TOP TEN GAMES OF 2016

Blimey, what a rubbish year 2016 was! Thoroughly awful, and I didn’t even care about that stupid gorilla, though the internet isn’t going to let me forget about it any time soon. Never pay attention to all the crap that’s online, bunch of self-obsessed jackasses that-

Oh. Uh, forget that last bit.

Regardless, the time has come to rustle up the notable games of the previous year and shoot all those with broken legs, bad eyes or a sub-standard smell until only the good ones are left. Fire on my command.


10. Steamworld: Heist: “A rather sweet and memorable IOS game, Steamworld: Heist combines a good difficulty curve and surprising amount of content in a 2D turn-based strategy game, all with lovable (if slightly flat) characters.”

9. Pokémon: Sun and Pokémon: Moon: “Though it still pales in comparison to the greats of the series (I still hold that the Mystery Dungeon games are better than any of the core franchise), Pokémon Sun and Moon were smart enough to advance the Pocket Monsters concept after the appalling double-act that was Generation X/Y, followed by the turgid Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. Adding a fresh layer of personality and making some steps in advancing the core concept, Sun and Moon should represent the first steps in a long path back to greatness.”

8. XCOM 2: “Every time I play XCOM 2, I feel the review I gave it was too generous, too upbeat, too mired in the initial hype that surrounded it… But that doesn’t change the fact that I keep coming back to it and lost nearly a hundred hours to the damn thing. It’s not as good as the original, but that can’t stop it being good in the first place – and it definitely is.”

7. Orwell: “Compelling and intelligent (if a little on-the-nose and unsubtle with the name), Orwell provides the dystopian surveillance-state we’ve all seen a hundred times in sci-fi, then tells you to keep it running smoothly from behind a computer screen. The restrictive linearity of the game is a problem, but there’s something darkly potent about certain scenes, and there are moments when it becomes terribly creepy. And that’s because you’re terribly creepy, you privacy-invading perv.”

6. Overwatch: “I can’t win when it comes to this entry, because half the people who see this will be outraged it’s on this list at all, and the other half will be staggered it isn’t at number one. And to that I say: Overwatch is fun, but it’s only fun. It’s not transcendental, it’s not the video game messiah, it’s just a very solid set of mechanics that don’t really have much structure or meaningful narrative behind them, not to mention that there’s no character on the roster who makes my eyes light up at the thought of playing. But as I said, Overwatch is fun – and that’s something we shouldn’t ignore.”

5. Bioshock Remastered: “Yes, I’m putting a simple remake on the list, because replaying the first Bioshock after so many years was one of the best times I’ve had in 2016 (despite the occasional technical fuck-up). But honestly, it was only those errors that prevented it from being higher on the list in the first place. Still superb after so long, Bioshock overcomes its flaws by being smarter than the vast majority of games could ever hope to be – though that shouldn’t stop them trying.”

4. Furi: “There were a few top-notch indie games out this year (not including those that were lost in boob physics and misplaced overambition) but Furi provided a lasting experience that brought all who played it to the edge of sanity, just from the sheer rage it triggered in us. And though the extreme difficulty can come across as obnoxious when you’re wading into a boss fight on Take Thirty-Seven, it’s hard to stay away for very long.”

3. Dark Souls 3: “I think we can safely make an assumption at this point – if there was a From Software title released during the year, it will be somewhere on this list. Dark Souls 3 sidestepped the sense of aimlessness that the previous sequel struggled with, and formed a unique nostalgia for the franchise’s existence that felt like a fitting conclusion. I’m happy to wave goodbye to my beloved sadist, knowing that it had a good life and ended with the right kind of closure.”

2. Quadrilateral Cowboy: “This one might’ve been polarising if more people had heard of it in the first place. Speak about the most recent odyssey of flatpack characters from Blendo Games to your friends, and they’ll probably give you a blank look. “Quantumnul what?” Regardless, doing what Watch_Dogs and so many others failed to do; Quadrilateral Cowboy actually makes hacking feel real and tangible, not to mention fundamentally interesting. There’s not even a single pipe-and-water game the whole way through!”

1. Doom: “I said it would be good when it was shown at E3 last year, and lo’, was it so. Throwing all restraint and self-control out of the window, Id Software have made a worthy follow-up to the originals that, like Wolfenstein before it, feels like a loving homage to the classics whilst modernising it in all the right ways. Just don’t play it on any computer with less processing power than Deep Thought.”


That’s the second year this site’s been running, and I’ll say again what I forced out between gritted teeth last year– thank you all for your continued support. No, I really mean it. Your obvious good taste and kindness means that I can hold off on starting up “Project Q” for yet another year, and we can certainly all be thankful for that.

THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.

FIREWATCH REVIEW

Walking simulators are always slightly odd, aren’t they? To my mind they feel eerily reminiscent of the old point-and-click adventure games, only without the pointing and clicking, which ironically was usually the worst bit of point-and-click adventure games. You didn’t spend two hours bumbling around Monkey Island trying to work out how to combine some aspect of the landscape with a packet of breath mints and a dented spade for your own enjoyment. There was always way too much trial and error to get any pleasure from it all, not to mention that the LucasArts and Sierra games treated logic and common sense like something that was only weighing them down.

No, you put up with all this rubbish because you got the reward of story and dialogue at the other end, with the possible addition of a pixelated set of breasts if you were playing Leisure Suit Larry, you loser. But walking simulators – sorry, interactive narratives – seem to have just cut out the middle-man, edging ever closer to that fine line which separates a video game from just being a DVD with a really detailed menu screen.

Whatever. It seems that large, open-ended maps with somebody talking in your ear is now a genre in its own right, and whether that genre lives or dies depends on the conversation skills of the ear-dwellers who accompany you. The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide were solid because of their writing, but in these games if there’s any time that somebody isn’t talking at you, it all becomes increasingly dull, mainly because you have less power to affect useful change than the average horse. Check out Proteus for an example of that experience, one that’s like being suffocated to death with a particularly vibrant pillow.

So the pressure was on Firewatch to pull its finger out and really show all those bigwigs and AAA jocks from the football team how good narratives are done. Not that those jocks could give a festering ham slice for the quality of their own stories, having multiplayer and gameplay to fall back on; but I suppose we work with achievable goals or else we go mad, right? Hell, that’s why I’m giving up smiling next year.

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“This is Rubber Duck to Feather Duster. Come in, Feather Duster… And what are you wearing, by the way?”

And for what it’s worth, Firewatch’s story is good… Mostly. We begin with an effective introduction sequence that details the life and loves of Henry, a middle-aged, bearded everyman that grows guilty and panicked in the wake of a tragedy he feels he can do nothing about, and literally flees into the woods to escape, signing up to become a lookout in a national park for several months. And within ten minutes he’s started a weirdly personal relationship with Delilah, another lookout who he never actually meets, but maintains near-permanent radio contact with as the game goes on.

What I like about Firewatch is that it’s fairly coy about its intentions for the whole first act. Several story threads sprout like beanstalks almost immediately, and it’s difficult to guess whether you’re going to experience horror, comedy, drama or what-have-you. Which doesn’t mean that the story is indecisive, only that it’s so humanly chaotic that it really does feel like it could conceivably go anywhere.

But for those who want some indication of what to expect, you’re basically in for a character drama, which then starts to lean towards a psychological thriller in the second half. And both of these work pretty well. Henry and Delilah are both compelling, likeable characters with good chemistry between them, and the game’s main mechanic of rewarding exploration with more dialogue is pulled off superbly, purely because it’s nice to hear them bounce off each other in yet another light-hearted conversation that clearly has more significance than either of them would like to admit. The first act (and most of the second) is basically the story of their blossoming friendship, and this means that we have a very firm grasp of their characters when the thriller plotline rolls around, and as thriller plots go, it’s a goodie. I won’t spoil, but Henry makes a discovery that throws all his time there into doubt and suspicion, whilst a mysterious third party toys with them from the shadows. It’s pretty killer stuff, and the further I got into the mystery, the more I was hooked. It even gets genuinely intimidating at times, stumbling through a dark forest when you know that there are probably eyes trained on you – but god knows where from, or who’s watching.

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Well, at least Jack Torrance lasted longer at the Overlook this year.

“But Joel,” I hear you ask, “if Firewatch does all these things right, then why did you preface your Pulitzer-worthy analysis by saying that it was ‘mostly’ good?”

Well, person who just offered that question to a computer screen, I’m glad you asked. Partly because we now know you’re unstable and can avoid you at parties, lest you strike up a chat with the television, but also because it leads into my primary criticism of this ‘ere game.

For Firewatch, having really grabbed my attention for most of the main story, then turns around and craps itself in the last forty-five minutes. The thriller plotline, having been all onions and gravy so far, is then required to deliver an explanation for the mystery in order that we may bring this saga to a satisfactory close. Sad to say that onions and gravy don’t last for ever, and we’re left with dry bread to chew on until the curtains fall.

For the mystery’s conclusion has all the impact of a dead bee falling into a swimming pool, as the writers picked out the flattest, least interesting answer and just offered it up to us without any real panache. I won’t say it doesn’t make sense in context, but it feels unworthy of the set-up and doesn’t appear to have any real weight. Hell, even if it turned out that Q from Star Trek had been screwing with us the whole time, it would’ve made for interesting conversation, despite being bonkers. But we don’t get that here, just something that feels small, cheap, easy and unremarkable. And though the absence of other people is good for setting up the atmosphere early on, in those last sequences you can feel the game straining for reasons to keep you isolated.

Look, I don’t want to make suppositions about projects that I wasn’t involved with. Who knows what happens between that first pitch and final result, right? For that reason, I’d never say that Firewatch is a game that had the first two acts written in a burst of excited inspiration, before the writers then realised that they had no idea what it was all building up to. I wouldn’t say that, I don’t know what the truth of the matter is…

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It looks like I took a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque! Neheheheheh!

…But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that were the case. And now I’m on this well-trodden path of negative thought, it’s also worth acknowledging that the park itself starts to get a little dull to walk through after a while. It’s certainly very beautiful, with a slightly stylised look that promotes bright colours and changes naturally between environments without ever feeling like we’ve just jumped between two Minecraft biomes, but the park is smaller than it seems and ends up becoming less explorative and more of a commute. Using the map and compass to find your way around is a rather nice feature, though. I suppose that’s more gameplay than most of these interactive narratives will usually offer.

Do I recommend Firewatch? I suppose I do, yes. It’s only a few hours and doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability, but the first two acts are strong enough to be a real guide on how to do these kinds of games well, even if the ending evokes the image of somebody using up all their inspiration too soon and having to weakly bring the whole thing to some sort of technical conclusion. I hear there’s something you can take for that, but if you find yourself still writing after four hours than you may want to book an appointment with an editor.


 

7.5/10

Firewatch aims higher than most walking simulators, with a deeply-personal story that organically expands into a larger mystery with intriguing stakes, but then decides it’s not as brave as it thought it was and throws out a paper-thin ending to mollify the audience. That said, three-quarters of the story is more than solid, and the environments are nicely designed, if a little too small.

DRAGONBALL XENOVERSE 2 REVIEW

Nobody was more surprised than me to find out that they liked Dragonball Xenoverse. Why would I like it? I don’t much care for anime, I flat-out dislike Dragonball, and fighting games were never much my bag either. No Street Fighter obsessive, nor weeaboo hugging his Android 18 body pillow to be found here, I’m afraid. I’m too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons to engage in such loser hobbies.

So when I realised that Xenoverse was a very solid combat game that really leant into the power fantasy of it all, I suddenly realised I was having a whale of a time. Yes, the story is fanservice nonsense that wouldn’t pass muster in a third-grade writing exam, but it doesn’t intrude on gameplay much and allows you to rocket around the sky kicking aliens without issue. God bless the skip-cutscene button, a function that served me even better than the pause menu.

Which left the player free to indulge in high-octane lunacy, as you fire various beams of energy at improbably resilient foes, who all fly around smacking each other like a civil war broke out on Krypton. And the game rewarding you with new fighting techniques and characters to play as means that it all feeds nicely into itself. Colour me excited for Xenoverse 2, then.

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Joelku’s back, bitches! And this time, his dress sense is worse than ever!

But the problem is that I did something before playing Xenoverse 2 that I suspect the developers were hoping I hadn’t done recently: I played Xenoverse 1. And this, as I would soon come to realise, was a major problem.

Because Bandai-Namco’s new anime odyssey isn’t really a sequel, it’s an upgrade. It’s not like buying a new phone, it’s more akin to updating the software, and the number of assets, mechanics, powers, ideas and locations that have been copy-pasted from the first Xenoverse to the second is pretty unimpressive. I wasn’t hoping for a complete overhaul of the system, but you’re more likely to come across old content than new content as you power through the campaign in “Dragonball Xenoverse 1.5.”

But I must say that there was a rather neat function whereby you can import your created character from the first game into the second, where he then becomes an NPC that features in the story. The former protagonist has now become a de facto legend and high-ranking member of the rather scrappy and slightly stupid Time Patrollers, the recurring organisation of weirdos who go around making sure that history doesn’t change too much in the wake of irresponsible ruffians like Doctor Who, the little fez-wearing bastard.

The above premise isn’t a terrible one, but it’s not handled particularly well and the story can’t quite figure out what it wants to be, other than a Dragonball Tribute Band. For one thing, it never becomes clear why changing history is such a bad thing, especially when you choose to do so at one point in the narrative and nothing bad happens as a result.

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Pew pew pew! Take that, Vegeta! How dare you try to overshadow the far-less interesting protagonist! How dare you go through an engaging character arc!

Not to mention that the undisciplined, clubhouse feel of the Time Patrollers is a genuine plot flaw that only becomes more notable as you progress through the story and see just how slapdash this whole thing seems to be. I practically expect to hear that old joke being shouted out:

“What are the patroller’s coordinates?”

“Sir, I’m afraid he’s uncoordinated.”

I can’t remember where that line is from (and that’s been driving me nuts for weeks), but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t apply to the Time Patrollers. A band of well-intentioned and overpowered mooks sit on a giant island floating somewhere outside of reality, with no real rules or even method to their madness. And all of these super-bozos are being led (rather frighteningly) by a cast of oddballs that include Hitler The Elderly Aubergine, Manic Pixie Dream God, and a mopey idiot with a large sword and out-of-season overcoat. Seriously, if I got a penny for every time that Trunks screws up over the course of the game, I could buy his mother’s company three times over. Ooh, look at me picking up knowledge of the world as I play. If I keep this up, dear reader, you have full permission to blow my head off.

‘Cause I ain’t here for story, partly because it’s the same plot as last time. Some ruffian is going through history and trying to change it by granting extra power to old villains, and you drop in with your create-a-character to show them what-for, ensuring that all the established canon remains canonical. Because god forbid we do anything daring, like play with the stories a bit and see what new material we could draw from them. Did everyone just forget how cool it was when Arkham City did that?

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Oh god, I HATE when this shit happens in anime and cartoons! Stop laughing, it’s so creepy!

But much like the first Xenoverse, it’s clearly a game made for fans, by fans. You want to help Goku beat up Frieza? Done. You want to read somebody’s power level? Just slap on a scouter. You want to perform every move and ability demonstrated in the show? They’re all waiting to be unlocked. You want to collect the Dragonballs and make a wish?

Ooh, hell yes! Can I ask for immortality?

Er, actually not. We had to remove that option to prevent the game from being broken, but look! You can get a giant radish as a cosmetic item instead, gifted to you by the mighty Shenron and his universal omnipotence! Hooray for magical root vegetables!

… Mister Critic, Why do you look so angry?

Beyond that, the mechanics are pretty similar to the first game. You fly around arenas performing combos on goons with a bunch of stats and superpowers backing you up, balancing ki and stamina meters as you do. And frankly, it all works well. It was fun before and it’s fun now, but the thing that Xenoverse realised early on, as mentioned, was that the best reward for killing goons is more ways to kill goons. Most missions give you a new move or technique when you beat them, and you can swap out the attacks you know for different ones, Pokémon style. And whilst most of the abilities available here are imported from the previous game, there’s enough additions to the roster to keep things somewhat fresh.

That being said, the combat does feel a bit… Stickier than before. There’s a few new forms of basic attack to play around with that makes things more organic, but the game as an odd habit of making your character stop moving after certain attacks, whereupon somebody covered in particle effects comes around and kicks your head in. And whereas before now, when punching an enemy across the map caused you to teleport cleanly after them, now the player characters fly in a locked route to pursue them as part of the attack animation, which means you get stuck on the geometry of the world really easily, flying into mountains or buildings that were uncooperative enough to be standing there.

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“Wow, this guy tripped and fell really hard.”

Oh, and there’s a few more problems that weren’t solved from the first game. Keeping secondary objectives as a secret until the player solves them makes less sense than a warm-hearted Tory, and the fact that certain items and skills are given to you randomly at the end of each challenge is a right pain in the bum. When I power through a mission and manage to reach a perfect score, only for the game to spin a roulette wheel and decide that I don’t deserve anything better than a participation award, that’s some serious crap that no game designer should’ve been happy to sign for. Especially when I know, deep down, that some other dope has muddled through with a piss-poor performance and still been given all the planet-busting super moves. Not cool, Xenoverse.

But let’s move on. One of the big new changes is the hubworld, which the advertising boasted as being seven times larger than the one in the last game. Is it wrong to admit that I don’t care about this? The hubworld is just a place to pick up missions, it doesn’t need to be bigger than a single room with a sign-up sheet pinned to the wall. And hell, the last game’s base of operations was too big already, so I don’t know what the developers thought they could achieve by doubling down on that.

This problem of size is alleviated by two solutions. The first is a little hoverboard that you can beetle around on for increased speed, and let’s be clear about this – that stupid machine sucks more arse than the average colonic. It controls badly, goes alternatively either too fast or too slow, is constantly overshooting because of momentum, and if you bump into something there’s a brief, unskippable animation where your character clutches his head and wonders about the choices he made in life. The amount of times I’d be scaling the long staircase up to where the story missions are kept, only to shoot off the end of them and come crashing back down to the ground level again… Yeah, to hell with that bloody Marty McFly contraption.

The form of hubworld movement is introduced about a third of the way into the game – just let the players use their flying ability like they do in combat. And because flying is fast, easy to control, allows you to scale heights without issue and just lets you go straight over any obstacles in your path, there is never a reason to get out the hoverboard again. One wonders why we couldn’t just fly from the beginning, and the only reason I can think of is that the developers wanted to annoy me. Perhaps there is a different explanation, but I can’t think of one.

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Wait, you think I need a haircut? But I kinda like this “Sonic The Hedgehog” look!

By the way, anybody signing up for online play might find themselves getting impatient as they stare at loading screens and empty lobbies. The final thing that got carried over from the first game was the occasional crash and poor server quality, where being kicked from your match halfway in was less of an exception and more the norm. Even as I was writing this, a notification popped up from the publishers telling me that trying to use the Dragonballs in a public server was pretty likely to freeze the game, and that I should refrain from doing so if I wanted the best experience. Maybe they could’ve told me that a couple of days earlier, when that exact thing happened to me. Low effort, must try harder, etc etc.

Oh, and one other thing: Remember how certain characters could teach you their trademark moves if you beat them up for a bit, and occasionally joined you in missions if you were playing badly? They’re back, and ‘ere you resent this game for having them spawn and despawn randomly like they did in the first one, this time when they appear somewhere they have the common decency to stay put. That’s definitely an improvement, but like the ability to fly between missions, cutting out some of the RNG was a decision that didn’t feel anything less than blindingly obvious. It would’ve been an embarrassment if they hadn’t done that.

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 is indeed better than its predecessor, but not by much. A couple of stumbling steps forward does not imply some great leap of evolution, nor does it warrant forty pounds from those who already own the previous one. If I wanted to pay money to go in circles I’d charter a party bus and load it with prostitutes as we drive around a roundabout, because I’d have a better time and certainly a fresher experience.

That being said, I did just admit that Xenoverse 2 is a superior form of Xenoverse 1, a game that I like. And I probably would recommend the sequel to anybody who doesn’t own the original, because it’s a fairly enjoyable experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do feel a little sour about all this. It’s another time where the Steam refund policy looks like it could use a change, because it took me longer than two hours to realise that I was playing with the first game in a slightly shinier dress, all because those first two hours are mostly cutscenes and tutorials.

Those of you who are unsure about buying it should probably wait for the price to drop. Those of you who loved the first installment are getting more of the same, so you’ll probably be happy. On the other hand, anybody who isn’t big on games like the Naruto Shippuden franchise isn’t likely to be very happy. Being an unappeasable critic, I haven’t been happy since 1998, but Dragonball Xenoverse 2 did occasionally prompt some stirring of emotion that might approximate to approval. If you ever wished you’d bought the original, shell out for this extended cut. If you weren’t won over by the previous entry, this isn’t going to change your mind.


 

6/10

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 picks up where the old game left off, and very decisively chooses to stay there, making very little progress and refusing to develop itself beyond a few fringe aspects to gameplay. Why should you buy this when the original is still there? I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I’ve thought of a reason.

SWITCH, PLEASE!

So it turns out that the long-anticipated Nintendo NX console has done a Project Natal on us and changed its name. It’s the Nintendo Switch now, and it was formally announced today with a preview trailer reminiscent of one of those Gap store commercials, the kind that shows a lot of diverse, trendy, non-threatening people playing the game in areas that are statistically proven to be considered cool. Right on, Nintendo. Groovy, baby.

So what is this new creation on offer from March next year? Well, it’s a console… Sort of. And it’s a handheld… Sort of. And it plays games from five years ago… Sort of. Because is it just me, or did Skyrim look a bit more pixelly and unresponsive than I remember it being?

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings on this one. Nintendo never seem to remember that trying to master two things at once means you only end up with something that’s compromised in both aspects. That’s why the Wii U was a handheld device, but only assuming you never felt like leaving the house or playing with a decent screen. And the 3DS was also a handheld device, again making assumptions that your hands were shaped like Doctor Claw’s and you still didn’t want a decent screen. This new device is apparently a hybrid console. I’ve seen hybrids before, you know. I saw a liger on TV once when I was a kid. It was completely infertile, rather sickly and not expected to live very long. Pardon me for not being filled with optimism for this hybrid, either.

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This is the new Nintendo Switch… At least until it suddenly looks like something else.

But with all those developers allegedly behind it, the game library could be pretty tasty. I’m sure the Switch’s battery will agree with me, carrying on that noble Nintendo tradition of gorging itself on energy and lasting the length of the average nose blowing before it needs a recharge. The Wii U controller can’t even maintain four hours of Earthbound from 1994, so I’m a little skeptical about how this new thing will deal with the cutting edge of mainstream gameplay (or rather cutting-edge by Nintendo’s standards, which means some cartooney, non-hardware intensive stuff and a game from half a decade ago).

The big question is whether the third-party support will be enough. Nintendo have often had problems with such relationships, such as demanding they capitulate to unconventional hardware restraints or gimmicks, but the Switch doesn’t appear to have a motion controller or muffin dispenser thrown into the mix, so it should be a little more cooperative to those poor, bullied designers. Apparently there’s a touchscreen in there somewhere, but ideally that should be an optional extra that will only be utilised IF THE THIRD-PARTY CREATORS WANT TO, NINTENDO. After all, the public are so used to touchscreens by now that I doubt it’ll even be considered a selling point. Nintendo might as well try and sell us on the exterior being made out of plastic – it’s just not worth the effort.

The console’s main promotional feature seems to be versatility and adaptability. In the trailer we see people playing it on a TV, on a plane, in a car, in a skate park, whilst ignoring a dog, whilst ignoring an attractive girl, whilst ignoring their friends at a party, and we see the inevitable pathetic capitulation to eSports that must now hound every major gaming product like a sickly relative demanding you bring them more soup, ‘ere they cut you mercilessly from their last Will and Testament. Am I the only person who still doesn’t give a damn about people I don’t know playing games I have no stake in? And am I also the only one who noticed that the crowd for that eSports tournament looked a little… CGI-ish? I’m not saying I’m one hundred percent certain that they’re fake, only that they might want to stop performing the same jerky movements over and over if they want to leave the uncanny valley anytime soon.

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Yep, that certainly looks like a man who’s entranced by what he’s seeing, and not a low-cost actor/model hungrily waiting for a paycheck that’s being dangled over him.

But the big new idea is that the Switch can, rather suitably enough, switch forms. There’s at least five different configurations for this new contraption, including a handheld mode, a TV-slot thing, dual controllers like you’d get with VR tech and a little prop to stand the device up whilst you play.

And I won’t even complain about this aspect. Seriously, none of this is a bad thing. It’s not very exciting and I know that as long as one of the configurations works fine for me I can safely ignore the others, but as long as it doesn’t have a drawback I can’t really see a reason to be sniffy about this news.

Except for this bit – why is Nintendo treating this rather boring feature like their ultimate draw card? In the trailer the games themselves seemed secondary to the promotion of the hardware, with the audience only capturing glimpses of Zelda, Mario and the aforementioned Skyrim. I can’t help but wonder about all the many, many things I’m not seeing, because I honestly don’t care much about Switches’ switchin’ power. That’s just a functional utility tool to allow me to play the games, but you’re not showing me any of those!

And speaking of, I must ask what’s going to happen when it comes to backwards compatibility? The hybrid nature still leaves us confused as to whether this is more of a successor to the 3DS or the Wii U, but the Switch seems to be utilising cartridges more similar to the former, which is annoying to hear if it’s only going to run 3DS games. Because the 3DS library was (and is) pretty rubbish, but there’s still a few niceties gathered around the skirts of the Wii U. The opportunity to play Wind Waker on long plane trips sounds superb, but the opportunity to play MGS3 and Pokémon X does not. Of course, that’s assuming we’re given backwards compatibility at all, which given the current state of the industry seems unlikely. After all, everybody knows that consumers come last in the ridiculous pecking order. We’re just the ugly sods who have to spend the money.

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I genuinely laughed at how the guy on the far right is desperately trying to ignore him playing on that thing. You’re not fooling anyone, Dave.

The online response seems to imply that I’m the only one who feels iffy about this thing. I admit that there isn’t a lot of info to go on yet, but I still feel uncomfortable about it nonetheless. Because my fundamental question, maintained throughout all of this unbridled, unhealthy hype, is this – how is the Switch better than any of the consoles, computers, handhelds, hybrids, tablets, phones and microwave ovens that I own already? It’s not outmatching them in terms of hardware or choice of games, because my laptop runs far superior tech, holds Steam within its mighty clutches and also gives me a lot more options, such as the capacity to write this article and watch porn simultaneously. And if the Switch is selling itself on how easy it is to use, I do already own a smartphone that puts that aspect to shame, much like everyone else on the planet and their dog does.

So that leaves exclusives, which should be disregarded because a) exclusive titles are a nasty, anti-consumer practice, and b) I’m still not sure that Nintendo won’t abuse its third-party developers again and lose the right to all the good exclusives. I do have a memory, Nintendo. Erasing backward compatibility ain’t going to change that, despite everyone’s best efforts.

It should be maintained that this is all first-glance stuff, with very few details to go on at this point. Perhaps future knowledge will make me think more highly of it, but for now I’m approaching with a sense of caution. And with the teaser trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 coming out today, we’re all pretty much in the dark about everything that’s going on, but at least we can ensure that the latter will allow us to shoot buffalo. Something tells me that Mario won’t have the stones for that one.

You can find the Nintendo Switch Teaser Trailer here.

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE REVIEW – “PLAYER TEMPERS ARE SKY-HIGH”

Here’s a bit of information that’ll surprise nobody: people suck.

And here’s a bit of information that’ll somehow be even less surprising than the previous one: people who play online multiplayer games suck even more.

I mean, is it even up for debate at this point? Between the pathetic shrieking, the inability to cooperate cheerfully, the ugly personalities, the permeating, eye-rolling belief that every game is the final match in some lame eSports tournament and that those who aren’t min-maxing every piece of gear are somehow not worth your time… It’s all infuriating. Why don’t you just relax and have some fun, you jackasses? You’re the collective reason why anybody with any brains at all sticks to the calm, clean waters of single player, rather than take the risk of jumping into the diseased community pool that is online gaming.

Yes, maybe I am a little bitter. I’ve never been a man for multiplayer in any major way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good design and understand that playing with others can add a certain spice, especially when certain choices complement that spice. Watch_Dogs is now accepted as a pile of bland wallpaper paste and Hot Topic t-shirt scraps, but that hide and seek invasion thing worked pretty well, mainly for the ability to watch other people wet themselves when they realised someone was reading their browser history. And Dark Souls figured out pretty early on that the best way to minimise the problems of online gaming is to keep the dialogue and communication to a minimum, with clear goals and objectives for everyone involved. After all, nothing brings down the experience of playing with other people like… Well, other people.

And thus we come to Guns Of Icarus Online, which is a game I only found out existed last week, but had secretly always wanted in some form or another without quite knowing it had been done already. I can’t tell if I should be pleased or annoyed by that fact. I suspect that those who read a lot of my work will be able to guess.

The basic concept of this game is that everybody gets booted into a multiplayer server, and there’s a bunch of heavily-armed steampunk-pirate-ship-blimp things that float around like the inhabitants of Fallen London had decided to re-enact a battle from Star Wars, and the result is as lethal as you’d expect. Up to four players who are all seeing everything in first-person totter around on each ship trying not to vomit, and they’re all required to perform various roles if everybody’s going to make it out alive and bring down the enemy craft.

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The landscapes and level design in Guns Of Icarus are often hauntingly beautiful and even a little chilling. This mood is frequently ruined by the static-ridden moaning supplied by your teammates.

Which immediately brings out the problem of shared responsibility, and the failing of one person quickly becoming something that everyone has to deal with. Whether it’s the captain steering you all into a cliff, or the engineer just spending the whole game cooking marshmallows by the glow of a small engine fire, the blimp getting smashed to bits is still going to mean death for everyone, whether you’re Amelia Airhart or Ted Striker.

But normally I wouldn’t worry about this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the enemy ship that bursts into flames or if it’s ours, the gameplay is still fun and shooting at distant targets is satisfying enough to be worth the effort, win or lose. It’s not like GTA V, where one person getting killed in the online mission was a genuine pain in the neck, as you all got thrown back to the start and lost progress. Yeah, you’d forgotten how much that sucked, didn’t you? I’m going to hold that grudge until the end of time.

But back to Guns Of Icarus, and let me say that the element of teamwork is a fundamental mixed bag. In my mind I was hoping for something like those scenes in Firefly or classic Star Trek, where everybody’s coordinating tactics and having a great time doing so. And when I was lucky enough to be playing with friends that was certainly the case, especially when you realise that the game is instantly made twice as good when you put on a pirate voice.

It was all rather thrilling. From my position at the helm I’d spin the wheel and turn us hard to port with a great thunder of wood and sails, bellowing commands and watching my loyal crew scamper around, wisecracking and generally enjoying themselves. Or maybe I’d be some lowly engineer cabin boy (represented by yours truly putting on a tremulous Oliver Twist voice), dashing between various parts of the ship at the whim of my commander, trying to fight back the flames and keep everything running. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s nuanced, but most of all it feels good to do…

… Until you enter a public lobby by yourself, and everything goes to shit. I admit that there’s not much the developers can do about their customer base acting like piss-stained chimps, but perhaps they could stop giving them abilities to annoy other people with? One particularly galling factor is that any captains in the lobby can extend the timer before the game starts, apparently indefinitely. Why the fuck is that there? What purpose does it have other than to be abused? If people aren’t ready to play, they could always just back out of the lobby and adjust their knick-knacks there, though I doubt they need it. The developers do give them two hundred seconds of prep-time at least, I’m sure they can cope with that.

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Gunfire and explosions are what makes this game fun, whether those explosions come from your cannons, your engine, or your hydrogen-filled balloon “Hindenburging.”

There’s other irritants you’ll have to endure if you want to get at the pearl of good game design. For example, I do understand why the pilot is always the de facto Captain once you start playing. He’s best positioned to survey the area, he can maneuver the ship to get the optimal angles on enemies, and in a game about teamwork it’s still probably helpful to have somebody who can buckle down and take charge when things get hairy.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice it only means that one little git with a pile of Mountain Dew bottles stacked by his chair gets a power rush to match his sugar rush, and will scream unendingly at those unfortunates who don’t do what he tells them straight away. Oh, and captains can also see what loadout you’re using and recommend different ones, which only puts more power in their hands. No, I don’t want that kind of hammer using up my limited equipment space. Yes, I know there’s no limit to how many times you can make that text box ping at me and tell me to change it, you little sod.

And see how far declining that offer gets you – either a tirade of abuse in your ear or some mouth-breather giving a disgusted groan into the microphone before he lengthily explains why your build is completely wrong and inefficient. Dude, I’m just here to blow up airships with my flamethrower turret. Why is everybody making this so goddamn difficult for me?

Because on the few occasions that the dominoes fall into place and you get a good game going, it’s actually very engaging. The maps are huge and all thick with fog, which is placed around in a manner that manages not to be overly obstructive, yet adds a layer of stealth prior to every dogfight. Hell, it manages to be creepy and tension-raising to a legitimately startling degree. There’s something skin-crawling about the silence as you float past looming mountains or damaged skyscrapers, the only sounds being the creaking of rope and timber, constantly straining your eyes to see if that’s the glint of an enemy craft inside that wall of cloud-bank.

Then, BANG! Cannon fire ‘cross the starboard bow, sir! Aagh! Get on the port turrets, you scurvy dogs! I’ll swing this tub around to greet ‘em! Mister Engineer, keep watch on those propellers, I’m pushing ‘em to all they’ve got! Direct hit, sir! Wait, what the hell’s that sound? Captain, second target approaching from the stern! They’re below us, sir! Then man your stations, and full speed ahead! Prepare to fire on my command! CHARGE!

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Hmm… Might need to break out the ol’ toolkit for this one.

At least, that’s how it should be. And with the right friends, that’s what you get. Bombastic, climactic, volcanic airship action, that comfortably blends strategy with heat-of-the-moment thinking and a nicely designed backdrop. But if you go in solo and end up with a mismatched team of nose-picking goons, you can watch something that should’ve been superb get completely ruined as an experience. Hoo-bloody-rah.

So my advice to anybody considering a purchase is this: buy if you have at least one other friend who plays, and only go on it when you know he’ll be backing you up. And when you hop into matchmaking, take your own ship and pray to god that all the other crew members besides you and your bestie are just the quiet, cooperative bots, which are clearly superior to the pond life that might replace them. Those of you who don’t have any friends up for airship battles are advised to stay clear unless you have an insanely strong stomach, and not just because of air sickness.


6.5/10

With a better community this easily could’ve been an eight or even higher, but the fact that players are permitted to act like dicks and even actively encouraged to do so means that the biggest foe in Guns Of Icarus isn’t the enemy – it’s your own crew. Scoop this one up if you’ve got comrades who you love and trust, otherwise you may want to keep your feet on the ground.

HAYDEE REVIEW – “BEEP BOOB”

Well. That was… Something.

In light of the controversy surrounding Haydee, it almost feels pointless to offer a critique of how it holds up on the level of gameplay. After all, everybody who’s played it or seen footage of the titular protagonist (and I choose that word very carefully) has already formed their opinion. Either you hate it for being sexist, you admire it for being subversive, or you love it disproportionately because a group you don’t like hates it. Or, contrarily, you hate it for the same reason. Or maybe you just have a fetish for women with buckets on their heads. Que sera, sera.

The point is that writing around the subject feels somewhat irrelevant, but that never stopped me before. So I’ll come right out and say it – a few gameplay ideas in Haydee are basically OK. Doesn’t matter if the main character is a sexist throwback or a powerful gender-icon when it comes to that angle, any more than Hideo Kojima’s sub-par writing skills change the fact that it’s fun to choke Russians in MGSV.

The game prides itself on insane difficulty, and that is certainly warranted. You meander around the sexbot research zone of Aperture Science Laboratories, and a number of things will contrive to kill you before you find the way out, or at least locate a loose, comfortable sweater. Evil robots, lethal drops, your own stupidity – given time, one of them will finish you off. At their best, these deaths usually feel like challenging but justifiable failures, in the manner of my lovely, lovely Dark Souls. My masochistic urge for a game that won’t put up with any nonsense is well-documented, and I was kinda hoping that Haydee would scratch that itch between sessions of Super Meat Boy.

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But at their worst, the deaths feel cheap and frustrating. I’m happy to admit that when some long-limbed android rattles towards me and I put five bullets in the wall next to his head, the fact that he proceeds to kick my notably ample arse is only because I wasn’t good enough to stop him. But when his brother sidles up alongside me with no warning and caves in my head before I know he’s there, that feels cheaper than a pre-sucked penny sweet. And with save points being few and far between, getting mangled unexpectedly is almost as annoying here as it is in real life.

Which is to say nothing of the camera breathing down your neck the whole time, because god forbid you find yourself unable to examine Haydee’s body at any point in the game. I’m sure that’ll mitigate the rage of being tackled to the ground by HAL 9000’s big brother, especially when climbing up platforms is done in two stages – the first one of which ends with Haydee awkwardly bent over the surface, just so we can see right up her exhaust port and embarrass ourselves when somebody comes into the room.

But I realise I get ahead of myself, and must describe the core gameplay ‘ere I ramble off into total irrelevance. Well, it’s not easily summarised. I suppose I get flavours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with a tiny bit of ‘dat Dark Souls added in and some classic elements of old Metroidvania, all set in locations from Portal that were considered too boring to be included in the final product. You scrabble around a clean underground lab in third person, picking up every gun, medkit, keycard and bit of ammo you can find. You also climb and jump around from platform to platform (which as mentioned, manages to feel more uncomfortably pornographic than Debbie Does Dallas) in order to move on and explore non-essential areas for more equipment that’ll help later.

The story is far less comprehensive. Our hero, presumably named Haydee, is seen in an enormous science facility, where the only inhabitants appear to be aggressive robots and dead, mechanical blow-up dolls. There are some elements we can piece together, for Haydee herself is one of these buxom sexdroids, and the fact that her unmoving predecessors can be found up ahead, all damaged from some sort of attack or fall, implies that you are not the first to try and find your way out.

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But which one of us is really in a cage? Oh, it’s the robot. Seems pretty obvious now, but it’s quite hard to see with no eyes.

Or something like that, I guess. The game honestly didn’t seem to give a rotten fig about the possibility of narrative for the time I was playing it, and the broken iHookers only seem to exist to highlight which areas are fatal to fall into. The game clearly has its own opinion on what demands more attention than story – namely white panel walls, removable ventilation grates, and jiggle physics. Lots and lots of jiggle physics.

But there are things about the game I can appreciate. The minimal HUD feels nicely unobtrusive, and clearly somebody took inspiration from Dead Space and stuck Haydee’s health bar on the back of her helmet, making it an organic part of her design. Well, not organic, strictly speaking – oh, you know what I mean.

I also appreciate the fact that the game has some genuine ambition to present real challenge. Sure, I’m not too hot about the infrequent save points and the fact you have to hunt out the items needed to unlock them, but I always love a game that actually asks that the player wake up and pay attention in order to succeed. And though some deaths feel cheap and unwarranted, most of them do feel like my error and not the game’s.

And of course, I am completely on board with an emphasis on exploration, which demands the player make note of their surroundings and return to previous areas in order to be as well-equipped as possible.  Yeah, you can charge ahead and try to smother enemies with your ridiculously-sized chest, but you aren’t likely to succeed if you haven’t been snuffling around for ammunition like a Texas-born truffle hog. There’s also something rather effectively creepy about the robotic enemies, which silently move on you with clear purpose in mind, in a manner that can only be described as “advancing.” They even generate a few organic jump scares as they lurch into view, so I can’t say the game didn’t effect me.

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Day 3 in the Kardashian manufacturing facility…

That being said, the things I don’t like are more frequent, and start to get on my plums pretty quickly. The too-close, lecherous camera is one bugbear, and the unwieldy controls are another. I also don’t appreciate the fact that the plain, unremarkable environment gets old to look at very fast, and that there’s something rather unfinished and lazy about certain aspects of the game. Character animations are few and far between, the creators seem unwilling to give the player any information about what’s going on or how to play, and the lack of story feels less like a stylistic choice and more like nobody could be bothered to properly contextualise the events.

Is that everything? It is? Because I can’t think of anything else to address before we OH FINE I’LL TALK ABOUT IT.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Is this game sexist? Well, for a while I didn’t want to think so, partly because I was still kind of enjoying the gameplay and didn’t want to be seen to associate with something unseemly. After all, I have a paltry façade of a reputation to vaguely maintain. What could be more important than that?

At first I was mainly wondering if Haydee were some subtle, elaborate satire. Our protagonist is literally a set of sparsely-covered curves with no head, voice or obvious agency. Most notably, the heroine is sporting a blank plastic panel instead of a face, which in itself is so absurd as to imply self-aware, wink-wink acknowledgement. It comes across as ridiculous to consider, so defiantly backwards in tone that it makes me wonder how seriously this was all being taken. For god’s sake, the two difficulty modes are named “hardcore” and “softcore.” Could it be that all those sputtering Tumblrites were getting their piercings in a twist over nothing more than a simple satirical statement? It wouldn’t be the first time that people on the internet went insane for something that didn’t really matter either way.

But on reflection, I’m not convinced that Haydee is a satire. It’s actually not outrageous enough to come across that way, and with no story to tap into that parody potential, it feels more genuine than anything else. When I saw that the keycards all had pictures of topless women on them, I realised that this was exactly what it looked like to begin with – an unremarkable game with a few titillating elements added to draw people in. Whether that’s fine or not is up to the individual. You might call it harmless exploitation of the kind all entertainment has been engaging in since cavemen could first draw blood and nude stick figures on rocks. Or you might call it a regressive, demeaning fantasy that we should’ve gotten over around the same time. I can understand both, but it’s probably not empowering either way. But maybe it’s not trying to be. Maybe it’s happy to be stupid, sexy fun. Maybe it’s at too high an ethical price to be worth another depressing female archetype. Honestly, I’m starting to lose interest in both this subject and the game as a whole.

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It’s an easy joke, but somebody had to make it.

Which can act as my closing point. Haydee is a little too rough, a little too minimal and a little two unimpressive to be anything more than a time-waster, unable to capitalise or develop the good ideas that dwell within it. I couldn’t be bothered to play beyond a certain point, so maybe it picks up later – but I don’t care. I have limited recreation time in my life, and I ‘aint putting those valuable hours into watching Cave Johnson’s secret fetish fall into pits and perform revealing gymnastics routines. Maybe pick it up if you see it on sale, or find yourself attracted to mannequins. Otherwise, I can’t really recommend.


4/10

Haydee is a somewhat solid premise that isn’t refined enough to hold up on its own terms, so it throws in the headless Playbot as the heroine and hopes the bouncing jubblies will distract you from your growing boredom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.