Valley Review

On the surface, Valley seems like something of an about turn for Blue Isle Studios. The company’s previous endeavour, Slender: The Arrival, was a horror game that sought to build discomfort and tension in the player through disempowerment and an oppressive, creepy atmosphere. Valley, on the other hand, seems to build an altogether different atmosphere; one of exhilarating liberation and light-hearted wonder. It seems that the ability to invoke fear translates to the kindling of joy too, upending stunted horror protagonist agency in favour of grandstanding feats of superheroism.

You are a nameless archeologist that grunts in a male or female voice depending on which option you choose from the game’s start menu. You seek to find the mythical Life Seed (conveniently linked to whichever Tree Of Life De Jour you’d prefer), an ancient and powerful object that you’ve tracked down to an uncharted valley in the Rocky Mountains. Greeted with idyllic rolling vistas, adorable little sprite critters called Daemons, and evidence of now-deserted military presence, you stumble upon a L.E.A.F suit. This snazzy exoskeleton not only grants you with super-human mobility, but also comes equipped with the God Hand- a gauntlet with the ability to extract life force as well as bestow it upon living and once-living things.

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Getting around in the L.E.A.F suit is a cinch: to start zipping over the landscape at high speeds, press the “run” button to break into a sprint. You really get going when you hit a downward slope, transferring the momentum into impressive speed- so much so that when you hit a ramp you’ll fly through the air for impressive distances, whether you hit the jump button or not. Valley’s playgrounds are filled with gently rolling hills and dips, which means you’re never far from top speed.

Other manoeuvrability upgrades are granted to you throughout the course of the game, including the ability to double-jump, run on magnetised surfaces, sprint at blisteringly high speed on energised rails, and grapple Spider-man-like from predetermined devices in the levels. Although many of these abilities are context-dependent while I’d rather have skills applicable anywhere, it’s a fun and varied power set that pushes level variety and keeps things fresh for the game’s 5-6 hour run time.

The God Hand is also an interesting tool, but for narrative as well as mechanical reasons. You’ve an energy gauge that depletes when you use certain abilities- one unit of energy is expended to trigger a double-jump, grapple-swing using the aforementioned mid-game skill, and to grant life energy to dead trees, plants, and animals in the environment. You can refill this energy gauge by running through omnipresent orbs, arranged throughout levels like coins in a Sonic game, and by extracting life from living things around you should you become desperate- although there’s enough harmlessly obtainable energy around that I never really had to do this.

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The energy gauge also doubles-up as a life bar. Fall too far off the level or land in a body of water (the L.E.A.F suit is much too heavy for swimming, the game loves to remind you each time this happens), and you’ll respawn at the cost of the health of the Valley- the grass around you is scorched and some nearby plants and animals have died, forcibly separated from their life force. This is explained by the game as a phenomenon called “quantum immortality”; rather than making use of the life energy around you to rejuvenate your body, the suit shifts you into a parallel universe where you never died in the first place. Die too many times without managing to heal the Valley, and there’ll be no living things around to trigger the failsafe and you’ll crumple amongst the barren, broken shadow of the beautiful Valley you’ve come to know. There are also enemies in the world; wildlife for some reason twisted by their deficiency in life energy. Failure to pump enough shots of the stuff their way to pacify them, and they’ll drain your energy until you die.

The death system is a stroke of narrative genius that really ties a bow around the game’s major environmental theme through inextricably tying your wellbeing to that of the world. Valley isn’t a particularly hard game- I never “properly” died, and the only deaths that I did experience were due to mistimed jumps rather than combat- but I really like the fresh take of the world around you doubling up as a life bar, and the way that frames your relationship with the game world and its inhabitant assets. Quantum undeath isn’t the only reason to bestow life upon dead plants and animals. Often, a revitalised tree will drop acorns that you need to unlock ancient doors that guard valuable upgrades and interesting tidbits.

In fact, thorough exploration is highly encouraged; not only is the game a joy to move about in, but scattered notes provide often fascinating context to this Valley and its former inhabitants. Rumination on the meaning of life after experiencing quantum immortality, musings on what the technology being built here might mean to society at large, and simple human yearnings for friends and family back home. Entries are always short enough that the flow of gameplay isn’t broken when you stop to read one. There’s also crates littering the levels that hold acorns, upgrades, and the medallions used to access a mysterious pyramid found near the end of the game.

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Valley’s story in general is quite well told, if predictable and slightly contrived in places. You pick up audio recordings at the start of the game that are well acted and written to provide just the right amount of exposition in a way that lets you keep on trucking through the level. You will, however, have to look past the fact that your character has all the recordings for at least one of the narrators at the start of the game and always has the prescience to trigger them exactly when they’re appropriate to the current area. This stands out especially when you trigger a potentially-cataclysmic event, only to play the next audio log which outlines in detail the extent of the danger you just got yourself into. Minor foible aside, I was thoroughly engaged in unravelling the history of the Valley all the way up to the revelations towards the game’s close.

Valley is largely successful in what it sets out to do. Blue Isle have taken their experience in atmospheric design for horror and flipped it on its head to offer an exploration of the more positive ends of the emotional spectrum: by turns, I found myself thrilled by my character’s abilities and pleasantly soothed by the beautiful scenery and cleverly adaptive score. So much of the game’s design-to-please is spot on. The dynamism of your movements and interactions within the game’s world are sheer bliss. Weirdly, in many ways Valley feels like a victorious realisation of that 3D Sonic games have failed to achieve- pleasurable platforming and exploration at speed. Valley’s natural environments are pretty, varied, and colourful. And that soundtrack– explorative sections are backed by calm, playful orchestral melodies, while fast-paced sections have a swift audio energy that’s best punctuated when the whole cacophony seems to hold its breath as you make a particularly big jump. The instruments fade out as you fling yourself across a chasm, the chorus chiming in louder and louder as you pass the apex of your leap until all that airborne tension is released upon thunderous landing. When the game’s mechanical, visual, and sound design come together in the right way, Valley is one hell of a treat.

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That’s not to say Valley’s without significant wrinkles, though. A good portion of the game is spent underneath the idyllic Valley in dreary facilities that are just about saved by the thrilling rail-running segments that break them up. Even those sequences, although home to the most screamingly high speeds available, were plagued by corners where I’d fall off the world and crash the game (hello again, 3D Sonic!). This, in turn, highlights Valley’s awful checkpointing system. Die normally and you’re reloaded to the nearest safe place to where you died, but load into a level you were halfway through (or crashed out of) and you’ll have to play the whole level again. I had to replay a certain level twice, wasting a good 20 minutes to do so, all because Valley doesn’t feature a mid-level checkpoint system for when you return to the game.

Still, for the most part, Valley shows off Blue Isle’s ability to create a thoroughly pleasant atmosphere (plus, it should be mentioned, a brief section with tense and scary qualities as a new threat rears its head late game). It’s packed with action, intrigue, and a good helping of philosophical musing to boot. If Blue Isle wished to achieve a diametric-opposite to their previous and most well-known effort, all achieved by flipping what they know about building the ambience and character of a game, then they should consider Valley a distinguished success.

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No Man’s Sky Review

No Man’s Sky is a victim of impossible hype and mishandled, potentially dishonest marketing. Whether we like it or not, the pre-release juggernaut that precedes every high-profile release frames our mindset when we approach the finished product. Sometimes a game will live up to or exceed our expectations; The Witcher 3 and DOOM respectively come to mind. Sometimes, though, the end result is somewhat uglier. Promises undelivered, falsehoods uncovered, and potential unrealised.

Unfortunately, I think you know where I’m going with this. With No Man’s Sky we were promised infinity, but in its place we’ve received the void.

No Man’s Sky opens quite well. Stranded on an alien world with a broken ship, you forge through the local wilderness to scavenge your way out of the predicament. You turn your laser-spewing Multi Tool on the rocks, ores, and plants littering the environment to craft the necessary upgrades to repair your beaten vessel. You might stumble across wildlife to scan and catalogue. You fill up on the two fuels required by your ship- Launch Fuel (expended to lift off), and Pulse Fuel (which allows you to travel between space borne bodies like planets and space stations in a matter of minutes rather than hours). When you’re finally ready to leave the planet you’ll blast through the stratosphere and explore the solar system, eventually crafting a warp drive to venture between stars with more than a pinch of trepidation. Are you ready for the whole universe that awaits you? These unsure first steps through the solar system and beyond on your journey to the centre of the universe are laced with palpable excitement at the sheer possibilities lying in wait.

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Indeed, the first hours of No Man’s Sky still feel like they hold all of the promise that was hinted at in the game’s phenomenally poorly-communicated marketing. It’s a time full of firsts: you’ll learn alien languages to better understand different intelligent species, solve puzzles both abstract and logical to uncover ancient secrets and extract useful blueprints, and you’ll dive into battle with roving space pirates. Maybe, you might think, just maybe, this game might be something special after all. Maybe the hype was justified.

But that’s before you start to notice all of the walls. Each and every limitation and mistake that stands between the No Man’s Sky that was promised and the No Man’s Sky that is.

The core gameplay loop of exploring planets starts out feeling like a fun adventure into the unknown, but quickly becomes an obnoxious bore. There are a few different “types” of planet- snowy ice planets, island-strewn watery planets, greenly forested planets, arid hot planets, craggy rock planets, and muggy toxic cloud-plagued planets. The main difference between enduring the environmental hazards posed by a toxic rain and a blizzard is the colour of the bar on your screen that lets you know how quickly you need to refuel the hazard protection systems in your suit.

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Despite there being 18 quintillion celestial spheres you might potentially visit, there’s still a prevailing sense of sameness to it all. Every planet holds the elements that you require to fix your ship should you damage it to the point of dilapidation or deplete its fuel. Sometimes you’ll come across a particularly mineral- or life-rich planet, but limitations in the game’s design even dull those discoveries after a while.

There are millions of creatures, yet they mostly act the same- passive creatures slightly vary in skittishness and aggressors are persistent assholes until you either put a small amount of distance between them and you or fill them with enough lasers to render them dead. They’re incredibly varied in design, but often in an off-putting, randomly-generated way that breeds unintentional hilarity more often than awe. As hysterical as it is to watch a poor slug head welded unceremoniously onto a lumpy T-Rex body waddle around, it’s not exactly the Jurassic Park-style scene of wonderment teased in the game’s trailers. The cobbled-together procedurally generated critters lack crucial character. Flora is almost as underwhelming as the fauna, too; I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen the exact same plants and fungi turn up on the many planets I’ve travelled.

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Also littering the game’s worlds are artificial structures. These are either Monoliths, which teach you words from alien languages (sometimes after little riddles which, while initially entertaining, eventually become predictable or frustratingly obtuse), alien outposts, or abandoned facilities that you must blast into. This summons the wrath of the Sentinels, robotic bastards who take umbrage whenever they detect mining, hunting, or breaking-and-entering for reasons unclear. This would pose a threat if the sentinels didn’t immediately disperse as soon as you enter a freshly-cracked facility or when you simply jump into your ship and take off. Not only are the game’s various buildings unvaried in design and content (get ready to find a lot of the same blueprints repeatedly), they also undermine the game’s major theme of discovery since every planet has clearly seen intelligent spacefaring people before you came along. Especially since you’re never given context for who you are, why you’re on this journey, or basically anything.

Perhaps the most prominent question surrounding No Man’s Sky in the run-up to release was “what do you actually do?” To which the most pure answer is: exploration and acquisition. But since exploration loses its lustre thanks to the lack of continual compelling content to discover, you’ll inevitably lean hard into the acquisition route. As I mentioned before, early on you gain the ability to craft and attach a warp drive to your ship which is used to leap between stars. Fuelling and upgrading your warp abilities is a primary focus. You scavenge for resources, upgrade and refuel your ship so you can more efficiently jump towards the centre of the universe, then rinse and repeat. A few hours in and the game’s boiled down to that endlessly repeated cycle and you’re left wondering if the taxing journey is worth the destination since by then you’ll have seen most of what the game has to offer for a while.

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The heavy emphasis on acquisition highlights the game’s most egregious frustration: your tiny inventory. As well as juggling your various ship fuels and life support systems, you’re constantly contending with stunted personal and ship inventories that quickly dampen the experience considerably. You can purchase additional slots for your suit as well as trade extortionate sums of money for a new and roomier vessel, but building up such a fortune through conventional means takes time and that time is spent struggling against your tiny inventory. Even when you do gain additional slots, upgrades to your suit and ship systems vital for survivability and sense of progress make use of those very slots. So you can either upgrade your abilities at the cost of precious inventory space, or remain weak and slow so you can carry a few more stacks of Plutonium without having to shuffle your stuff around fifty times per hour. This constant dithering and hassle just serves to annoy rather than engage.

On top of this repeated fiddling, the game’s UI and menus are slow and arduous to navigate. The game uses a similar menu system to that of Destiny– a cursor is passed over the screen with the thumbstick and relevant icons are prodded sometimes with a press of the X button, but sometimes with held press of the X button (it seems like which option is relevant is arbitrary). It’s a slow, clunky, inefficient process that doesn’t fit a controller, and I doubt it fits a mouse either. Dealing with the system in the heat of a space battle as you frantically try to feed iron into your failing shields (which for some reason replenishes them) underlines the poor interface quite well.

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Another vexing oversight on the UI side of the game’s design is the Milestone system. Effectively Milestones are achievements, and pop up to let you know when you’ve performed certain tasks a number of times, accompanied with a nice little musical fanfare and sweetly designed icon plastered on the screen. What isn’t so great about them is how they completely block your ability to interact with anything in the game while they’re triggered. This is especially maddening when you’re moments from icy death due to failing hazard protection systems mid-blizzard and you can’t jump into your spaceship that’s close enough to mist the windscreen with your breath. You’re hammering your fists on the unresponding and indifferent vessel, screaming down the blistering winds pelting your frost-burned face as some cosmic bastard pats you on the back for having travelled exactly 100km by foot.

But then that’s the issue endemic to No Man’s Sky. Many oversights and niggling issues that add up to build a wall between the game that was promised and the game we have. The limited interactivity, the uncountable number of systems of the game that are more shallow than promised (stunted ship variety, crafting, and diplomacy mechanics are perhaps the most offensive examples), the near-nonexistent physics (wildlife clips right through buildings while rocks float midair when their bases are mined away), the weirdly grainy pop-in loading of ground textures as you move closer to a planet’s surface, the core gameplay loop at odds with fundamental design decisions in the game’s balancing. Space flight is little more than cruising through endless asteroids and incredibly rare dogfights. A list of examples far too long to keep reeling off here. The tension between the game’s scale and the game’s scope is what breaks it and reveals its true nature: jumping between an infinite number of underwhelming playgrounds.

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Sometimes a glimmer of realised potential shines through the cracks. Cruising towards a new planet with a particularly well-timed track from the phenomenal score by 65daysofstatic (fascinatingly it’s procedurally-generated like the rest of the game, pairing appropriate samples of synth-laden tunes) can send shivers down the spine. The small, flickering flame of your drive to discover is stoked by sadly too-sparse snippets of cryptic backstory. In these brief, fleeting moments where the game works and you’re immersed, it’s clear that with more time No Man’s Sky could have been something special.

Perhaps the game still could be. Hello Games has spoken of supporting the game post-release. As it is now, No Man’s Sky feels more like an Early Access title than a definitive final product. Perhaps with a thorough system overhaul and a host of additions to invigorate exploration, No Man’s Sky might yet reach the stars. Right now, however, No Man’s Sky feels like it needs to take a serious look at its mission statement. I hope it’s not too late for that.

Abzû Review

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Abzû without referencing its relation to its spiritual predecessor, Journey. After all, Abzû’s development at Giant Squid Studios was led by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava while Austin Wintory lends his composing talents to the soundtrack. Alongside this surface-level audiovisual kinship, Abzû also aims to capture a calm, reflective, mood-driven experience. It’s designed to soothe you and move you. It does not squander its lineage.

Abzû’s central premise is simple. You’re a diver delving into the depths of the ocean to explore underwater ruins, gradually learning more about the history of the beings that inhabited the place. “Journey, but underwater” would not be an inaccurate summary of proceedings.

Swimming is a simple affair (which is good, because it’s your primary action within the game): propel yourself forwards, and adjust pitch and yaw with your left stick. My biggest worry going into Abzû was whether the swimming controls would handle well, since the near-ubiquitously limited manoeuvrability of games’ swimming controls are a pet hate of mine. However, Abzû controls pretty well after a couple of minutes’ adjustment; turning is pleasingly sharp without feeling unrealistic, and you’re fast enough to take the game at your own pace without feeling restricted.

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Abzû’s greater sense of freedom afforded by six degrees of movement is paired with a mechanical lightness even more pronounced than Journey’s to create an experience that’s more committed to calm, challenge-free play than the latter. You solve the lightest of environmental puzzles in order to progress to each new area, but these are never more complex than “find the object that opens the door”. There’s no fail-state at any stage of the game: the harshest punishment the game has to offer is a light slap of the wrist for brushing too close to mines later on, but it’s one of the least severe penalties I’ve seen since you regain full mobility almost immediately.

While Journey was a 3D platformer, Abzû is more closely related to walking simulators. It’s possible that the genre’s increasing popularity over the last couple of years, with big names like Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and of course Gone Home, having paved the way for Giant Squid to develop such an easygoing video game free of friction to focus on mood and atmosphere.

While Abzû is irrefutably a kindred soul to Journey, it’s got an emotional core all of it’s own. Journey was set up as a lonely, solemn pilgrimage through sprawling plains of sand and vast, crumbling monuments to an ancient civilization. That’s why that game hangs on your partnership with other players: by yourself Journey is for the most part an isolated affair of quiet reverence, but add another player and you cling to each others’ presence to help each other through in both a practical and emotional sense. That initial sense of isolation melts away when you spot a companion on the horizon and rush towards them, greeting them with a stream of musical sounds.

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Abzû is a world apart. Most prominent is the focus on interacting with all manner of sea life; you brush fins with a massive amount of aquatic creatures, never far from company. There’s a mechanic where you latch onto and “ride” the larger specimens, serenely gliding along in pleasant symbiosis. Schools of fish will swirl around you, sometimes joining you for a short while before breaking away to flit along their own paths. Various meditation stones sprinkled amongst the larger locales allow you to observe individual fish carry out their lives in fairly realistic, if slightly squashed, ecosystems. You’re constantly unveiling and freeing fish from underwater “pools”, adding to the already-booming population of the game’s areas.

Your positive, friendly relationship with sea life in Abzû is the emotional lynchpin of the playful, carefree atmosphere of the game. There is a sense of duty to your actions in a similar vein to Journey, but your pilgrimage is coloured with more of a relaxed, stop-and-smell-the-flowers (seaweed?) vibe. You’re compelled to travel the depths and improve their ecological variation as you go, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re at it. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack underlines this distinction perfectly, his trademark stirring compositions lighter here with lively melodies. The symbiosis between gameplay and soundtrack is so strong that at times, Abzû almost feels like a playable album.

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Equally important to the atmosphere of Abzû are its stunning visuals. Yet again, Matt Nava’s art direction drew me in almost effortlessly: a dizzyingly vibrant and varied colour palette lends Abzû’s environments a brilliant sense of energy. Level layouts packed with detail enforce the game’s subtle visual storytelling as you discover more about this world beneath the waves. The models of the diver and sea life alike use a simplistic, geometrical style that easily differentiates each species (Abzû seems to have a deep respect for marine biology, highlighting the name of each encountered animal) and meshes pleasingly with the overall art style. Put simply, Abzû is splendidly easy on the eyes.

Abzû doesn’t run for very long (around two to three hours depending on how sedately you want to proceed), but that runtime isn’t wasted. This game is not to be rushed, but savoured. Take joy in connecting with and observing sea life. Thrill at the breathtaking current-riding sections that mirror the same ecstatic freedom found in Journey’s sparse moments of speed. The first time I encountered a whale I was transfixed. A little bit scared, even; the dwarfing scale of the creature sent shivers down my spine as I processed its presence. This game is all about the full range of emotional release: from the simple joy of hitching a ride on a Manta Ray to the whooping delight that is blitzing through the water at breakneck speed alongside schools upon schools of fish. Abzû excels in not just the serene, but the fantastic.

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Ultimately Abzû’s greatest strength doubles as its biggest weakness: you get out of it what you put in. Players willing to dawdle around to drink in the gorgeously presented scenery and atmosphere will find a tranquil, enriching, rewarding experience driven by curiosity and wonder. Those who require challenge or prefer conventional storytelling, however, might find Abzû a shallow frustration. And I wouldn’t blame them. Still, fans of Journey will find a worthy spiritual successor in Abzû. It’s quite unlike anything else, and communicates the unmatched majesty of the ocean like no other art.

Quadrilateral Cowboy Review

The “hacker” fantasy has been prominently ingrained in pop culture for over three decades, now. The Matrix. Swordfish. Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Pretty much every Cyberpunk property, ever. Hackers, obviously. An intellectually-focused power fantasy for these digital times. No matter who you are, with the drive to learn the right programming techniques and the skill to apply them, your imagination is the only limit to what you can achieve. It’s easy to see how we bought what they were selling.

Hacking as a mechanic in games has often taken a back seat to the action. From Bioshock’s erroneous Pipe Maniaesque approach to rewiring Rapture’s automated security robots to Deus Ex’s strategic node-mining method of cracking systems, accuracy has given way to simplicity. After all, if hacking’s not the main focus of your game, why expend so many resources on building a realistic system? For the purposes of those games, an abstracted puzzle loosely labelled hacking would suffice to provide much needed non-combat friction for the player.

The most notable game to attempt to fully embrace the hacker fantasy would be Watch_Dogs. Yet even the least informed person knows that your actions as a player in that game more closely resemble wizardry than they do the approach of a hacker. The world conveniently throws you hotkeys that you use to exploit your environment; you don’t crack any systems or craft any commands. Aiden Pierce (I had to google “Watch_Dogs protagonist” to remember that name, by the way) had done all of the hard work for you: he’d burrowed his way into the citywide OS and devised all of the shortcuts to utilise its hardware. Sure, you got to play with the toys he handed to you. But what’s the joy of Lego that you didn’t build yourself?

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Enter Quadrilateral Cowboy. The newest and most mechanically-ambitious game from indie developer extraordinaire and Blendo Games founder Brendon Chung, Quadrilateral Cowboy aims to capture the feeling of using your tools and ingenuity to bend the world to your will. It wants to give you a small glimpse of that long-elusive hacker fantasy.

God damn, does it do a good job.

It’s alternative-universe, cartoonishly tongue-in-cheek dystopian Cyberpunk 1980. As a Blendo Games cardboard-person armed with a bleeding-edge hacking deck “outfitted with a 56.6k modem and a staggering 256k RAM”, you’ll pull off a series of high-paying heists to further expand the range of tools at your disposal.

You’ll jack into each level under the guise of a virtual reality simulation carried out by you, the hacker of your heist group, to scope out and oversee the route for your agents. As you progress through the levels and encounter obstacles such as locked doors and laser traps, much of the gameplay mechanics revolve around the operation of your Deck to write programs (typed as code on your physical keyboard) that allow you to surpass such problems.

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It’s a vital and quickly-taught skill, then, to memorise the proper syntax and rules for writing your desired demands into your programs. Opening a locked door labelled “door9” for three seconds, for instance, would require the command “door9.open(3)”. The expanding language you’re required to learn is simple enough to be easy to remember throughout the game, yet complex enough to feel rewarding every time you successfully pull off a command- especially when you’re juggling more elaborate programs later on in the game.

Don’t be put off if that sounds like a lot of hard work: there’s always a safety-net in the form of in-Deck “help” commands that list off your options and their required syntax.

Each time you complete a job, your character purchases a new tool to get to grips with in the next level. You’ll get your hands on a remote-controlled robot and gun-packing suitcase that you’ll control from afar with the help of a CCTV screen, jump pads, and more interesting gameplay-expanding gadgets as you progress through the game.

If I had to name the closest cousin to Quadrilateral Cowboy gameplay-wise, it would be Portal. Like Portal, you’re constantly encouraged to experiment with your instruments and apply logical thought to overcome the obstacles in your path. You’re constantly encountering new mechanics and adding feathers to your hat, always pushing at the boundaries of what you can do.

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If I have one major criticism of Quadrilateral Cowboy, it would be that it doesn’t quite live up to that implied potential for iteration. Every time you add a new and interesting gadget to your belt, the item is heavily focused on for the current series of jobs before taking a back seat to the next shiny addition to your arsenal. “Mastered the remote-controlled robot? Cool- now put it down for a while, try out this new toy!” I would’ve rather seen levels that continue to make full use of your collection. There’s also a run of levels in the mid-to-late game which lose most of the focus on the central Deck mechanics, and while they were interesting from a story context I found them a poor fit for the game.

Still, it’s great fun to throw your tools and programs at anything Quadrilateral Cowboy throws your way. Although the game is an homage 80’s Cyberpunk stories that helped spawn the unrealistic hacker image, it’s easily the most honest and fleshed-out realisation of hacking as a gameplay mechanic to date. As you crack your knuckles and tangibly knock out lines of code to solve the problem ahead of you, you’ll feel like the genuine article, rather than some tech-shaman like in Watch_Dogs.

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A pure mechanical exercise of this quality would’ve made a fine diversion, but Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t satisfied with settling there. It is a Blendo game, after all. There’s a poignant emotional core to the game as you progress through the story. A substantial amount of the run time of the game is spent hanging out with your friends between missions. You can click your way through a short, hilarious text-based adventure game written by one of your pals, engage in some light badminton, and pore over components as you build your home base together. It’s not “just about the job” for your character: you’re a part of a group with history, for whom this dangerous life-on-the-fringe is about the means rather than the ends. This game is full of details that punctuate Blendo Games’ sheer adoration for this game’s world and the works that inspired it: tiny, almost understated touches of humour and love that elevate the game from an interesting experience to a damned memorable one. This low-poly love-letter to Cyberpunk has a very human heart beating amongst all the wires and command lines.

Quadrilateral Cowboy offers a truly unique experience. It’s rare for a game to offer mechanics with such wide and experimentation-savvy parameters. Yes, there’s not an absolute wealth of content on offer. But with levels designed from the ground up to encourage replayability as well as extensive mod support, I think most people will see plenty of playtime past the end credits.

Hyper Light Drifter Review

Hyper Light Drifter, for all of its clear influences, offers a world and experience that feels truly different and alien. It’s like a game, a concept album, and an experimental short film all rolled into one. Inspired by creator and Heart Machine founder Alex Preston’s life-threatening health condition, Hyper Light Drifter is an achingly beautiful, psychedelic, and weirdly personal creation that demands your attention, at least for a while.

Hyper Light Drifter is an action game in a pixel-art world set to a woozy, moody score from electronic musician Disasterpiece. The Drifter, whom the player controls, must pick through the broken land in search of a cure for their mysterious illness.

As the Drifter, you’re equipped with a thrumming energy blade to carve through foes and charge your pistol (and any other gun you find in your quest). You can also dash in any direction (an animation that’s stunningly realised with smear techniques that perfectly emphasise your snappy momentum) to avoid incoming enemy attacks and projectiles. Most attacks landed upon you by enemies deal one point of damage from your health pool of 5. You can recover lost health, however, using medical kits- although you can only initially carry 3 of these, and they’re sparingly scattered throughout levels to encourage caution.

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The map of Hyper Light Drifter is, at first glance, fairly simple. Branching out from the central hub town are paths to four main areas, each with their own theme, enemies, and boss. Beating each area takes you one step closer to unlocking whatever lies in the centre. You’ll need to uncover a number of purple crystals to progress through each area; some progress-critical doors require you to have found a number of these, however to “complete” an area you’ll need 4 crystals as well as to activate a special large crystal guarded by the local boss. None of this is explicitly spelled out for you; it’s simply an intuitive conclusion gleaned from your environment. A more thorough completion of the game, however, calls for the acquisition of all 8 crystals in each zone.

Travelling through each area involves a mix of combat and exploration-driven puzzle solving in a manner that’s not dissimilar to Zelda games, although considerably more freeform. The paths you’ll walk are riddled with secret passages and invisible secrets to uncover; sometimes you’ll find Gearbits (currency tied into the game’s upgrade system), sometimes you’ll find a hidden purple crystal, and occasionally you’ll find a secret room that you need to return to later on. Hyper Light Drifter’s secret-ridden levels lend even more mystery and depth to an enigmatic and enthralling world, and this sedate exploration and platforming gives the player ample time to recuperate between fierce fights.

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You’ll need caution and wits to make it through Hyper Light Drifter’s enemy encounters. Not only are you required to carefully observe each new encountered enemy, it’s imperative to make use of your environment to survive. Level geometry can be used to divide and conquer your sometimes-overwhelming adversaries, take cover from projectile attacks, and deadly traps can be turned to the advantage of the wily.

Even so, there are some pretty deviously laid-out challenges to overcome that will almost certainly lead to repeat deaths. Fatality can come swiftly and frequently in this game, however you’re never dropped in too far away from the offending encounter with a checkpointing system that rarely frustrated in the 6-and-a-half hours it took me to reach the end credits. I could often see exactly what my fatal mistakes were, and was for the most part able to jump in and try again almost immediately.

Hyper Light Drifter could definitely be labelled a hard game. With the action as intense and punishing as it is, there’s definitely a ramp for starting players to climb before competence is achieved. This is especially true of the area most players are likely to tackle first, which is home to frog ninja-esque enemies that are devilishly difficult to read and dodge. But when you start to read the game’s rhythms, use the environment to your advantage and keep a calm head through it all, you’ll tackle each fresh hurdle with a smile on your face. You’ll learn to be adaptable and, importantly, precise. This game is reminiscent of Dark Souls and bullet hell roguelikes like Enter the Gungeon in that way, perhaps owing as much to them as it does to the more obvious inspirations from the 8- and 16-bit eras.

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There’s an upgrade system in place to buff your abilities and unlock new skills. What’s impressive is how some of these options can impact gameplay. The deflecting skill allows you to slash enemy projectiles with your sword, redirecting them back at your foes and allowing for a much more proactive, aggressive approach to ranged assailants. Chain dashes allows you to, well, chain dashes together much more quickly, an invaluable trait for zipping smoothly out of danger (if you can keep cool enough to pull off the timing). Alongside these more interesting power-ups are simple upgrades for improved survivability such as an increased carrying capacity for medical kits.

Whether you’re trudging up the worn steps to a mountaintop temple or engaged in savage combat, it’s hard to deny the sheer beauty of the game. The attractive pixel art visuals are rendered in an attractive autumnal palette that giddily bleeds neon for a unique cyberpunk style that’s unlike anything I’ve seen. The enthralling visuals aren’t just for show, either; there’s a great deal of narrative duty resting on their shoulders. There’s not a single uttered word in Hyper Light Drifter: all characters chirp out some gobbledygook while pictured speech bubbles convey the meaning behind their words and stories. Zones are rife with environmental clues to the backstory of both that area and the world at large. Hyper Light Drifter might be light on explanations, but its scenes and atmosphere are pregnant with meaning.

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Those bewitching visuals don’t do all the work, though. Hyper Light Drifter’s atmosphere lends as much of its personality to its music as it does its looks, and Disasterpiece’s heady electronic score is just as unique as every other aspect of the game’s presentation. In the same way that I can’t imagine Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive without its soundtrack, Hyper Light Drifter’s score manages to perfectly synergise with every other aspect of the game to cement the identity of the whole. I highly, highly recommend playing through the game with headphones if you’re aiming for a bloody transcendental experience.

The game’s impenetrable story and early difficulty barrier might turn away some players early on, but with a little bit of persistence Hyper Light Drifter is a game that deserves to be played by anyone willing to give as much as they take. It’s a pulse-pounding, precise action game with an atmosphere to die for again and again. This outstandingly alien world is worth diving into.

Pokémon GO Review: Magic From Mediocrity

I don’t think anyone could have anticipated Pokémon GO’s runaway success. What started out as a Google Maps April Fools’ joke has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon, skyrocketing Nintendo’s value and prompting millions to leave the house to hunt imaginary creatures. I don’t need to tell you this; it’s all over the news, and everyone has heard of “That New Pokémon Thing” by now. What’s incredible about Pokémon GO’s triumph is that it’s all despite the app’s systemic mediocrity, laundry list of technical issues, and overall lack of support from its creators.

After customising your trainer avatar and struggling to find a free screen name, you’ll be guided through catching your starter Pokémon: one of the venerable trio of Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. Finding and catching Pokémon starts by leaving the house and going for a walk, and when you’re close enough to a Pokémon it’ll pop up on your Google Maps-like interface. Hunting down specific ‘Mon in your area is aided by the “Nearby” feature, which uses a hot/cold approach indicated by the number of footprints beside each individual creature: fewer footsteps means you’re closer.

Once you’re close enough to unveil a Pokémon, the catching process is initiated by tapping the creature on your screen. The game then enters a first-person viewpoint as viewed by your phone’s camera, superimposing the Pokémon onto your camera’s view via AR (or a generic field scene if that’s not your bag). You then fling Pokéballs at your quarry Paper Toss-style to catch it before it runs away, timing your throw alongside a shrinking circle for the best chance at success. There’s no weakening your targets via battle; catching creatures in Pokémon GO is closer to the Safari Zone areas of the main series.

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Levelling and evolving your cast of Pokémon is different to the original games, too. Capturing a creature lands you two currencies: Stardust, a generic resource used to increase your Pokémon’s Combat Power (CP); and Candy, a species-specific resource that is fed to your Pokémon to make them evolve. This encourages catching monsters of the same species repeatedly to accrue enough Candy to power up and diversify your collection of Pokémon. Duplicates can be permanently transferred to this game’s guide, Professor Willow, in exchange for an extra piece of Candy.

Wild Pokémon aren’t the only things you’ll be hunting in your area. Scattered around the map are Pokéstops, which are small landmarks that you check into for items such as Pokéballs, Potions, Revives, and Razz Berries (an item that can be fed to wild Pokémon to reduce the likelihood of their fleeing). These points of interest help give you something to aim for as you amble in search of nearby rarities. Interestingly, I’ve learned a great deal about the areas around my house that I wouldn’t have spotted or sought out otherwise- statues with some unseen detail or graffiti I’ve walked past a thousand times without noting.

Slightly more substantial landmarks, however, are awarded Gym status. This is where battling comes in, acting as the game’s multiplayer aspect. When you reach player level 5, you’ll be able to join one of three teams: Valor, Mystic, or Instinct. Players from each team will fight for control over Gyms for their faction. Training at an allied Gym will increase its level to allow more creatures to be assigned to defend it, while challenging and winning battles at a rival Gym will lower the its level until it’s empty to be claimed for your faction.

Fighting over and claiming Gyms is the game’s most disappointing feature by far; it’s such a poor representation of the main Pokémon series’ battle system. Rather than tactical turn-based battles, Pokémon GO’s fights are a repetitive and boring numbers game. Pokémon CP stats are probably the most important factor in winning a fight. Challenge a gym and you’ll face each of its defending Pokémon in what amounts to a mashfest; prodding the screen doles out your fighter’s basic attack, which charges a special attack that is activated by holding your finger down. Incoming attacks can be dodged through swiping to the side, but to be honest it’s more efficient to mindlessly assault your phone. Type advantages can be leveraged to take down your rivals, but more often than not the creature with the highest CP will win and the random assignment of each Pokémon’s paltry couple of learned attacks is a source of much frustration if you’re trying to play smart.

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The whole Gym-competition process very much favours attackers; defenders can be knocked out of the gym one at a time, and if your Pokémon faint then you can back out to revive them before continuing your assault, meaning with enough healing items you can simply brute-force your way to victory. You’ve also got a team of 6 Pokémon with which to make your assault, which is at least a couple more monsters than the average Gym will hold. This makes it incredibly hard to maintain your hold on a gym for long enough to earn substantial defender bonuses. Needless to say, the whole battling system is mechanically weak and a near-pointless expenditure of time and resources.

Aside from that major mechanical failing, Pokémon GO is absolutely rife with technical issues so ubiquitous that you’ll be hard pressed to find discussion pass without their mention. The game frequently crashes and loses contact with the servers, an issue especially prevalent whilst catching Pokémon. Countless times I’ve had to reset the app as the game freezes on a rattling Pokéball, hoping that either I’ve caught the creature or that it’ll deign to reappear nearby for another chance at capturing it. Checking into Pokéstops frequently doesn’t work, halting your progress as you dumbly swipe at the screen in vain.

The Nearby feature has been broken for over a week now, showing all surrounding creatures as a distance of 3 footprints away. The use of this feature was more art than science when it was actually working due to its vague nature and and the unreliable updating of your location by GPS. Now players are forced to utilise the even more imprecise method of walking in random directions until their desired Pokémon moves to the top of the list, then hoping it springs up in the general vicinity.

It’s a fairly common occurrence for one of the game’s several menus or features to simply not load- arbitrarily locking player out of the Store, refusing to transfer duplicate Pokémon, or failing to load Gym battles. One time for me, after earning enough Pokécoins to make a purchase in the store the game decided to buy double the number of my desired item, effectively stealing my currency. That would be incredibly frustrating had I acquired those coins through microtransactions.

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The most vexing factor in all of this is the almost complete lack of communication on Niantic’s part amidst these ubiquitous issues. Despite Pokémon GO’s overwhelming success, there doesn’t seem to be any substantial effort yet made to patch any technical problems. Servers would frequently break down entirely, often coinciding with the release of Pokémon GO in a new country. A quick check of official Twitter channels reveals a frankly lacklustre level of community interaction and support, the infrequent updates all-but ignoring the slew of problems ailing the app. It’s a situation that makes me wonder if they’re lazy, swamped, or just incompetent. That’s not a good look.

Pokémon GO, then, is a shallow, mechanically unfaithful game in technical shambles.

And I can’t stop playing it.

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Despite its many, many failures and incompetences as a game and product, I’m borderline addicted to Pokémon GO. At time of writing I’ve caught over half of the available creatures. I’ve walked just under 75KM with the app open. The first night I acquired the game I walked around collecting Pokémon until my phone battery died, forcing me to come home. The same thing happened the following night. By the third day I’d acquired a portable phone charger to prevent that from happening again.

Pokémon GO manages, with simple geocaching and jumpy AR that makes the game harder, to inject a sense of adventure and discovery into the mundane real world. It magically invokes the fantasy that’s been the core of Pokémon since the beginning. I’ll run outside or explore new places just because a new Pokémon appears on the Nearby list, and several unintended hours will pass by almost by accident before I reluctantly return home.

Beyond that, Pokémon GO brings people together. On my first night out with the game I met and chatted with 7 strangers in chance encounters as we felt our way through its early stages. “All I want right now is a Dratini”, said one person. “I’ve hear there’s quite a few Dratini on Burley Road”, another chipped in. “Yeah, that’s the word of trainers I’ve met around there”.

Since then I’ve seen untold numbers of people out hunting for Pokémon. The game inspires conversation and co-operation; a Pokémon found in a location is catchable for everyone that stumbles upon it until it despawns. You can acquire Lures to attach to Pokéstops, summoning wild Pokémon to the spot for every player in the area for the next 30 minutes. You’re very likely to collaborate with at least one person in order to find some elusive creature, and in my experience it’s natural and easy. That’s quite something, speaking as someone that suffers from anxiety.

I have some doubts regarding the game’s longevity, but with the right updates I can see playtime stretching from a couple of months to several years. Currently the endgame is basically hatching eggs in the hope of acquiring unfound Pokémon to fill out your Pokédex. There’s a lot of features that I’d love to see: a friends system, trades, breeding, and most importantly an overhaul of the battle mechanics with the option to challenge friends to a fight. I really hope that Niantic listens to feedback and works to make Pokémon GO reach its sky-high potential.

Somehow, somehow, this game is so much more than the sum of its parts. Somewhere between the freezes, server crashes, and mediocre mechanics, there’s a magic to Pokémon GO. With some improvement, it could be the Pokémon game we’ve always wanted.

Song of the Deep Review

Song of the Deep has a lot going for it. A passion project out of the venerable Insomniac Games, the first game published under GameStop’s new publishing venture GameTrust, and an enticingly unfamiliar setting inspired by Irish folklore. Despite all of this, though, I just couldn’t find myself liking it very much.

Merryn is the daughter of a fisherman, a kindly father who regales her with stories about the depths of the sea. When he goes missing, Merryn builds a makeshift submarine and sets out to save her dad. Along the way, you’ll find that there might just have been more than a little bit of truth to her father’s tales.

You control Merryn’s craft in a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania-style adventure in the deep sea. You start out with a simple claw to attack hostile denizens of the depths as well as grasp, pull, drag, and lob objects in the water. You’ll soon expand your sub’s tool repertoire with rockets and sonar, as well as reinforcing it with armour and turbine upgrades. These customisations are all bought from a charming hermit crab in exchange for collected currency that encourages you to go out of your way and explore hidden nooks and crannies.

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There’s a fair amount of combat in Song of the Deep, but the bulk of your time is spent navigating the expansive game world, solving puzzles to do so. Enemies are often just something small to gently impede your progress as you think your way around physics and exploration-driven environmental puzzles. It’s clear that Song of the Deep is aiming for a much more sedate pace than its brethren. You’ve a delightfully calming soundtrack to soothe your ears, a quirky handmade art style, and a lovely Irish-accented narrator to guide you through the story. Unfortunately there are some slight but pervasive frustrations that drag the game down from the pleasant zen-like experience it clearly wants to be.

Chief among these problems is the matter of pace. The submarine controls quite well, but its acceleration and turning arc lean towards the sluggish side resulting in an overall lack of satisfying momentum. Pair this with puzzles that require some deft handling and relatively fine aiming and there’s a fair amount of annoying backtracking to reattempt puzzles that you’ve worked out to the solution to, but must coerce your lethargic craft to meet the dexterity of the challenge. This is most apparent in sections that require you to pick up bombs attached to a chain and carry them to combustible obstructions. The bomb will explode on contact with any wall or object, and will float upwards on its chain when you sit still. Cue repeated runs of ferrying bombs through tight openings, hoping that your angle of approach perfectly lands the explosive in contact with the corresponding area and not scant centimetres away from it. Truth be told, a lot of the puzzles end up feeling like tiresome busywork instead of fun challenges, and there’s very little in the way of originality to them either; you’re most often simply trying to locate what amounts to a key for a door, or approaching problems that other games game throws at you a thousand times before.

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There was also an infuriatingly glitched portion of the game; a chase sequence that has you escaping an area while being pursued by “Red Reaper” squid imbued with the ancient bullshit of the insta-kill. I’m not a fan of instant death in any game, but what’s especially vexing about this particular segment was that the Reapers would often teleport forwards and crush me for an unfair game over. The only way to deal with the situation was to retry repeatedly until the game deigned to work as intended.

Alongside mechanical foibles, I also found myself unable to connect emotionally with Song of the Deep’s world and story despite the intriguingly uncommon Irish legend connections. I think this is down to both aesthetics and plotting.

On the visuals side, although Song of the Deep sports a handcrafted aesthetic I didn’t find much charm outside of the character designs (and even those were awkwardly animated). Apart from the warm luminescence of Glow Kelp, environments often feel drab and dingy. I understand that the cliffs of Moher were a major inspiration on the game’s presentation in their muted majesty, yet I feel that a more vibrant and varied colour palette would lend so much more energy and personality to proceedings. There’s even a segment of the game where the narrator coos over the beautiful technicolour locale, and I had to wonder if she and I were looking at the same place.

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With regards to the story, in spite of the fascinating legends the game draws from, there’s pretty much nothing original about Song of the Deep’s yarn. It’s a pretty standard Hero’s Journey, and doesn’t give you many interesting objectives other than “fetch the thing that advances the plot”. I’m sure that younger players might find Song of the Deep’s narrative quite captivating, but older players are likely to find the predictability quite boresome. That said, Merryn is a very fine role model for parents who want to introduce kids to a heroine that embodies the virtues of resilience, ingenuity, and kindness.

Alas I did not find myself captivated by Song of the Deep’s tune. The early game of avid secret hunting gave way to a bull-headed rush to mainline the story, with me often ignoring any treasure that was more than slightly out of my way. The game has a certain charm to it, but there were too many little irritations to test the patience until the experience became tedious for me. And that’s a shame, because Song of the Deep has a lot of heart and its lofty potential feels squandered.