BAYONETTA REVIEW – “DANTE WAS SEXIER”

Bayonetta is one of those games that, regardless of what you think of its quality, is always interesting to talk about. To make an analogy, a holy choir of orchestral angels descending from heaven would certainly be worth discussing, and even more so if they abruptly crash-landed after being swatted out of the air by a giant ponytail.

That said, there is something very upfront and in-your-face about Platinum Game’s hacky-slashy biblical comedy action thing. After all, it’s certainly not subtle. “Yes, our heroine has all the modesty of a sex shop. Yes, the characters are anime archetypes. Yes, there’s a story that’s utterly incomprehensible. Yes, the gameplay is pinched from Devil May Cry, along with most of the themes and concepts.” Hell, the idea of a highly-sexualised protagonist born with parentage in two warring factions a la Romeo And Juliet, cutting his or her way through monsters sent out from the Christian afterlife? As impressive as it sounds, it isn’t exactly new when Dante was doing it first, but the interesting parts are found in the presentation.

Which reluctantly brings me to the core plot – or perhaps I should say plots, the part of the review I should probably wade through first. Bayonetta is a mysterious witch (here redefined as stripper/dominatrix/gunslinger/occultist/hair stylist), who was found twenty years ago in a coffin at the bottom of a lake, with no memory of her life before then.

OK, Platinum Games, I’m sticking with this so far. It’s The Long Kiss Goodnight for people who thought Geena Davis should’ve been wearing less clothes. What else you got?

Well, Bayonetta is then attacked by angels on a regular basis, who want to kill her because… Err, actually that’s never very well explained. There’s a couple of throwaway lines at the beginning to justify their repeated presence, but it doesn’t explain much and raises more questions than it answers, which feels… Strange. The angels don’t seem to have any real bearing on the plot, as all the main villains belong to other factions, so they just frequently swarm Bayonetta like wasps at a picnic and she swats them away again. You’d think the divine armies of Heaven would warrant their own game, but here they’re just annoyances, something to be dealt with alongside the huge civilian casualties and excessive shampoo bills. Though I guess in that case I can filter the angels out of the plot synopsis I’m constructing in my head – is there anything else you need to tell me, Platinum Games?

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Gotta say, I’ve never seen a Comic-Con robbery before.

Well, there’s a second witch called Jeanne, who is Bayonetta’s sister, but also isn’t her sister because of reasons. And there’s a younger version of Bayonetta who’s her daughter, and also not her daughter because she’s traveled forward in time but thinks Big B is her mother. And you meet her dad (I think), who takes only five minutes to convince you that he is the most insufferable person who ever lived, but then he informs you that he wants to build a new universe. Or destroy it, or merge the existing ones, or something like that. It’s not important right now. He’s resurrecting God by putting two eyes in a statue, except they’re not eyes, they’re jewels. Or they’re people, sort of. It’s probably not important.

Wait, what?

Oh, and there’s a guy in a Doctor Who scarf who’s trying to kill Bayonetta because she killed his dad, but he’s also her love interest because we have no idea what tone we’re trying to set with this character. But Bayonetta didn’t actually kill his dad, and yet never feels the need to adequately explain this to him, leaving him in a state of mild trauma for all his life. But it’s kooky in presentation, so I guess it’s OK, right?

Erm, could I just ask-

Oh, and there’s a rival clan of sages who are based around images of the sun. And a guy from hell who makes weapons out of old music LPs. And a German city that somehow makes New York look like a petrol station. And a chubby comic relief character with a nice car. And a deity you punch into the sun. And a-

Wait, wait, wait! Who was the guy with the scarf again?

We won’t mince words anymore – Bayonetta’s story is a huge, throbbing weak point to match the ones that all the bosses seem to have. It’s utterly confusing, presented both too fast and too slow to make any real sense to those who haven’t spent the last five years drawing on their cell wall with blunt crayons. There’s whole story elements which seem to have no connection to anything else and the characters are too hooked on their own archetypes to really appeal to anybody.

Bayonetta is the perfect example of this. Aside from the sub-par voice acting, the only time she seems likable is when she drops the act of being some unflappable badass and just consents to behave like a human being. All the silly catsuits in the world can’t make me think that she’s anything other than annoying, especially when she’s utterly cold and unimpressed by the genuinely interesting people she meets in the first half of the game. There might’ve been an interesting character study in somebody who puts up a wall of exaggerated sexuality in order to hide their own weaknesses or insecurities… But director Hideki Kamiya was clearly more concerened with generating one-liners and reasons for her to flirt with Tom Baker’s Japanese nephew.

Which isn’t to say the story can’t be entertaining. It’s not well written or well-structured by any means, but there’s something so gleefully blasphemous about it that it never gets boring, to say the least. It’s especially fascinating early on, where the game is completely in love with its own ideas and pushes them to bursting point, with a fight scene in a graveyard that throws out all ideas of restraint and goes into what I can only think of as an “otaku frenzy.”

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I have no words. Only a sudden remembrance of a fair few repressed memories.

But it’s hard to appreciate that commitment to entertaining the audience, because whilst Kamiya knows what he’s doing when it comes to gameplay, when it comes to film and animation the directing talent on show is nothing short of awful. Do you remember that great slow-motion scene in the reboot Devil May Cry game, where Dante gets dressed as he flies through the air in a falling caravan? That scene worked becuae we could actually understand what we were seeing, and that seems to be a minor consideration here.

It’s actively frustrating. Bayonetta and Jeanne would be acting out some demented combat sequence/dance routine that leaves Heaven’s soldiers as smears of blood and feathers, but I couldn’t register any of it among an undisciplined flurry of camera angles, close-ups and quick-cuts. So when it inevitably ended on some action pose and a musical flourish (obviously intended as the point where the audience should’ve been cheering) I could only scratch my head and make a mental note to  watch it again at half speed. This must be how my mother feels when she watches a Marvel movie.

But let me get off the hate train and step onto the praise platform. The gameplay is good, a more hyperactive version of Devil May Cry and featuring most of the same elements. Light attack, heavy attack, dodge, jump and fire pistols. Mix those options with some wobbling of the analog sticks and you got yourself a combo, my friend. No, we don’t expect you to know which one. Yes, it still feels deeply unnatural to pause in the middle of an attack to enact certain moves, but considering you can get along fine without it you probably shouldn’t worry.

I admit, I got through most of this game button-mashing like my life depended on it, and slamming dodge when anything looked at me funny. There’s a rather neat feature wherein evading an attack at the last second causes time to temporarily slow down to a crawl, allowing you to kick your attacker in the face with the power of bullet-time; and the capacity to shoot enemies with your feet is as enjoyable as it is memorable.

There’s also more powerful attacks which involve hair. No, I don’t understand it either. Apparently most occult magic is focused on the follicles, hence why all the witches’ most epic attacks involve their hair unravelling and reforming into giant fists, or shoes, or even monsters. The problem is that Bayonetta’s outfit is woven from that same hair, and oh no! The more powerful your attacks, the more her outfit visibly disappears. And I don’t mean she goes from long sleeves to short sleeves. At times it looks like she should be starring in that Dead Or Alive swimsuit spin-off series, her outfit reduced to a couple of tasteful strands of hair that cover up the most indecent parts. How inconvenient for our heroine in cold weather, but how fortunate for all the observing nerds who suddenly find themselves hotter than ever before.

Beyond that, it’s exactly what you’d expect. There’s some platforming, some basic puzzle work, a few collectables and optional challenges that involve killing people with a handicap (by which I mean certain powers are taken from you, not you kicking people in wheelchairs).

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This is religion that I entirely approve of. Cake or death, motherfuckers?

It’s also worth mentioning that with or without those restrictions, you’ll probably die regardless. Because for all Bayonetta’s breezy confidence, this is a blisteringly tough game that enjoys putting the players through their paces. I usually got spat out of combat with a score equivalent to what you’d expect a coma patient to achieve in any other game, so those of you looking for an easy power fantasy might come out the other side with your tail between your legs. As a veteran Dark Souls player I find myself used to such treatment, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that most who started this game didn’t find themselves getting to the end.

Mind you, there are times where being beaten feels less fair than it should be. Forget Bayonetta’s nudity, the final boss is outrageous enough to be sporting an instant-kill attack; and the game has a nasty habit of throwing random, fatal Quick Time Events at you without warning. It’s staggering the amount of times I’d be in the middle of some extra-long cutscene, when suddenly the game would shout at me to slam a button combination and before I could react I’d be looking at a GAME OVER visual. Points lost for that, I think.

What else? I guess the visuals are nice, if a bit basic. The game does what a lot of games do now and presents the angelic forces as a combination of broken porcelain dolls, ragged feathers and inhuman shapes, like Michelangelo’s David was crossbred with the toy from Annabelle and a dead chicken. But it doesn’t look bad among the European architecture of the setting and the music is rather good, including a recurring cover of “Fly Me To The Moon” and an even catchier synth saxophone number at the end.

Which brings me to my final point, which came back to me as I was watching Bayonetta dance alluringly to said saxophone number. I’d been thinking it for a while, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Shouldn’t this game be… Sexier? I know that’s an odd complaint, one that I’d normally rank alongside “doesn’t disgorge free ham from the disc drive,” but it’s different here. I’m from the school of thinking that generally doesn’t care what you do, as long as you do it well and without compromise. And it’s obvious that Platinum Games and Kamiya wanted Bayonetta to be as sexy as possible.

Spoiler warning – she isn’t, not in the slightest.

It’s hard to put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s the failing of the graphics to make her look sufficiently alive, let alone like a member of the same race as us. Perhaps it’s because her body proportions seem so exaggerated to the point of unreality. Perhaps it’s because she never actually seems to have genuine sexual interest in anybody, and it all comes across as highly forced. Whatever it is, our pointy protagonist doesn’t seem sufficiently human to elicit any erotic feelings. It’s like being asked to feel attracted to a standing lamp in fetish gear. A fairly subjective whinge, yet it’s hard to ignore. Everything about this game is hard to ignore.

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This is less sexy, and more awkward. Really awkward.

But at the end of the day, Bayonetta is guilty, stupid fun, often making mistakes but rarely being tedious or annoying. It’s nowhere near as smart as it could or should be – there really feels like there was opportunity for self-aware satire here – but slicing angels into holy giblets is satisfying enough that I can recommend it to those who like their action games extreme, and featuring style over substance. Give it a go, but don’t expect titillation – you’ll come away dry and disappointed.


7/10

Bayonetta is poorly written but fundamentally enjoyable, achieving a weirdly hypnotic quality with all the insanity running throughout it. Flaws in the design do detract from the experience, but still leave a basic concept that is executed with enthusiasm and glee… Even if it ends up less erotic than boiled ham.

REIGNS REVIEW – “TINDER JUST GOT EVEN MORE DISAPPOINTING”

Hold on, let me get all the jokes out of my system. Singing In The Reign, It’s Reigning Men, Let It Reign, Learning The Reigns, and so on and so on. Good. Now I know that if I have to, I can reign it in. AW CRAP.

I must say, the new iPhone game “Reigns” (which no longer looks like a real word to me anymore) rather took me by surprise. There’s something on the App Store that overtook Minecraft? That overtook Angry Birds, Cut The Rope, those driving test practising thingies and all the others? I guess even the most well-fortified castle can’t stop one or two unkempt peasants from climbing over the wall and disrupting the natural order of things. I give it a month at best before he’s tossed out on his ear to start digging for scraps again. Oh, wait – it’s already been booted back down the ranks.

Which basically brings us to the idea of Reigns, which would present the above scenario as: “Sire, one of the peasants has broken into the thrown room! Should we throw him out?” To which you can swipe right on your advisor’s image for yes and left for no.

Yeah, you heard me right. I saw the comparison too, as a couple of minutes in I thought to myself: “well, it seems like somebody has weaponised Tinder, or at least found a non-sexual use for it.” Whether this is a vast improvement on the formula or defeats the point entirely is kind of up to the individual’s taste, but for the record the game is aware of the comparison, parodying the dating app openly when it comes to picking your new bedtime buddy. And like Tinder, this also ended in my character developing an STD. Damn it, even my fantasy escapism seems to be following the patterns of sucky real life.

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You are right, my Playmobil wife. But on the other hand, I was shooting them with arrows yesterday… Maybe give them time to cool off?

The basic premise is that you are the king of some vaguely medieval, pre-Renaissance fantasy world and you must make choices in order to preserve your own power and the state of the Kingdom. There’s four separate stats you have to manage with those choices, and picking certain options will unlock new cards that show up later, in vaguely simplified version of the gameplay that Hand Of Fate was peddling. And before you decide you want to roleplay Robert Baratheon and let the whole thing slide into ruin whilst you gorge yourself into oblivion, the game will contrive an explanation to kill you if those stats mentioned above should ever go too low or two high.

Doesn’t really matter if you do die, though. If his lordship should ever suffer a mild case of daggers to the back, or forgets the basics of economics to such a degree that he allows the Shadowrun MegaCorps to overtake everything, the game just coughs up a new king to play as afterwards, usually with most of the choices that dead ol’ dad made still intact.

Let me put down a flag here so we know where we stand – I don’t actually like Reigns and I certainly won’t be recommending it when this review is over. It’s not dreadful and it’s by no means offensive, but twenty minutes in I suddenly realised that I’d really like to be clipping my toenails, or deciding on a meal for that evening, or taking potshots at the postman with a crossbow now that he’s brave enough to approach the house again. And when a game can’t even distract me from my underlying urge to kill and cause misery (an urge shared by all critics at heart), I feel that it’s not worth the £2.29 entry fee to get in.

Honestly, I was just bored by the thing. There’s no sense of stakes to anything I do when I know that Kingly junior is waiting in the wings to take over the second my head gets lopped off, and you never get to see the Kingdom itself, only the square heads of your advisers coming to you with constant problems or useless trivia. So why should I care about the state of something I can’t even see, and don’t really believe even exists in the context of the fantasy the game is presenting?

And when it’s not being boring, it ventures into the frustrating. Listen Reigns, if you’re going to have stats changing, either tell us exactly how they’re going to change or keep it completely secret – don’t do this annoying half-measure you’ve come up with. Observing one option without picking it will show how much of an impact it’ll have on your stats, but for some reason it doesn’t tell you whether the impact will be positive or negative. Some of these are easy to guess – obviously building more monasteries will increase church influence, no shit Sherwood – but some are a lot harder to pin down or easy to guess. Does marrying somebody help the treasury when you receive a dowry, or does a royal wedding cost too much to make a profit? I could see justifications for both, which means a large part of the game is just trying to read the developer’s mind. And that, without meaning to be confrontational, can bugger right off.

5

D’oh!

But the game isn’t without its positive qualities. The visual style is amusing and it was a nice change to play an iPhone game that didn’t have micropayments, a constant need for Internet and a decent file size, as well as controls that actually feel as though they were working with the design and not against it. I also liked certain elements of the writing (like the first appearance of the Devil, partly because I love a family reunion), but it’s hard to say if the game is written well when everything is conveyed in short sentences and factoids. A lot of writing, but sadly no prose to make anything of it.

Like I said, I can’t really recommend this game. Like many, many iPhone titles it feels too insubstantial and flimsy. The idea of running a kingdom through direct orders without seeing the immediate consequences over a long time does have potential as a concept, but it’s not utilised very well here. Try something like a Telltale game if you want more in the way of impactive storytelling, rather than reading the same Munchkin cards over and over.


 

4/10

Reigns has an initial interest as you look to see what choices it might throw at you, but it diminishes fast and ends up becoming too dull to recommend. At least Hand Of Fate let you stab people between sessions.

BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT REVIEW – “NIGHT, KNIGHT”

Sometimes I feel like this site was born out of my many, many things to say about only three series: Dark Souls, Pokemon, and the Batman: Arkham games. An eclectic mix to be sure, but the last of those is perhaps the one I’ve gotten most passionate about, especially in regards to its final entry in the franchise. I wrote about what Arkham Knight shouldn’t do upon release, what it could’ve done in retrospect, what it ended up doing and why it ended up doing it. Spoiler alert – those last two are not filled with high praise. Man, I forgot how angry I could get back then, whereas now all I get emotional about is being able to see the bottom of the whiskey bottle.

But funnily enough, I never wrote how well Arkham Knight worked as a game. I started writing a review a while ago when I heard that some patches had been applied, like a band-aid roughly stuck over a shotgun wound, but found myself uncertain on how to precede and eventually felt myself losing interest. But with all the talk recently about how the DC movie universe is a bucket of rancid chicken, I found myself suitably forgiving of the Arkham games. So I started from scratch, played through the campaign again, sat back to consider how I thought of it and released I felt… Not much at all.

Putting aside the shocking state of the original PC port, Arkham Knight is a very average game. It has some very notable problems, it has a few moments of genuine genius, but most of the time it doesn’t have much going for it at all. It’s like watching a heart monitor. Here the line goes up, here the line goes down, here it goes flat, up again, down again… But all this adds up to is just proof of existence, and all it establishes is that there’s just some vague form of life beneath the skin.

Perhaps this is most evident in the story, and Arkham Knight manages to be fascinating on a critical level by featuring both the best and the worst that the Arkham games have to offer in terms of narrative. Having established a fairly solid premise – Scarecrow orchestrates a major Gotham evacuation for an unknown reason and has some mysterious lout in Iron Man armour backing him up with a personal grudge against Batman – the game suddenly loses steam pretty fast, determined to stretch out the story as long as it’ll go.

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The Joker’s big song and dance number is one of the all-too rare high points in the story, and also makes an interesting point – that Batman’s detective brain is capable of subconsciously creating whole musical sequences on the spot. Maybe he has a career waiting for him on Broadway?

It’s impossible to ignore. The first act is so brief it might as well not exist, whereas act two takes up about ninety percent of the game and yet barely anything happens in it, with famous villains pointlessly coming and going, like scared child pageant contestants wandering aimlessly across a stage. Remember how in the first game there was a central plot with a central villain, but everybody in the Asylum had some clear connection to that plot and it all seemed very organic and natural? Yeah, forget that. Here they feel like distractions and diversions, which is probably why most of their story arcs break off into optional side quests and never get a suitably story payoff. This problem is alleviated somewhat by the reappearance of Mark Hamill as the Joker (one of the best and most underrated performances of the character I’ve ever seen), but it’s undeniable that all he’s doing is providing audio commentary over the more boring parts, and hinting at what we can expect for the third act finale.

But it’s that finale where the game suddenly jerks back to life, with everything we’d want to see in the last moments of a big game franchise. In rapid succession we have a legitimately interesting look into the psychology of Bruce Wayne, a climactic struggle between him and his arch-nemesis, the reveal of Batman’s identity on live television, and a terrifying sequence where we suddenly release just how nerve-wracking it would be to get attacked by the caped crusader when you weren’t expecting it. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

Admittedly, the proper 100% final ending is a load of cobblers that’s not worth the effort, but I do have great respect for Rocksteady for really experimenting with the formula more than most adaptations would dare to with source material. Yes, there’s stupid bits and bits that don’t work. Scarecrow is far less interesting in this game than he was in the first one, the idea that people with Joker’s blood transfused into them start to actually become the Joker is an eye-roller, and the reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity is a major disappointment, sure – but there are solid ideas here. They’re just spread so thin that it’s easy to lose track of them.

Sadly, I can’t help but get annoyed when there’s layers and layers of pointless missions that have no narrative bearing on what’s going on. Its hard to avoid that sense of frustrating impatience when I’m having to fly somewhere without alerting any enemies, so I can sneak around a base, so I can beat up some bad guys, so I can access a computer, so I can lower a bridge, so I can get to the Batmobile, so I can scan for some tire tracks, so I can find a certain car, so I can discover where somebody was taken, so I can rescue them, so I can use their help to beat up Arkham Knight, so I can find out where Scarecrow is, so I can stick that stupid needle glove down his throat until he chokes on it. Wait, who was it I’m saving again? I’ve done eight hours of meaningless piffle to get here and I don’t care anymore.

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With time, jumping into the Batmobile becomes less of an exciting prospect and more of a tedious commute. How did blowing up stuff become so boring?

Actually, it’s funny I mention the Batmobile, because that was a serious point of contention with the public when the game was released. And honestly, I don’t see why. I’ll happily confess that driving this big tank is far less fun than just punching people in the regular gameplay, but I never really understood all those complaints about people saying it was unwieldy and hard to control, especially when you could just toggle strafe mode and instantly slide into whatever direction you want, easy-peasy. And one of the things I actually quite like about it is that the vast majority of obstacles just crumble ineffectively when directly confronted by several tons of heavy armour plating and weaponry cosplaying as a flying squirrel.

But easy doesn’t mean fun, and driving the Batmobile does get old fast when the game keeps contriving excuses for you to use it. I got so sick of being thrown into the driver’s seat that I actually cheered when I saw it get destroyed in a cutscene in the final third of the game. And when Batsy revealed that he always keeps a spare in case something like this happens, and that we need it to blow up yet another tank battalion, I cursed bitterly under my breath. The car is slower than gliding to your destination, less fun than direct melee combat and actively annoying when it comes to the weird stealth driving missions. So why the hell is it here? Just keep it in the shed along with Damien’s bike and we can go about our day.

Thankfully in regular gameplay, it’s exactly what we saw before. Here’s a big city full of goons who need punching, with story-focused missions spread around and waiting for you like candles on a birthday cake. And those returning Riddler trophies? Think of them as the hundreds and thousands on the cake – because there’s tons of them, they amount to nothing and have no real flavour of their own. What lunatic kept asking for these things in every game?! They sort of worked in Arkham Asylum because there were actual riddles in play that tested your knowledge of Batman lore, but I promise I’ve had enough of throwing remote-control batarangs at hard-to-access switches to last me a lifetime.

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Another villain kapowed, biffed and splonked into submission. It’s like coming back home.

And when you come to deal with goons and mercenaries directly, it’s the same system we know and love. A reaction brawler when it’s direct melee combat time, and swinging between vantage points when you need to stealthily choke out somebody with a gun. There is a bit too much gadgetry going on this time and it’s a little too easy to forget about the abilities you have, but it’s a minor quibble on a system that still works. I guess if I’m pushed for complaint that I’m disappointed Rocksteady didn’t bother to experiment with that formula, just added more powers to make it easier. All the other work went into the Batmobile and putting Scarecrow’s face in a paper shredder.

There is something that annoys me, though. Why do I feel like this entry is fighting the source material so much more than the other games? Why do I feel like it resents Batman’s no killing policy, rather than seeing it as an opportunity for fun puzzles to defeat enemies in non-lethal ways? They wanted you to be able to run over thugs in your car, but they know you can’t kill them, so they put a silly taser effect on the exterior and claimed that makes it safe. They want to have an apocalyptic event near the end with the whole town getting gassed, but don’t have the stones to admit that it would probably be knee deep in corpses even after you remove the toxic smog. They want to bring in the Riddler as a character again, but don’t care about actual tests of intellectual challenge and investigation, so there’s just race tracks instead. They want you to be able to blow up tanks, but they don’t want the drivers getting melted into the metal and ruining the illusion, so they’re all unmanned drones. Seems to me that if I were Gas Mask Skeletor and his sidekick Special K, I’d purposefully stick some guys in the tanks so Batman can’t explode them without ruining his no-kill record.

All this adds up to is a game that intrigues at the beginning, excels at the end, but takes so long to get from one to the other that it almost doesn’t seem worth the effort. The PC port is now somewhat better (though by no means perfect and likely never will be), and all the additions to gameplay feel unnecessary. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t enjoy getting back into the bone-breaking swing of things when it came to throwing muggers into brick walls, but I have the other games for that. So all this one really has to offer that’s fresh is a few narrative insights and some tedious vehicle combat in a Power Rangers car.

Let’s not mince words here – Arkham Knight is the third best game in a trilogy (or quadrilogy if you include Origins, because you’re feeling sorry for it), but being third best in this series doesn’t necessarily mean you suck. It just means that you had to do really well to compete with the brilliant Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

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Batman takes time out from smacking muggers and banging Catwoman to catch up on the latest from Downton Abbey. All of Gotham is hooked – they just can’t get enough of Hugh Bonneville, you know.

Arkham Knight fails that lofty goal, but that doesn’t mean it’s irredeemable. It’s just kind of average, which feels like more of a shame when you consider its heritage up until now. I guess I might recommend it to those who see it going cheap and love the gameplay of the others, or to those who haven’t played any of the franchise before and want to try it out, but it’s not quite the worthy successor we hoped for.

Ah, well. At least it doesn’t have Lex Zuckerberg and a kryptonite spear. That’d be really bad, right?


5.5/10

Arkham Knight provides an ambitious and rather impressive story, very few gameplay innovations to a solid system, a terrible attempt at pacing and the world’s most boring supercar. Thus, with the eyes of the world watching, the Arkham series winds safely – if unremarkably – to a halt.

QUICKFIRE REVIEWS

Reviews, reviews, reviews. I love writing reviews, but there’s just so much I want to slag off or praise that I never seem to have the time to do all of them. So let’s pick up the pace a little. I’ve been on holiday recently and been absorbing more culture and media than YouTube does in a year, so let’s highlight some games, movies and shows that I want to talk about, each in less time than it takes to boil an egg. Go!


 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Pardon me for asking, but isn’t the abbreviation of “versus” usually written as VS and not just the singular letter? It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case, because it feels about as well thought-out as everything else in this movie. I caught it for the first time on the plane over, interested to see if this were the legendary train wreck that everybody had told me, and honestly I’m disappointed even on that level. No point-and-laugh marathon like The Room or Birdemic to be found here, I’m afraid.

That said, there are a few moments of unintentional comedy – such as Bruce Wayne’s employee scratching his chin over whether he should leave the building that’s in the path of the black hole machine – but most of the time BVS is just boring or even frustrating. Boring because most of this is stuff we’ve seen before in a more joyous form, and frustrating because there’s a few parts that do work well, but never get space to develop. Ben Affleck captures both personas of Batman better than any recent incarnation, Gal Gadot gets kinda badass when she suits up as Wonder Woman, but neither of them can reach any sort of potential in this poorly-edited mess, brought down several notches further solely by the power of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Keep twitching and jabbering, Lexy – it might get intimidating if you do it a few hundred more times.

2.5/10


 

OVERWATCH: LUCIOBALL MODE

Do you like Overwatch, kids?

Yes!

Do you like Rocket League?

Yes!

Then good news! We’ve made a tedious compromise of those two games, done by reducing all the scope and variety of Overwatch to just one character and dropping a fairly dodgy physics object into the mix, to be batted around like a cat with a dented ball of wool! Say thanks, kids! This’ll entertain you for whole minutes at a time!

… Thanks, Blizzard. Can we go back to playing the main game now?

3.5/10


 

STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES

Ah, shit – I’m a Trekkie. I always held it close to my heart that even though I wrote about games online, even though I played Dungeons And Dragons, even though I collected rare comic books and memorabilia, I wasn’t a total geek, because I wasn’t a Trekkie on top of all that. There was still some hope.

It’s all changed now. I went into the original Star Trek series thinking that if I did like it, it would be ironically, sniggering at the campness of at all. “Ha ha, Shatner sweats all the time and all the alien women wear glittery miniskirts,” that sort of thing. I practically had a tally ready for all the red shirt deaths that would occur.

But I realised not halfway through the second episode that I was genuinely hooked. Though some aspects of the Star Trek saga haven’t aged well, the basic concept of an exploration ship charting unknown space worked then and works still, an endearing and exciting idea that promises anything and everything on a weekly basis. Not to mention that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian human society still holds water as a legitimate and exciting idea, with all these concepts working as the platforms for some rather interesting stories and plotlines.

It’s not perfect, of course. The third season is fairly hit and miss at best, certain episodes have very weird editing and pacing, a few of the actors could’ve been working a lot harder; and though progressive in its ideals of a racially-equal cast, the show occasionally gets a little uncomfortable around the female characters and their role in these stories, though no worse than anything else would’ve probably been at the time. But if you can see past those errors, you realise that there’s something very charming here, a rough stone that shines despite its flaws and blemishes. I have to recommend it – it’s just too fun to miss.

7.5/10


 

THE TRUMAN SHOW

Bloody hell, that was creepy. For those of you who don’t know, the Truman Show was a 1998 Jim Carrey movie in which he plays Truman Burbank, an average shmuck who has been the unknowing star of a global reality TV show since his birth. Confined to a single town solely constructed to be his personal backdrop, and with the most irritatingly convincing hauteur executive controlling every event that happens to him, Burbank has no idea that his family, friends and everybody he meets are only well-paid actors, provoking him into TV-worthy situations all his life. When things start to go wrong on-set and Truman realises that something is amiss, he slowly starts to lose his mind to paranoia, whilst the world watches him break down with gormless fascination.

I was already thinking of The Twilight Zone even before I found out that there was a direct inspiration, and it works very well, with the whole thing having an intentionally creepy, artificial feel that made my skin crawl.

So this movie occasionally made me wonder if it was made to push my buttons, but not in a bad way. It’s very well made and Carrey is really working hard to convince us that he’s on the edge of a psychological breakdown in the second half, but I suspect I was more unnerved by it than I was meant to be. I hate reality TV, I hate having my privacy invaded, I hate the idea of being lied to, and so Truman’s secret prison of Seahaven feels like some ghastly hell to be trapped inside. I actually found myself loathing Ed Harris as Executive Producer Christof, desperate to see him get some sort of comeuppance as punishment for his revolting treatment of Burbank, whom he goes so far as to traumatise and install a fear of water to prevent him from leaving the town.

And that’s where the film flops slightly – the ending. Spoilers for this paragraph, but it HAS almost been out for two decades, so here we go: Basically, what you think would happen, happens. Truman finds the edge of the enormous set and escapes as the world watches, even going so far as to give his signature goodbye to an audience of billions. He leaves, they cheer at his success, change channel to see what else is on… And that’s it. No subversion, no surprise, nothing. I get what Paul Weir was trying to say, that the important thing is that Truman has found his freedom and life just goes on as usual for everybody else, but it still feels like a slightly weak cop-out, especially when there’s been a sense of pressure building for ages before it. I was really hoping he would start screaming a profanity-filled rant at the camera and all of the people who supported his isolation, before storming upstairs and punching Harris in the face. But no, guess we just have to do with the safer version. It really is like the end of most TV shows – an anticlimax.

That’s not a truly damning criticism though, not by a long way. The Truman Show is rather compelling and very intelligent, managing to be one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a while. What’s that? You DON’T think it’s a horror film? In that case, I’d be really happy if a) nobody gives you a camera phone, and b) you stop reviving the show Big Brother for additional seasons, please.

8/10


 

POKéMON MYSTERY DUNGEON: GATES TO INFINITY

Goddamnit. How can something that started off so strong at the beginning of its life end up as this tepid mush on the 3DS? Then again, I suppose it happened to the main Pokémon series too, so you can’t say it’s not fitting for Mystery Dungeon to go the same way.

I played Gates To Infinity when it first came out, and found myself really rather disliking it, yet unable to put my finger on why. Fortunately, I now have a lot of practice at dissecting games to see where the infection lies, and this one has a disease I like to call “Nintendoitis.” Obvious symptoms include the loss of any meaty challenge, the alarming spread of pointless, unwarranted mini-games or secondary mechanics, and the regurgitation of anything popular from previous games in order to try and elicit the same response from players. Oh, and you may notice that your eyes have turned inside out as the result of playing with the 3D function on. Take two cartridges of Super Mario World before and after going to bed, and you should’ve forgotten about this tedious entry in no time.

3/10


 

UNDERTALE

Yep. Still awesome, still the best game of last year, still one of the best written games in this decade so far. Just thought I’d remind everybody. Carry on.

10/10


 

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Sigh… Another film I watched on the plane ride over, nestled between Hail Caesar! and the new Peanuts flick with the embarrassing pop songs thrown in. And on paper, I should’ve been invested in this. I love old-school science-fiction, and Midnight Special looked to be the perfect reimagining of – again – those old Twilight Zone episodes, with a hefty scoop of E.T. and Close Encounters mixed in for good measure. Except that this episode of the Twilight Zone lasts for two hours, and that’s a serious problem.

Christ, I was bored, to the point where my eyes kept flicking to the screen in front where my sister was watching Deadpool quite happily, the lucky bugger. The basic idea of three weirdos hiding from the police and trying to escape across the country with Michael Shannon’s magical child should’ve been interesting, but this film seems to view “interesting” in the same way that a vegetarian views a steak sandwich. At one point Baby Blue Eyes telepathically destroys a surveillance satellite in orbit, the wreckage of which proceeds to obliterate the area around them, and that was exciting, jolting me out of my disinterested half-snooze and making me sit up. But then it’s just accepted that lil’ Jimmy can blow up spacecraft with his brain and everybody moves on, leaving us to witness the continuation of the most awkward car trip that ever was, perhaps excluding The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The cast are not to blame for this, I should emphasise. General Zod, Mary Jane Watson, Kylo Renn, Rameses II, and the kid who’s been in nothing I recognise are all straining against this stilted, uncomfortable script, trying to validate the weirdly unnatural dialogue. There’s something very Shyamalan-esque about the whole thing, with everybody talking in hushed whispers to try and sell the underwhelming concepts that are being pedaled to us. But it ends up feeling forced and very dehumanising, to the point where these don’t feel like real people any more. Thus identifying with them is impossible, and rooting for them feels like a chore.

It’s not irredeemable by any means, it’s just a decent idea being poorly executed. It’s a little too pretentious and a little too boring, and any child presented as a condescending messiah figure will always go down like a ton of bricks, no matter how many LEDs you put in his eye sockets. I know I’m the minority on this one, but I just wasn’t hooked, even though I really, really wanted to be.

3.5/10


 

ELITE: DANGEROUS

Ah, my permanent on-again/off-again relationship with Frontier’s revived spaceship saga. Why does everybody seem to treat this game with such disdain? I really like E:D, I’ve been playing it since it was released and I still find myself coming back to it. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, it’s not very good at telling you what to do or how certain mechanics work. Yes, the matchmaking is woefully poor at hooking you up with other Han Solo wannabes in the Arena mode. But I still love looping through the void and blasting pirates with my phaser guns, and anybody who considers that tedious may just be insane. Treat it with that same “what do I feel like doing today” attitude that takes you through Minecraft, and you should be just fine. It’s exactly the same, except that you blow things up instead of building them, and the creepers have been replaced with supernovas. These things are nearly always improvements.

8/10

 

 

 

POKéMON MYSTERY DUNGEON: BLUE RESCUE TEAM REVIEW – “IT’S LIKE THE OTHER GAMES, BUT BETTER”

Why is it that nobody seems to remember my favourite Pokémon game? I’m not talking about Pokémon Go, more than enough people have their hooks in that, and besides – PG is only passably good fun, and no more than that. You heard me.

No, my personal sweethearts of the franchise were the early members of the Pokémon: Mystery Dungeon series, namely because they seemed to tie up a lot of problems that the main games had always been afflicted by. Right from the beginning, the original “Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team” focused more on the narrative, featured some legitimate character development and worked on building on top of the established battle mechanics. Not only that, but it did all three rather well.

Because, to geek out completely and paraphrase Mr. Spock: “It’s Pokémon, Jim. But not as we know it.” It seems that at some point in Nintendo HQ, somebody with the brief of “make up a new spin-off series” happened to move into a position where a Pikachu plushie, a copy of XCOM, and a Dungeons and Dragons box were all in their eyeline simultaneously. And before you could say “it’ll never work,” Nintendo Employee #103487 had pencilled down the beginnings of a game that would, at its high points, eclipse the main franchise in quality to a great degree.

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There’s something depressing about a floating PC accessory being so disinterested in you.

The premise to the first game was pretty absurd, but also kind of absorbing, working to earn the “mystery” remit in “Mystery Dungeon” straight off the bat. You are a human, presumably from the brightly-coloured land that the main games take place in, and are turned into a Pokémon whilst being teleported through time and space to another world altogether. A world where the little monsters you’ve spent years catching and enslaving are the only living beings around, having built an odd kind of society that feels like a Japanese interpretation of Sylvanian Families with a bit of Wind In The Willows thrown in, though sadly without the car crashes and catchy songs from the latter. And because you have no idea why any of this is going on, not to mention that your memory is suspiciously patchy when it comes to recollections of your human life, there’s clearly something going on behind the scenes that needs unveiling. Perhaps it has something to do with a recent spate of natural disasters?

Nah. Of course not. I mean, what are the odds of that?

What specific Pokémon you morph into is up to you, and yet completely out of your control, because the game begins by giving you a personality test, then resculpting you into whatever best suits your attitude. Admittedly, the options it picks from are just the starters from the pre-existing games, plus a few select others (so no chance of growing into a Gyarados straight off the bat) but there’s a simple intrigue in finding out your Japanese spirit animal and getting a brand new body to match. I was just happy to find out that my childhood connection to Squirtle wasn’t only because of the kick-ass sunglasses he was always sporting.

So you appear in The Land That Team Rocket Forgot, then to be paired up with another Poképal who asks you to join his adventuring team, because there’s not much else to do when you’re a two-foot tall blue turtle with Jason-Bourne memory loss. Your task is to take a series of mercenary jobs that all involve leaping into randomly generated labyrinths and locating either an item, a friendly NPC, or a specific enemy, one who you’ll have to give a good kicking in the Oran Berries to make him come quietly.

Thus the basic concept for the whole game is laid before us. And the critic smiled, and he saw that it was good, because it really, really is.

Part of it is because of a supporting cast of good and bad characters with clear personalities are orbiting around you, and a few of them even manage to be somewhat nuanced, in a Bambi’s forest sort of way. Sure, nobody’s going to give the subtle complexity of Tony Soprano or Walter White a run for their money, but they are fun to be around, and go through little arcs and moments of growth in times of adversity that never feel overly forced or manipulative. And when compared to the blank-eyed humanoids and two-dimensional archetypes that float through the main games, that’s a real step up in quality.

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Oh, bloody hell. This is going to be brutal.

And of course there’s the ending. Consider this paragraph a minefield of spoilers, so leap ahead if you plan on playing this for the first time, but it really bares discussing… Because I may have cried a bit when I finished this game for the first time. It’s a genuinely tragic finale. Your work in the Pokémon world is done, and you must return to the human world forever, having your mind scrubbed of all your memories and never being permitted to see your friends again. There’s a fairly obvious metaphor for death hanging around this event – your cartoon buddies openly weep as you ascend to the heavens in a shower of golden light, never to remember them or come back at all. So when the divine powers that are recalling you suddenly change their minds, and drop you back to continue playing after the credits with all your buddies again, I was so happy to see it happen that I didn’t even care that it didn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Basically the story isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s so well-intentioned that it’s hard not to feel it growing on you. It’s very earnest, full of wide-eyed heart and charm, the spiritual descendant of older tales like The Famous Five or The Magic Faraway Tree.

But without a mechanics it would just be a Japanese soap opera, or the most graphically minimal walking simulator I’ve seen yet. Thankfully, though the gameplay is a little odd, I found myself rather enamoured by it. It’s the Pokémon combat we know and love, but with a new dimension of gameplay added in – which I mean entirely literally. Because although it’s still turn-based, now you have to pay attention to space and positioning in a grid-based system, navigating enemies and paying attention to whether you’re about to walk into pool of lava that’s completely ruining some Magmar’s Feng Shui.

You have to keep all this in mind whilst battling, too. Some attacks will only hit the square directly ahead, some will keep going forward, and one extremely overpowered technique that Charizard knows will roast everybody in the same room as you. And running isn’t a matter of selecting an option on a drop-down box anymore, no way José. Now you just turn and hightail it out of there, with whatever beastie you pissed off following in hot pursuit.

But it’s not perfect, not by any means. I like that the dungeons are randomly generated, keeping players from getting complacent, but I would’ve liked to have seen the same effort put into the monsters occupying them, because fighting the same four enemies over and over gets old quickly. Yes, there’s hundreds of Pokémon programmed into the game, but you never get more than half a dozen showing up in each dungeon at one time. They might get swapped out for different ones as you head deeper into your own hellish labyrinth, but that doesn’t happen often, and I think an opportunity was missed for a proper rogue-like experience.

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“I thought you said you remembered where we parked!” “SHUT UP, I KNOW IT’S AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE.”

Which is strange, because the game gets utterly lethal in the late game stages. Those without the proper training will find themselves having a really rough time in the last act, but it’s the late-game optional dungeons that’ll separate the kiddies from the adults, which manage to be slightly harder than a blindfolded game of Dark Souls played with a DDR dance mat.

It’s hard to stay frustrated about it, though. Between missions you come home to Farthing Wood, sip a Ginseng with your best pal Alakazam, and plan where you’re adventuring next, stockpiling on equipment and finding the best missions available. It’s just honest, uncomplicated fun that ramps up naturally as you push forward, with a simple but compelling plot holding it all together.

But Metacritic tells us that Blue Mystery Dungeon scored almost thirty points behind Pokémon X and Y, so what the hell do I know? I’m clearly just some idiot who likes his characters to be relatable, his mechanics to be challenging and his games to be forward-thinking.

What a fool I am.


 

8.5/10

The pioneer that is the first in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise is working its hardest to be accepted by its peers, and manages to succeed on most accounts. Imperfect but ultimately lovable, it reaches excellence enough times to earn a place on the Pokémon pedestal… And also to overshadow the failures of later entries like Gates To Infinity. Bleagh.

HAND OF FATE REVIEW – “GAROTTE WHILST YOU TAROT”

Oh, thank god. Just when Steam Early Access and Kickstarter seems to be all but dead in the water, some brave developer has the ovaries to stand up and make a solid game that’s worth playing on its own terms, briefly reinvigorating hope in both of those rather sickly systems. Ooh, and it’s a game inspired by Dungeons And Dragons, with rogue-like elements, a sexy-voiced narrator, and the “reaction brawler” combat system (still determined to get that phrase off the ground) from older works like Arkham Asylum, Sleeping Dogs, Shadow Of Mordor, Mad Max and Assassin’s Creed, sort of.

What a mission statement! Defiant Developers, have you been looking at my Christmas list? All you need to do is add jetpacks and Cadbury chocolate, and I’ll be so happy that I’ll practically be ready for the post-coitus cigarette. This “Hand Of Fate” game does seem a little too good to be true, and sadly, it kind of is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good game that’s worth playing, but when I think about what it could’ve been, I do get a little bit of the petit mort to go along with that aforementioned smoke.

Look at that. A French joke, a sex joke, and a joke that only about ten percent of the audience will get, all in one go. And my careers advisor said I’d never amount to anything. Ha!

So Hand Of Fate (not to be confused with hand of eight, a little-known trick for cheating in poker), came out properly at the beginning of last year, having been first seen at the 2013 GDC in a basic demo form. There was a Kickstarter campaign, a variety of stages involved, a lot of stuff that most of you don’t care about at this point, and now it’s available on all the platforms that matter. Sorry Wii U, you’ll have to sit down again. This is what you get for insisting on that silly controller.

Anyway, Hand Of Fate is playing with a decent premise that I’m surprised I hadn’t seen done sooner. The basic idea is that you’re playing a combination of fantasy Yu-Gi-Oh and the Munchkin games with an old man who lives in a Dark Souls cathedral. He draws random cards that you have to deal with the consequences of, managing food, health and gold as you move from one end of the table to the other. Except that when he flips a trap card to summon half a dozen skeletons, you get sucked into the flavour text to actually fight them, in real-time combat in that “reaction brawler” (REMEMBER IT) style we alluded to earlier. Any damage or penalties you take whilst cracking skulls carries over back into the card game, where you look for ways to cancel them out, or at least compensate with the discovery of a stonkingly big sword.

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“You enter a tavern. Roll a sixteen or above not to submit to the cliches.”

But because the Dealer is drawing from a randomly shuffled deck, you’re unlikely to get the same game twice, and this is where I could understand people getting turned off by Hand Of Fate. Like many rogue-likes, luck plays a disturbingly big part of this, and there’s every chance that even the smartest of players could get a run of bum cards, and end up getting curb-stomped by a gang of irascible minotaurs, without having made the poor decisions to justify it happening.

But the opposite holds true too. Keep playing, and you’ll suddenly find yourself in one of those matches where everything just lines up perfectly, as expensive loot falls into your lap and all the battles are against one guy with a blunt toothpick. You’ll wonder how you ever failed, at least until things go gruesome again.

And that’s kind of the point, as it is with all games of this stripe and genre. You’re not expected to win every time, it’s about the challenge, the variety, and the minimal progress made, even in failure. See, even when you lose you can unlock cards for subsequent playthroughs by managing to fulfil certain criteria on the cards you already have. Draw a card that demands you fight Kleztorol the fat goblin, and tearing his head off will earn you the “treasure of burger mountain” card for the next time you play, which may shower you with weapons and American cheese as a reward. And even when cards suck, the game is rich enough with its language and narration that finding new ones at all is an enjoyable experience.

In fact, if I have a problem with Hand Of Fate, it’s that it’s not hard enough. I assumed that this game would have a certain level of challenge, something that’s demanded by the rogue-like genre to ensure an extensive playtime, but I breezed through half the campaign before I finally died to a determined band of velociraptors with shield and axes. The game gets some genuine teeth in the final quarter, loading you with so many curses and penalties that you can barely move to avoid the attacks of the armies that descend on you, but it’s a little too sudden and feels less like a justified challenge. It’s more akin to Defiant Developers just hamstringing you for being too MLG, like the incestuous guy from Gladiator backstabbing Russell Crowe before they fight.

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“What could go wrooooong!”

I also wonder if it’s a little lacking in ideas. The combat mechanics are sound enough, if somewhat simple and without nuance, but they’re screaming for something more to substantiate them, to back them up, especially when one mission allows you to run around a trap-filled maze, looking for loose change and free gear. It felt like playing the underdeveloped foundational point of a whole new branch of stuff to do. And whilst the tactical card games are fun, it feels more like a framework for gameplay than gameplay itself.

Not to mention that Hand Of Fate is also a little rough around the edges in general. The combat arenas are restrictive and often have annoying traps concealed in them, the graphics are somewhat patchy whenever you’re not at the card table, and the game suffers from the occasional glitch, such as freezing your character in place for a moment. But that said, it’s never anything really awful, and it’s no more frequent than most AAA games I’ve tried, so I can’t really get mad at it for that.

And I couldn’t end the review without giving a personal shout-out to Anthony Skordi, who as mentioned previously is chewing some spectacular scenery as the eternally-present Dealer, with a voice that manages to be more commanding than a whole herd of military officers combined. Skordi is given the substantial job of being the man who’s got to hold the tone of the game together, and does it superbly as the ornery but threatening figure watching you with narrowed eyes and calculating mind. He’s playing it somewhere between a bad-tempered headteacher, Christoper Lee’s Saruman, and the archetypal mystic who lives on the edge of every fictional carnival ever written. He’s clearly having a whale of a time playing this conceptual chimera, and consequently so does the player.

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Yes, I thought of a Borderlands joke too. What makes you so damn special?

Basically, Hand Of Fate is a good game, but it could’ve been a lot better, probably lacking the money or imagination to make the most of its potential. But there’s certainly enough here to be going on with. There’s an endless mode for when you just want to play and earn cards, providing many hours of gameplay, and Defiant have been good enough sports to give out DLC card packs for free. See that, Blizzard? This little company has made a fraction of Overwatch’s capital, and they still had the guts to give out free content without resorting to cheap microtransactions. Tsk, tsk.

Speaking honestly? Give Hand Of Fate a go. It’s flawed, but it’s also a bold, clever little game that wasn’t afraid to take risks in the name of being above the rest of the stock. That’s worthy of a good review, and I hope Defiant keep that attitude up. I’ll be following their future work closely from now on.

 


7/10

Working with less than the big boys does show here, but it’s somewhat offset in comparison to a good concept, a sense of real heart, and a voice narration that’s the best I’ve heard since The Stanley Parable.

SHADOWMATIC REVIEW – “PRETTY, BUT SHALLOW”

This week I played Shadowmatic, which is a puzzle game for IOS in which you create various silhouettes on a flat surface by rotating objects in front of a light source. You try to deduce what you can make with the shapes provided and spin them around until you strike gold. So consequently we have a game focused around staring at a blank wall. Better break out the Valium, because I’m not sure I can cope with this level of excitement.

Oh, I’m being too cruel. I like puzzle games, honest. I like the challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the ponderous approach that rewards intelligence and creative thinking. And that’s why I’m going to play some of the excellent World Of Goo later, rather than what we have here.

The problem is that Shadowmatic doesn’t have anything to hold it together, beyond sheer stubbornness and an overexcited lighting engine. Good puzzle games, like The Talos Principle, Portal and the aforementioned Goo game have all had a narrative holding them together, or at least some strong central goal. Does Shadowmatic have a story? Does it bollocks. You just line up one mess of angular, twisted wood with another, without any context or reason to justify it. There is occasionally unintentional, immature humour, derived from the fact that the shapes can combine into ones you weren’t expecting. Thus what should’ve been a horse and cart manages to become something out of the darkest corners of the Internet. Even my flatmate, glancing over my shoulder at my iPad, immediately stated that the shadow I’d made looked like two people locked in an amorous soixante-neuf, albeit not in those words. A shame, considering that I was just trying to get the angles right on a toy train.

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I just made a really fat Xenomorph. You been packing on the carapace there, buddy?

But who cares about story? Well I do, actually, though I can manage without it if I have to. See, even if a plot is absent, it is possible to have a puzzle game that entertains and enthralls. Tetris, one of the most elegant games in existence, manages to achieve a level of tension equal to disarming nuclear devices, using only a set of falling tetrominoes and a kick-ass theme tune. Admittedly, Shadowmatic isn’t going for high-stakes tension, instead trying a zen-like state of contemplative thought, the kind of relaxing trance that accompanies easy crosswords on Sunday afternoons. And I have to say it does that quite well through the graphical style and overall tone. The pretty visuals and serene sense of calm (both of which seem to be the norm for puzzle games these days) did make me feel very chilled at first, almost to the extent where I didn’t feel the need to shoot the postman with a crossbow from my bedroom window.

But the challenges offered here don’t gel well with this kind of attitude. Firstly, you’re timed on how quickly you can complete them, which is totally at odds with the idea of languorous consideration. Even the most peaceful Tibetan monk will turn into an emotional wreck when locked in a room with a single task and a ticking clock. Every second that passes makes you feel as though the game is sucking air through its teeth and making a note that says “D-, must try harder.”

But the thing that made the puzzles too tiresome to continue was the fact that the game doesn’t actually tell you what you’re supposed to be crafting, and this leads to some annoying results. When a few pieces of meaningless wood are dropped in front of you, Shadowmatic folds its arms, sits back, and waits to see what you’ll do next. So I flip them round, spin them on every axis, reposition them around each other, trying to see what secret is hidden in this mess. Is it a duckling? A teapot? A 1/67th scale model of Theo Jansen’s animated Strandbeest seen from a Northerly angle and partly obscured by both a copy of Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” on LP and Jeremy Corbyn’s left testicle? Your guess is as good as mine.

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… Yeah, this is going to get annoying really quickly.

And your guess is also the only chance you have of getting the answer organically, because the only other options are to drink from a finite pool of hints, or to use a little tracker that marks when you’re getting the trinkets close to the right positions. Allegedly, at least. Half the time it seemed to go off with no cause, and the hints are just useless, because even with the knowledge of what you’re trying to make it can be impossible to get the right position. You’re telling me to make a cat, Shadowmatic? Is that a cat standing up, lying down, sitting in place, or suspended in mid-air with my foot up its arse? Because something tells me that only one of these incredibly different poses will do, when it comes to your petty, bureaucratic mind.

That said, the game isn’t irredeemable. It’s just dull, which may explain why I got it for free from a Starbucks “Pick Of The Week” card. Seriously, I don’t hate Shadowmatic. I even think that the shadow-based puzzles could work if reimagined slightly, thought they’ll never be that original when games like A Shadow’s Tale or Contrast already exist. Maybe dial back the guesswork, throw out the timer and give a bit more purpose and variation? There’s some potential here, overshadowed (lol) by a lack of imagination and the need to be a little too artsy and pretentious. Make a game enjoyable before anything else, Triada Studio. When you’ve done that, let’s see what shows up.


 

4/10

Shadowmatic isn’t strong enough in any area to be more than kind of dull and a little bit irritating. It’s not without merit, but Pixar animating software and an aesthetic like an interactive screensaver can’t do enough to make it worth my time.