hindsight I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d bothered to level up properly rather than ignoring the game’s recommendations and just barrelling through as best I could. It’s a lesson I took to heart for its sequel, which was released earlier this year but I’ve only just got around to getting it.

Set before the original, you are a character created, Human-Yokai hybrid called Hide, who alongside their new-found partner; a spirit stone merchant called Tokichiro, becomes a vassal to Oda Nobunaga during the Sengoku period of Japan. The story is kept almost entirely in short cutscenes book-ending main story missions, which combined with the story powering through decades in its run time makes the whole thing feel quite sparse and rushed. Basically; Hide and Tokichiro take a shared name and become historical figure Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga is assassinated like he was in real life then Tokichiro takes the shared name for himself and becomes a brutal dictator, though most of what he does is due to being possessed, and Hide sets their sights on stopping him. It’s not a bad story, and what time is given to establishing relationships and conflicts is good, it’s just largely there to set up the missions you undertake.

Fortunately, those missions are excellent. Layered on top of the first game’s combat system are Hide’s Yokai abilities, coming in three flavours. Firstly, the ability to channel your guardian spirit for a period of invincibility and increased damage is replaced with a Devil Trigger of sorts where you tap in to one of three Yokai forms, each with its own attacks and those same buffs as the first game. Second, the ability to absorb “Soul Cores” from killed enemies that let you tap into them and perform one of their attacks, usually highly damaging to both enemy health and ki. These are governed by a separate bar, acting as a safety net and a new attack method that compliments your other, ki-governed moves. Along those same safety net lines is the best of the bunch; a parry that when used on certain attacks stops the enemy or boss dead in their tracks, shuts down whatever attack they were launching, knocks a big chunk off their ki and sets them up for follow up attacks. It looks cool too; you briefly assume your Yokai form, backhand your foe and tell ’em to piss off. These new additions are all fantastic, and go hand-in-hand with things with the stance system and Ki Pulse to make Nioh really stand out from the Souls games. In a pure gameplay sense, Nioh 2 is the most fun I’ve had with this entire mini-genre, second only to Sekiro, which still sits at the top. But it’s a glorious silver medal indeed; the parry in particular made me feel far more bold and confident with new enemy types and I would always stand and fight them, learning the intricacies of the combat system, levelling up properly and getting the most out of the game rather than just running fast and scraping by. While Sekiro’s specific push and pull, give and take combat remains unbeaten, all of Nioh’s systems and mechanics come together to make the best combat found in the traditional, less rigid Souslike style. The environments are all gorgeous, labyrinthine without being confusing and well balanced with enemy placements, shortcuts and checkpoints. Their re-use for side missions, as well as ones returning from the original game feel comfortingly familiar rather than repetitive. The bosses are oddly front loaded in terms of difficulty, but once they even out and become more of a fair challenge they feel great, particularly the duels with humans. The Yokai bosses have some really cool designs like a giant, three-eyed owl, a castle that’s also a lady and what appears to be the demon god of “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough”. They also have the ability to drag you into the Yokai Realm; separate from the small pockets dispersed with the Ki Pulse, it’s a suffocating, monochromatic haze that gives bosses new moves and slows your stamina recovery. Outside of boss fights it locks treasure chests, deactivates checkpoints and has a multitude of Yokai residing within it, one of which has to be killed to turn things back to normal. Venturing into it to brave its occupants and kill its source to permanently clear a path and get some nice new gear nicely fits into the game’s cycle of moving forward through a new area and making things safer on the way to the next shrine. Speaking of gear, the character creator is great and you can make armour and weapons look like any other armour or weapon of that type, keeping the stat boosts whilst choosing Hide’s aesthetic. Apparently that was in the first game too but it doesn’t take away from how welcome a feature it is here. As someone who places great emphasis on how my Dark Souls/Bloodborne characters look, this is an inspired mechanic.

I love Nioh 2. As an action game it’s engaging, satisfying and challenging. As a sequel it takes what the original dead well and builds on it, and is a superior game as a result, in my opinion. As a Souslike in the traditional style it’s the most fun I’ve had with the entire mini-genre. It’s superb from start to finish, it kept me interested and having fun for my entire fifty nine hour playthrough, and at the time of writing I’ve got its first DLC campaign installed and ready for a future review. Nioh 2 is superb.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

West of Dead Review

West of Dead Review - Gaming Respawn

West of Dead caught me by surprise twice. First by merely existing; a spooky Western third person shooter with Mike Mignola art and voice work by Ron Perlman. Second when I started playing it and found out it’s a Roguelike, a genre I have no real experience with besides a bit of Binding of Isaac, unless you count Darkest Dungeon. Given its nature as a Roguelike where dying takes you back to the start of the game, I haven’t finished it and don’t know if I ever will, but I have put a fair bit of time into it. Maybe if one day I do finish it I’ll come back and update this review, but for now I feel like I’ve seen enough of it to give my opinion.

You are Marshal William Mason; a flaming skull-headed man trapped in purgatory because the presence of a preacher named Bauer, the man who killed Mason, is preventing people from moving on “East or West”. The game is split into chapters, each one consisting of a few levels with the final one being a boss fight against Bauer, or a generic outlaw on repeat playthroughs. Mason finds fragments of memories throughout his travels, and after each level meets up with a Witch who exchanges various items, weapons and the like for sin, one of the two currencies. The story beats are fine, but for me they just served as set dressing for the meat of the game, which is the combat. One thing I will mention while I’m on the subject of story and character interactions is that the game will often stop and have Ron Perlman say something like “X character was there, it looked like they had something to say” even when said character either has literally nothing of value to say, or has to be interacted with. It’s a small nuisance, but it’s annoying, particularly because the dialogue boxes slowly fade, and pressing a button to skip them only makes them disappear at the same speed as just leaving them. I get that they wanted to make the most of Ron Perlman, and he’s the only voiced character in the game, but it’s annoying when every time you start a new run he’ll point out that the barman in the starting area has something to say, which after a while is just “Good luck, Mason!” or that “The Witch wanted to parley” when she only ever says words to the effect of “Got some sin to exchange, huh?”

Gameplay wise it’s a third person, cover-based shooter. You have no control over the camera, which usually shows a decent angle but sometimes makes you run towards the screen and into the unknown, instead using the right analogue stick entirely for aiming. You can only lock onto enemies you can see, but can hit anything you can manually aim at, and cover provides safety from all attacks but degrades as it takes damage, respawning after a delay. There is a variety of different weapon types, each with different firing methods; rifles require you to hold the trigger to aim properly whereas other guns fire immediately. Shotguns and revolvers can be fired repeatedly by holding the trigger, flintlock pistols require repeated taps. Some weapons have status effects like poison, burn and bleed and there are numerous support items randomly found in chests and shops, with the Witch adding more into the pool; things like lanterns that stun enemies and illuminate dark areas for lock on purposes, bombs that cause the bleed effect, shields, guns with different status effects, things like that. Sin has to be spent after each level, but can be put towards things that are currently too expensive to be bought later. The combat is, for the most part, pretty good. Entering a room, taking cover and popping off successful shots feels satisfying, giving your run more chance to succeed by building up a good load out and finding shrines that increase your choice of max health, weapon damage and item recharge stops things feeling stale or too repetitive. Unfortunately that central mechanic of cover based shooting starts to fall apart as the levels go on and new enemy types are introduced; stationary riflemen and shambling zombies replaced with monstrous dogs and sprinting beasts with claws; deceptively swift behemoths that tank damage and enemies throwing explosives. There is a dodge button, but once these enemies start being mixed together it all becomes a bit much, and I found myself running through rooms Dark Souls-style more than once. Also to the point I got to (partway through chapter 3) there had only been one boss besides the Preacher and his faceless stand-ins; a Wendigo in the second level, a cool fight with a monster I’m a fan of that unlocked the ability to fast-travel between the previously useless checkpoints dotted around the level. That was good, I would have liked more of them instead of outlaws. It’s also worth mentioning that the game looks gorgeous, with an art style heavily influenced by Mike Mignola, who you may know as the creator of Hellboy. I say heavily influenced, he might be involved but his name isn’t in the credits, so I don’t know. The game also has some nicely varied tile sets that help break up the monotony of each level having a similar structure and layout; a mine, a ghost town, a swamp, a farm, a snowy mountain, all down in that style.

So that’s West of Dead; a satisfying third person shooter with a few issues, but one that’s held my attention. I will be playing more of it gradually over the rest of the year and should I beat it I’ll update the review. For now, I like it quite a lot, and I think if you’re interested in the art style or genre I think it’s worth a look.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

 

DLC Review: Blasphemous The Stir of Dawn

Blasphemous: The Stir of Dawn - Free DLC Available Now! - Team17 ...

Blasphemous was on my GOTY list last year; an engaging Metroidvania set in a grim, brutal world where religion rules over all and it’s that type of religion where everyone’s a bastard for merely existing and has to make it up to God with a life of penance and misery. Recently a free update was released that added new game plus mode as well as a whole host of new stuff: animations, NPCs, tweaked sidequests, Spanish voice over, and most importantly: five new bosses.

So it turns out, “The Stir of Dawn” isn’t a DLC campaign or anything like that, it’s the NG+ mode, which is the only place you can fight the new bosses, though they’re entirely optional. They are the Amanecidas; a group of four skull-faced warrior women with a suite of supernatural abilities, signature weapons and a shared leitmotif with different lead instruments for each woman. They were formed from the very passion inside Laudes; a holy warrior who acted as a bodyguard when The Twisted Figure (the young man twisted and tangled in a log during “The First Miracle”. Deogracias tells you about it when you get to the Knot of the Three Words) was paraded through the streets. In a reveal that opens up some pretty interesting lore implications, the Grievous Miracle; the supernatural force that’s responsible for all the monsters and manifested sin and guilt, became jealous of Laudes’ devotion to The Twisted Figure and locked her four Amanecidas away in glass coffins. It’s here that you find them; dragged from the earth by a cool, haunting melody played by new NPC Jirael; real mad and ready for a fight. The Amanecidas are easily the best fights in the whole game. They all have a similar enough base fighting style that you’ll grow familiar and comfortable with them as you work your way through them, but their different weapons and unique attacks keep things interesting, and keep you on your toes. They all feel like proper boss fights, particularly compared to some of the game’s others; challenging, rewarding scraps with powerful foes that are fun to fight, not just look at. Their lore is interesting, their themes are great, the eerie, foreboding moments when Jirael’s Saeta rings out and their glass coffins emerge from the ground are some of the coolest in the game; they’re awesome.

Elsewhere there’s been a whole load of changes as detailed by the massive list of patch notes that meets you when you load up the game, though not all of them are major, or indeed that noticeable. Esdras; the guy you fight on the bridge half way through the game has new dialogue and a new voice actor, which combined with Deogracius’ added dialogue better explains who he is and how his relationship with his sister works. There are a couple of small new areas added in to make life easier; new shortcuts, an extra warp room, stuff like that. There’s a new NPC called Nacimiento who has an old man growing out of his chest and makes your healing items more powerful, though with the catch that doing so requires permanently sacrificing one of them each time.  You can execute more enemy types now and doing so seems easier; a dashing attack reliably opened them up to finishers in my playthrough. Blasphemous’ new game plus is in a similar vein to Fromsoft’s idea of the concept in that it makes all the enemies hit a lot harder and have more health. Unusually for this kind of NG+ your maximum health level resets, and although you keep your Mea Culpa strength level, it cannot be upgraded further than the previous upper limit. This increase of difficulty isn’t a big problem, particularly as the game goes on, but it does make certain enemies a chore to fight, prime example being those dickheads on the roof; the knock-off Esdrases. They’ve got ludicrous health for a regular enemy, you have to fight them to progress and it takes ages. The only other complaint I have is that I’d rather be able to access the new content on a regular playthrough; it’s like how the Madhouse difficulty in Resi 7 mixes things around and adds old school finite save items, but makes the game bastard hard; same with Resi 2 remake’s Hardcore difficulty keeping all the ink ribbons to itself. I beat Blasphemous’ NG+ run no problem, with the good ending, but I wish I could just start a new game fresh and still be able to fight the Amanecidas.

Anyway, that’s Blasphemous’ Stir of Dawn update: it adds a whole lot of new things, including the best boss fights in the entire game, and it’s completely free. A game that was great is now even better. Good stuff, Game Kitchen. Bloody good stuff.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Ghost of Tsushima Review

Ghost Of Tsushima Pre-Order Guide: New Release Date, Collector's ...

When it was first announced, Ghost of Tsushima did nothing for me. It was announced at the same E3 as Nioh 2 and Sekiro; two games I was much more interested in. However, after the story trailer filled me in on the game’s key main hook, I got on board.

You are Jin; raised by his uncle Lord Shimura to be a deadly, honourable Samurai sticking rigidly to their code of honour. The Mongol Empire begins an invasion of Japan with a conquest of Jin’s home of Tsushima; meeting the island’s entire battalion of Samurai and wiping them all out in a bloody beach fight. Shimura is captured and held captive by Khotun Khan (grandson to Gengis and cousin to Kublai) and Jin is rescued by a thief called Yuna, who convinces him that the only way to launch a successful rescue is to break his code and use sneaky heel tactics. That’s a new concept you see, because Shinobi aren’t a thing yet, so smart tactics like stabbing people in the neck from behind are considered the height of dishonour and to be avoided at all cost. This is especially true in the case of Lord Shimura, who is slavishly devoted to a code of honour that places emphasis entirely on facing off against foes in a fair fight, looking them in the eye and fighting them to the death. I won’t go into spoilers; the story goes to some interesting places and is generally engaging and gripping, but emphasis is placed on Jin morphing into a new kind of warrior for Feudal Japan, him taking on the moniker of “The Ghost” and how people view him. I’ve heard complaints that the game is unrelentingly serious, and while I have no problem with it, it’s a fair description. Being set against the backdrop of war and invasion it’s filled with sorrow, violence and horror; torture, death, slavery, people turning on their fellow denizens for various reasons: it’s grim and dark, surprisingly so at times. There are a lot of sidequests that end with you avenging some dead civilian. Probably their child, too. Jin’s core group of allies all have multi-part sidequests that almost all involve some horrible tragedy, their resolves tested in pitch black fire, the need for someone like Jin made all the clearer by the toll the Mongol invasion takes on people, both physically and mentally. I can see how the game’s consistently grim, serious tone and story might put some people off, but it worked for me, and made sense given the setting. I really liked the characters too, particularly Lady Masako Adachi; a badass, queer older woman avenging the murder of her entire family.

It did come as a shock to me how dark the story is, because gameplay wise it’s a lot like Assassin’s Creed. Big open map full of enemy camps and stuff to do/collect, similar melee combat and stealth, climbing (though not freerunning); it’s reminiscent of Origins and Odyssey, but better in two main ways. Firstly, the combat: Jin has four stances suited to different enemy types that provide a more aggressive, offensive approach alongside the obligatory parries and dodges, you can mix in “Ghost weapons” like kunai, sticky bombs and smoke grenades, which let you stealth kill enemies in the middle of a fight, and the game’s USP: stand-offs. Basically, upon reaching a group of enemies or a stronghold you can press up on the d-pad when prompted to alert everyone to your presence and enter a little minigame where you square off against an enemy, hold a button and release it at just as they attack to cut them down in one swipe, with upgrades letting you do it to a series of follow up foes. Enemies feint with varied timing so it’s by no means a sure thing, but nailing it refills your resolve, which you use to heal, takes enemies out in one hit and has a chance of terrifying those around them, opening them up to one-hit-kills of their own. Outside of that the combat is hectic and satisfying; switching between stances, parrying enemies and evening the odds with sneaky heel tactics. The stealth works well and thankfully has pockets of enemies be alerted separately rather than everyone in an area suddenly knowing where you are, but far more often I relied on the combat; I had a lot more fun hacking down groups of enemies with sweet Samurai moves. Doubly so in the game’s frequent duels; one on one sword fights with important, experienced opponents. The other thing it does better is what I’ll politely term “Busywork”; for the most part Ghost of Tsushima’s collectables are, for lack of a better term; really neat. Hot springs where Jin reflects on events and people, and has his maximum health increased. Bamboo strikes where you remember a series of buttons to cut through increasing amounts of bamboo and increase your resolve. Foxes leading you to shrines that grant you additional slots for charms, which act as buffs, new sword skins found leaning on graves, and my personal favourite; spots to compose haiku and be granted a nice headband themed around the topic you wrote about. There are loads of clothing items like that dotted around the place; hats, headbands, masks, armour, all of it either found or earned. If you’re going to have multiple different collectables strewn about the map, this is the way to do it; have them all be cool little distractions worth seeking out.

Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t do anything revolutionary or special, but it does what it does really well. As open world stealth action games go, this is a thoroughly enjoyable one that had me gripped from start to finish; doing the sidequests, hunting down haiku spots and onsens and getting into fights with Mongol patrols and bandits. Sucker Punch got tired of waiting for Ubisoft to make an Assassin’s Creed set in Feudal Japan so they made one themselves, and I can say with confidence it’s better than the job they’d have done.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

The Last of Us Part II Review

Spoiler alert: Huge The Last of Us 2 plot details have leaked ...

So some pretty heavy spoilers for TLOU2 came out back in April, and after reading them and seeing the attached clips and screen caps, I was surprised by how mediocre I thought the game sounded. Not bad as such, just meh and not worth getting invested in. I never wanted a sequel to The Last of Us in the first place; I thought it ended in such a way that it should have just been left alone. But I replayed the original, mulled what I’d read around in my brain, and went into Part II feeling cautiously optimistic. Well I tried to anyway, the deck was stacked against it by the sheer wave of over-hyping from games press who got early copies. Apparently it’s the best game ever because it’s a harrowing, uncomfortable slog that made them all feel like shit for twenty five hours and elicits an emotional response from players in a way never seen before, because it keeps slapping you in the face and telling you that killing people is wrong, something backed up by the game’s director Neil Druckmann. I don’t normally pay any attention to what other reviewers say, but it’s difficult not to when they go in this hard. So then, is The Last of Us Part II the ultimate emotional videogame experience, that pushed me to my limits and left me forever changed? Is it, at the very least, good? Note that this review will contain spoilers, so if you want to go in blind, now’s your chance to leave.

Still here? Right then.

Four years after the end of the first game, Joel and Ellie live in a sort of western frontier town in Jackson, Wyoming where Ellie is developing a romantic relationship with another girl called Dina. While out on patrol with Tommy, Joel runs into a young woman called Abby and helps her escape from a horde of infected, seeking shelter with her group. Unfortunately someone named Joel wronged Abby in the past, and presumably she’s been working her way through every Joel in America until she kills them all, having got the right one through process of elimination. Anyway she beats Joel to death with a golf club, with Ellie arriving just in time to be pinned down and witness the final blow. Ellie and Dina set off for Seattle to track down Abby and avenge Joel, having seen patches on her group’s arms that say WLF; “Washington Liberation Front”. From there, she and Dina (for a while anyway, before pregnancy-based sickness keeps her stuck at their makeshift base) venture out to find Abby, or at least people who know where she might be; a hunt that yields very little in the way of interesting plot developments. Far more interesting than Ellie’s side of the story is Abby’s, which is almost entirely unrelated and really should have been this sequel’s entire focus. Her story involves her group’s on-going conflict with a religious cult called the Seraphites, her best friend Owen’s disillusion with the cause and her turning her back on the WLF when her life is saved by two runaway Seraphites; a woman named Yara and her young trans brother Lev. Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with Abby’s story and it’s how the game handles Lev’s situation. The character himself is great; he’s capable, friendly and teaches Abby about the Seraphites’ original, non-violent scripture before it was corrupted following the death of the cult’s founder. He and Abby have good chemistry, and they grow to have a nice friendship over the course of the game. The problem, as pointed out by actual trans people I’ve seen talking about this on twitter, is that his story involves the cult trying to kill him purely because he’s trans and therefore “cursed”. His sister gets her arm shattered with a hammer, people try to kill Lev while calling out to him with his deadname, and it all culminates in Lev going back to the Seraphites’ home island to try and explain how he feels to his mother and killing her in self defence. Now, I get that the game is going for a grim, harrowing story about relatable, real-world trauma, but a post apocalyptic action horror game does not need a story about a trans child fearing for his life and killing his infanticidal mother in self defence. Trans people go through enough shit without having a videogame try and bottle that trauma and sell it as entertainment. All I had to put up with was one homophobic slur, by comparison. It is a shame because Abby’s story flows far better and feels like it’s actually moving forward and going somewhere, as opposed to Ellie just treading water. She goes to more interesting locations, encounters a unique new form of infected, and has that core relationship with Lev, something that Ellie lacks due to her supporting characters only being present some of the time. The game is poorly paced, too; whereas the first one felt like a journey as it moved through the seasons, the sequel shows a three day period from Ellie’s perspective, then just as it reaches a climax the game jumps back to the start of those three days, but now you see things from Abby’s perspective, who didn’t even know Ellie was in Seattle until that aforementioned climax; it feels like two different games. It reaches what feels like a conclusion only to jump forward to an extended epilogue where both characters deal with an entirely new group and have a dumb fist fight, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion that reminded me of Batman V Superman, and if a story reminds me of that then something’s clearly gone wrong somewhere. Ellie’s story lacks anything of real substance or interest, to me at least, the whole “Cycle of revenge” angle has no weight and having Joel be killed and Ellie’s life ruined for this feels like a complete waste. The first game ended on that wonderful ambiguity and should have been left alone. Abby’s story should have been the entire sequel, with her being completely unrelated to Joel. Just without the trans trauma porn.

Gameplay wise, it feels a lot like the first game, but with some new additions. Ellie and Abby can both go prone and jump, and the combat arenas have been adapted to take advantage of that, with lots of little nooks and crannies to slip in and out of, long grass to hide in and elevated spots to climb to. It features that same blend of stealth, shooting and melee combat but with new dedicated dodge button I kept forgetting to use. Sadly, apart from the occasional gunfight that felt exhilarating and tense, combat just felt dull to me, like I was going through the motions. By far the gameplay’s biggest problem is its attempt to make you feel the effects of your violent actions, specifically making you feel bad about all the killing. The level of violence just felt like the first game to me, even when I was killing guard dogs and beating people to death with claw hammers. Much has been made of enemies calling out each other’s names upon finding their murdered friends, but it had no effect on me. If anything it’s amusing; you pop someone in the head and someone nearby just calls out a random name, it has no weight to it whatsoever. There’s also a feature where shooting an enemy’s arm with something powerful like the hunting rifle will rip it off, causing them to crumple to the ground screaming bloody murder. The first time this happened I laughed out loud and said “Disarmed him!”. The second time this happened I was slightly irritated because I didn’t know if I was free to stop aiming at them and look for their mates. The third time, and every time after, it had gotten stale. Just a pattern of hackneyed attempts to make me feel bad. I fully expected these attempts to not work on me, but I grossly underestimated just how poor they are. They’re laughable.

So I’ve been going in pretty hard on the game’s faults, but there are things I like. Chief among them are Abby and Lev, and their relationship. I don’t know how old they both are, so I’m not sure if it’s closer to mother and son or older sister, younger brother but either way it and the two of them are the best things about the game. The game’s approach to the horror trope of “Meat moss”, i.e flesh growing on the walls, is fantastic; huge clumps of mushrooms that have spent years taking over buildings, particularly two sections Abby goes through; a descent through a hotel completely overcome by the fungus, with infected stuck to walls that break free to surprise attack you, and navigating Seattle’s infection ground zero in a WLF-occupied hospital. The infected all look gross and dangerous, and it’s nice to see the extreme long-term effects of the cordyceps. Ellie’s supporting cast; Dina and in particular Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, are both likeable and useful in combat. There’s a single section early on where Ellie has a map she updates as you go to optional areas that’s neat, I wish they’d had more of those. The game looks really nice; the more interesting environments that aren’t just mossy buildings and grassy streets are neat and feel like they’ve really pushed the boat out after establishing the first game’s aesthetic. It’s a very well put together game from a technical stand point, and taken purely as a stealth action horror game it’s competent and solid, just a bit dull.

So that, unfortunately, is The Last of Us Part II. Its “Cycle of revenge, violence is bad, don’t you feel like a monster?” story is weak, its pacing is poor and its gameplay, while fine, is marred by its constant, laughable attempts to make you feel bad. The second Last of Us game should have been about all new characters in a new location, and that’s what Abby’s story is. A version of Abby’s story where Joel and Ellie aren’t involved, there are no hackneyed attempts to make the player feel bad for killing enemies, and where Lev can just be a trans character without going through a horrible experience put into the game to try and capture relatable trauma for the audience of an entertainment product: that’s a game I’d really take to. As it stands, it’s a disappointment.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

Shantae and the Seven Sirens Review

Shantae and the Seven Sirens for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game ...

Shantae is a series I’ve only very recently become familiar with, after seeing Matt McMuscles playing this latest instalment. It’s the flagship original series of Double Dragon Neon and River City Girls (both of which I recently played through and loved) developer WayForward; a Metroidvania series about a cute, half-genie lady who can transform into animals and fights a pirate Queen called Risky Boots. How I’ve only just heard of this now I don’t know, but I’m into it.

So Shantae, her uncle Mimic and her friends Sky and Bolo go on holiday to Paradise Island, where it turns out the mayor has gathered together five other half-genies for a festival, during which they’ll all perform on stage. After meeting her co-stars and sending them to the stage area, Shantae is the only one left standing after the lights go out and the others are suddenly and mysteriously kidnapped. Seeking them out, she descends to the sunken city beneath the town, home to the titular Sirens and with Risky Boots skulking around, clearly up to something. The story is largely just there to frame the gameplay, but the cast are all likeable, it’s well-written and the sirens make for interesting antagonists through their design and what little is known of them and their plans. I could have done with a little more detail about the main cast, but that’s not the game’s fault; I’m getting to the series several games in. I plan to go back to the others now that I’ve finished this one. One thing that is odd is that some dialogue is voiced, some isn’t, and sometimes what the characters say doesn’t match up with what’s written down, even within the same conversation sometimes. Not a critique, just an observation, like how every time you encounter Risky Shantae says “Risky BOOTS!” in the exact same way, it’s oddly charming.

The gameplay is pure Metroidvania, with everything designed around that central conceit. The environments are all gorgeously drawn, and varied whilst having a shared “Under sea” theme. With a few exceptions, the enemies are all aquatic, ranging from simple things like crabs, frogs and jogging lobsters to more elaborate ones like fish people, skeletal pirates and snake women. Each area is distinct, but feels like it’s all part of this lost, sunken city run by malevolent sirens. Rescuing each trapped half-genie gives you access to an animal transformation that gets you past one type of obstacle: a newt form that lets you climb walls, a tortoise that lets you smash heavy rocks, that sort of thing. Unusually for the genre, the game is split into chapters with a clear pattern: explore, fight Risky Boots, free a half-genie, use the resulting transformation to reach and beat a boss, find an item to enable the half-genie to share her power with you in the form of a dance. Shantae loves dancing, see, and doing so lets her channel a few powerful abilities like purifying toxic water and reveal hidden elements in the environment. You have one melee attack in the form of a hair whip, the speed and damage of which can be upgraded, as well as ranged sub weapons, and monster cards- items dropped by enemies that provide a different buffs to your abilities. The game often throws what seem to be side missions at you, usually collect-athons or delivering lost items, that turn out to be plot critical, something I’m glad I figured out early on. The chapter format keeps you from getting too lost, but the game doesn’t hold your hand; there were a couple of occasions where I was tempted to use a guide, but I persevered, and when you solve a quest or make real, tangible progress it feels fantastic. Particularly when I was trying to find an item and the search took me to an area I had overlooked that led to an area themed around undead pirates. Also it’s mentioning that the soundtrack is really good; it’s catchy, engrossing chiptune stuff reminiscent of Shovel Knight, that enhances the mood of every area.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a good Metroidvania game with funny, charming writing, likeable characters and great level and enemy design. Also so much of it is adorable, which is always a plus. It’s a good game, I’m glad I gave it a go and I’m looking forward to diving into the Half-Genie Hero’s back catalogue.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18