When Vapourware Condenses: Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian

Too Human. Aliens: Colonial Marines. Duke Nukem Forever. All are famous for their promise, their hellishly delayed development times, and ultimately, their disappointment. This isn’t just endemic to games, either; just look at Chinese Democracy and Alien vs. Predator. The culmination of years of held breath, of stolen glimpses punctuating the overwhelming silence as teams worked hard behind closed doors. Each project fell into myth, almost; a growing, creeping sense of disbelief that the promised game would ever make its way to your expectant disk tray.

The allure of these games, the hope and the fear, overgrows and strangles our perceptions of the subject. “Surely they’re not still working on it”, we think. “When that thing was announced, so and so was president”. “I’ll believe that release date when it’s right there on the shelf next to all the season passes and worthless preowned copies of Battleborn.”

And yet, despite the signs of troubled formation, there’s always that hope, right? You can’t have greatness without ambition, and for a team of people to dedicate a decade of their careers to something, you’d certainly hope it was worth the time of every hand that touched it. Sadly that’s not often the case; consider the three key examples of Too Human, Colonial Marines, and DNF. One was widely regarded mediocre at very best, while the other two were so reviled that many questioned the sanity of Gearbox in pushing their tired, broken corpses up to the finish line.

From company so often bound for failure, two high-profile releases managed to break free of the cycle of delay and rub their elbows with the very greatest games of 2016… with a handful of asterisks each. Both long-awaited instalments of beloved Japanese series, both nudged back with a final apologetic delay for spit-and-polish, and both fully capable of taking your breath away. 2016 was something of a shitstorm, but at least the demoralisation was softened by the one-two punch of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian.

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Final Fantasy XV began life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006, and surprisingly little of the game’s spine (at least the core narrative and play themes) seems to have altered since its reveal trailer in 2008.

Final Fantasy XV’s vast and beautiful world is a spellbinding place to inhabit, brimming with side quests, treasures, and monsters to hunt. Truly impressive, though, is its handling of its main cast – Prince Noctis and his companions Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis – as they sweep across the Americana-tinged countryside of Lucis. Every detail and mechanic surrounding the group’s dynamic successfully compounds and deepens their relationship. The incidental dialogue highlighted the companionship well – for some reason I find it especially memorable that Ignis turned to Prompto as we approached a waiting active volcano and checked that his beloved camera would be alright in the heat.

Beyond this, though, lies a wealth of mechanics to further carve and mould these relationships beyond the script. Camping together, choosing meals from Ignis’ repertoire, and leafing through the pictures Prompto has snapped during the day while your companions critique the shots; every time I set a campfire I relished not just the stream of experience from the day’s activities but the easy companionship of these friends around the fire.

Combat is a fresh cocktail of the old and new; the base is a grand departure in the form of explosively balletic action with hints of Final Fantasy’s familiar juggling of weapons, abilities, and status effects. You could be forgiven for laying eyes on Final Fantasy XV and initially confusing it for a straight-up action game, but the strategic elements elevate the experience from one that tests the reflexes to one that engages your mind, too. And even in the heat of the action, Final Fantasy XV emphasises the bond between you and your teammates: cooperative Link Strikes and Parries trigger when you attack enemies whilst yourself and an ally are in a certain position, and your friends are prone to lending you their advice as you approach a difficult encounter, which you can follow for valuable skill points.

In nearly every conceivable part of the game, Final Fantasy XV succeeds in exploring and examining platonic male relationships with a depth and deftness rarely seen in a medium whose primary preoccupation with the theme is limited to gruff banter and no-homo-brohugs. There’s a real affection between the men you guide through Lucis, and that emotional core is the game’s biggest achievement underlying its mechanical triumphs.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my recommendation of Final Fantasy XV be marked with some pretty big caveats. Firstly, despite the game’s fantastic underlying narrative of the developing relationship between the protagonists, the actual plotted story is obtuse, impenetrable through its incompletion, and tiresomely unoriginal.

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Despite the great group dynamic, Noctis is an unlikeable shit, his *ugh, whatever* affectation varying in minute degrees no matter how you choose to have him react to others. Aside from that, it irks me that all his boons were received by birthright: his powers, his friends, his fiancé, and of course his kingdom. He shows few redeeming features besides determination and a begrudging sense of duty until late in the game, when his preceding presence has already grated away any sympathy you may have otherwise held for his plight.

Finally, and perhaps most vexingly, the last few hours of story missions do away with everything about the game that charmed us with for the first 25 hours (if you’ve followed the story pretty doggedly). The inventively snappy combat, the breadth of the world, interaction with your squad, even colour itself; all gradually pruned and filed and clipped away for the last few chapters of the story. I realise it could be argued that there’s a certain narrative purpose behind these decisions given the progressing graveness of the story. However arguments for this being a collection of conscious creative decisions are undermined by game director Hajime Tabata’s pledge to “patch in more story” and “fix” (read: make bearable) the most offensive chapter.

I’ve got to wonder about Final Fantasy XV’s development in relation to these glaring issues of storytelling and late-game woes that should by all rights have been ironed out by playtesting and common sense somewhere along its decade-long gestation. I would posit that vast parts of the game’s structure and story must have been scrapped and reworked, leaving little time to work on its lacking portions. I guess they didn’t want to disappoint everyone with yet another delay.

With the complexity of Final Fantasy XV, it’s relatively easy to explain both its long development and its shortcomings. The Last Guardian, however, is a much more streamlined and linear experience; which makes sense, considering Team Ico’s past work and Fumito Ueda’s well known design philosophy of “design through subtraction” that sees the removal of any superfluous elements in order to distil a desired feeling. The Last Guardian aims to be a single dish designed to please your taste buds in a specific way, while Final Fantasy XV offers a sprawling multi-course banquet. Even when you take the relatively diminutive team size into consideration, the scale of the project certainly doesn’t mesh with the time it took to produce the thing.

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The Last Guardian is a linear action-adventure game following an unnamed boy and gigantic feathered creature Trico as they attempt to escape a hauntingly quiet valley of treacherous crumbling architectural beauty. The player’s focus might be to escape, but in a much wider sense, the game’s focus is to develop and convey the relationship between Boy and beast, and that’s the real story of the game.

The game’s core mechanics lend themselves well to the central theme. Boy and Trico are brought and held together by the need for survival, and their reliance upon each other is constantly reinforced. The Boy’s physical weakness is compensated for by Trico’s brute strength, while Trico’s overwhelming size and animal intelligence is complemented by Boy’s nimble slightness and human intellect.

Underlying this vital reliance is the highly tactile nature of the game, grounding you in the world’s mystery and Trico’s presence. There’s a very real sense of physical presence and you clamber, grasp, and manhandle your way through The Last Guardian. This, of course, extends to Trico itself – a prominent mechanic involves riding and petting the beast at different positions on his body to encourage different behaviours.

Such effort to cement you so tangibly in the world wouldn’t do much good if it wasn’t an appealing place to inhabit, but Team Ico has crafted an achingly beautiful place; a blank enigma for you to unwrap and examine as you traverse its abandoned majesty. The sense of awe and beauty is at once unique and recognisable to anyone that’s sunk into Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Teetering tower-like structures punch up towards the sky like solemn sentinels to the silent place, while inside their walls you’ll want to run your fingers over long-eroded glyphs that adorn the walls and explore outer courtyards in the slow process of reclamation by nature. The Last Guardian’s valley is a beguiling, brooding masterpiece of danger and contemplation. The faceless, possessed suits of armour that make up the game’s primary antagonists feel like the personification of that implied threat, dispassionate and deadly in their resistance to your trespass.

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Sound design is not to be underestimated, either, with a rich auditory landscape laid over the physical one. Your footsteps slap and echo through yawning halls, ancient mechanisms screech from untold ages of disuse, and omnipresent wind whistles through the bricks of the high towers.

All that work goes a decent way towards achieving the exact atmosphere that Team Ico want to achieve, but that effort is hobbled by fundamental missteps in the core game design. Chief amongst these issues is Trico itself. Despite the fantastic work evident in its characterisation through animation and lovable design, his responsiveness will test the limits of even the most patient players. This is an understandable decision, at least in the The Last Guardian’s opening chapters; Trico is a wild animal, and you’ve got to earn each other’s trust. Its unruly streak does go some way towards building Trico up as a believable creature with agency rather than a simple AI minion under your Beast Master-esque control. A more “realistic” Trico should lead to a more meaningful relationship, right? But the frustrations of such ponderous response times ultimately take you right out of the game and plant a kernel of resentment for the idiot animal, which runs in direct opposition to the game’s intent. Trico does steadily become more responsive for the first half of the game, but the long periods of bellowing at it to “please just fucking jump over there” never go away, right up to the last portions of the game.

Another fundamental issue – and one that may be far more embarrassing for Team Ico – is that the Boy controls like a dizzy infant on whatever drugs the kids are into these days. Movement feels enduringly imprecise and clumsy, past the point that would have appropriately conveyed the Boy’s inexperience and fragility. The camera is stiffly unhelpful, often preferring to take a firm interest in Trico’s (immaculately rendered) arsehole rather than providing a helpful view of the level. These issues could be forgiven in Shadow of the Colossus, where gaping landscapes and vast enemies required only broad strokes to wrangle successful accuracy from Wander’s movements. In the narrower, dense, more platform-heavy environments of The Last Guardian, those gripes stick out like a sore thumb and rudely overshadow your immersion.

There’s no question to me as to which game was more deserving of the wait; Final Fantasy XV might be marred by myriad shortcomings, but I get the overwhelming feeling that its issues are more a product of ambition than anything else. The Last Guardian, meanwhile, feels like it’s fallen by the wayside through a certain blinkering effect; stagnant portions of the game’s design allowed to seep into and impair the experience against better judgement. It would seem that the wider market reflects my lopsided opinion of these games, too; whilst Final Fantasy XV happily announces DLC plans and ongoing support, The Last Guardian recently endured a permanent price drop of $20.  All caveats aside Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian are unquestionably worthwhile experiences that sit amongst the best games of 2016. They’re certainly more worthy additions to the world than Duke Nukem Forever an Aliens: Colonial Marines. But they both represent the pitfalls of long-term development in ways both shared and distinct.

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Taking a break

Hey, y’all.

I’m going to take a break from writing for a little while. You may have noticed from the length between post dates that there’s been something of a drop in content lately, and it’s for good as well as bad reasons.

The good is that I have a lovely new job which, while rewarding, is leaving me a bit tuckered out in my spare time right now. I simply need some me-time headspace as I settle into the role.

The bad is that I’m still coming out of a particularly bad spot of depression and daily anxiety attacks. My overall mental state and sense of self-worth are miles better than a couple of months ago, but I need some time away from regular blog posts to help refresh.

So I’m not currently committing to reviewing every game I complete. I’m not going away so much as taking a step back. When I’ve settled in enough, mentally and vocationally, I plan on working as hard as possible on producing quality reviews and thought pieces for you all to dig into. I just need some time without serious commitment to the blog.

Thank you to every one of my readers. I’ll be back soon.

Battlefield 1 Review

You charge, teeth bared and bayonet raised, through the decimated wasteland and hunker down in the skeleton of a building- it might’ve been an house, once. You scream against the opposition and they scream right back, trading fire with fire until you’re finally overwhelmed. You zoom, dreamlike, over the blasted landscape and inhabit another body. You’re in a much safer fortification, shielded on all sides by walls as sturdy as any in this hellish place. But those walls turn from sanctuary to tomb in an instant when the flamethrowers come. Another death, another body. Then another. And another. And another. You are not expected to survive. You are not expected to last. You will fall here, now, today.

That’s the tutorial sequence that kicks off Battlefield 1. A stunningly evocative level, it cements DICE’s vision: just what an awful, wasteful endeavour The Great War was. There will be more light-hearted tales of bravery and heroism to come, but the overarching tone is set. Flitting between soldiers as they inevitably fall to sheer odds highlights both the countless personal tragedies of the war, and the callous strategy of throwing bodies at a problem.

It’s an attitude clearly distinct from the “all-out action” marketing scheme behind Battlefield 1’s release, with all its slick trailer-spot clips set to thumping electro covers of “Seven Nation Army”. Battlefield 1 is, at the end of the day, an entertainment product. But it’s one that’s produced with the right amount of respect and spirit regarding the history it’s drawing from.

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There’s been a certain amount of cynicism surrounding whether Battlefield 1 would play identically to previous Battlefield titles, just with more outdated equipment. Not much has changed in the moment-to-moment play for several instalments, after all. Yet while I must admit the core FPS and vehicle gameplay hasn’t changed much, the mechanical and visual distinction of the early 20th century setting and technology really does change the way you approach play.

Battlefield’s single player offerings have always been lacking, but Battlefield 1 changes all that. Rather than a standard linear campaign mode, this game’s story structure is focused around War Stories; a series of short vignettes following soldiers around different portions of the war. These are varied in delivery style, with framing devices like a Veteran answering his granddaughter’s questions and unreliable narration alongside more traditional third-person narratives, but they’re just as diverse in terms of gameplay. Stories focus on pilots, shock troopers, tank drivers, and militia fighters to deliver various styles of play, while levels are far more open this time to cater to a number of on-foot strategies including (gasp!) stealth. It’s great to see a Battlefield game that actually opens up its single player mode to embrace the series’ strength of freedom rather than another bland series of Call of Duty-reminiscent shooting galleries. You can tackle the Stories in any order you like, too, so if tanks aren’t your thing you can leave that story out altogether in favour of riding a trusty steed through the Afghan desert.

Another novel feature of the War Stories is that they’re actually well written, with interesting and engaging characters that you might care about. As refreshing as the amuse-bouche story delivery structure was, I found myself wanting to spend a bit more time with the soldiers and their stories. Conversely, the occasional chapter is a bit too long, dragging out play sequences a few minutes past optimal length. But I was always drawn strongly enough to the next story beat and gameplay segment that I never felt too fatigued.

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On the multiplayer side, Battlefield 1 returns with all the man- and machine-packed features and modes you know and love, plus a show-stopping new addition in the form of Operations mode. These massive up-to-64-man battles play out in a similar way to Rush in previous Battlefield games, with a defending team attempting to fend off attackers attempting to capture deeper points of defended territory. The difference here is one of scale; not only do attackers get multiple “pushes” when they run out of reinforcements (perhaps tipping the scale in favour of attackers since they are reinforced with extra help like battleships and armoured trains), but games are comprised of multiple maps – a full Operation’s worth of play might exceed an hour if the defending team doesn’t nip the offensive in the bud.

Battlefield 1 makes full use of its setting to hold your interest in a way that I found really invigorating despite the game’s familiar chassis. You know how you occasionally learn baffling facts about the war such as the presence of armoured fortress death trains, Napoleonic-style uniforms, and men in actual honest-to-God suits of metal armour? Well, Battlefield 1 utilises those details to great effect.

Beyond simple weirdness, however, WW1 as a setting really does add to the game’s atmosphere even in the non-directed multiplayer environment. The frantic horror of enduring gas attacks, the awful deadly thrust behind a bayonet charge, and chancing a sprint across No Man’s Land are all experiences that highlight the savagery of the setting. Stumbling across a tank in multiplayer is much more frightening when you’re even less well equipped to deal with the rolling box of death than a contemporary soldier is. The mystique of the unfamiliar historical setting revitalises the Battlefield experience in a way that a game with similar mechanical alterations couldn’t manage with a modern backdrop.

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If I have a big issue with anything, it’s the multiplayer progression system. While I continue to value and applaud Battlefield’s appraisal system for supportive and offensive roles alike, I’ve always found the series’ level progression systems to be far too slow no matter which roles you prefer. Say what you will about Call of Duty, but I feel it’s always been better at rewarding you with frequent enough unlocks that you have quick access to a decent amount of choice from the get-go. Battlefield continues to make me work a bit too hard for my taste.

Wrapping up the whole package, Battlefield 1’s presentation is sublime. DICE always impress in this department, but they’ve outdone themselves in rendering the varied theatres of war. Backing it all up is powerful application of sound effects and music; look back at that incredible tutorial, and you’ll find a masterclass in sound environment creation. The crack of rounds filling the air, the desperate scream behind a bayonet thrust, and behind it all a dark, sombre track that roils darkly as you build towards the segment’s crescendo. The section is incredibly perturbing, and the sound design does a frankly near-unparalleled job of cementing the indescribable horror of the situation.

As far as I’m concerned, Battlefield 1 is a resounding triumph. DICE have finally found a way to tell engaging stories and utilise Battlefield’s open-ended strengths in a single player campaign while the whole aesthetic and design philosophy of the game breathes new life into the multiplayer. It turns out that the best way for Battlefield to move forwards was to cast its gaze backwards.

Gears of War 4 Review

I really didn’t realise just how much I needed a new Gears game until I revved up that iconic Lancer Assault Rifle’s chainsaw attachment and tore through a hapless grunt. Not only is the franchise not done with me, I realised; I’m not done with it. Gears of War 4 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s not content to leave familiar designs untouched either. It’s a lightly pared-back, almost back-to-basics game that lays a solid foundation for what comes next.

Twenty five years after victory over the Locust Horde, human society is slowly building itself up again. The Imulsion Countermeasure might have destroyed humanity’s enemies, but it also wiped out the planet’s fuel supply and sent the climate into disarray with violent windflare storms plaguing the landscape. Much of the population lives cooped up behind tall city walls under Coalition of Governments’ martial law. Some reject this way of life, though, residing in small village settlements living off the land and scavenging COG bases to survive. JD Fenix is one such Outsider; son of previous series protagonist Marcus Fenix, he and his fellow squad of outlaws are about to encounter a new threat in the form of the monstrous Swarm, seemingly an evolution of the Locust.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was clearly the philosophy at work in designing the core gameplay of Gears 4. A third-person shooter with tight cover mechanics, chunky weaponry, and even chunkier foes, gameplay feels near-identical to previous offerings. The “Active Reload” mechanic (a small QTE each time you reload that allows you to boost the damage of the next clip at the risk of jamming your gun) is present and correct, “roadie run” sprinting is silly as ever, and you can still take downed-but-not-out enemies for a hostage stroll.

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Slight tweaks to the gameplay largely feel like an effort to enable more gung-ho players to tear their foes apart. You can now hold down a button while running at cover to auto-mantle it, keeping on the move. Enemies on the other side of cover can be grasped and yanked towards you, stunning them for a combat knife kill. These simple additions allow for new risky and aggressive options in the battlefield, a vital shake-up in for a cover-shooter that could occasionally devolve into hiding behind cover to take potshots. More options to take on threats proactively are always welcome.

Gears was never the most colourful franchise, but Gears 4 makes the effort to inject a wider selection of hues from the spectrum into its levels. There’s still a near-omnipresent use of Unreal Engine GreyBrown(TM), but the palette is livened up by splashes of colour from inclement windflares as well as an increased use of foliage in environmental design. The world feels more organic this time, nature clawing its way back to some semblance of stability after years of ravaging war.

Story-wise, Gears 4 is a mixed bag. First and foremost amongst its problems are the characters. JD Fenix is a charisma vortex; a characterless cypher devoid of a single notable trait. Say what you will about Marcus being a typical gruff space marine type, at least they leaned really hard on all the clichéd personality traits that came to define his character. JD’s squad mates Del and Kait are better; while Del’s expository dialogue tends towards snoresome, his in-game chatter is quite entertaining (his continued disgust at a particular action you can pursue throughout the game had me doubled over), while Kait is an all-round well written character with arc and everything. In fact, it would make much more sense in this story if Kait were the main character. It would’ve been nice if JD’d had enough personality to help invest me in his story, but at least I get to root for Kait on the way.

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Fortunately, Gears 4’s story deals quite well with suspense and mystery to draw you in. There’s a lot of unanswered questions about the state of the world posed in the first hour or so, and it’s genuinely enthralling to explore the changed land. There’s a certain reverence for the preceding series, and more than a little bit of self-parody that’ll bring a smile to longtime fans’ faces. The gameplay and story both start to chug a bit in the second half, but not so much that it ever becomes a slog. Overall, Gears 4’s smaller scale of story feels like a refreshing reset that lays enough tantalising questions to make me excited for what’s coming next – impressive as the fifth game in a series.

If you’re a very popular little boy and have lots of little friends to run around with, Gears 4 has a lot of legs. Drop-in/ drop-out co-op returns, and Gears 4 is even more fun with a friend (just like every game, ever) with the bots doing a pretty good job of running medical errands. All the Gears multiplayer classics return, improved by the new movement options supporting aggressive playstyles.

Even the now-rare holy grail returns: split-screen local multiplayer! However, on my TV set it ran with substantial black bars at either side of the screen, reducing the screen size by a distracting degree. I’ve found this to be a common complaint, yet I do know people for whom the black bars do not show up.

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Horde mode returns under the desperately innovative monicker “Horde 3.0”. Luckily, Gears 4’s Horde mode is more creative than naming convention suggests. Classically, players would team up to defend a small area against waves upon waves of enemies while building fortifications such as razor wire and sentry turrets to aid the effort. Horde 3.0 shakes up the concept through the addition of five classes: engineer, heavy, scout, sniper, and soldier. Dividing players into clearly defined roles helps the team co-ordinate to divide resources and efforts, as well as providing clear roles and perks for each class: engineers are better at building and repairing fortifications, while scouts gain bonuses to close quarters combat. As the running theme goes with Gears 4’s core gameplay, Horde 3.0 retains the best parts of its lineage whilst adding beneficially novel improvements.

Aside from some lacklustre character writing, Gears 4’s most egregious feature is undoubtedly microtransactions. Unlocks and bonuses tied into this system end up being incredibly useful for progressing deep into Horde 3.0, and the process of unlocking chances at new loot packs is incredibly slow; you can complete a full 50-wave run of Horde mode and still not be able to afford the cheapest pack. Were pack bonuses merely cosmetic, this would be forgivable. But after paying the price of a premium AAA game at launch, players should not have to endure such a frustratingly slow unlock system that’s clearly designed to incentivise micropayments. It’s an unpleasant shadow over an otherwise excellent gaming experience.

What really makes Gears of War 4 work is that it just gets Gears. It easily could’ve gone the same way as 343’s Halo games; that is to say a pale facsimile of previous works. But Gears 4 is smart enough to know what to keep and what to tweak to bring the series forward, and for fans of the series there’s a lot to love here.

Bound Review

When you take your cues from the likes of thatgamecompany’s Journey, you’d better have a pretty damn good follow-through. Bound certainly brings some neat tricks to the table; its central ballet-driven conceit is a brave start, and the bizarre yet attractive presentation initially make for a compelling little game. But the more you play, the more frustrating and hollow Bound feels. Its dance is missing too many steps.

A car pulls up to the pavement by the seaside and a heavily pregnant woman climbs out. She heads to the beach, walks a short distance, and pauses to pull out an old notebook. The landscape fades and distorts into a fantasy realm, a jagged and fractured kingdom built atop a roiling sea of cubes under a sunset-orange horizon. Two characters appear: the Queen, domineering and regal; and the small Princess, a modest dancer and the player character. “A monster is destroying my kingdom,” the Queen says in a garbled unearthly tongue. “Go and stop him.”

Thus begins your quest to dance through the shifting alien world to fix its wrongs. Every movement you make in the game is some form of dance; just the act of moving forwards is carried out with grace, the Princess’ arms outstretched and trailing twin ribbons. Every frame of animation as you leap, twirl, and pirouette through standard platformer moves like jumping, dodging, and ledge-crawling is wonderful to behold.

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It’s not all platforming, though. There are malicious entities on your path that will attempt to bind you and hold you still, whether they do so by pelting you with a stream of projectiles or grabbing onto your limbs to physically hold you in place. That’s when you really break out your moves, holding down the “Dance button” and pressing face buttons to carry out an improvised routine and magically shield yourself from your would-be aggressors.

Bound’s main issue is that it all feels like more like a shallow tech demo than a piece of art. The spectacle of the game is quite beautiful, but to actually play through it quickly feels like a slog despite its short 2 hour runtime.

As entrancing as the dancing is to watch, platforming is consistently inconsistent and vexingly awkward, as it’s tough to gauge the range of your leaps and dives. Although you always reset right at the ledge that you fell from, it’s still maddening when you fall thanks to the imprecise form-over-function movement system. The mounting exasperation over control of your character really undermines the game’s major theme in the joy of movement; why care about all the monsters trying to limit my freedom when the act of manoeuvring within the world is irritating anyway? All enemies do is slightly impact upon an already stunted pace of progress.

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Further to this, I feel like there was a huge opportunity missed in the game’s approach to dancing as protection. You can vary your dance moves by alternating between the four face buttons if you want, but it actually doesn’t matter whether you do or not. You can just hammer the Square button to ward off surrounding threats, or the X button to keep leaping forwards if you need to maintain forward momentum. There’s so much potential to this mechanic that’s squandered here, and I can’t help but think of what might have been: rhythm elements could’ve tied your defensive moves to the backing track; different enemies could’ve required different type of moves or combos to be effectively rebuffed; different sequences of button presses could have formed new moves instead of the same four actions. There’s no incentive to act beyond the bare minimum required of you, mindlessly bashing the same commands over and over again in order to progress.

What thatgamecompany got right with Journey’s core gameplay was making sure that it was fundamentally joyful moment-to-moment. The high points of that game – sand surfing and sweeping flights across the mountains, unladen by gravity – were pleasurable because of the burst of absolute freedom you were offered in those sequences relative to normal play. Bound’s answer to those sections takes the form of sequences at the end of each level where your character glides along a ribbon for a couple of minutes, scooting through the level’s architecture to a grand symphonic backing track. Here, though, you have extremely limited control over her – you can only slide slightly towards either side of the narrow ribbon, and influence what poses the dancer holds on the way. You’re simply along for the ride, watching overlong and overwrought “look how pretty the game is!” sequences with nothing in the way of gameplay-led satisfaction.

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I suppose it’s appropriate, then, that Bound isn’t just anaemic in terms of gameplay mechanics; its narrative is seriously lacking, too. The game tells a story of the pregnant woman’s memories of childhood and family issues, filtered through metaphor in the dance-platforming sections that form the game’s meat as well as short first-person examinations of frozen moments of time that those sequences represent. The game’s story is fractured (presumably due to the fact that you can play through the game’s levels in any order you want, for no good reason that I can think of), obtuse to the point of pretentious, and melodramatic despite a failure to make me care about any of its characters at all. I suppose the game thinks that a few frozen frames of a fraught family’s life is enough to make me empathise with them, but the approach is so ham-fisted, opaque, and at times inane that I actually resent the main character for making mountains out of so many molehills. “Oh, you broke a plant pot as a kid and got told off? Yeah, you’re totally cleared for hallucinating a self-indulgent dreamscape.”

Although short, Bound doesn’t pull off enough ideas to fill up the time it takes to play. Its lack of mechanical complexity, haltingly ponderous pace, and failure to emotionally engage beyond the surface level means you’re just twirling through a series of moodscapes bereft of much meaning. I admire much of what it tried to do different, but there’s just not enough depth to make Bound feel like a particularly interesting tech demo, never mind a product priced at £15.99.

A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom Review

A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom stands out amongst anime adaptations for its ambition. The main draw of the show’s trademark action – explosive, precise midair combat against giants – is thrilling yet frenetic. Despite the obvious risks in replicating such unfettered omnidirectional movement and combat systems, Omega Force has managed to capture lightning in the bottle in an admirable realisation of Attack on Titan’s conflict.

For the uninitiated, Attack on Titan is set in an alternative universe where humans are on the verge of extinction a century after the mysterious appearance of instinctively murderous, colossal humanoids called titans. The most effective way of dealing with titans is outmanoeuvring them to strike their weak points with hip-mounted gas-powered grappling hooks that allow soldiers to zip around like an army of Spider-Men. Humanity has long been complacent behind the huge walls of their territory, but a new assault by unusually intelligent titans actively forces the army into the fray once again.

Leaping into action is fairly intuitive once you get a couple of levels’ worth of practice under your belt. At the press of a button, dual grappling hooks are shot from your character’s 3D Manoeuvring Gear to latch onto nearby scenery, launching your character forwards. You can hold down the grapple button to keep sweeping over the landscape in your desired direction, or time your swings manually.

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When you encounter a titan, it’s time to lock-on. Set your sights on one of their knees, elbows, or fatal weak point at the nape of the neck, and you can shoot your hooks into their flesh. At that point you can orbit around the anchor point until you’re ready to reel in, dealing a well-timed slash with your dual blades. If you need to change your strategy on-the-fly you can switch your attention and hook to a different body part, lock-on to a different titan, or disengage from the combat scenario altogether to reposition or pursue a different objective with the aid of a burst of speed from replaceable gas canisters.

The inherent issue with each and every enemy being dispatched in identical fashion is dealt with through the diversity of titan design. In the manga, Hajime Isayama never used the same design twice over the hundreds of individual titans he’s depicted. The spirit of that philosophy is followed here; while you will see lots of duplicates, titans are drawn from a large and varied visual pool. Your foes can range from 3 metres high all the way up to 15 metre-class monsters. Moreover, although each titan is ultimately killed (or SUBJUGATED, use use the game’s preferred vernacular) by a fatal blow to the nape of the neck, you’ll often have to disable their limbs for the chance. More astute titans that track you and turn to keep their vulnerable necks out of reach will need to be trimmed at the knees, whereas grabby varieties need their elbow privileges revoked. Further to this incentive to slice off titans’ limbs rather than going in for the kill immediately, titans’ limbs often contain item drops that can be used to build and upgrade new equipment in between missions. Additionally sonic and flash grenades can subdue sound- or sight-reliant titans, respectively. In later missions, each titan becomes a little puzzle to solve, rather than another titanic body in your way.

Bumping up the diversity further is the inclusion of “abnormals”. These individuals will act differently to the garden-variety monstrosities. Sometimes they’ll doggedly pursue a specific civilian or soldier or make erratic movements like diving through the air at you. My favourites are the ones that run everywhere with this hilarious wet-pants waddle that makes me laugh every time. The only disappointment in abnormal design is the relatively restricted pool that “Final Target” titans are drawn from. For individuals that should be a thrilling and challenging conclusion to each mission, it’s eventually anticlimactic when you’ve seen every possible Final Target a number of times.

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A.O.T.’s adrenaline-fuelled, chaotic combat is simply sublime. At the best moments, you’re flitting across the battlefield dispatching titans like an ultraviolent aerial ballet from Rick Moranis’ worst nightmares (Winner of Most Dated Reference Awards, 2016) in a perfect translation of the anime’s most thrilling action scenes. When it all works, the mechanical joys of this game are an astounding show of power, grace, and momentum.

Even portions of gameplay that stray from full freedom of movement are well implemented; for instance vast plains that have nothing in the way of anchor points for your grappling hooks are crossed by horse. While it’s notoriously difficult to make horses anything less than infuriatingly awful in games, in A.O.T. they feature generous turning circles, a healthy stamina bar, and enough speed to easily outmanoeuvre and latch on to titans’ weak points.

It certainly helps A.O.T. that the Dynasty Warriors’ DNA woven into its battlegrounds feels like a perfect fit for the Attack on Titan setting. Each field is rife with enemy titans, fellow soldiers in danger, and side missions to pull your attention in half a dozen different directions. You’ve even got to keep an eye on your gas levels and blade conditions, and make resupply stops or risk getting stuck in danger without the tools you need to survive. Once you get into the swing of things, the initial chaos fades and you’re conditioned into a multitasking machine. Prioritising and reacting to the most immediate threat to victory elevates the experience to the next level.

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That said, though, occasionally the game’s rough edges jut out and rudely snag your immersion. As well-adjusted as the 3D Manoeuvring Gear usually is, you will occasionally get stuck on walls, shoot off in unintended directions, or shoot way too far ahead of where you want to land. Sometimes it can be a real pain to target a specific titan when a few of them bunch up. Occasionally your attacks seem to produce no damage or reaction, even though you’re sure you were reeling in at the right speed and angle. I’m not surprised that these hiccups exist, though, in a game this mechanically ambitious.

Less forgivable is the game’s story. Now, as someone that’s watched and read all of the available anime and manga volumes, I admire the way that the game has cherry-picked scenes and scenarios from its source material to follow the existing story. Were I approaching the game as a newcomer to the franchise, I’d certainly be underwhelmed by the cutscene exposition. Stunted animation and limp direction make watching these scenes a slog and a poor representation of the anime’s plot. I would highly recommend watching the anime or reading the relevant manga volumes before approaching A.O.T. if you’re at all interested in the story.

If you want plenty of the wonderfully addictive core gameplay, you’re in luck. Twenty substantial missions in story mode (AKA “Attack Mode,” to continue the game’s ongoing cute naming conventions) cover the plot of the anime, and five epilogue missions are unlocked by completing the majority of survey missions in five different areas – these are short, 5-15 minute long scenarios. If you’re simply aiming to complete all 25 story missions, then you’re looking at 20 hours of play or more. Admittedly chasing down each survey mission at the end of the game became a bit of a slog since I just wanted to see the game’s epilogue and trading over an hour’s worth of side missions for each new tidbit of story felt like a bizarre and repetitive wall for the game to throw up at that point.

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If you’re a completionist, you’re going to want to attain S-Rank on every mission (not as hard as it sounds-just kill as many titans as possible in good time and don’t ignore side missions in the field), fully upgrade all of your equipment, purchase all the extras in the in-game shop, and level up every character. You can even take on missions with friends in multiplayer mode with your unlocked and upgraded characters. A.O.T. feels at home in multiplayer with a group of competent players to take on whatever challenges the game throws at you. If you want substantial value for your money, you’re in luck here.

In terms of presentation, A.O.T. is a mixed bag. It’s certainly not the most graphically polished game out there by any stretch of the imagination, and animation in cut-scenes and gameplay is often wooden. Human character models don’t always feel well-realised or expressive enough to make use of their voice actors’ excellent performance. Plus, the setting of the show limits the game’s colour palette to greens, browns, and sandy yellows, which can become a little bit dreary and boring after a while.

On the flip side, titans possess a great and domineering presence with a variety of fittingly off-putting designs and distinctive animations. Up in the sky, characters’ movements are perfectly realised and true to the show. And you can’t fault that soundtrack, with its sweeping orchestral and choral compositions kicking up a storm behind everything onscreen.

A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom is a blast. Blisteringly cool gameplay sequences, cleverly implemented Dynasty Warriors design components, and a wealth of content cements its status as a superlative adaptation of its source material’s spirit. If you’re a fan of the franchise and always wanted to cut a bloody swathe through a city’s worth of titans like a rogue Borrower, A.O.T. has you covered.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a highly-polished, well-designed, eminently enjoyable game that sits amongst the best titles of this generation on the merits of its gameplay. Extensively exploring its intricately realised environments is a peerless pleasure. It’s such a shame, then, that the game’s narrative is marred by a couple of conspicuous issues; problems that are clearly the result of Square Enix’s meddling with Mankind Divided’s development, divvying up the game’s planned content into multiple games to form a trilogy.

Two years after Adam Jensen’s trip to the sea floor and revelations about shadowy cabal The Illuminati at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revelation, tensions between augmented people and “naturals” are high. Everyone’s favourite Swiss Army Human Jensen is a double agent working for Interpol’s Prague-based anti-terrorist group Task Force 29 whilst investigating Illuminati infiltration in the organisation through collaboration with hacktivists The Juggernaut Collective. Since the “Aug Incident” at the end of the last game, where the augmented population were triggered into a lethally aggressive state through Illuminati machinations, segregation of augmented humans is well underway- a situation that’s not helped when a series of aug-linked terrorist attacks occur. Adam Jensen must juggle political motivations, widespread prejudice, and a host of experimental augmentations installed without his knowledge in pursuit of truth, justice, and the impeccably bearded way.

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Gameplay wise, not much has changed since Human Revolution. Adam Jensen still controls through a mixture of first- and third-person perspectives, with a cover system optimised for stealth and a suite of unlockable and upgradeable augmentations dependant on a carefully maintained battery meter. You can pursue a range of different play styles, incorporating stealth, hacking, and all out action depending on how you apply the Praxis Kits earned through levelling up to unlock and upgrade new abilities for your semi mechanical body.

The most obvious additions to gameplay are Jensen’s new experimental augmentations – powerful new abilities that stretch his system to its limit. You can trigger thick dermal body armour, incapacitate foes with concussive or electrical blasts from your arms, and hack certain electronics from a distance to turn the tables on your foes. The drawback of these upgrades is that they require you to “overclock” your system, which can lead to issues like overheating and failure of certain augmentations at random. This is potentially mitigated by an optional item which grants you free reign to tap into all of that sweet, metallic potential risk-free.

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Although sound, Mankind Divided’s gameplay could use a little bit of ironing out. For instance, you can lug unconscious or dead enemies’ bodies around to hide them from their peers. This process should be quite easy, but it’s fraught with issues. The (admittedly hilarious) rag doll bodies often catch and latch onto objects or walls when you attempt to drag them around corners. You never feel like you have a solid grip on their body either, since sometimes Adam decides to just drop the body without your knowledge or consent. Most frustratingly the command prompt on Xbox One for picking up a body is the same as the one that lets you look at your gun to switch between different ammunition types and firing modes. On more than one occasion I’ve been caught by a patrolling guard because Adam suddenly decided to take an keenly intense interest in his stun gun’s serial number while squatting guiltily over a convulsing goon.

Still, ninety-nine percent of the time the foundation of Human Revolution’s established gameplay is pretty damn solid, and Mankind Divided’s runaway triumph lies in its level and world design. The game’s hub, set around your Prague base of operations, initially seems a little bit small- you can sprint across the explorable length of the area in a couple of minutes- but it’s soon clear that the space contains multitudes of pathways. Most buildings are honeycombed with a plethora of apartments, offices, and hidden rooms. Exploring Prague feels like delving into a trove of intricate puzzle boxes requiring a mixture of approaches to crack into, and in my experience there’s always something worth finding in any given locked room. You might find valuable materials, codes to storage lockers, entire side-quests, or even story critical items you’ve stumbled across by chance- something I managed in a brief spate of apartment-diving in one of the ritzier joints. The city evolves, too, offering new opportunities as time passes and night falls to reveal that seedy black-and-gold spirit that you know and love from Human Revolution.

It’s not just Prague that gets this fastidious attention to detail. Missions that take you away from the city let you delve into similarly rich and complex areas as you fight your invisible war. Level layouts might seem to follow a more linear path than you’re used to in the sprawl, but there’s always a wealth of choice awaiting you.

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That’s the design philosophy at the core of Mankind Divided: levels are built to accommodate player choice. Pretty much any approach you can imagine and spec yourself towards is supported down to rewards for each approach: you’ll gain similar amounts of XP taking enemies down through up-close stealth attacks, bombastic action, hacking their security systems to turn against them, or circumventing your opposition altogether by seeking out hidden paths. You can skip entire heavily-guarded sequences by finding and stacking enough boxes to climb up to somewhere you’re not “supposed” to be. Even the AI is remarkable; antagonise a shop’s bodyguard by stepping into and out of the stock room, and when the ensuing gunfire and panic draws police they’ll fire upon the bodyguard because they’re the one that’s seen to be breaking the rules (yes, Grand Theft Auto allowed you to call the police on people responding to your attacks first, but it’s such a rarely-seen detail in AI that it warrants mention). Mankind Divided’s world and rules always accommodate the astute and the imaginative with its potential for emergent play.

Unfortunately, although the bricks-and-mortar of gameplay guided by a beautiful design philosophy blueprint make for grand architecture to behold, there’s a serious fault in Mankind Divided’s structure. No matter how well crafted the torturously metaphorical building, a weak narrative foundation threatens to compromise the whole effort.

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Take the elephant in the room: the “Mechanical Apartheid”. Although not so pronounced in the game as in its misguided marketing campaign, the theme of “augmented” as a racial identity just doesn’t feel like it holds water. Although the all-but mandatory adoption of augmentations in manual labour industries essentially creates a population that “didn’t ask for this”, the issue remains that, unlike in real life racial conflicts, the persecuted group in this universe actually is inherently more dangerous than the majority. That’s even before you mention the recent Aug Incident, which shows that in a realistic worst-case scenario augmented people can be controlled by their bodily accessories to ruinous effect whether they like it or not. There are so many interesting and fitting places the game could’ve explored with augmented people, deeply exploring themes of ableism, industrialism, or expensive and ineffective healthcare systems. Instead, we have to make do with a blunt bludgeoning over the head with unsuitable theming.

That’s a shame not only due to the game’s inept allegory potentially alienating people of colour, but also because the ways the game showcases widespread prejudice are actually quite clever. Not content with just pseudo-racial slurs heaped onto dialogue, persecution bleeds into the way you interact with the world, too. Everywhere you’re seeing the state mistreating augmented people, arresting them without warrant, hassling them in the street, and exploiting them when possible. It’s stuff that would usually warrant intervention in any other game, but it’s so pervasive and widespread that you really don’t feel like you can help. An especially powerful, while simultaneously very subtle, detail is found in the game’s subway stations used to zip between Prague’s districts. You’re supposed to walk right to the end of the platform to board the train on the Aug-specific train car. Every mission marker leads you to this spot whenever you need to use the train. However, if you board the train from any of the “Naturals Only” spots, you’re greeted by a police officer at the other end and forced to wait through a 30-second cut scene where they check your papers and tell you off. It’s a small delay, but really hammers home how infuriating it can be to jump through unfair hoops.

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Mankind Divided’s powerful attention to storytelling details in the environment kills me because it’s so focused on forcing a 1:1 augmented-as-race metaphor that just doesn’t fit. All that attention to detail and potential lying in the subtext is cheapened by inappropriate theming.

Aside from the game’s underwhelming use of its setting, Mankind Divided is beset by conspicuous issues of pacing. The game just barely tells enough of a complete story to justify itself as a single release, but the path to its sudden and disappointing conclusion is riddled with baffling decisions of plotting. You start the game with a full suite of upgraded abilities, but when you inevitably lose them you’re a couple of hours into the game (a move that could be defended through giving you enough time to get to grips with your many options to decide the path you’re going to pursue with upgrades, but story-wise it’s very jarring). There’s a tutorial that teaches you the ins and outs of gunplay at your office’s firing range that crops up after about five hours of play. Plot advancement is paper-thin and prolonged in a way that makes it obvious that Mankind Divided was intended to be a longer game, but has been hacked apart to fill out multiple releases- and that’s thrown a spanner into the pacing of the game’s events.

The game isn’t too short by any means- the dense world and wealth of side-missions pads out the experience admirably, but the story has not been adequately changed to make appropriate use of its allotted time post-division. The flailing attempt to appease this split is epitomised by the conclusion of the game, in which a (not joking) five minute long news report in which Eliza Cassan, the (albeit intentionally) limpest character in the whole world, covers events linked to your actions in drab monotone.You can almost feel Square Enix shoving a bookmark in the middle of the story and yanking from your hands, Eidos Montreal looking on sadly.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a beautifully presented, eminently replayable and immersive game that offers tens of hours of Renaissance-flavoured cyberpunk escapism. While its core gameplay and world design are top-notch, the experience is sullied by significant narrative weaknesses as the game struggles to justify its most prominent theme amidst producer-driven meddling. That’s not to say that Mankind Divided isn’t worth the plunge; it’s still a fantastic game worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s just that this particular painting is too many missed strokes away from being a masterpiece.