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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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.

Ratchet and Clank Review

Ratchet and Clank, or Ratchet and Clank (2016) as we’ll soon refer to it, is a re-imagining of the series’ first game from 2002. It’s not a remake because it ties into the recent film, which is based on the 2002 original. To make things clear: you’ll play through levels which are sometimes faithful depictions of those found in the original game, and sometimes slightly or wholly reimagined, while the story has been altered to closely fit the events depicted in the movie.

The setting is playful spacefaring science fiction. Ratchet, a mechanic of the Lombax race, is called to action when diminutive robot Clank crash-lands on his backwater planet with terrible news: Chairman Drek of the Blarg intends to tear apart populated worlds to create a new planet to replace his race’s polluted home world. The pair set off to join the idolised Galactic Rangers, led by heroic Captain Quark, in a romp through some of the planets you’ll remember from the first game.

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The first thing to strike me playing thorough Ratchet and Clank was just how beautifully those planets are realised. It’s probably worth mentioning that the 2002 original got me into console gaming in the first place, and while it’s been years since I completed a whole playthrough, it was fascinating to see familiar planets and sequences rendered with current-gen technology. It’s the closest to that “playable Pixar movie” holy grail that’s been sought after for years.

Bright colours from a diverse palette pop in crisply realised alien planets. Cityscapes and less developed locales alike are alive with detail and moving parts that emphasises the feel of a vibrant and lively universe. The trademark wacky character designs are rendered with care, with delightful animation; smear techniques add expressiveness and punch to animations found in enemies’ attacks and your wrench’s swing. This all combines to build one of the most visually impressive games that can be found on consoles.

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Ratchet and Clank uses the reimagined worlds from the 2002 original as a stage for you to traverse and shoot-up vertical playgrounds with your quickly-growing arsenal of guns and gadgets. Along with the spruced-up level designs, this gameplay is similarly tweaked to account for the decade of experience Insomniac accrued making Ratchet games. Shooting aims your shots to wherever you’re pointed while you freely leap about the level, but you’re encouraged to hold the strafe button to lock the camera into more standard over-the-shoulder shooter mode. Jumping in this state makes Ratchet leap in whichever direction you’re moving, allowing him to dodge incoming fire while returning assault in kind.

Ratchet controls well, with each movement feeling tight and well-measured. These games have always controlled well, and Insomniac hasn’t re-invented the wheel unnecessarily; you’re still a leaping agent of death with a helicopter/thruster- equipped robot strapped to your back and a penchant for collecting bolts for currency, so if you found gameplay from previous Ratchet games satisfying then you won’t complain here.

A big part of the Insomniac style comes from the aforementioned arsenal of weaponry you’ll acquire as you strafe and flip through the game’s hurdles. You’ll acquire bolts from slain enemies and smashed crates that can be traded in at Gadgetron vendors in exchange for some new tools of destruction. This release features weapons from throughout the series (the Groovitron, Mr. Zurkon, and multiple variants of the RYNO appear amongst more alumni) , as well as some original entries like the Pixelizer, which turns enemies into voxel versions of themselves. The care that’s gone into this game is even more apparent when you take weapons like the Pixelizer and the Groovitron into account- the latter forces enemies to dance for a short time, for which each enemy in the game has their own dance animation. It would’ve been nice to have seen some of the more interesting weapons from the 2002 original make the cut, like the Tesla Claw and the Suck Cannon, but you’ve still got a diverse array of interesting weapons to play with that gain XP to become more potent with use.

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There’s also a modding system for your weapons that’s tied into a secondary currency you’ll find in your travels, the illusive Raritanium. These crystals can be spent at Gadgetron vendors to unlock nodes on extensive upgrade trees for each gun- you’ll pay one crystal of Raritanium to activate each modular upgrade that’s represented as a hexagonal node. These range from a slight increase in effective range or item drop rates to more potent mystery upgrades that you’ll need to surround with bought mod nodes to unlock.

All the gunplay can get really rather hectic. There’s often a lot of enemies and particle effects onscreen at once, and I often found myself confused in the hubbub which led to a few frustrating encounters. Death tends to land you just before the start of the current encounter, and I’m unsure whether that helps or harms the experience- it does lessen the pain of waiting to jump back in and meet the challenge, but you’re also robbed of much reflective downtime and the fight starts to feel trivial when setbacks of failure are so lenient. For the most part though, encounters are well designed for players to experiment with their full range of weapons and abilities, and frustrating sections whose strife can be drawn back to level design itself are few and far between.

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It is useful to take a break from all the action though, and Ratchet and Clank offers a smorgasbord of distractions and accompaniments to the core gunplay. Jetpack areas, though sparse, kick the vertical aspect of gameplay up a notch by making use of a jetpack acquired midgame to explore sprawling vistas. Rail-grinding returns, which functions as calming eye candy as you leap between airborne rails and bat away explosive mines to progress through and explore levels. Flying missions put you in the pilot’s seat of your ship, pitting you against scores of enemy craft with your machine gun fire and barrel rolls.

More substantial are sequences where you’ll play as Clank in rare occurrences where he’s separated from Ratchet. These are the slowest-paced sections of the lot, where you’ll solve simple puzzles centred around picking up and programming little robots to help you reach your goal. Juggling multiple helpers, switching them between bounce-pad, battery, and bridge-building modes might only gently tease your brain, but it’s a welcome change of pace that only sticks around long enough for you to be ready to jump back into action once again.

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There’s even a couple of collectible-shaped diversions to chase. Gold Bolts return, hidden treasures which can be used to unlock fun rewards like cheats. You’ll also find Holocards from defeated enemies and nooks and crannies of the game world. Collect trios of these and you’ll unlock content ranging from concept art to Omega versions of weapons for the Challenge Mode (this game’s version of New Game Plus). There’s a lot of this side content for fervent players to track down, and it’s another indicator of the amount of effort that’s gone into making this game a worthwhile product.

Sadly, where Ratchet and Clank’s triumphs in the gameplay and visual design departments shine, the game falls flat when it comes to its narrative elements. While levels from the 2002 game are re-rendered almost verbatim, the game’s plot is a far more faithful adaptation of the movie’s version of events. In fact, cut-scenes here actually turn out to be sequences lifted straight from the film- your PS4 even alerts you that it’s stopped recording footage because you’re watching “blocked material”.

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This means that the script from 2002’s Ratchet and Clank is mostly scrapped in favour of the film’s version of the characters. Ratchet is no longer a street-smart, selfish cynic, but rather a stereotypical bright-eyed Yes Man that answers the call to heroism without question. And Clank is no longer really a character at all, in stark contrast to the logical yet naive persona found in the original game. Our protagonists are weirdly quiet out of cutscenes, and most of their cut scene-based dialogue is blandly expository. As cliched as the tropes the original game leaned on are, at least those characters felt like they broke into the third dimension. A lot of the jokes from the original game made me laugh or smile even when I watched a supercut of the cutscenes in preparation for this review. By comparison, this game offers boring facsimiles of once-interesting characters that feel like they’re reciting a bad script in need of a first pass.

Even the series’ tongue-in-cheek humour is weakly represented here; it seems like this game can’t wait a single minute to bleat another ill-conceived jibe or unimaginative referential joke in your direction, and it gets tiring after a short while.

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There’s a really weird disparity of continuity between the game and its film footage cut-scenes, too. Later on there’s a scene where Clank springs a sudden plan into action. When asked what he’s doing, Clank turns to the camera and says meaningfully, “I’m improvising”, to which Ratchet smiles and gives a nod of recognition. This moment lifted from the movie is referencing some exchange that’s only found in the movie, and it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst a number of direct contradictions between events from cut-scenes and the game proper.

It leads to a sort of disconnect between the player and the game. The bland script, the constant stream of misfired jokes, the constant tension between the gameplay and the cut-scenes. In spite of the slavishly reimagined levels, designs and mechanics, the crucial narrative cocoon of the game has been sacrificed to resemble the film, like so many tie-in games before. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is a riotous ten hours of fun whose characters and story just won’t stick with you after the fact, and that’s a shame when you think about all of the love that’s obviously been poured into the game’s design.