Game of the Year 2020

So 2020 was shit, we all know that and I won’t spend time dwelling on it. Some really good games though, so let’s talk about those instead. Same layout I’ve been using for the last few years: two honourable mentions, then the five games themselves.

Honourable Mention 1: John Wick Hex
A grid-based John Wick strategy game based around the amount of time actions like moving, crouching, aiming and shooting take is a terrific idea. In execution it was fun, engaging and made me feel like the man himself. Unfortunately, its strong story concept of a man powerful enough to make a move against the high table is squandered when John just throws him over a balcony at the end to no fanfare, after a boss fight I won by repeatedly smacking him in the face and then shooting him when he waddled off to try and regain his stamina. A good idea for a John Wick game well realised, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Honourable Mention 2: Carrion
Carrion is a really cool idea for a game: a secret laboratory underground with a monster breaking free from confinement and tearing around the place, and you’re the monster. Its design is great; a huge, gooey, red mass of flesh covered in mouths and tentacles, eerily skittering around the place. Unfortunately as cool as the monster is and as fun as it is to snatch up screaming scientists and rip them apart with eldritch teeth, it has problems. The visuals suit the tone, but the murky art style can make finding interactable objects difficult at times. The metroidvania elements can be hard to navigate for this reason, as well as the lack of map. The checkpoints are crap and as the monster gets bigger it becomes unwieldy, especially when you’re trying to squeeze through tight gaps. All that aside, it’s a good idea, I did have fun with it and its originality and creativity are to be applauded.

Now, my five games of the year, in reverse order:

5. Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 was a game I picked up on a whim because I’m partial to sidescrolling beat ’em ups. When I reviewed it I’d finished it once and that was it. Since then I’ve put so much time into it I unlocked the cast from each of the first three games. This inspired me to go back and check out the first three games, which gave me a further appreciation of Streets of Rage 4 and how good it is: it’s a big ouroboros of sidescrolling, punk-clobbering goodness. Gorgeous art, great soundtrack and satisfying, weighty combat; it’s one of those games that keeps it simple but goes all in on the premise and does everything really well.

4. Nioh 2

NIOH 2 - Lady Osakabe Boss Fight (Solo) - YouTube

The first Nioh was good, the second Nioh is amazing. It takes everything that made the original so good; its character-action-meets-Dark-Souls combat, its enemy and boss design taken from Japanese mythology and folklore and large but well structured and designed levels ripe for exploring, and adds a create-a-character and Yokai abilities. In terms of the mini-genre of games that emulate Dark Souls and Bloodborne, not including Sekiro because of the singular focus present in its combat, Nioh 2 is my favourite. It’s the one I had the most fun with from start to finish, and the new benchmark for games like this. Also, one of the final bosses is a Yokai that’s possessed a building, as pictured above. It’s so cool.

3. DOOM Eternal

Doom Eternal (Game) |

I had a bad start with Doom Eternal, because sometimes I’m foolish. Fortunately I came around and fully grasped what I had in my hands; one of the best first person shooters I’ve ever played. The way the game gives you different tiers of enemies to fight and rewards learning the best ways to deal with them is superb. Getting into the game’s groove; darting around arenas dealing with each threat as you come across it, switching weapons on the fly and using the new blood punch and Predator-style shoulder canon is a wonderful, structured chaos that is an absolute joy to experience. This is how first person shooters should play: layers of mechanics all fitting together to make the core gameplay even better. It has a surprisingly good story, too: having established the Doom Slayer entirely through his actions in first person in the previous game; his contempt for the UAC, his rage at the Demons and the odd tender moment, Eternal builds on that with shots like the one pictured above: his steely eyes, silently taking everything in, burning a hole in all they fall on. Not that it skimps on the first person stuff though; there’s plenty of that, and the Doom Slayer can do more with a stare and a few hand movements than some characters can do with an entire monologue. Doom Eternal is an absolute masterpiece of high-octane violence, married to subtly powerful characterisation. What more is there to say about it? It’s fantastic.

2. Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Ryu Ga Gotoku 7 / Yakuza 7 OST - Yosuke Tendo theme - YouTube

You know, I seriously considered giving this first place. It absolutely deserves it, but unfortunately I have to be honest with myself, and there is one game I enjoyed more. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like a Dragon is the best Yakuza game I’ve played, and I’ve played most of them. Its new turn based combat feels like a natural change that works really well. Its story is interesting and well told, with interesting characters and hefty emotional gut punches, its minigames are fun and it’s all tied together by absolute sweetheart Ichiban Kasuga; a wonderful new protagonist. As the final chapter in the saga of the Tojo Clan and the beginning of a new one starring best boy sweetheart Dragon of Rock Bottom Ichiban, it’s excellent. In a series filled with fantastic games with great characters, stories and gameplay, this is the best, and I hope it’s indicative future instalments. Were it not for a certain other game, it would easily be number one.

1. Persona 5 Royal

Persona 5 Royal Makes Its New Content Feel Like It Was Always There

It was inevitable really. Persona 5 absolutely destroyed the rest of 2017’s list, and P5R is that game but a load of new content that makes it better. Everything it adds improves upon a game that was already a masterpiece: quality of life improvements in combat and exploration, new character portraits and altered dialogue, new minigames, the ability to hang out with Caroline, Justine and Lavenza, the new characters and the new palace that ties directly into them. The new antagonist, who does the whole “You can see the villain’s point” thing but with purely benevolent motives and actions I could imagine people thinking are justified by the outcome; it’s a philosophical debate based on free will. No one is killed or even hurt, it’s just a personal decision based on what that person wants in life. It feels almost anticlimactic really, for this to be number 1, but as I said: I have to be honest with myself, and my honest opinion is that Persona 5 Royal is the best game I played in 2020, it’s a masterpiece and probably my favourite game, definitely joint best with Silent Hill 2. I do feel bad for Ichiban though, so here’s a picture of him:

Yakuza: Like A Dragon è disponibile da oggi •

What a man. So that was 2020: good year for games, bad year for other things. My first 2021 review will be HITMAN 3 in a few weeks, so I’ll see you then.

By James Lambert

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Thoughts on Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War’s single player campaign

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Cover Art Revealed - IGN

I’m a big Call of Duty fan. Not the multiplayer, mind you, just the single player campaigns, which I’ve unironically enjoyed since COD4 back in the day. They do vary in quality; the MW trilogy, the first two Black Ops games and Infinite Warfare are all really good, Advance Warfare was good and Ghosts was complete piss, but they’re something I look forward to each time. Last year’s Modern Warfare reboot/prequel dealy was decent but nothing special, and I was surprised to see this wasn’t the same thing, but instead an interquel set between Black Ops and the flashback, 80s levels in Black Ops 2. Frank Woods and Alex Mason are present, but they’re side characters, with most of the work being done by a create-a-character codenamed “Bell”. You never see Bell’s face and they aren’t voiced (but do say written dialogue, Fallout-style) but you can pick their real name, two traits that offer buffs or debuffs, and as the internet has had a lot of fun with; their gender and pronouns, including Non-Binary and They/Them. So you’re cutting about committing war crimes on behalf of the famously awful Ronald Reagan, but at least characters respect the pronouns you chose. Which is more than Cyberpunk 2077 can manage. I’ve never minded all the awful things you do in the Black Ops games, because it’s always been clear to me that as a CIA agent active during the cold war you are absolutely, unquestionably the bad guy, and that’s fun to roleplay. Anyway in this one, Bell joins a multicultural team of spies lead by not-Robert Redford to take down Perseus; a Soviet spy master planning something involving a stolen American Nuke. The story has a neat twist which I won’t spoil, but I will say the mission that reveals that twist is wonderfully crafted, and ties into something the game does well: choices.

Building on the choices and multiple endings and paths through the game from Black Ops 2, Cold War takes things further. Certain Perseus-related targets can be killed or captured, the ending you get depends on whether or not you to lie or tell the truth to someone in a situation you’re likely to have conflicting views on, and there’s one particular section that plays like a Hitman level. You play a Soviet double agent in KGB headquarters, you need to acquire a key to an underground vault, and you have a series of options: you can try bribing a guard or coding a new card yourself. You can frame the one man still permitted to have a vault key, or take the permanent route and poison him. There’s also an optional objective to kill a CIA asset turned double agent, who may or may not even be alive depending on a choice Bell made in a previous mission. There are two side missions in the game in which Mason and Woods assassinate key cogs in Perseus’ plan, and in order to get the best outcome and complete the mission without activating a sort of failsafe, you need to find evidence in other missions and do a bit of spy work. One mission requires correctly identifying the target’s three spies, and the other requires decoding two ciphers in order to decrypt a floppy disk. All of this is great, but unfortunately the campaign is short even by COD standards, so all these neat ideas are used fleetingly. I was expecting more side missions along the same lines, and I think that KGB HQ mission had a format that could easily have been used again given that you play a team of spies operating partly in East Berlin. From a gameplay perspective this is the most interesting Call of Duty game I’ve played, but it’s let down by its length.

Having said all that, I was pleasantly surprised at just how good the single player campaign is. If you buy COD games for the multiplayer then this is definitely worth checking out. If like me you only buy them for the campaign then this is harder to recommend. I got it for Christmas so didn’t have to deal with the high base price and glacial price decrease that plague games in this series and full price is a lot for the amount of content on offer. When it’s cheaper though, I recommend playing it. This marks real progress for the series and I’m looking forward to where it goes next.

By James Lambert

DLC Review: Nioh 2 – The First Samurai

Nioh 2 - The First Samurai | DLC Trailer - YouTube

After two good pieces of DLC, this is it: the end of Nioh 2. Whereas Tengu’s Disciple and Darkness in the Capital focused on Hide hanging out with historical wielders of her Spirit Stone blade, this one wraps things up by focusing on the main game’s final boss Otakemaru; starting with the origin story relayed at the beginning of the story.

If you don’t remember what went down: Otakemaru lived in harmony with humans, then one day they all had a barney and he slotted them all. Hide arrives post-moiduh and teams up with Otakemaru’s sister Suzuka, an alliance that’s short lived due to her being physically weakened. Even by the standards set by the previous DLC, this is short and light on story. Hide arrives, fights Otakemaru until Suzuka intervenes, fights a seemingly unrelated second boss then tracks down Otakemaru and puts him down for good. How she does that when she has to fight him at a later time isn’t explained. Presumably because she’s gone back in time to kill him she no longer ever had that final boss fight with him? I don’t know, the game doesn’t raise these questions. Thing is, I don’t care about Otakemaru any more; the game wrapped up everything with him, and to have him be the final objective again feels like a wasted opportunity to me. I barely cared about him to begin with; his design is mediocre, especially when compared to some of the other Yokai in the game, and his role in the story wasn’t as impactful as Tokichiro (I know he was possessing him but even so). Fortunately the two main story missions are both good in terms of design and aesthetics: the first starts in the battered village Otakemaru tore through, then transitions into bright, colorful foliage and water framed by huge trees and greenery. The second is a daunting landscape partly made of giant rib cages, with a red sky and a final descent to where Otakemaru awaits for the final showdown. His final form is literally named “Nightmare Bringer”, one the Yokai directory describes as “One of the most horrifying demons to have ever existed on this plane”. Unforunately he isn’t nearly cool enough to warrant the name or description, not even close. You beat him and that’s it; Hide vanquishes him forever and Suzuka says that she is the titular First Samurai, or at least the first Samurai ideal that subsequent generations will strive to live up to. All in all it feels anticlimatic to me.

After beating the main story the DLC falls back on boss gauntlets and duels to fill out the sidequests, something I personally don’t enjoy nearly as much as exploring new areas or redesigned existing ones, which the previous DLC did well. There are a couple of exploration based missions and they’re both good, so it’s not all bad. There are a few new enemy types, two of which have cool designs but one, a sort of nightmarish monster bird thing is a right pain in the arse to fight, and the other; a load of flesh blobs meshed together with needles, unfortunately got lost in the shuffle to the point that I didn’t even realise I’d killed one the first time, its soul core being the only evidence I’d encountered it.

First Samurai isn’t a failure or anything, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other two pieces of this trilogy. Its story is the weakest of the three and I’m not one for duels (for the most part) and boss gauntlets, so what good there is here is unfortunately outweighed by the rest. Not enough to spoil the fantastic game it provides a conclusion to, but as a conclusion it leaves something to be desired.

By James Lambert

Ghostrunner Review

Ghostrunner - Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner is a game about a Cyborg Ninja climbing a Cyberpunk mega-tower to fight Dr Octopus, so on concept alone it caught my attention. You are the titular Ghostrunner; one of a group of genetically crafted cyborg peacekeepers maintaining the status quo in “Dharma Tower”; a huge Dredd-style tower block designed to house people after he apocalypse. Mara, the aforementioned Doc Ock, kills Dharma’s ruler Adam, rips your arm off and chucks you through a window. A group of rebels called The Climbers fix you up, give you the name Jack, and Adam, now in the form of an A.I called The Architect, guides you on a journey back up the tower to kill Mara and free Dharma from her machinations.

The story plays a surprisingly large role in proceedings, which is odd given the score attack, challenge mode-feel the game has. Enemies die in one hit but so does Jack, and they have guns. You move quickly, you can wall-run, you have a Sekiro-style grapple and you can block and reflect projectiles with your sword, but even with all those skills precise timing is important. I say challenge mode because it feels like something you’d get in a game like, say, Dishonored; you’re constantly moving forward, platforming, wall-running and fighting, and the environments all feel like they’ve been crafted specifically to facilitate the gameplay rather than locations where people live, or at least spend time. Half the game is set in boring industrial areas, and when they finally give way to the neon-soaked cityscapes Cyberpunk as a genre is known for it’s disappointingly brief. Don’t get me wrong, having the environments suit the core gameplay is good, but it makes Dharma Tower feel like a series of challenge rooms rather than somewhere to shield a million people from a post-apocalyptic world. The story itself is fine; Jack is stoic but surprisingly receptive to conversations with his off-screen Climber contact Zoe and The Architect is haughty and gets irritated when Jack doesn’t do exactly what he wants him to. Mara has a decent design but very little in the way of backstory or lore; you only find out what she’s up to right near the end, and you never encounter anyone who isn’t an enemy, so you don’t really get a good grasp of how her rule is affecting Dharma’s citizens.

When Ghostrunner works, it works well. Playing a Shinobi in first person, darting around, waiting for the right opening to nip in and strike is satisfying. The enemies gradually increase in difficulty; single shot guns, machine guns, shields, robots that fire energy waves; sometimes they’ll be protected by a shield generator that has to be found and destroyed. The best enemies are fellow ninjas who require careful parry timing to beat; fighting them changes up the pace and feels like a unique challenge compared to all the ranged enemies. You can dodge, which slows down time when done in mid-air, and Jack has four special moves focused around dealing with groups. Unfortunately, when Ghostrunner doesn’t work it’s frustrating. In order to gain enough weight when transitioning from wall-run to wall-run you need to jump, but Jack moves so fast I’d often press jump and it’d be too late, I wouldn’t get enough height and I’d fall to my death. This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for how often the game makes you jump between walls; it’s a big part of the final level. You can respawn instantly, but checkpoints don’t save if you quit the game so you have to do each level in one go, they vary in length and there were times when I felt like I was just bashing my head against the wall, dying over and over again and feeling like the overall experience wasn’t fun enough to justify it. Having persevered and finished the game I do think it’s worth sticking with, but parts of it are still annoying, in particular two enemy types and one of the bosses; a grapple-based platforming section where you have to dodge two different sets of lasers whilst grappling, and the momentum and timing of your jumps plays a part, it’s a whole to-do.

Ghostrunner is annoying and frustrating at times, and it doesn’t make the most of the Cyberpunk aesthetic, but it’s a neat idea and overall I had a pretty good time with it.

By James Lambert

Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review

After seven (eight if you count Dead Souls) games, strongest hot dad in Japan Kazuma Kiryu bowed out as the Yakuza series’ protagonist. The show must go on however, and so the series continues with a new leading man, a completely overhauled combat system and a slew of new gameplay mechanics.

You are Ichiban Kasuga; a low level grunt in the Arakawa family, one who’s far too pure and kind-hearted for this business. He takes the fall for a murder his Captain committed and spends eighteen years in prison, and upon his release is hit with a horrifying one-two punch; the Tojo Clan is gone, replaced by their rivals the Omi Alliance, and this takeover was facilitated by a traitorous Arakawa; Ichiban’s boss and a man he thinks of as a Father. Desperate for answers, he confronts Arakawa at an Omi officers’ meeting and is shot by the man himself. He ends up literally stuffed into a bin next to a homeless camp in Ijincho, Kanegawa. From there what starts as a simple quest to find employment and lodgings escalates into political intrigue and encounters with the “Ijin Three”; Japanese, Chinese and Korean mafia heads who run the town through a permanent stalemate. It’s hard to go into detail on the story without spoiling things, and taking up a hefty chunk of the word count, but I will say that it’s one of this series’ best, if not the best. It has twists and reveals, but they all fit the overarching narrative and take the story in interesting directions, or at least ones that feel natural and earned. It’s all tied together by Ichiban himself, who is an absolutely wonderful protagonist. He’s thoroughly noble and honourable just as Kiryu was, but he expresses it differently. Whereas Kiryu was stoic, cool and effortlessly badass, Ichiban is outgoing, friendly and loud. He’s unapologetically obsessed with Dragon Quest and sees everything in RPG terms. He’s more natural in social situations than Kiryu and has a charming, boisterous charisma that, alongside his wholesomeness and caring nature makes him immensely likeable. He’s very human, too; big fights with groups or particularly strong foes leave him panting and bruised. He gets angry, he cries, he exhaustively appeals to people’s better nature. He’s an absolute sweetheart, filled with optimism and a burning desire to help people out. He’s a character who, like Arthur Morgan, I have fun just inhabiting, regardless of what he’s doing. Of course an RPG hero is nothing without their party, and Ichi’s is great. It’s made up of people he runs into during his journey and becomes close friends with, an eclectic mix of regular people and hardened fighters who do everything as a group. You can eat together, drink together, sing karaoke, play darts, go to the cinema; all of this builds a bond between Kasuga and his friends that’s paid off with their own personal side stories and other benefits. They’ve gone all in on the idea of Ichiban having a loyal group of friends and drawing strength from them and their constant support. That’s one of the game’s key themes; the importance of having people you care about and can put your faith in, and having that faith rewarded.

Yakuza has always had RPG elements; random battles, XP, unlockable skills and sidequests are series mainstays. Like a Dragon makes the jump to full-on RPG by swapping the free form melee combat for a turn based affair: melee attacks, guarding, skills that require MP to use and range from different forms of attacks and buffs to healing and debuffs, status effects; the whole shebang. This is given a justification in-universe, too: Ichiban’s love of Dragon Quest makes him “Fight fair” and give enemies a chance to get a hit in on him, and when he pulls a barbed wire bat out the ground and is likened to a hero, a role that just so happens to be his life’s ambition, he starts imagining everyone he fights as being videogame enemies, complete with cute names and glowing red eyes (except for bosses). There’s a job system that gives Kasuga and each party member access to a wide range of different skills and weapons that’s accessed by going to the job centre, and there are even summons who Ichiban calls up mid fight and asks for a hand; the obvious ones like hired fighters and gangsters mixed in with stranger ones like a chicken that lays a healing egg, and a crawfish called Nancy that poisons whomever you’re fighting. All of this is of course handled with over the top drama and title cards. It’s gloriously, wonderfully silly in the way that Ryu Ga Gotoku do so well. The changes to the combat are all excellent, as far as I’m concerned. It helps that the series has always had RPG leanings anyway, but the turn based combat is deep enough to offer choice without being overcomplicated or bogged down in menus. It’s fun, and crucially it feels like a natural fit. There’s also a lovely mechanic where instead of standing in a line waiting to attack, enemies and your party all move around on their own when it’s not their turn. Not only does this facilitate attacks that target an area rather than one or all enemies, it also leads to neat little moments were combatants split off into little pockets of conflict, making fights feel more natural.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an absolute triumph. Kiryu was a tough act to follow, and RGG took on not only that task but also introduced a whole new combat system and gameplay mechanics, and it all paid off wonderfully. This is easily the best Yakuza game I’ve played; great combat, great story, great minigames, all tied together by an absolute darling of a protagonist. Welcome Ichiban, go forth and lead a wonderful life.

By James Lambert

DLC Review: Dragon Ball Z Kakarot – A New Power Awakens Parts 1 and 2


To tide its audience over until the release of its full story DLC, DBZ Kakarot got this: two mini expansions based on the Battle of Gods and Resurrection F films. The first one was initially exclusive to the season pass, but the release of the second saw them paired off in an £8 bundle, so I thought I’d give them a go. I liked DBZ Kakarot, I’m happy to play more of it.

Now a lot of BoGs runtime is dedicated to fun character stuff; it’s set during Bulma’s birthday and shenanigans arise involving the Pilaf gang and Vegeta desperately trying to placate Beerus, the God of Destruction. Understandably, none of that is adapted here. Instead, oddly enough, it’s more like an adaptation of Resurrection F: Beerus’ attendant and trainer Whis trains Goku and Vegeta to help them achieve the red-haired Super Saiyan God form and give Beerus a good challenge. No prophecy, no flashback to Beerus humiliating King Vegeta (though the prince is scared of him still), just training and a fight. That sounded fine to me though, I like SSJ God a lot and just spending time fighting in that form and working up to a fight with a level 250 Beerus sounded fun. Unfortunately they messed even that up. The only reliable way to get to level 250 is with an item earned by sparring with Whis; you fight him over and over again, getting more of the item by completing challenges each time like beating him within a certain time limit, or finishing the fight with a special move, that sort of thing. You go into the pause menu, manually increase Goku and Vegeta’s levels a bit at a time, and repeat. Repeat ad nauseum. It’s at this point I realised that actually Kakarot’s combat is actually a bit shit, and that the best way to win fights is not to mix up beams and melee, dodging and countering and the like, but just to spam an AOE ki blast; Spirit Bombs for Goku, Big Bang Attacks for Vegeta, stopping only to power up or heal. The fight with Beerus is crushingly difficult even when you are at the same level, and for some reason you aren’t allowed to use healing items. I like this game, but nothing it could offer me would be worth the time and effort it’d take me to beat that fight, so I gave up. I do, however, like the fight with Beerus in one of the new side missions, where Goku and Vegeta team up against him.

Part 2 is a closer adaptation of its source material, which had more action and less fun. I’ve only seen Res F once (unless you count the ludicrously drawn out version of it in Dragon Ball Super) and didn’t really care for it; Frieza is revived with the dragon balls, he and his men fight and torture Piccolo, Gohan and friends while Goku and Vegeta are off training with Whis, then they arrive and use their new Super Saiyan Blue forms to fight Frieza, who can now turn Gold in what is possibly the worst Dragon Ball transformation. The start of this adaptation is a lot like part 1: train with Whis. Then the game introduces its knew “Horde fights”, which are a mix of boring and laughable. You fight 150 enemies at once in little groups, and every now and then Zarbon or Dodoria or a member of the Ginyu force show up. I levelled Piccolo and Gohan up to 101, so while my support characters were completely useless I was cleaning up; taking out goons in one shot with Special Beam cannon and Kamehameha, clearing out groups with Light Grenade and Masenko. A lot of the Frieza force soldiers Piccolo fought just hovered around doing nothing; didn’t attack or defend or anything, just waited for me to clobber them. Then you fight Frieza twice; he’s level 170, my Goku and Vegeta were both over 250 (part 2 raises the level cap to 300), it wasn’t a challenge. Part 2 is more fun than its predecessor purely because it has a bit more variety to it, but neither of them are particularly good.

So that’s A New Power Awakens; a lot of grinding and some mediocre fights. Even knowing what they were going in, I ended up disappointed, especially by Part 1. Not awful, but hard to recommend to anyone who didn’t adore Kakarot and is desperate for more of it.

By James Lambert

Amnesia Rebirth Review

Remember Amnesia? It pioneered that whole “No-weapon-hide-n-seek-n-chase” brand of horror. This is developer Frictional’s return to the series after having The Chinese Room handle indirect sequel “Machine for Pigs” while they moved onto underwater spook-em-up Soma. Much like Machine for Pigs this isn’t a direct sequel as such, instead following up on certain plot points that framed the story of Dark Descent.

You are Tasi Trianon, a draftswoman on an expedition team whose plane crashes in the Algerian desert. Waking up alone in said plane, she sets out to find any other survivors, a journey that’s hampered by monsters, trips to a desolate, Lovecraftian nightmare world and, interestingly, her being pregnant. First thing’s first though; the framing device makes no sense to me. Tasi wakes up in the plane, but as flashbacks throughout the game reveal, she left the plane with everyone else and trekked through all the human locations you visit in game, then somehow, for some reason, ended up back in the plane. It feels like they wanted to have their cake and eat it; Dark Descent had voice acted flashbacks that were tied more to the location rather than a certain character, and so could activate even when protagonist Daniel hadn’t been present for the events depicted. I don’t know why they didn’t do that here. It’s a shame because I think the story is rather good. Without wishing to spoil anything Tasi is being lead through the desert and dead city by a being with an agenda, and it’s tied into some mysterious condition Tasi has where becoming too scared by being in the dark or looking at monsters for too long makes her fly into a murderous rage, and taints her arms with black veins. What happened to Tasi’s crew, what lead to the downfall of the Lovecraftian city, the further experiments with Vitae and why Tasi is being guided: that’s all really solid stuff. The city itself is this wonderful mix of classical and futuristic technology; at times it reminded me of Soma, particularly a part where you salvage required power sources from someone hooked up to a life support system. The structures provide shelter from a seemingly endless desert trapped in permanent night, with a Persona 3-esque green moon, thunderous storms and petrified bodies dotting the landscape. It’s excellent.

Gameplay-wise, it’s a lot more involving than Machine for Pigs; it’s again reminiscent of Soma, with physics puzzles similar to those in Dark Descent. Tasi has a lantern which burns through fuel at a rate that basically renders it useless for anything other than getting a quick look at a dark patch to ascertain whether or not it’s the way forward. Tinderboxes from TDD have been replaced with matches, which provide a temporary lightsource whilst being able to light lamps, candles and the like in the environment, and again burn through very quickly. I spent most of my time just sucking it up and trawling through the dark; the game tints everything dark blue anyway so you can see just fine. Just bring the lantern out now and then to stop Tasi going mad, then light a few candles and lamps in a room you might spend an extended period of time in. The aforementioned puzzles are pretty neat little diversions that require you to take into consideration the physics governing environmental objects, something this series invests in heavily. Also the inventory’s back, so you don’t have to carry puzzle items around with you anymore. There are surprisingly few enemy encounters, and unfortunately most of them for me were hampered by the monster designs being neither scary nor particularly interesting. There are two enemy types; the wendigos from Until Dawn, and flying wraiths that stun you from a distance, making running past them untenable. There are some really good enemy encounters, however. An extended trek through a military fort in search of two sequential objectives whilst being stalked from the shadows, a hectic chase; scrabbling through ancient caves and a nightmarish death maze home to an intelligent creature capable of speech, who knows Tasi and is not happy to see her; these are all great set pieces. The game does a good job in the first half of inciting dread, but as it goes on it starts to wane, especially once the wraiths get involved. Tasi is very talkative, especially when you use the game’s sort of USP of checking in on your unborn baby (I say sort of because it’s basically a more talkative version of Sam Bridges calming down BB). Unfortunately the rest of the crew don’t get much in the way of development, not even Tasi’s husband Salim. There are flashbacks giving glimpses at the previous journey before Tasi inexplicably returned to the plane, but they don’t go into any real detail. The game spends far more time exploring what went down in the dead city, which I found a lot more interesting anyway.

Overall, Amnesia Rebirth is pretty good. Its enemy designs are bland but the game still does a good job of creating a dread-filled atmosphere, and occasionally it all boils over into effective scares. The puzzles are neat and checking in on your baby is a nice idea and a good way to give the protagonist reason to talk to themselves. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but as an example of this particular horror flavour this series started, and as a horror game generally, it’s a good time.

By James Lambert

DLC Review: Doom Eternal – The Ancient Gods Part 1

Doom Eternal's Ancient Gods DLC Will Be Available as a Standalone Purchase  | USgamer

If you were to ask me for a list of games that I really want DLC for, Doom Eternal wouldn’t be one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have more of it to play, but it felt complete as a game and I was happy to wait for a potential sequel. Here we are though, with The Ancient Gods: DLC considered so substantial you can buy it as a standalone game, if you like. Why you’d do that when it’s set immediately after the end of the main game and acts as the first half of an epilogue, I don’t know. But you do you, hypothetical Doom Eternal fan.

After putting the kibosh on the Icon of Sin by breaking off a laser sword blade in his brain, the Doom Slayer’s got to deal with the mess he made of Urdak. In order to do so he needs the help of the Seraphim; the mysterious Maykr who granted him superhuman abilities. Unfortunately he’s being kept miles beneath the sea on an offshore UAC platform. Freeing the Seraphim and saving Urdak is only the Slayer’s perceived objective though; he’s actually out to let Urdak fester and resurrect the dark lord of Hell in physical form so he can kill him, putting heaven and hell out of the game for good. As I said earlier; this is very much an epilogue to Doom Eternal, and perhaps Doom as a whole, given the link between these two recent games and the original ones. Story-wise, although brief, it keeps the same pace as the main game; codex entries provide background on what’s left to be said about Samur Maykr, the Father and their links to Samuel Hayden and Vega. The Doom Slayer gets some more good harsh stares in, and there’s a surprisingly likable comic relief sidekick in the form of an ARC intern who’s completely on board with the Slayer’s plan and has the sheer guts to actually address him and offer him help. The next compliment’s a massive spoiler, so if you want to avoid it, skip to the next paragraph. Still here? This first part ends on a cliffhanger as the dark lord is returned to his physical form, and far from the huge, horned devil I was expecting; he’s an alternate universe version of the Doom Slayer. Black hair, red eyes, covered in scars and tattoos and with a red jewel of some kind in his chest, but still a dark reflection of the Slayer himself. I love this; who better to serve as Doomguy’s nemesis than another Doomguy? It’s quite the ending to part one, and has me fully hyped for part 2 and their confrontation.

There are three levels and four new enemy types. The offshore UAC facility is unique, and easily my favourite; a rain-battered structure that’s on fire and falling apart by the halfway point, then a trip to the bottom of the sea to bust out the Seraphim. Second is the Blood Swamps, where the souls of those unable to be used in argent energy production are dumped, which despite the name is all swamp, no blood, which was neat. It’s a colourful, misty swamp that feels different to the other Hell areas. Finally there’s a return to Urdak, which is a bit disappointing given its familiarity. It does take place in an area not visited before; a forest path through what feels like closer to whatever Urdak’s version of ground level is, but after two all new areas it came up short. The new enemies, unfortunately all annoyed me, with one exception. That exception is an invisible version of the Whiplash, which is neither here nor there really. The other three are an eye ball turret that hides when you aim at it for too long, a new form of Maykr that’s invincible until it drops its shield to attack, and a ghost that possesses enemies, makes them stronger, faster and more durable, then they pop out of the corpse and have to be killed with one and only one weapon; the microwave emitter on the plasma gun. My problem with these enemies is that, personally at least, I feel like they hamper the pace of combat because when you attack their weakpoints is dictated by them, not you. The turrets aren’t too bad because they don’t tend to pop up in big fights, but the Maykrs like showing up to make a nuisance of themselves, and I hate fighting Spirit possessed enemies, especially when they turn up in the fourth or fifth wave of enemies when I’ve used up all the health packs and the enemy it chose is a Baron of Hell, say, or at one point a goddamn Tyrant. Having to kill them with the microwave emitter, using up ammo on a gun I use a lot with the other mod attached, doesn’t help either. Challenges I did appreciate were fights with a buff totemed Marauder, and one with two Marauders at once. I love Marauders, I’ll fight them all day. There are three new runes placed into one unique slot, the one I went for causing destroyed weakpoints to explode and damage anything nearby. There are two new Slayer Gates too, but they only lead to the aforementioned runes, they don’t unlock some third BFG variant or anything.

So that’s The Ancient Gods Part 1: the new enemies annoy me, but the locations are great and the story is wrapping up in a way I’m really into. I didn’t really know what to expect from this DLC, I certainly didn’t expect it to be so final (I thought maybe a jaunt through a new realm of no grand consequence) but I love the direction it’s taking and I’m hype for Part 2.

By James Lambert

DLC Review: Nioh 2 – Darkness in the Capital

Nioh 2's Darkness in the Capital expansion arrives October 15 –  PlayStation.Blog

It’s that time again: time for Hide to go back in time and show more real historical figures how it’s done. This time she’s helping out Minamoto no Yorimitsu and Abe no Seimei (pictured above): here depicted as a female Yokai hunter and an Onmyo mage. In contrast to Tengu’s Disciple’s rushed but exposited story, DITC doesn’t have much going on. Raiko (another name Minamoto goes by) and Abe are trying to stop Ashiya Doman, an Onmyo mage who turned to evil, possibly due to being possessed by Kashin Koji from the main game (he is possessed but it’s unclear how long that was the case). It ends on a rather abrupt note when they leave you alone at the final battle to run off and seal themselves away like Hide did. It all takes place in the titular Capital apart from a couple of side missions, there’s not a lot of context for what’s going on and not a lot happens really. Raiko picks a fight with Hide because she thinks she’s a full-on Yokai, the fight ends early and you go on to encounter Doman, then they track him down and Hide puts him away. It’s a shame because Raiko in particular is really cool and I would have liked to see more of her. She has a little quest running through side missions where she and her men spar with you and you help her be free of Shuten Doji, one of multiple Yokai she has control of temporarily. When you fight her she uses a combination of guardian spirits, the aforementioned Yokai and, best of all, sword techniques straight from Vergil’s playbook. Unfortunately both of her fights have caveats: the first one ends before you fully deplete her health, like Nobunaga in the first game. The second time she jumps in as you’re about to beat her friend in the aforementioned sparring matches. I want a proper one-on-one fight with her like Benkei and Minamoto no Yoshitsune got in Tengu’s Disciple.

Gameplay wise it’s more Nioh 2, but with a new feature in the form of Stones of penance: you can make a mission harder and put an item up as collateral in exchange for better gear drops. There’s a new weapon; fists, which encompasses both blunt gauntlets and massive claws and they’re a wonderful addition. They’re quick, damaging and basically turn Hide into Dante when he’s using Ifrit/Beowulf/Gilgamesh/Balrog (delete as per your preference). Best of all they scale with strength, so they were viable for my playstyle unlike the splitstaff from Tengu’s Disciple. The level design is a little bland; the focus on the Capital means it’s a lot of built up wooden areas in disarray, then a cave system that Doman’s hiding out in. There’s a side mission location involving a giant statue of the Buddha that’s cool, but unfortunately it’s overall pretty lacklustre, especially compared to the previous DLC. There are some neat new enemies; a wagon with a human face, kitsune and a woman with a nasty mix of curses, water magic and a polearm. Nue returns as a mini-boss as does White Tiger (who’s hilariously weak), the final boss is a pain in the arse and not particularly interesting but one of the bosses is basically Man-Spider and I’ve got a lot of time for that. One major downside to the DLC, though it’s a personal one more than something everyone will encounter is that it really hammered home just how broken the levelling system in this game is. I was regularly over twenty levels ahead of the recommended, in gear far more protective than anything I was picking up, and bosses were still hacking great chunks out of me with attacks. I can only imagine how much damage they’d do if I was at the recommended level, or even beneath it. It’s not a big deal though; I enjoyed all of the DLC and still think Nioh 2 is superb, but I don’t get the levelling system at all.

So that’s Darkness in the Capital; it has some cool new things but the level design is a bit bland and the story is sparse even by this game’s standards. Overall it feels more substantial but less interesting than Tengu’s Disciple, but the new fists weapon is fantastic, and it’s issues don’t stop it being more Nioh 2, which I’m always up for.

By James Lambert

Mafia Definitive Edition Review

Mafia: Definitive Edition - Mafia: Definitive Edition

Warm on the heels of the Mafia 2 and 3 remasters comes this; a full remake of 2002’s Mafia: City of Lost Heaven. It’s a game I owned and played quite a bit of but never finished, and that was a long time ago, so a remake suits me down to the ground.

You are Tommy Angelo, a mobster in the Salieri family operating out of the Chicago-esque city of Lost Heaven. In 1938 Tommy fears for the safety of his wife and daughter, and so meets with a detective to offer up his boss on a platter in exchange for being placed in protective custody. Tommy’s story starts with him as a cab driver; he rescues Salieri’s top enforcers Sam and Paulie from the rival Morello family, Morello goons attack him in revenge, from there things escalate until Tommy ends up joining the family, having found a taste for the life. The story has some strong elements, but unfortunately it squanders them all by being in such a rush for some reason. Every character is well acted, the writing is good and there’s some strong characterisation, but the story keeps jumping forward and not letting anything soak in. Paulie and Sam work really well as the boisterous, friendly brawn and cool, professional, brains respectively. Tommy’s wife Sarah has a good introduction where Tommy walks her home, they discuss their burgeoning relationship and get into a fight with some goons. Don Salieri’s paternal approach is shown to hide a brutal, bloodthirsty side. The Morello family owns pretty much the entire city; Tommy and the others are constantly fighting an uphill battle and traitors are dealt with extremely harshly despite the dire circumstances. Morello’s brother Sergio is shown to be unnaturally lucky and hard to kill. But these elements are all under utilised: despite being Tommy’s reason to rat out the gang, Sarah rarely appears after that introduction. Sergio gets one mission before he’s killed. The uphill battle is undercut by Tommy being an incredible gunman and the gang’s best wheelman; cutting down whole groups of mooks then escaping unscathed. He has moments where he shows a softer side or some regret about certain events and actions, but they’re few and far between, and his relationship with Paulie and Sam is strong when the game spends time on it, but it’s very much on the back burner. The worst part of this is the last few missions; after sewing a few light seeds of dissent, the game remembers it has to explain the framing device and so rushes through a brisk, unsatisfying conclusion that absolutely does not get that time it deserves. It’s a shame, really; there’s a good story in here, but the game merely scratches the surface.

Unlike its two sequels, Mafia isn’t an open world game. You’ll be driving around most of the city, and you can freely explore it in an unlockable extra mode, but the story mode is split into a series of levels. You’ll mostly drive to a location, shoot a bunch of goombahs then drive back. Sometimes there’ll be a melee fight, sometimes a forced stealth section (most of which are mercifully short and simple), maybe a chase on foot or in a vehicle. Melee fights aren’t at all satisfying; the hits have no weight to them and when the game wants you to counter an enemy attack, none of your attacks can interrupt them, even if you have a bat and they’re barehanded. The driving is fine but the heavy, poorly turning 30s cars aren’t nearly as fun to drive as Lincoln Clay’s beastly driftmobile. The infamous speed limiter returns from the original, but on normal difficulty at least you rarely have to use it; it’s not a big deal. The similarly maligned racing mission is also present and correct, as a reminder of a time before having racing missions in games was against the Geneva Convention, and while not good, it’s not as much of a pain in the arse as I expected. The lion’s share of the game is the shooting, which while nothing spectacular, does the job. It has a certain sense of panic and sloppiness to it that suits Tommy’s status as a normal bloke compared to Vito and Lincoln’s military backstories, although again it’s undercut by Tommy in-story being the Salieri mob’s best shot. He’s no Lincoln though, for sure. Speaking of Lincoln, the combat’s biggest issue is that the linear fights Tommy engages in aren’t as good as the more free-form ones from Mafia 3, where you’re given a target to take out with a mixture of stealth and shooting as you see fit. The gameplay as a whole is just fine. Nothing spectacular but nothing particularly bad, either. I can’t speak to it as a remake really, because it’s been so long since I played the original, but the game looks lovely, and the aforementioned good acting from the whole cast is helped a lot by the game’s facial animations.

So that’s Mafia Definitive Edition: it has its moments, but it’s largely disappointing. The gameplay is all decent but nothing more, and the story has interesting plot points, strong characters and decent development but the game is in such a rush that it doesn’t do nearly enough with those elements. I had a decent time, but the game clearly has the potential to be much better.

By James Lambert