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

Ion Fury Review

Ion Fury Key Art Gaming Cypher - Gaming Cypher

Ion Fury is a first person shooter running on the Build engine, known for games like Blood, Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D. It’s an era of first person shooters I have no real experience with: I started with Doom then made the jump to things like Timesplitters and Red Faction, and in addition to that lack of experience it’s an era I’ve never really seen the appeal of, personally. They may have been something special back then but if this is representative of what the Build engine had to offer then times have changed for the better. Bear in mind DOOM Eternal came out earlier this year, and in terms of retro fixes, so did Streets of Rage 4.

You are Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, a cop in a futuristic city pursuing someone called Heskel, who has a seemingly endless supply of robots that come in various forms, ranging from humanoids in ponchos and flying brains to teleporting, skinless bodies and tank people. That’s it for story; Shelly cuts a bloody swathe through the environments spouting pop culture quotes like Duke Nukem, whether they fit the tone or not (She makes Breaking Bad references of all things), guns down loads of robots and at the end presumably kills Heskel. I wouldn’t know; I didn’t finish it. I gave it a good go- there are apparently seven chapters and I got a decent way through the fifth one- but any feelings of fun or enjoyment I had were overshadowed by the game feeling like a slog; a wearisome experience that just stretched on to eternity with no end in sight. It’s not a bad game as such, it just has no hook, or really any reason for me to keep playing it. The shooting is fine but lacks any real punch besides the shotgun and bombs, the levels have bursts of interesting design before falling back on industrial tunnels and sewers, and there are various annoying niggles that pile up. There are weapon reloads despite your ammo count just being a number signifying your total amount. There’s fall damage, and despite being two different ammo types using the same gun, accessed with the alt fire button, the grenade launcher and shotgun take up separate weapon slots, which is annoying when you’re under fire, try to take out the shotgun and end up splash damaging your face off. Running and gunning is rarely viable, as enemies easily chew through your health and armour, there’s heavy splash damage on explosives and enemies often have an easier time hitting you than you do them, particularly the flying ones. That’s the game’s problem: there’s no one, big issue that ruins it, just a series of smaller ones that all come together to result in something mediocre. Of the three games I’ve reviewed recently this is by far the longest, and has absolutely no reason to be. Were this a shorter experience like the other two, it would be better. Not good, but better.

So that’s Ion Fury: not bad, but not good either. A combination of nuisances and its length resulted in me just giving it up to play something more fun (Double Dragon Neon, specifically). Mediocre.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

DLC Review: Mortal Kombat 11 Aftermath

Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath Kollection Pre-Orders Are Live

Well I for one didn’t see this coming. I thought that, as is standard for the genre these days, MK11’s DLC would consist entirely of characters delivered via season passes, but here we are with extra story chapters. In my opinion MK11’s story ended quite well and didn’t need a follow up, but here we are. Aftermath as a piece of DLC includes five new story chapters and three new characters: Wind God Fujin, Shokan Queen Sheeva and Robocop. I’m no expert on fighting games so I won’t be going into full technical details on the characters but I will give some brief thoughts on them, after I talk about the new story content.

So Kronika is dead, Raiden’s mortal now and the new god of thunder and fire Liu Kang is ready to forge a new timeline. He’s interrupted by the arrival of Shang Tsung, Fujin and Night Wolf, who explain that they were trapped in a void after refusing to work with Kronika, and that Liu Kang cannot forge a new timeline without her crown. Shang Tsung plans to travel back in time to the point in MK11 when the past characters first arrived, nip off to his island and steal the crown before everything kicks off. It’s made clear that going back and interfering directly with other people and events will mess up the timeline, but somehow stealing the crown won’t do that? The time travel stuff in the main story was kept largely simple I thought, but this time travelling within time travelling just seems to confuse matters. Anyway things obviously go wrong and Shang Tsung, Fujin and Night Wolf travel back to a later point by accident, and faced with potentially insurmountable opposition the sorcerer suggests they revive Sindel, with the help of Sheeva, to deal with Cetrion should she try to intercept them. It’s quite a short story so I won’t spoil anything, but they don’t play it safe; when things go wrong they really go wrong, and by the end of it the MK11 timeline is ablaze and lying in a pool of its own blood. The stand-out in all this is Shang Tsung, who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in with something as simple as a single word or smile. Everyone hates him because he’s an untrustworthy scumbag and whenever they bring that up his response is always a “Who, me?” smile, like he just bloody loves being an evil sorcerer and has already planned ten different ways to betray and kill everyone else in the room. There’s some strong character work throughout; Sheeva and Kitana have some lovely moments focused on their relationships with Sindel, Erron Black gets to have a cool showdown with the heroes (and Shang Tsung) in the Dead Pool, complete with a funny moment where a Tarkatan gets knocked into the acid and everyone stops to watch him die, there’s a pause and then Shang Tsung apologises. Fujin is the weak link here; he has some good moments in his fight intros and his ladder ending is neat, but in the story content he doesn’t really add anything. It has multiple endings, and the “Good” one potentially sets up a new game or even series of Mortal Kombat games in a different time period, which would be interesting. That’s all I can say really; there’s a lot I don’t want to spoil but the story is good, it shakes things up for the home stretch and although the time travel stuff can become confused, its character work is great.

As for the characters, Robocop is a stand-out for me, because Robocop is my hero and putting the original, classic version in a game, having him be voiced by Peter Weller and looking amazing is a sure-fire way to get me on side. He’s got some new gear; a built-in grenade launcher, flamethrower and a shield that parries attacks without having to be activated within a small window. All three of the characters aren’t ones I’d usually play has; Scorpion is my main and I like Frost a lot, so I’m used to having a high number of flowing melee combos. Having said that, Robocop and Sheeva are both fun to play as, and I’m glad the latter is playable after I loved her re-design in the main story. Robocop is inserted into the story surprisingly well, too; far better than The Terminator was. Murphy’s mixed up in all this because he’s after Kano for dealing guns in Old Detroit, and his fight intros make it clear he’s ingratiated himself with the good guys in a friendly, give-and-take relationship and is out to arrest any villains he comes across. Finally we have Fujin, who like I said before has some good intros and a neat ladder ending; unlike his brother Raiden he’s looser and more easy-going, and has spent a lot of time living among mortals in an attempt to understand their lives and struggles. He’s not as fun to play as, but he has some interesting normals and special moves, which are something I don’t usually bother with; I’m more combo focused in MK.

So that’s Aftermath; it’s definitely good, but I think it’s currently too expensive for what it is. I traded in my physical copy of MK11 and the only DLC I bought was Shang Tsung, so I got a good deal paying £50 for the game, the Kombat pass and Aftermath. But at £35 for the three characters and five chapters if you already own the other two parts, that’s too much for this. If you like MK11 and you’re still playing it then definitely get this, but wait for a price drop. If you don’t own MK11 or its DLC, this is the version to get; it’s basically the Game of the Year version.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

John Wick Hex Review

Strategy shooter John Wick Hex announced - Gamersyde

A John Wick videogame seems like a bad idea to me. Don’t get me wrong; I adore the man and his three films, really I do, but Wick’s style of combat doesn’t lend itself well to a free-movement action game where the player can act, for lack of a better term, out of character (See Payday 2). So John Wick Hex caught my eye when it was released last year on PC: a grid-based, tactical action puzzle game, with limits on actions and movement as a key gameplay mechanic. It came out on PS4 recently so I finally got to give a go.

Winston and Charon have been kidnapped by the titular Hex: a mysterious, powerful underworld figure with a vendetta against The High Table, who plans to kill the two on the steps of the Continental to show off his power. This is in retaliation for The High Table killing his Father, an act Winston vocally deems entirely justified. Hex chatting with his captives acts as a framing device for flashbacks of John moving from location to location seeking info on his captive friends, dismantling Hex’s empire in the process. That’s it really. No one speaks during levels except Charon, Winston and Hex discussing something pertinent to that location; John remains silent for the whole affair, and the game ends on a brief, unfulfilling note. The idea of an individual potentially able to rival The High Table is an interesting one, but they don’t do enough with it; he’s just a big villain John can kill while still in the employ of The High Table, rather than have him fight other assassins as he does in the films.

Fortunately, the gameplay has a lot more to offer. John moves on a grid made up of dots rather than large squares, and crucially rather than a turn system, everything instead takes time. Enemies act at the same time as you; they take time to move, aim and shoot, as does John. This is used to your advantage with a variety of moves you can pull off: crouching to present a smaller target and improve your accuracy, rolling, parrying, striking and performing takedowns on enemies as well as pushing them forward; it’s up to you to decide what the best action is at any given time. These actions all use up your Focus bar; refilling it is a brief action but still takes time, and running out of focus by performing the more elaborate melee moves or getting melee’d yourself leaves you only able to shoot. Firing a gun takes an amount of time relative to the type of gun and model; pistols quickly fire twice for low damage, revolvers take longer for more damage, machine pistols and SMGs fire five times and take a while, powerful shotguns and carbines take a second to line up the shot but hit for high damage. It all comes down to positioning and timing; popping into cover as an enemy’s about to fire, stepping out to cap them when they’ve broken their aim to reposition, performing takedowns when you’re close enough and parrying enemies with a quick chop to the throat when they’re about to attack. There are melee-only enemies too, and both they and their armed colleagues increase in health and damage as the game goes on. John always starts with a handgun and two full magazines, but apart from any guns smuggled in by The Continental all guns only have their current ammo available, and must be swapped out when empty. This does punch a hole in John’s propensity for planning, but it’s a gameplay mechanic so I’ll let it slide. I do have a few bigger issues though: some of the time requirements don’t seem to make much sense and are only there for gameplay reasons, namely some guns taking longer to fire than others, when in the films John is lightning quick with any and everything he uses. Revolvers in particular take a lot longer to fire than pistols despite them both being handguns, to the point where I was reticent to use them. Some guns will also fire a set number of bullets regardless of which one kills your target: SMGs and Machine Pistols might kill an enemy with the first shot then let off four additional ones at nothing, costing you precious ammo as a martial artist strides up behind you planning to judo throw you. Also you can’t run, so when you step out into one of many ambushes and want to retreat to a safe spot you have to waddle away like you’ve shat yourself as a conga line of enemies follow at a similar pace. Each level ends with a boss who takes and gives a lot of punishment, but can easily be felled by just repeatedly twatting them until they run out of focus (strikes cost nothing), shoot them while they wander off to refocus then take them down so they’re defenceless for more shots. I beat the final boss that way, it was pretty anticlimactic really.

Having said all that, the game does do a good job of making you feel like John Wick, particularly when things are flowing well. The movement, shooting and melee attacks all feel as authentic to the films as they can given the limitations put on John to serve the gameplay. It’s my favourite kind of puzzle game; one where every puzzle is “These people are alive” and every solution is murder. I’m a big fan of John Wick and despite some frustrating elements I think this game does a good job of putting you in his shoes. It’s just a shame the gameplay isn’t matched by its story, which introduces interesting elements that are all just thrown over a balcony at the end. If you want a puzzle game based around timing and position in combat, and if you’re a fan of the films, give this a go.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Streets of Rage 4 Review

Streets of Rage 4 | Nintendo Switch download software | Games ...

Sidescrolling beat ’em ups are a genre of games I don’t have a whole lot of experience with, but I do enjoy them. I loved Mother Russia Bleeds, I like the original Final Fight and I adored the Scott Pilgrim game back before it fell off the face of the Earth. I’ve been meaning to try River City Girls for a while now, but before that I decided to give Streets of Rage 4 a go: the latest instalment in a beloved series I’ve merely dipped my toes in before, with an art style that drew me in, high praise from Jim Sterling and a pedigree that offers a degree of safety.

Ten years after “Mr X” was defeated, his children; the white-haired, white-clad Y Twins are planning to control the minds of everyone in Wood Oak City, enlisting the help of a corrupt police force. A collection of brawlers stand in their way; ex-detectives Blaze and Axel (the two all-rounders), young rock star Cherry (the quick but weak one) and big, mechanical armed Floyd (the slow but strong one) with a fifth unlocking partway through: Cherry’s Dad and Axel’s old friend Adam (also an all-rounder). The story is kept entirely in voiceless slideshows between missions, but that’s all the game needs really, and the environments and enemies do a lot of the heavy lifting. The game’s aesthetic is a sort of 80s Cyberpunk type thing; there are robotics and high technology but they’re used sparingly, and there’s a definite layer of grime on most areas but they’re far from dilapidated. Oak Wood City feels like a place normal people live that’s also in the grip of a criminal empire. It’s vague enough to feel timeless but its aesthetic is familiar enough to enhance everything that’s going on. The art style is lovely, too; it’s an animated, cartoony art style with really sharp, high-res character models and a lot of detail on top of being bright and colourful. The locations vary from sewers, a police station and a cargo ship to an art gallery, a fight on top of a train and a jaunt through Chinatown culminating in a boss fight on a roof top terrace. It looks great, it sounds great, and it has that nice, simple beat ’em up plot of taking to the streets to beat up criminals until you get to their boss.

Gameplay wise, it’s quite a simple affair. You can do a combo, you can grab enemies by getting close to them and then attack, throw or slam them based on your position, which can be changed with the jump button. You can use weapons and you have three types of special move. Firstly you can double-tap a direction and attack, secondly you can press a dedicated button either by itself or with a direction, which drains your health but you can reclaim it by attacking enemies, Bloodborne-style, and finally you can use stars found in levels to use big, unblockable AOE supers. Unfortunately it doesn’t go for some of the modern conveniences found in other beat ’em ups; you can’t dodge or block; the only way to avoid attacks is to just move out of the way, either left or right or away or towards the screen. Cherry is the only character who can sprint, so everyone else has to slowly walk around to avoid threats, and the use of planes to dictate enemy placement means that I would often be swinging at an enemy, realise they weren’t on the same plane as me, try to move then attack but the game only recognised the second input so I’d just continue swinging in grand futility until the enemy in question jump kicked me. It’s frustrating, but once you get used to it it stops being a problem. It’s also eased by the combat itself being so crunchy and satisfying, even when you’re doing the same combo repeatedly. Also worth mentioning is the game’s approach to lives and checkpoints: you start with two in most levels and can earn more by reaching certain score milestones, both by picking up items and beating enemies. There are plenty of health pick ups, but there are no checkpoints; you die, you restart the level. This can be annoying if you’re stuck on a tough section or boss, but is mitigated by two factors: firstly most of the levels are short, secondly you can choose to restart the level at any time with more lives and starts in exchange for your score being decreased. As tough as things got I never had to take that option; I did get stuck now and then but it has that “One more go” quality that the best difficult games have.

So that’s Streets of Rage 4: frustrating at times, but a satisfying beat ’em up that looks great and is, crucially, fun to play.

UPDATE: Just quickly; one thing I forgot to mention and one correction to make. Firstly there’s an enemy type that holds a knife out in front of them and charges at you; they’re really annoying and there’s a room full of them in the chinatown level that’s utterly hellish. They don’t ruin the game or anything but they’re never fun to fight. Secondly I was wrong about there not being a dodge: there is one but only Adam can do it. I’d only played as him once so I’d forgotten, but as I write this I’m replaying levels, gave him a go and realised. So my bad.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Final Fantasy 7 Remake Review

Final Fantasy 7 Launch Guide: Where To Find It In Stock, Special ...

Final Fantasy 7 Remake is, as the name suggests, a remake of Final Fantasy 7. Part of it, anyway; it’s the first in a remake series of currently indeterminate length. Unlike a lot of people my age I didn’t grow up with FF7, but I’ve played a chunk of the PS4 port, read up on some of the characters and plot points and I find the whole thing really interesting. Please note that I’m not going to go in-depth about the changes made to the story because it’d be very spoilery and I don’t think it’s necessary for this review. All I’ll say is this: I liked the ending. I know some people are real mad about it but I thought it was fine, and I’m intrigued by the set up. Anyway, on to the stuff I will talk about.

The game takes place in the city of Midgar; made up of a slum for the poor people on ground level, a huge metal pizza for the rich people to live on above, and several reactors placed around that siphon “Mako”; the very lifeblood of the planet that can be converted into a power source. Responsible for all this is the Shinra Corporation; a power company who runs the city with an iron fist, whose will is enforced by a surprisingly varied, militaristic security force. Opposing them is the eco-terrorist group Avalanche, in particular a splinter cell led by a man named Barret. You are Cloud; formerly a member of Shinra’s Mako-enhanced SOLDIER force, now a mercenary working security for Barret’s Avalanche as they infiltrate and blow up a Mako reactor. The story focuses heavily on its characters, their relationships and their motivations. Barret is a charismatic, exuberant man who adores his daughter, cares deeply for the people under his command and wholeheartedly believes in his quest to save the planet from Shinra. Shinra themselves come close to being cartoonishly evil, but manage to just pull it back from the edge and remain a group you can take seriously, one that is thoroughly malicious and awful. A company staffed with people who are either evil or complicit in evil, a distinction Barret is committed to. Cloud is aloof and distant, gradually warming up to the other members of Avalanche, who are all endearing, charming and generally adorable. Rounding out the main cast are Aerith; a young flower seller with ties to the origin of Mako and the planet’s pre-cursor to humans, and Tifa; Cloud’s childhood friend and member of Avalanche who’s not really into the whole bombing thing. She acts as the moral centre of the group for anyone who is similarly not into the collateral damage, but it’s handled really well and doesn’t clash with the prevailing view that Shinra are just utter shit. There are some lovely moments where Barret gently reminds her of just whom they’re dealing with, a stand-out being his declaration of the above statement about those who work for the company being complicit in its actions. Tifa is sort of the team Mum despite being in her twenties; a kind, loving person who cares for the community, much like Barret. She’s also an incredible martial artist who can punch robots to death. Aerith shares those personality traits, but with a sassier edge to her. There’s a lovely trait where if you enter a fight with her and Cloud together, he’ll say something like “I’ll handle this” and she’ll reply with “Don’t you mean WE’LL handle this?”, or some other reminder that she’s capable and has his back. Basically it’s a cast full of thoroughly likeable people going up against a company full of scumbags literally draining the planet dry. As someone who really likes the characters and story beats of FF7 but wanted more time spent on developing them, the story here is fantastic. A lot of time is spent with the people who inhabit this world, good and bad; the game makes sure you know exactly what kind of people Avalanche, Shinra, Aerith and Cloud are. It’s also worth pointing out that as a much longer version of an existing chunk of videogame, this remake doesn’t feel padded, at least for the most part. There’s a moment near the end when the game suddenly slows right down just as it’s ramping up, but apart from that the game feels well paced. The design of the world is great; a mix of shanty towns, suburbs and grim, cyberpunk locales. There’s an area later on that feels like something out of a Yakuza game complete with cabaret and fighting arena. The original game’s exquisite soundtrack has been beautifully recreated here, including three different versions of “Those Chosen By The Planet”, which really appealed to me personally. They knew they were onto a winner with so many elements of the original game, and they’ve augmented them all.

Gameplay wise, it’s a hybrid between a third person action game and a turn-based RPG. Everyone in your party (which is usually three people, occasionally two or just one) can be controlled directly and can attack, block and dodge freely. Everyone has an ATB meter; a two-segment bar that’s filled by attacking and blocking, which when full is exchanged for the use of powerful attacks, spells and items. Fights always present the choice of whether to use the ATB bar to launch a powerful attack that could potentially take you a big step closer to victory, or play it safe and heal, as well as cure status elements or revive fallen party members. The only way other characters can use their ATB stocks is by having the player activate skills for them; all they’ll do for themselves is attack, block and dodge. Unfortunately this also includes the alternate attacks everyone has: Cloud can enter a more powerful stance where he can only slowly walk but does more damage and blocks automatically lead into counter attacks, Tifa can charge herself up and gain access to new attacks, that sort of thing; characters won’t use these unless you take control and make them. Having such direct control is definitely nice, and teammates are helpful in fights, but it’s frustrating not even having the option to set characters to different tactics, even general ones. Each character is fun to play, although I didn’t really take to Aerith. She mainly acts as a healer but can also cast spells using her staff, though in my opinion they lack impact, especially compared to the others characters. I’m sure with the right build she can work in an offence capacity, but for me it never really worked.  There are also summons, which unlike in the original game can only be used when the game wants you to and act independently from you (apart from a couple of ATB attacks you can perform) and pull off a highly damaging last hurrah just before they vanish, dictated by a timer. The combat is good fun, particularly once you get the hang of mixing together different types of attacks and controlling each character to apply different kinds of pressure and take on different roles. The only shortcoming is some of the bosses, particularly mechanical ones being damage sponges even when you go for their weak points. The worst example for me was a quick, intense fight Cloud has near the end that then leads into Barret and Aerith fighting a big tank that takes a lot of wearing down. Also it’s a small thing, but aerial melee combat is piss. There’s no jump button, so Cloud and Tifa automatically leap into the air when you press the attack button, and while they’re up there you have no control and can’t block or anything. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s weak.

This first instalment of Final Fantasy 7’s remake is excellent. The characters are all great, the story takes its time but moves along at a good pace, and the combat, despite a few issues, works really well. When I heard about Avalanche’s fight against Shinra this is the game I wanted to play. This is the Final Fantasy 7 I wanted. It delivered everything I wanted, and I can’t wait to play the next one.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

Persona 5 Royal Review

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may well remember me fawning over Persona 5 back in 2017, having picked it up on a whim and fallen head-over-heels in love with it. Since then I went back to Persona 4 The Golden, then spread out to two versions of Persona 3, Persona 4 Arena, and each of the three dancing game spin offs. I loved them all, and Persona has become one of my favourite series, so I’ve been very much looking forward to Persona 5 Royal; which is basically Persona 5, but more of it. Please be advised that I will be spoiling things about the original Persona 5 in order to discuss how they’ve changed for Royal, and discussing some of the additions could potentially be seen as spoilers for this new version. Personally I advocate going in completely blind whether you’ve played P5 or not, and as such I’ll provide a quick, spoiler-free summary here: I do believe this is the superior version of Persona 5. The changes made are numerous and have effects on the game ranging from minor to dramatic, and I fully recommend that fans play it and newcomers go straight to this version. Now then, on to the full review.

The story remains the same, for the most part. You are a player-named transfer student who along with an expanding group of friends forms a group called “The Phantom Thieves”, takes the code name “Joker” and sets about literally changing the hearts of awful people. There’s new dialogue, some line changes, new character portraits and two new characters, but for the most part it’s the same game. The new characters are Kasumi; a first year super-gymnast the game reveals as a Persona user in the in medias res opening, and Dr Maruki; a therapist brought in by the school after Kamoshida confesses to counsel anyone who wants it, but especially those Kamoshida directly affected. Akechi now has a confidant that’s advanced at the player’s discretion, filled with foreshadowing and offering a deeper look at both him and his relationship with Joker. Meeting certain conditions allows you to access the meatiest new content; a new semester of school and a new palace, right at the end of the game. The nature of the palace and its ruler are best kept secret, but the new content is fantastic. The game’s new final boss is a genuinely benevolent person; the archetypal “Thinks what they’re doing is right” villain, but one whose actions are rooted entirely in wanting to help people, and who many people would agree with. Whether or not you decide to go along with them or oppose what they’re doing and fight them as the final boss feels like a choice based on what you believe to be right, even if the game does lean towards one option rather than the other. Said villain is beautifully offset by (SPOILER) having a new teammate in the form of Akechi; decked out in his black mask assassin gear, utterly opposed to what the palace ruler is doing and ripping his way through any shadow that gets in his way. A sadistic, psychotic spirit in a sardonic, calm mind; no longer having to put up the facade of a champion of justice. (SPOILERS END) It also marks the point where Kasumi gets properly involved in the plot, as initially she only pops up in scripted events and for a five stage confidant. For most of the game she’s just another likeable friend to Joker, but when she gets to stretch her legs late on she really comes into her own, for reasons I won’t spoil. Maruki has his own confidant in which he listens to Joker’s issues and has the young man help him with a paper he’s writing, and he’s generally just a pleasant man really. I sought out his confidant because it’s new for Royal; I wouldn’t have prioritised it otherwise, but it is worth doing for the benefits it gives you in combat. There are also some smaller, but entirely welcome changes: the predatory gay men who drag Ryuji away instead think he’s interested in cross-dressing but is too shy to do so, so they drag him away to pick out clothes for him. Caroline and Justine now want to be taken to various locations in the human world like their sister did in P3, and Lavenza wishes to see your room late in the game. All of these interactions are equally funny and adorable. The game now tells you what kind of gifts people will like and you can give them to men this time, and during Summer break you have more options of what to do, tied into what stats you want to raise.

The changes made to the gameplay are smaller, but more numerous. Most of them are quality of life improvements: guns now completely refill after every fight, baton passing is now unlocked for everyone automatically, and can be upgraded to massively up the damage and refill the health and SP of whomever it’s passed to. There are more tutorials including one on what type of answers to give when attempting to acquire Personas, something your navigator will remind you of every time. Acquiring a Persona you already have gives yours XP, Personas have new traits that offer buffs like increased damage and halved SP costs, and there are new “Showtime” tandem moves, where at certain points like an enemy reaching a certain amount of health, or upon a baton pass two of your team, regardless of whether or not they’re in your front line will do a massively damaging team up attack. Outside of combat; every Palace has new areas, there are new shadows to fight and take as new Personas, and there are items called “Will Seeds” hidden around the place that combine into an accessory that offers a useful skill. Aiding in this is Joker’s new grappling hook, which also occasionally lets you skip past small areas from the original game. It’s used in combat, too; you can ambush enemies with it and they’ll always start off with a status effect. There’s a new enemy type called “Disaster” that exclusively counterattack, and when killed they explode and damage their teammates. The majority of the bosses have new stages to their fights, all of which suit their characters and make them more interesting fights; Madarame summons elemental copies of himself, Kaneshiro hires security guards, that sort of thing.

Persona 5 Royal is amazing. It takes everything that Persona 5 did so well and adds a whole load of quality of life improvements, scenes, dialogue, and a fantastic new palace. It adds new characters who slot in nicely and has some excellent development for one of the existing ones. This is the version of Persona 5 to play; a masterpiece made even better, a game I fully recommend to newcomers and fans of the original version alike.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

P.S: There’s a little boy named Jose with hair like F.F from JoJo Part 6, a matching star-patterned coat and wellies and a buggy: driving around Mementos looking for flowers. In exchange for those flowers and star-shaped stamps, he’ll respectively sell you items and change Mementos to give you more XP, money and items. Every time he meets you he says “Good job”, because he heard it’s a nice thing humans say to each other. It’s never explained who Jose is, where he came from or what his ultimate goal is. Jose rules.

Resident Evil 3 Remake Review

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Having knocked it out of the park with the Resi 2 remake, Capcom has set its sights on the next logical step and one of the best games in the series: Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Resident Evil 3 had more of a focus on action, broader environments and a supercharged version of its predecessor’s stalking Tyrant Mr X in the titular Nemesis, who could and would appear from seemingly anywhere to run after you and beat you down. It holds up really well, and has some neat elements that make a remake sound like an interesting proposal. So how did it do? Please note that I will be discussing how this version differs from the original, so if you want to go in blind which I suggest you do, I’d wait until after to read this.

Set the day before and the day after its predecessor, Resi 3 puts you back into the boots of S.T.A.R.S member Jill Valentine as she attempts to escape Raccoon City during the outbreak, pursued by a seemingly invincible monster who’s out to get S.T.A.R.S members specifically. The remake boils its source material down to the key moments; Jill navigating the city, meeting up with Carlos and the Umbrella Biohazard Countermeasure Service, here actually managing to rescue a group of survivors, getting infected and trying to escape the city before it gets blown up by the government. The clock tower is gone, the park is gone, Gravedigger’s gone. The different city street sections are blended into one big run to power on the train and set a route for it. Nemesis himself is limited to scripted events unless you count one backtracking section that was rendered moot for me because I backtracked earlier when he wasn’t active. So they’ve taken a lot out and streamlined what was left, but does that mean the game is bad? In my opinion: no. Besides the returning characters, environments and plot points it almost feels like a completely different game, and I mean that as a compliment. For most of the game I felt like I never knew what was going to happen next, and some of the changes work a lot better than their original counterparts. Carlos is now the one to go to the R.P.D, where he witnesses an excellent scene tying into the RE2 remake, sent there to unknowingly carry out the hidden true objective of UBCS. The hospital section with him is also far superior; the area is bigger and more involved, with lore and environmental storytelling that makes it feel like it’s own viable location rather than just a detour to save Jill. Speaking of Carlos; the remake version is likeable, endearing and plays a more active role in aiding Jill. He feels like a proper partner to her for the admittedly short time they spend together in Raccoon City. Also his version of the emergency dodge is punching zombies across the room, so that’s nice. Jill herself is confident and competent as a protagonist, with an experienced edge after surviving the Mansion Incident and sassy annoyance at being pursued by Nemesis. Mikhail is still a noble soldier trying his best to do something good on the orders of people who want the opposite, and Nicholai is wonderfully cold and slimy as an opportunistic bastard out to save himself and make as much cash as he can doing it. In a story full of decent people trying to salvage a terrible situation as best they can, he’s a great antithesis and works really well as a villain. Tyrell, who only had a cutscene in the original is promoted to a proper supporting character; a friend and partner to Carlos who plays an active role in the plot as it goes forward. The cast is universally better here than it was in the original, much like how the changes made to Resi 2’s cast really paid off in its remake. So to return to the original point; in terms of story and everything that’s been changed or cut from the original, it doesn’t hold this remake back at all. I’m fond of the areas that were cut, but I don’t feel aggrieved by their absence. It feels like a proper re-imagining of Resident Evil 3 rather than just a re-tread with better graphics. It also has some great set pieces, like Jill’s initial escape from her apartment and through the city as the outbreak starts to fully take hold, which was only a brief introductory scene in the original.

Gameplay wise, it plays a lot like the Resi 2 remake. Same over-the-shoulder moving and shooting, same inventory system and weapon mods. The emergency dodge from the original has made the jump, with a new variant that kicks in when you get the timing just right; slowing down time and snapping your aim onto your attacker’s head. I can’t quite get the timing down, but it’s still useful just to get some extra distance from zombies. The knife is now unbreakable but can’t be used to escape grabs: you instead mash X to take minimal damage like in the PS1 games. Even by the standards of the original, the game largely doesn’t adhere to classic Resident Evil’s penchant for repeatedly traversing a space unlocking new ways into and out of it as it becomes familiar and therefore ripe for scary changes to be made. Instead the game is, for the most part anyway, constantly moving, and when it does slow down it’s only briefly. Unfortunately the only weak link in all this is the big man himself. I was hoping the near-constant evasion of Mr X was just a set up for the real deal, but the time Nemmy spends stalking you is extremely limited. Fortunately there are several scripted sequences and boss fights with him, and his presence is felt throughout the game even if he isn’t physically present. However, I do have one big issue with Remake Nemesis and it’s his design, specifically the forms he takes. Spoilers from here on out so if you don’t want to read them, skip to the next paragraph. Original Nemesis kept his humanoid form until his final mutation into a blob monster, but here from the Clock Tower exterior (all that remains of the location) boss fight onward, he’s a quadrupedal beast who uses his speed and leaping distance to his advantage. It is a pretty big change and I applaud that aspect of it, but I much prefer his humanoid form slowly breaking down but adapting as it takes more damage. It seems strange that Umbrella would program its humanoid bio-weapon capable of using firearms to completely change shape and attack style like that, unless it wasn’t intended and it’s just a mutation, which the game doesn’t make clear. Having said that, his very final form is fantastic, and the fight with it is so much cooler than it was in the original.

The Resident Evil 3 remake cuts quite a lot from the original, and what is here is streamlined and moved through at a rapid pace. To me however, that’s no bad thing; it feels like a fresh take on an excellent game that takes the opportunity to branch off along different paths. I wish there was more free-roaming Nemesis, but it feels like a deliberate choice made given the tone and pace of the game, and I do appreciate that they went a different way with it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Resi 3 remake, and I look forward to playing through it again.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Harley Quinn Review

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Last year DC debuted a new animated series simply titled “Harley Quinn”; a show full of violence, gore, swearing and irreverent humour. It caught my eye but I only got around to watching it recently, and with Season 2 getting a trailer I thought I’d give some thoughts on it, partly to create a base for a potential “In for the long haul” and partly because I really enjoyed it and want to talk about it.

After realising their relationship was entirely one sided, and having been left to rot in Arkham without rescue for a whole year, Harley Quinn breaks up with The Joker. The show follows her forging her new path through Gotham’s underworld with a new crew; trying to join the Legion of Doom and show everyone that she can make it without the Clown Prince of Crime. Assisting her is her aforementioned crew: Dr Psycho; a tiny, misogynistic telepath taken in after a massive PR disaster renders him unemployable to even the most vile criminals. King Shark; a friendly, optimistic shark man computer hacker whose positive nature doesn’t prevent him from biting massive chunks out of people when required. Clayface; classic, shape-shifting Batman villain here envisioned as the greatest role Matt Berry never played; an actor fond putting the emphasis on bizarre parts of words and determined to give everyone he shifts into an elaborate backstory. Finally, despite her insistence that she’s not in the crew, there’s Poison Ivy; the caring, straight-woman best friend to Harley and most consistently competent member of the team thanks to any plant life in the vicinity rendering her essentially unstoppable. The Gotham they inhabit is both contemporary and fantastical, with a warped core. Batman is present and competent but speaks almost entirely in brief, generic hero phrases, his Robin (Damien Wayne) has the voice of a small child, which amusingly removes the weight from literally everything he says, and Jim Gordon is a strung-out lunatic in a failing marriage who desperately wants Batman to provide emotional support that the Dark Knight is clearly incapable of. The villains all work out in the open and get regular, positive news coverage and The Justice League are rarely seen. The focus is very much on the underworld, and Harley’s moves within it. As both the top crim in Gotham and the main obstacle to Harley’s success and emotional stability, The Joker is the antagonist; here portrayed as a petty bitch constantly out to undermine Harley’s attempts to steal his spotlight/precious Batman time and bullying other members of the Bat’s rogues gallery into taking his side. He’s trying to pull Harley down into the mire while Poison Ivy attempts to pull her out towards a new, happier life, which provides much of the drama for season one’s runtime. Ivy is, in my opinion, the best character in the show. She’s headstrong and determined not to get wrapped up in the more outlandish aspects of Harley’s schemes, but loves and supports her, has her own stuff going on in the form of a romance and a scheme to destroy a paving company, and is more than happy to be involved in the series’ sense of humour. Her relationship with Harley, which isn’t currently romantic but apparently will be, is really sweet, as is the friendship the whole crew shares, which provides a source of conflict when Harley is tempted to return to Joker’s side.

Of course all of this falls apart if the titular character doesn’t work, which fortunately she does. Harley is driven and focused, skilled, smart and likeable. She’s funny, eccentric and violent, while also being emotionally vulnerable in relateable ways that she seeks help for, both through her friends and in hallucinatory talks with her psychiatrist past self. Beneath the jokes, violence and swearing is really solid character work for a character who deserves better than being shipped with her abusive, piece of shit boyfriend. I’m glad to see things like this, Birds of Prey and Injustice 2’s story mode having Harley get away from him and being met with success.

As well as all that serious stuff, the show is very funny. Not every joke is a home run but there aren’t any duds that I remember. The show has a wonderful sense of absurd, silly, often dark humour running through it; an episode where Clayface’s severed hand becomes a sentient being with whom Jim Gordon becomes best friends, complete with drinking/poker/motorbike and sidecar montage. Bane being an ineffectual loser with a parody of the Tom Hardy voice and half-heartedly threatening to blow up everything that even mildly annoys him. Harley accidentally heisting a pretend vault intended for someone’s Bar Mitzvah then trying to salvage the situation by holding up a “guard” and saying “Mazel tov!” before his shattered knee gives way and he collapses after she smashed it in with a bat so hard his bone is sticking out the skin. Poison Ivy’s landlord and later member of the crew being a CIA cleaner turned elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish cyborg called Sy Borgman. Who can turn into a car. Messily. I won’t go on listing jokes, you get the point by now; it’s a mix of gory, dark humour and goofy stuff that works wonderfully.

I’m glad DC made a show like this, and it really paid off. Come for the swearing, violence and irreverent humour, stay for the strong character work and, well, the irreverent humour. Really looking forward to season two, which I’ll be doing an “In for the long haul” on.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18