Final Fantasy Type 0 HD Review

Final Fantasy Type 0 HD Review

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As a statement of its intent to do something a bit different with one of the longest-running series’ in gaming, killing off one of Final Fantasy‘s most revered icons in the opening scenes is about as bold a gesture as Square Enix could make.

Shot in the back by a firing squad and bleeding out in the middle of a street isn’t the most dignified way to go, but it’s the abruptness of it that’s so jarring. This isn’t your average Final Fantasy game, the publisher seem to be saying. Strap yourself in. Kicking off the game with the death of a Chocobo is about as light-hearted as Type-0 gets; over the course of the narrative, protagonists become terminally ill and many major characters die.

Final Fantasy Type 0 HD ReviewWar is very much the backbone of Final Fantasy Type 0: HD, and Square Enix never once lets you forget that. After a while it’s difficult not to wonder if the scriptwriters were under strict orders to be as brutal as possible. Final Fantasy has never been shy of putting its characters through the emotional wringer, of course; but Type-o sees the scriptwriters being borderline sadistic.

While the narrative often plods along towards the start of the game with a drawn-out series of cutscenes to establish the premise, things soon pick up. Type 0 belongs to a subset of games in the series that Square Enix has dubbed Fabula Nova Crystallis. It’s a clumsy moniker, first announced alongside the reveal of Final Fantasy XIII many moons ago. Essentially what it means is that while Type 0 is set very much in its own universe, it shares some of the same overarching concepts as Final Fantasy XIII: if that game bored you with its endless expositional conversations about l’Cie and crystals, then you might want to prepare yourself – Type 0 absolutely loves exposition.

Thankfully, the writing is actually not bad (though the same can’t be said about the voice acting – more on that later). Characters initially feel like stereotypes, but eventually develop into a well-rounded bunch of personalities with enough variety to ensure that everyone will have their favorites. The translation means that some of the jokes (and despite the grimness of the tale, there are moments of levity) fall flat, but overall the localization work on the script is decent.

The story, as mentioned, is focused on war: Type 0‘s world consists of four great Empires, each protected from the other by the power of its own crystal and co-existing in relative harmony and a long-standing – if uneasy – truce. Unfortunately for the Empire of Rubrum, the Militesi Empire has managed to develop a weapon which is capable of negating the protective effects of crystals and rendering people unable to use magic, and puts the new weapon into immediate use – declaring all-out war and launching an offensive on its neighbors.

That’s where you come into things, taking control of a group of academy students known as Class Zero. Class Zero may be young, and they may be students, but it’s their task to push back the Militesi offensive and try to Final Fantasy Type 0 HD Reviewre-establish peace in the world of Orience, while sorting out their own internal squabbles, politics and personal crises. Who said child labor was dead and buried?

Class Zero is made up of 14 members, 12 of them playable (the other two take a back seat and act more as narrators). You start off having access to just a couple, but it isn’t long before you gain access to them all. You’ll pick your favorites rather early on – I had a soft spot for Jack, who wields a katana in battle, and Seven, who wields a chain-whip not unlike the protagonists of a certain vampire-slaying franchise by Konami.

Whoever you pick, you’ll spend your time levelling them up, upgrading their abilities and swapping out their gear for new equipment. So far, so Final Fantasy. But where Type 0 differs from the main games in the series is in the gameplay itself. Taking a leaf from the book of that other PSP Final Fantasy title, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, combat in Type 0 eschews the Active Time Battle system that the mainline entries have been in love with so long and instead opts for real-time combat, with your main attacks mapped to the controller’s face buttons. You even have a dodge button.

For players who have become so used to turn-based combat in Square Enix’s series – and who never played Crisis Core on PSP – this can initially come as something of a shock. Gone is the ability to leisurely consider your next move, replaced instead by a brisk pace which demands you pay attention and act swiftly in order to prevent the untimely demise of your party. Gone too is the ability to control your whole party at once: while you can switch between your 3-strong party of characters at will, some rather competent AI takes care of your teammates as you hack, slash, shoot or punch your way through the game’s many encounters.

Final Fantasy Type 0 HD ReviewAnother change to the series which might take some getting used to is in the actual structure of the game. Progress in Type 0 is achieved through completing relatively short missions, bookended by sojourns at the Vermillion Peristylium, the academy where Class Zero is based. Think of it as a bit like Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series – only a version of Hogwarts where Hermione carries a giant mace, Ron wields dual handguns, and Harry throws exploding playing cards at people. And with Moogles delivering your mail instead of owls.

Between missions – which are relatively linear and focused mainly on combat – you can explore the Academy grounds, speak to other characters and uncover bits of their backstory. A timer counts down the time until your next outing, and performing actions will use up a chunk of that time, in varying amounts. Having a nap might use up a couple of hours, while speaking to another character might see half a day passing by. You can also participate in a series of side-quests, dubbed Practice Missions.

You’ll certainly want to complete those Practice Missions too, because Type 0 ratchets up the difficulty in the main story very early on, and it’s easy to find yourself outlevelled and under-equipped for the challenges the game throws at you. Spend all your time lounging around between the main story missions and you’ll soon find yourself thrust into the next mission while being unable to progress. Thankfully, previously completed missions can be replayed from the menu, and any experience and items gained from replaying them (and, thankfully, failed missions) carries back over to your characters in the main game; you’ll never find yourself stuck, but you’ll occasionally find yourself needing to grind out a few more levels on your characters so that you’re better able to tackle the next chunk of the story.

Final Fantasy: Type 0 HD is highly enjoyable – when characters aren’t talking, and once you manage to turn a blind eye to the visuals. Sadly, while Square Enix has made a big thing about the lengths they’ve gone to in order to update the original PSP game for modern consoles the results are… well, inconsistent would be the polite way of putting it.

For starters, despite the HD makeover textures still resemble a late-generation PS2 game. They’re blurry, ugly, and a washed-out oversaturated appearance does nothing to help the game’s artstyle. Locations are nicely designed, and there’s plenty of imagination in the game’s world; but sadly this HD version can’t even come close to the visual standard set by the last generation of home consoles, let alone feel as though it belongs on the latest. Loading screens, meanwhile, are frequent – no doubt a hangover from the game’s origins on Sony’s first handheld. Final Fantasy Type 0 HD ReviewCutscenes fade to black only to fade back in constantly, slowing down the pace. Elsewhere, Tpye 0 HD betrays its handheld roots by restricting you to using the d-pad to navigate menus, and the camera is atrocious – the slightest nudge of the right stick sees the camera angle lurching dramatically, making it difficult to find a good viewpoint of the action. A lock-on function mitigates this somewhat, but wrestling with the camera is something you’ll find yourself doing all too frequently.

Musically speaking, there are some great compositions on offer. Final Fantasy has a long history of serving up some of the most memorable sountracks in gaming. There’s nothing here to rival the likes of One Winged Angel or Battle on Big Bridge, but some of the tunes on offer will stay with you after a play session and a couple will go down as fan favorites, sure to become staples on the set list of future Distant Worlds concerts.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the voice acting. Characters don’t so much phone in their lines as sleepwalk through them; the cast of voice actors often seem poorly matched to the characters they’re depicting, and dialogue-heavy scenes become a chore to sit through, rather than something to be enjoyed.

As a result, many of Type 0‘s most dramatic moments fall flat, as characters seem to barely react to life-changing (and indeed world-changing) events, even when the on-screen dialogue suggests huge outpourings of emotion. When one major character in the story dies, the response from the assembled actors in the scene sounds more like they’ve gone to make some toast only to discover that the bread has gone moldy, not that a beloved comrade has kicked the bucket: more understated and matter-of-fact disappointment than grief.

Despite the issues with the presentation however, Final Fantasy Type 0 HD is thoroughly enjoyable – one of the better series instalments in a long time, in fact. Just make sure to adjust your expectations of the series prior to starting your playthrough, and certainly don’t expect the series’ typically high production values. Square Enix’s flagship series is currently in a state of flux: the upcoming Final Fantasy XV promises to be the most drastic reinvention of the JRPG genre in recent memory, to the point where some are already debating where it can even be classed as a JRPG at all. Type 0 HD may be merely an updated version of a 4-year-old PSP game, but it’s nonetheless just as much a departure from what people expect from Final Fantasy as anything else you’re likely to play this year.

Rough around the edges but with plenty to like about it, Final Fantasy: Type 0 HD is a decent addition to Square Enix’s long-running franchise. Just don’t expect production values to rival the publisher’s best.



Nintendo President Satoru Iwata Passes Away

Satoru Iwata

Originally Published On Continue Play

In what feels like the end of an era, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has died aged 55.

“Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth,” said Nintendo in a brief statement to investors that was issued overnight.

Iwata had been suffering from ill health for some time, a matter which led to him skipping his planned attendance of the annual E3 event in 2014. His passing was as a result of a tumor on his bile duct, for which he had been receiving medical care.

Iwata first joined Nintendo in the 1980s as a programmer on games such as Balloon Fight and the classic EarthBound. He was made a Director in 2000, before taking the role of President in 2002 after the passing of Hiroshi Yamauchi, making Iwata only the fourth president in Nintendo’s 125-year history.

As President of Nintendo, Iwata oversaw a time of great transition. Famously championing the “Blue Ocean” business strategy, it was Iwata who greenlit the Nintendo Wii, DS, 3DS and Wii U. He also led the company to be more open to mobile gaming, which lead to last year’s announcement that Nintendo had partnered with mobile gaming giant DeNa.

Despite his role as one of the most prominent executives in the games industry, Iwata was known for his love of fun and managed to strike up a rapport with Nintendo fans across the world. By situating himself front and center as the presenter of the Nintendo Direct broadcasts, and his regular series Iwata Asks, he displayed a willingness to engage directly with fans – something which is rare in this industry.

There are two potential candidates to succeed Iwata as President of Nintendo: Shigeru Miyamoto, and Genyo Takeda. While Takeda is largely an unknown figure, Miyamoto is well-loved among fans, and is the creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Takeda has taken the role of Acting Representative Director for the time being, until a final vote sometime later this year.

Satoru Iwata, you will be sorely missed. Gomeifuku wo inorimasu.

Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Successor Gamers Deserve

Satellite Reign Preview

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Syndicate was a huge success for Bullfrog – and particularly Peter Molyneux. But it was the 1996 sequel, Syndicate Wars, which made me fall in love with the concept. Syndicate Wars was brash, riding the mid-90’s wave of the West’s newfound love of Manga and a fresh era for the Cyberpunk genre, and it took the original to new heights of moody ultraviolence, shot through with pitch black humor.

Unfortunately, beyond an ill-judged FPS reboot from EA, Syndicate has largely been stuck on a shelf in a high-tech vault somewhere for close to two decades, leaving hordes of older fans – myself included – praying to the digital gods for someone to come along and give us the modern successor we desired.

Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers DeserveThankfully, one other person who also wanted to play a new Syndicate game was the lead designer of Syndicate Wars himself, Mike Diskett. One successful Kickstarter and over a year in development later, we’re now able to see what a modern Syndicate might actually have looked like, had history unfolded slightly differently.

Satellite Reign is still heavy in development, but already Diskett’s spiritual successor to the Bullfrog classic is showing enough polish, atmosphere and smart gameplay that I keep going back to the Early Access demo. Partly to soak in the wonderful atmosphere of the world that Diskett and his team at 5 Lives Studios has created, but also because they have managed to update and refine the gameplay of the original so well that going back to the actual Syndicate games reveals just how unrefined and scrappy they actually are.

Syndicate is an isometric tactical game, where you control a small squad of corporate agents in real-time, waging war across city maps in a bid to bring down a rival corporation. It was fun, and incredibly violent (for the time) with a bleak sense of humor; but you could never accuse Syndicate of really doing justice to the actual tactical side of the real-time tactics equation. Sure, you could upgrade your agents to better levels of technology and acquire better weapons; but the upgrade path was rather linear – the toughest exoskeleton was always the toughest exoskeleton, and by and large your agents were all carbon copies of each other, with nothing beyond their weaponry and upgrades to set them apart from each other.

Diskett and his team clearly understand this, and as a consequence playing Satellite Reign‘s early build reminds me of another game from the 90’s: Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines.

In Commandos, your plucky team of Soldiers were sent on a series of missions deep in enemy territory and it was your job to work out how to accomplish your goal using the tools at your Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers Deservedisposal. With each member of your squad having completely different abilities – one could wear a disguise, one was a sniper, another was demolitions expert – each level wasn’t so much a gauntlet as it was one giant puzzle. Multiple solutions meant you weren’t screwed if you buggered up halfway through a mission – just as well, because some levels could take hours to complete; but by and large you were forced to approach each obstacle tactically and think outside the box, if you were to complete your mission with all of your squad mates intact.

Satellite Reign has a lot in common with Commandos. Perhaps, aesthetics aside, even more so than it does with Syndicate: each of your four agents has their own specialism, and how you combine their skills to overcome each situation is key to each situation. Do you get your hacker to shut down the nearby surveillance and sneak past the security cameras undetected? Perhaps you get the hacker to steal money from a cash machine, and use it to bribe an official into giving you the access codes to where you need to go? In public areas, your agents can walk around largely unmolested by law enforcement, but just make sure that you don’t have your firearms drawn, otherwise you’ll start a panic and before you know it, someone has raised the alarm, forcing you into an impromptu firefight.

The malleability of the game’s interlocking systems is impressive then, and the freedom to mix up playstyles and adjust on the fly is enhanced by the fact that everything takes place in one seamless environment. In Syndicate and Commandos the action all took place in enclosed locations, custom-designed for that mission. Satellite Reign gives that approach the middle finger, whips out its chain gun and tears it to pieces with hot lead. Hell, you don’t even have set objectives for the most part. While there are going to be missions in the game, Satellite Reign is being designed to give players as much freedom as possible to play it as you want, so there’s nothing to force you into playing through a set of linear objectives.

Instead, it’s going to be left for to you to decide how you want to spend your time in the city. Perhaps you’ll want to raid the bank where a rival corporation keeps a huge stash of its funds. Maybe you want to cripple their defenses by breaking into their security network or sabotaging their bases. Or you could always just start a riot in the streets and start taking potshots when the police show up. The open-ended nature of the game is refreshing, but I have some slight concerns that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and some may find the freedom a little overwhelming, especially when you need to really have a handle on the various abilities of your team members.

Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers DeserveNone of this would count for much if the city wasn’t large enough, or interesting enough to hold your attention. Thankfully, based on what I’ve seen so far, it looks like Satellite Reign‘s virtual urban playground is going to provide more than enough nooks, crannies and secrets to explore. The current Early Access build consists of just a single section of the city, but it’s impressively large and packed full of detail. Many of the assets are reused, of course – tailoring each individual building and bit of graffiti or road section would be beyond the capabilities of even large-scale, big-budget endeavors. 5 Lives may have received nearly half a million pounds to fund its project – and that figure has no doubt increased thanks to Early Access backers and post-Kickstarter donations – but it’s still modest compared to some of the biggest Kickstarter projects, like Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity or Double Fine’s Broken Age. And Satellite Reign is being developed by just a small team of industry veterans, rather than an established studio.

But despite these financial and staffing limitations, Satellite Reign‘s city still manages to be both impressively large – at least, based on the demo – and with enough variety and atmosphere to keep you engrossed. Neon signs are everywhere, giant advertising billboards plaster the sides of buildings, and rain pours down out of the perpetual night sky overhead. Zooming in for a closer look is a frequent temptation, though on closer inspection you start to see a few rough edges – lack of detail on the character models, some rough textures.

Most of the gameplay also isn’t in there yet. You’re free to wander around the map and use your abilities – following a relatively smoothSatellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers Deserve linear tutorial; but so much of the underlying gameplay hasn’t been built yet, with the small selection of placeholder missions amounting to simply infiltration jobs. So much of Satellite Reign is still a largely unknown quantity then, and still a long way out of reach; but what is playable is a good demonstration that the team is more than up to the task, so long as they keep their eye on the ball and the scope of the game in check. The last thing I want to see is yet another high-profile tale of a small developer letting its ambitious gameplay aspirations get the better of it. But there’s no sign that 5 Lives is in any danger of that happening.

Sound at the moment is sparse, as is to be expected. A smattering of atmospheric effects lend character to the city, weapons feel meaty, and a great soundtrack layer on a sense of foreboding. The sound of the rain falling is a constant companion, as are sirens in the distance and the sound of people shouting in a foreign language in the streets, though there’s a slight disconnect between what you hear sometimes and what you see on the screen. Thunder rumbles, but lightning doesn’t flash – which is a shame, considering the lighting engine is absolutely fantastic.

My main bugbear at the moment is the UI, which currently feels a bit unwieldy, with icons being far too small and text being difficult to make out without sticking your face close to the screen. After one prolonged session I found myself suffering from a rather unpleasant case of eye strain, and the problem only gets worse as you increase the resolution, suggesting that proper UI scaling is yet to be implemented. The UI has evolved a few times since the early Backers’ version of the game, and it’s clear that Diskett and his team are still trying to nail down the best interface.

Of course there are the usual bugs, placeholders and crashes. Satellite Reign is a lot more stable than it once was, but as with any game at this stage of the development process, you can expect plenty of technical issues. The launcher sometimes stops responding, and while gameplay is seamless once you’re in the city, the initial loading time could do with a bit of optimization. Put up with the normal foibles associated with playing a game that’s still in active development though, and there’s a lot of fun to be had simply trying out new approaches and navigating the city.

5 Lives clearly wanted to nail the basics of gameplay before optimizing the core tech underpinning everything, and with the team currently transitioning the game to Unity Engine 5, I have my fingers crossed that the final game will be polished, satisfying and suitably expansive.

Based on what I’ve played so far, I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished game.

Lego Jurassic World Review

Lego jurassic world review

Originally published on Continue Play

We all love John Williams, but do we really need to hear the refrain from Jurassic Park every 30 seconds? It plays whenever you do anything of significance in a level: it plays whenever you fill your stud meter; it plays in cutscenes. Oddly, it plays even when there is nothing of interest happening on-screen. Yes, yes, we get it – we’re playing a Jurassic Park game.

Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO Jurassic World is the latest in a long line of movies and fan-favorite IP transformed through a LEGO lens into a kid-friendly videogame. TT’s formula is proven, and it’s been applied across over a dozen games since LEGO Star Wars back in 2005, to varying degrees of success.

Lego Jurassic World screenshotMuch of the enjoyment of the studio’s output depends on how invested you are in the franchise it’s adapting – the gameplay rarely evolves from title to title, after all – but there’s always been a sense that the studio holds an almost reverential love of the source material, a devotion which has always helped to paper over the cracks in its formulaic gameplay design and the usual bugs which have persisted across every LEGO game created by the developer in the last decade.

Unfortunately, LEGO Jurassic World lacks that sense of devotion. Whether the studio wasn’t emotionally invested enough, there being little you can really do with a concept which boils down to “dinosaurs run amok in the modern day”, or whether the game was pushed out to meet the release date of the latest film, LEGO Jurassic World lacks the almost fanboy-ish love of the source material that defined previous games.

Gameplay Preserved In Amber

LEGO games have always been rather predictable and formulaic in their execution: smash up scenery, collect studs, use a character’s abilities to solve simple puzzles, watch cutscene, rinse and repeat.Lego Jurassic World screenshot

A sizeable contingent of the gaming community holds the series in contempt because of that, claiming that the developer steadfastly refuses to evolve their design template. It’s an unfair accusation: compare LEGO Star Wars to LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, or LEGO Harry Potter, and there are clear differences between them. The series has evolved; perhaps not as much as the naysayers would like, but it’s impossible to look at the primitive hub worlds and discreet levels of Star Wars and the bustling metropolis of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes and claim that nothing has changed over the intervening years.

Despite that progress, LEGO Jurassic World feels as stuck in the past as the resurrected fossils who make up its subject matter. Gone is the busy open world of the more recent LEGO games. In LEGO Jurassic Park, you’re plonked in a hub that attempts to hide its lack of things to do through sheer size and pulled from stage to stage with little to no opportunity to explore. The experience is as much on rails as the Jeeps that wind their way through Isla Nublar.

In what feels like a wholly regressive step, you need to experience TT’s adaptations of the films in order. At the start of the game you find yourself on a Helipad in between two different signs. One points to levels based on the original film, first released in 1993; the other points to the most recent film, Jurassic World. But there’s no way of accessing the Jurassic World levels until you’ve played through the rest of the game, and you can’t access levels based on the second or third films until you’ve played through the preceding stages. It feels like something of a tease, luring people in on the back of the new film, but making players sit through adaptations of one decent and two God-awful films before reaching it.

Lego Jurassic World screenshotTherein lies the rub. Jurassic Park may be a series on its fourth cinematic incarnation, but of the four films, only the first was ever actually worth remembering. The Lost World was always mediocre, a re-tread of the first movie with Jeff Goldblum thrown in to provide a sense of continuity. Jurassic Park III was a movie clearly built to order, the product of executives keen to keep the money rolling in. Jurassic World… well, the jury is still out on that one – but don’t expect it to pick up an Oscar.

“Clever Girl”? Not Quite

If you’ve played a LEGO game before, you know what to expect. Smash scenery for studs, and solve simple puzzles by switching between characters with unique abilities.

Once a level has been completed, you can return to it and freely swap between all unlocked characters to unlock every secret. Red bricks, gold bricks, smashing scenery and then building contraptions out of the debris: it’s all very standard for the series, with nothing substantially new to speak of.

There are hints that TT has some love for the films, though. Lex, for example, can shatter glass by screaming; Ellie dives into piles of dung to find objects. But such instances are few and far between, and even Traveller’s Tales’ trademark slapstick humor fails to provide enough levity to make LEGO Jurassic World rise beyond being an above-average offering for kids.Lego Jurassic World screenshot

LEGO Star Wars felt like the product of a devoted fan. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes exuded comic book fandom from every pore. LEGO Jurassic World feels built to order.

More recent LEGO games have included dialogue to provide additional character and exposition. LEGO Jurassic World is no different, but the result is spotty at best. Without the original cast on hand to reprise their roles, Traveller’s Tales has had to rely on audio taken directly from the films. This at least means that characters sound as you expect them to sound, but the audio quality is patch at best. Some lines of dialogue sound crystal clear; others sound as though they were recorded with a duvet between the microphone and the sound source. At times, dialogue is almost unintelligible, so poor is the quality of the recording. It also jars when sound clips are repeated within the same scene, complete with background noise from the original film.

Lego Jurassic World screenshotVisually, at least, the game passes muster. While never ground breaking – this is a LEGO game, after all – the graphics are crisp and clear, and there’s some decent use of motion blur and lighting. Oddly, cut scenes are pre-rendered video clips rather than real time, and heavily compressed at that; but overall LEGO Jurassic World is easy on the eye.

Ultimately, LEGO Jurassic World is competent without ever feeling progressive. By sacrificing much of the progress made in LEGO games over the years, Traveller’s Tales’ latest title feels somewhat archaic, and if you didn’t know better you could mistake it for a current-gen remaster of a game sandwiched between LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Batman. Hell, it barely surpasses the quality bar of LEGO Indiana Jones, which is still the low point of the franchise.

It’s still a solid slice of gaming, and kids will no doubt enjoy it – even if they’re too young to have seen the films upon which much of the game is based. But the presiding impression is that LEGO Jurassic World feels like a relic, its gameplay preserved in amber for a decade before being resurrected in a more modern era.

LEGO Jurassic World still offers some limited enjoyment, but Traveller’s Tales can do so much better.


Batman: Arkham Knight Review

Batman: Arkham Knight Review

Originally Published on Continue Play

You have to feel sorry for the inhabitants of Gotham City. They’ve been forced to evacuate in 3 out of the 4 Arkham games now; they must be so used to it that they keep a packed suitcase next to the front door, just in case a supervillain comes along with yet another apocalyptic threat.

Picking up 9 months after the events of the previous game, Arkham Knight starts things off by providing the answer to the question that’s been on everyone’s lips since the climax of Arkham City: did Rocksteady really kill off The Joker? The opening scene provides a definitive answer to that question, sending the clown to his final resting place by cremating his corpse. Everything burns, after all – and that includes The Joker.

Screenshot of Scarecrow and the Arkham KnightFrom there we’re introduced to a Gotham City that has settled into something of a restless peace since the Clown Prince bit the dust. Of course, with Gotham being The Worst Place To Live On Earth™, it isn’t long before chaos erupts as the Scarecrow resurfaces on Hallowe’en, threatening to release a new brand of his fear toxin over the entire city and sending the population scarpering. By his side is a mysterious new villain – the titular Arkham Knight.

Cue the longest Hallowe’en of Batman’s career.

Arkham Knight has one of the best narratives in an action game that I can remember, with far more depth to the writing than in previous entries in the series. It’s fitting that the game’s story takes place on Hallowe’en: Arkham Knight has plenty of tricks, and no small amount of treats, waiting to be dished out through the course of its campaign.

As much an exploration of grief and pathological behavior as it is an action-packed superhero game, Sefton Hill’s superb script examines the twisted relationship between Batman and his deceased arch-nemesis. The Joker may be gone, but his presence is felt from start to finish.

It’s long been said that Batman and The Joker are two sides of the same coin – yin and yang, order and chaos; they need each other in order to survive, even as they find themselves locked in endless conflict. Arkham Knight explores that concept at length and manages to weave one hell of a compelling story, aided by stellar voice acting. Kevin Conroy reprises his role as Batman and delivers some of his best work on the character, Troy Baker’s Scarecrow is full of snarling, almost hypnotic menace, and the rest of the cast turn in performances that are just as accomplished.

Arkham Knight prepares to fire on a defenseless BatmanLess compelling, and one of the few wrinkles in an otherwise excellent narrative, is the titular Knight himself. More petulant than threatening, the Arkham Knight is introduced early on as the Scarecrow’s partner in crime, a figure from Batman’s past who has a lethal grudge to bear. The identity of the man behind the mask forms the driving thrust of much of the game’s plot; but his characterization is so weak that it’s difficult to care much about who he is. When the big reveal finally comes, it falls flat thanks to ridiculously heavy-handed foreshadowing that may as well have a giant neon sign on-screen flashing the words “THIS IS A CLUE” every time it occurs.

Gameplay-wise, we’re in familiar territory. Rocksteady all but perfected their formula with the very first game in the series, and Knight doesn’t deviate from it in any significant way. That’s not a bad thing – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and the combat is as satisfying as ever. But it does mean that, at times, Arkham Knight can feel a bit too familiar. There’re the usual gadgets, returning from previous games; there’s largely the same cast of villains; the Riddler has been busy placing trophies all over the place; and the streets are as empty as ever. 

On that latter point: Assassin’s Creed: Unity may have struggled at times, but its version of Paris was the most convincing realization of a city yet seen in the medium. Gotham City feels empty in comparison, and doesn’t always convince as a believable space. There are technical and game design reasons for this, of course – the strain of rendering an entire city’s population would bring the game engine to its knees, and make it difficult to identify friend from foe; but the streets being empty yet again enhances the feeling that we’ve seen all this before, and detracts from the sense that Arkham Knight is a generational leap forward.

Shot of Gotham City's skylineWhat we haven’t seen before is Gotham City rendered on this scale. All three islands of Gotham are available to explore, and while Rocksteady’s vision is modest compared to the scale witnessed in other open world games, the city is packed with so much to do that it never feels prohibitively small. Every area is filled with riddles to solve, side quests to complete, and thugs to take down.

One of the best side missions sees you hunting a serial killer by keeping an ear out for opera music as you glide around the city, before examining the bodies you find for evidence. It’s one of the more satisfying side quests in the game, even if you’re just going through the same motions each time. Much of the side content veers close to being there for the sake of it – you’ll find yourself repeating the same tasks over and over again, just in different parts of the map (otherwise known as Ubisoft-itis); but what these missions lack in imagination, they make up for in presentation and fan-service.

The crime scene recreation featured in WB Montreal’s Arkham Origins returns, albeit briefly, and is as good as before, making you truly feel like the World’s Greatest Detective. Other puzzles see you examining individual frames of recorded video in order to find evidence, and some of the Riddler trophies will have you stumped for ages before you crack them.

Screenshot of Batman and Nightwing standing back-to-back.Most of the new additions are fun, but feel underused. At prescribed points you gain control of more than one character in combat, and can switch between them at will. While every character’s moveset is broadly comparable, there’s enough variation to ensure that it doesn’t merely feel like you’re playing a reskinned Batman, and the new dual takedowns are fun.

The voice synthesizer is the most notable new gadget, allowing you to impersonate villains and order goons to go where you want them to. Environmental takedowns allow you to use your surroundings to your advantage, slamming enemies into electrified fences or protruding scenery; but it’s the new fear takedowns which prove the most useful, allowing you to incapacitate up to three enemies at a time by choosing your targets in slow motion.

While some of the new additions feel underused, by contrast the much-touted Batmobile feels shoehorned in. Being able to get behind the wheel of Batman’s signature car feels as though you’re fulfilling the ultimate power fantasy the first time around; but a number of factors combine to make the Batmobile one of the weakest aspects of the game.

Despite the Batmobile’s bulk – inspiration was clearly taken from the Nolan films in its design – the handling model feels too sensitive, the acceleration too rapid. This dissonance means that driving the Batmobile always feels somewhat twitchy and weightless, and at least to start with you’ll find yourself crashing through scenery and underestimating the car’s ability to take a corner. With a few upgrades and plenty of practice you’ll get used to it, but the easiest way to reach your destination is almost always to glide there – probably not what the developer was aiming for.

By far the most aggravating use of the Batmobile involves its secondary mode. Hold down the left trigger and the Batmobile transforms into hovercraft-like tank, complete with cannon and machine guns.Screenshot of the batmobile's combat mode.

Not only does this mode sit uneasily with Batman’s characterization – while brutal, he traditionally forgoes the use of guns – but it’s also foisted upon you repeatedly in drawn-out and tedious battles against waves of enemy drones. It feels like Rocksteady was aiming for the vehicular equivalent of hand-to-hand combat – you still rack up combos and unlock moves depending on how many hits you dish out – but what they’ve delivered is a mediocre Battlezone clone.

These sections go on far too long, the game trapping you in an enclosed space and spamming wave upon wave at you in a war of attrition. They’re dull, repetitive and unfortunately for Rocksteady they’re just, well, boring. Stealth sections are introduced about halfway through (yes, stealth. In a tank) to add variety, but again they’re overused, and involve little more than hit and run tactics.

It’s understandable that Rocksteady wanted to show off the Batmobile, having spent so long working on it, and it was one of the features most requested by fans. But it feels like a wasted opportunity at best, feature creep at worst – not something you’d associated with Rocksteady, known for their laser focus and pared-back game design.

The Batmobile isn’t a complete wash: it can be used to launch Batman in the air directly from the driver’s seat; the Batmobile-assisted takedowns are nice; and it looks pretty cool when you dive towards the ground and land straight in the cockpit before roaring off into the night. But Arkham Knight wouldn’t have suffered without its inclusion – quite the opposite, in fact.Image of Batman gliding through Gotham

Visually, Arkham Knight is nearly flawless. A few small framerate hiccups occur – notably around the GCPD building – and I noticed a couple of minor issues with texture streaming, but overall the visual presentation is top-notch, and there’s a large increase in the number of enemies on-screen at any point in time. Special mention has to go the game’s lighting and weather effects, which sees the light from neon signs reflected in puddles and convincingly refracted through raindrops, and Batman’s cape realistically billowing and rustling in the wind.

Art design is similarly impressive. No two buildings look alike, and each area of the city has its own distinct personality. Chinatown is a particular highlight, but the artwork throughout is of the highest standard. God knows how much time and money was spent designing the hundreds of shop fronts and buildings, but it was well-spent, lending Gotham City itself just as much personality as the larger-than-life characters who reside in its twisted environs.

Nick Arundel and David Buckley’s musical score also deserves praise. Arundel, who scored the previous games, gives familiar themes and motifs a new spin, infusing them with the more sinister tone required by the narrative. Despite being composed by two different people, the soundtrack feels cohesive even as it displays an impressive amount of variety. Keep an ear out for a snazzy musical number (I kid you not) – I guarantee that it will have you humming along and tapping your feet.

Though they may seem serious, Arkham Knight‘s flaws don’t hamper the game’s enjoyability to any great degree. When 95% of a game is of such a high standard, the remaining 5% is always bound to stand out even more. In the end, Arkham Knight is one of the most engrossing games of the current generation, and I’m genuinely excited to see what Rocksteady turns its considerable talent to next – even if I’m sad that their stint with the Dark Knight appears to have come to an end.

Rocksteady knows Batman. At times, it feels as though the developer understands the character so well that no one else will ever measure up. Over the course of three games, the studio has set a benchmark so high that I feel sorry for any developer having to follow in their footsteps.

Asylum and City delivered fantastic narratives which pulled you through the campaign and left you wanting more, and Arkham Knight is no different. It’s not the best game in the series – that honor is still held by Asylum – but Batman: Arkham Knight is a game you want to savor, a game that you’ll want to take your time with simply because you don’t want it to end.


Crypt Of The Necrodancer Review

Crypt of the Necrodancer artwork

Originally Published On Continue Play

Have you ever heard of a medical condition called Tetris Syndrome? If you haven’t, you may well be familiar with its symptoms: Tetris Syndrome is the name given to the phenomenon where you start to see the world as a series of shapes to be slotted together, caused by prolonged sessions on the classic puzzle game.

Other, unnamed but similar states of mind exist. Long sessions on Assassin’s Creed might see you viewing the world as a giant parkour playground. Spend too much time in Agent 47’s world, and you could find yourself viewing the world around you as a giant murder box.

Best not admit to that last one, though.

Crypt of the Necrodancer ReviewCrypt of the Necrodancer is another game that will worm its way into your head and stay there. Except you wont be fitting shapes together, or finding the ideal hypothetical way to bump off your neighbor – you’ll end up doing everything to an unheard rhythm, like some kind of human metronome. You’ll descend the stairs to the beat; you’ll brush your teeth to the beat. Suddenly, everything in the world will seem to be operating on its own rhythm.

Before you know it you’ll find yourself reaching for your mp3 player to cycle to the next track, only to realize that the music you’re hearing is just your brain playing tricks on you – the end result of Super Meat Boy composer Danny Baranowky’s excellent soundtrack worming its way into your brain.Crypt of the Necrodancer Review

Crypt of the Necrodancer sounds on paper as though it really shouldn’t work. Taking the entirely different genres of roguelike RPG and rthym-action and mashing them together with a 16-bit pixel aesthetic, Brace Yourself Games’ debut sees you attempting to survive a journey through a series of randomly-generated dungeons. The twist is that everything you do needs to be in time with a driving chiptune soundtrack.

Everything in Crypt of the Necrodancer operates on rhythm. Enemies move on time with the beat; kill enemies in time with the beat, and your multiplier increases and the floor tiles light up like an old-school disco dancefloor. Miss a beat, or skip it altogether, and your multiplier disappears.

Kill the boss monster on each floor and descend to the next, and you’re greeted with a new music track with a new tempo, a new dungeon and often new monsters – each with their own patterns of movement to learn. A giant golem might only move on every fourth beat, allowing you to get three hits in before moving back a space to avoid its advance. A floating jellyfish will alternate between intangible and vulnerable. A red dragon will breathe fire in a straight line across the entire screen, making it one of the more fearsome opponents you’ll face. Each enemy has its own patterns to learn and perfect, and the game throws them at you in continually challenging combinations with every playthrough – so much so that the game never feels quite as random as it actually is.

Crypt of the Necrodancer ReviewFour different zones are included in the game, each with their own tilesets and unique themes, enemies and quirks and bookended by a boss encounter randomly selected from a pool. The second zone features mushrooms, some of which might explode, and certain enemies disguise themselves as a section of wall, relentlessly pursuing you once you get too close. Zone 3 adds fire and ice to the mix. Ice is slippery as you might expect, but can be melted by fire into a puddle of water – which takes an extra two steps to move through. What seem like minor changes actually drastically change how you approach each level.

More playable characters are unlcoked as you progress, each with their own quirks that mix up the gameplay and their own personal storyline. The Bard sees the game switching to turn-based gameplay; you no longer need to move in time with the music, but enemies take their turn with every move. It can be tempting to speed through levels as quickly as possible, though if you’re not careful you might find yourself surrounded by enemies sooner than you expect. Play as Eli, and instead of attacking enemies with your main weapon you’ll need to drop and kick bombs towards your enemies – more challenging than you might expect, as you need to make sure you’re not inside the blast radius when they go off.

Crypt of the Necrodancer ReviewThere’s plenty more to unlock, too. Diamonds are the game’s primary currency, spent in the hub area after each run. Diamonds can be spent on unlocking new random items, which appear during each dungeon run, but there also spells to unlock. They can also be spent on unlocking a small selection of persistent upgrades, though these are limited in number.

It won’t be long before you’ve unlocked everything, however; given how often you come across the currency in each run, a little more longevity could have been added to the metagame by providing a deeper pool of items to unlock and upgrade.

Still, the infectious music and desire to perfect your run means that there’s plenty to keep you occupied, and the game even supports custom soundtracks if you grow bored of the music included in the game (which is unlikely). There’s something oddly satisfying about playing a dungeon to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle.

Little touches abound, showing just how much love and thought has been put into the game. Stumble upon a shopkeeper in a dungeon and they start to sing along with the music; Zones can be tackled individually or one after the other in a single run, and both single-player and co-op are supported. You can even play with a dancemat, if you’re after an authentic Bemania experience.

Crypt of the Necrodancer features Steam Workshop support too, with plenty of user-made mods already available to download. At the time of writing there’s around 1,600 mods available, ranging from new playable characters and remixed versions of the soundtrack to custom-designed levels and new items. Fancy playing as Captain Falcon or Pikachu while battling through a recreation of your favorite Fire Emblem dungeon, and replacing a load of items and sound effects with references to Deus Ex? Well, you can do that.

Crypt of Necrodancer is a game that looks and sounds like a novelty, but turns out to be anything but. Its unforgettable soundtrack will bore its way into your skull until you find yourself humming its tunes while making your morning coffee; its gameplay has that classic one-more-go appeal; and its simple mechanics hide a deep level of challenge. It’s not often that I say this, but based on the strength of its debut, Brace Yourself Games may well be one of the most exciting indie studios in gaming today.

Buy it, play it, love it – and then become a slave to rhythm. Crypt of the Necrodancer is one of the best indie games to be released in a very long time.


Mortal Kombat X Review

Mortal Kombat X Raiden Concept Art

Originally Posted On Continue Play

The last time we saw Mortal Kombat was back in 2009, when NetherRealm rebooted the franchise by doing away with all the convoluted backstory and taking the series back to its roots.

Mortal Kombat 9, as it came to be known by fans, got a lot right. A varied cast, huge amount of single-player content, and new mechanics like X-Ray moves added a fresh layer of brutal paint to a series that has long traded on the appeal of high levels of ultraviolence. NetherRealm provided players with a lengthy and highly enjoyable single-player fighter, though online multiplayer was let down by some horrendous netcode. Thankfully online play is much improved this time around, though it’s still some way off matching the excellent netcode in Street Fighter IV and Killer Instinct. Lag isn’t as bad as before but it’s still there, making online play unsuitable for more than casual matchups – advanced players will still need to stick to local versus modes.

Mortal Kombat X ReviewFast-forward to 2015, and Mortal Kombat X – that’s prounounced “ecks” by the way, not the numeral – gives fans much of the same: upping the gore with some disturbing, if hilarious, levels of brutality and providing plenty of single player content. If X-Ray moves were the headline selling point last time round, this time it’s the new Faction War. Boot up the game for the first time, and you’re asked to choose one of seven different factions, each represented by a different theme and different subset of the game’s 25 playable fighters.

Faction Wars are an interesting idea in theory: players ally themselves to different causes, and completing certain challenges awards points for your faction. At the end of each week, the faction with the most points wins, and all members of the winning side gain some kind of benefit (normally Koins, Mortal Kombat X’s in game currency, used to unlock bonus material and gameplay modifiers).

In practice you’ll simply grind through your tasks for the day. Many of the challenges revolve around playing a certain number of different gameplay modes or performing certain moves; the result is that it sometimes feels as though your playstyle is being dictated to you by the game, rather than you being allowed to simply get on with things. Before long, you’ll find yourself simply ignoring the Faction Wars element altogether – probably not what NetherRealm was hoping for, given how heavily the feature is being touted in promotional material.

Mortal Kombat X ReviewYour first port of call in Mortal Kombat X is likely to be the Story Mode. The single-player story campaign was a breath of fresh air when it first featured in Mortal Kombat 9, and to this day it remains a benchmark in the genre. It beggars belief that more developers don’t put the effort into delivering a meaty single-player experience. Just because the genre is geared towards multiplayer bouts and tournament play, doesn’t mean it’s ok to skimp on single-player modes when it comes to delivering value for money for those who’d rather not feel pushed into the unforgiving world of online multiplayer.

Mortal Kombat X sees NetherRealm providing another solid campaign, filled with action-packed cutscenes and propelling the timeline some 20 years after the previous game. Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade are now separated and at loggerheads, returning characters are now noticeably older, and the shift has provided NetherRealm the opportunity to introduce a bunch of new characters, mostly descended from the more familiar cast.

These “legacy” characters are nice to have, but many disappoint by being so similar to existing fighters. This isn’t always the case – Kung Jin is an archer, and plays rather differently to his razor-rimmed hat-wearing cousin, Kung Lao – and some of the new cast members who aren’t descended from established characters are more interesting. Kotal Kahn sports a heavy Aztec motif and wields a huge sword, and is surprisingly nimble for someone of his size and weight; D’Vorah has plenty of moves which see her impaling characters on giant spider-like appendages or summoning nasty insects to do her bidding; and cowboy Erron Black appears following his debut in the comic, wielding dual pistols or a rifle.

Mortal Kombat X ReviewBut these new characters form the center of what will be one of the most immediate disappointments felt by players: the roster. While 25 characters (29, if you include the bonus fighters unlocked with the steeply-priced Kombat Pack) is by no means stingy, it’s still noticeably fewer than the 34 characters (not including PS3-exclusive Kratos) featured in the previous game; previously-playable fighters like Rain and Sindel are absent, despite being featured as opponents in the story.

More cynical fans won’t be blamed for wondering if this slimmed-down roster is purposefully designed to sell more DLC at a later date, and publisher Warner Bros’ refusal to deny such a possibility does little to stem concerns. Even more damning is that many of these characters have been found to be playable via a hack on the PC version of the game – and though they only have one moveset instead of the three employed by the main cast, it shows that NetherRealm put extensive thought into each of the non-playable characters in the Story.

Perhaps in part designed to provide additional variety to the slimmed-down roster, fighters in Mortal Kombat X now have 3 different playstyles. You’ll be forced to choose one of these variants at the character select screen, and depending on which you choose you’ll gain access to certain moves which allow you to mix up your approach. Series stalwart Sub-Zero can choose between the more defensive-leaning ability to create an icy barrier version of himself, or the power to create icy melee weapons, for example. You can’t switch between stances mid-match, so you’ll need to choose carefully. I’m rather partial to Scorpion’s Hellfire variant, which increases the focus on his demonic powers and gives his arms a fiery aura.

Mortal Kombat X ReviewIn terms of presentation, there’s very little to fault. While the dialogue and acting is incredibly cringeworthy, and most of the characters have issues ripped straight out of a teenage soap opera, it feels churlish to criticize NetherRealm when they’ve put a lot of effort – and money – into creating a substantial story. Character models are crisp and highly-detailed, and though there’s still some stiffness to their animations, by and large they leap and dash around the interactive stages convincingly, bouncing off of background objects and smashing scenery over the heads of opponents. Sound are a particular highlight – each bone-crunching move is accompanied by a suitably wince-inducing crack, and you can tell the foley artists had fun ensuring that the on-screen action sounds just as painful as it looks.

NetherRealm has packed their latest game to the gills with playable modes and unlockable content. The Krypt returns, once more featuring a vast array of concept art, unlockable moves and modifiers to unlock via in-game currency, and some of these unlockables only appear at certain times of day. There’s been some controversy over the presence of paid DLC which simplifies the inputs required to pull off a Fatality, but as it happens it was actually the very first bit of content I unlocked in the Krpyt – hidden inside a chest which appeared at about 3pm. Whether or not the contents of these time-limited chests are random or not is something I haven’t ascertained, but it does mean that it will be a while before you manage to unlock everything.

Mortal Kombat X ReviewThe aforementioned Faction Wars system throws up plenty of challenges and challenge towers to complete, cycling at different times. But the highlight is Test Your Luck mode, which adds between 3 and 7 random gameplay modifiers to each match. Test Your Luck is likely to be the source of much hilarity in local versus play: one match I played saw decapitated heads raining down the sky, stunning fighters mid-move, while the stage tilted left and right, lowered gravity saw players floating slowly through the air after being juggled, and portals opened up on the ground, swallowing fighters before spitting them out high above the stage. The more modifiers you enable, the more chaotic – and laughter-inducing – each match becomes, and it’s easy to see Test Your Luck becoming a staple part of post-pub gaming on a Friday night when you and your mates pile into the living room for some drunken multiplayer.

Mortal Kombat X ReviewOther than the roster, disappointments are few. The story mode is shorter this time around, though at about 12 hours in length there’s still plenty to get through. More irritating is that many of the cutscenes feature lengthy QTE sequences, often coming out of nowhere. Success in these events isn’t mandatory – the story simply plays out slightly differently – but it’s aggravating to feel chained to your controller when all you want to do is sit back and enjoy the spectacle. Despite what many developers seem to think, adding quick time events to cutscenes doesn’t improve immersion; if anything, they pull you out of the experience by reminding you that you’re playing a game, and feel little more than a forced bid for attention to keep you sat in front of the screen during pre-rendered sequences. NetherRealm would do well to leave them out next time.

Also disappointing is the way the game taunts you to unlock Goro at every opportunity, and the steep (some would say excessive) price of the game’s Kombat Pack. At $29.99/ £24.99 for 4 fighters – 2 guest characters, and two from the wider Mortal Kombat universe, it’s hard not to feel as though someone is taking the mickey, particularly when the launch roster already feels somewhat artificially truncated. Seeing your favorite character in the story, only to discover you can’t play as them in multiplayer, never ceases to annoy.

Still, overall Mortal Kombat X is a success. With some of the most inventive and graphic Fatalities ever seen in a Mortal Kombat game, and with a generous amount of content and modes on offer, it will be a while before you run out of things to do and grow bored of dismembering opponents in new and hilarious ways. There’s still plenty of room for improvement – particularly when it comes to a solid online experience – but Mortal Kombat X is the best installment in the long-running series to date.

Mortal Kombat may have started off as little more than a novelty over 20 years ago, but in 2015 the series feels as enjoyable and fresh as it ever did back in 1993. For that, NetherRealm deserves to be commended. It remains to be seen how much life it will have as a serious contender in tournament play, but if you want a substantial single-player fighter that will keep you occupied during the long wait for Street Fighter V, you can’t go far wrong with Mortal Kombat X.