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Star Wars - Jedi: Fallen Order

FBT is a falling Jedi Five years after Order 66, ex-Padawan Cal Kestis is saved from Imperial Inquisitors - force-trained assassins dedicated to hunting down the remnants of the Jedi - by Cere Jund, a Jedi who turned her back on the force. Her old Master hid a Holocron detailing the location of every child with force-abilities and Cere needs Cal to help her recover it before the Inquisitors do by following clues he left that only a Jedi can understand. Along the way, Cal learns that being a Jedi means more than wielding a Lightsaber. It means lots of platforming. I’ve never rage-quit a game so many times. I didn’t think it was possible to screw up Star Wars more than JJ Abrams but here we are. While Fallen Order looks good and in the final third becomes awesome, a more effective name would be Fallen Jedi. This game is 90% platforming. I was hoping for a return to the Kyle Katarn era. Instead I got Cal Ka-can’t. Platforming has its place in gaming, but a Jedi game isn’t it. It's like some old NES Star Wars Platformer, far more so than the Unleashed series. Yes, Jedi are supposed to be agile, able to use the Force to counter gravity and that’s all good but we don't use it as a Jedi kicking ass, Cal only uses it in frustrating wall-runs - endless wall-runs. I’m a Jedi Knight not the Prince of Persia. It’s one of those games where a millisecond too early, late, left or right will kill you and then you have to do it all again, and again, and again, and you don’t want to. And even when you do manage to struggle through some long-winded jump-run-jump-run-jump-run challenge, it cheats. We repeatedly slide down endless mud and ice floes, leap onto walls, run along them, swing about – and fall down constantly. It’s brutally unforgiving and insanely frustrating. The developers said the Zelda series was a major inspiration – I’m here to be a Jedi not Link, there wasn’t enough inspiration in the SW Universe? And to make it worse, you can’t do any of that when there’s fighting going on. You can only wall-run where its marked so it’s not a power you can use in battles or have fun with. All the fights are in strictly controlled, ground-level areas or corridors. It’s like playing a linear shooter then a Mirror’s Edge level on repeat, with some Assassin’s Creed wall climbing thrown in. All it's missing is some Star Wars. It does ties in with the SW films, just the ones I don’t want to be reminded of. Cameos by Forrest Whittaker and those enforcer droids from Rogue One, that Wookie from Episode Three; they’re nice tie-ins but I miss the self-contained focus of the Dark Forces II - Jedi Academy trilogy, where being a Jedi was actually cool. All Cal does is be the blandest Jedi to have ever lived. He was not popular at Padawan school that’s for sure. Cal is a dab hand with a Lightsaber, but it doesn’t feel as showy or reckless as it was, and his Force Powers – push/pull feels limited. I miss force-choking. He can also do that time-freeze thing Kylo can do, which is totally useless in a fight and is there just so they can add in more time-based puzzles and platforming. The story struggles too. For the most part it is Cal and Cere gabbing on about the plus/minus of the Jedi Order and the Force, and it drags. The main Inquisitor we deal with, Second Sister spices things up and adds to depth to it all, but she’s rarely around and its only in the final third, when the Holocron is within our reach and the race is on, that it gets narratively tasty. And undermining the story is the backtracking nature of the game. On the first arrival at a planet, various avenues are blocked by a missing force power or object, but once you gain the ability you can go back to the planet to see if there’s anything there - but it’s always more cosmetic changes like lightsaber designs and different coloured ponchos for Cal. Ponchos?! I just re-did a slip n’ slide for that? Cal doesn’t have force-sense and the map is shockingly unhelpful, so you just run about lost, suffering the wall-running, mud-sliding puzzles again only to reach a secret that turns out to be more Poncho choices. Why!? At least have all those collectables mean something, let you build your Cal into the Jedi you want to be. I got so annoyed with it I stopped wearing Ponchos as a protest. I don’t understand why they made this open world, it’s empty. No side missions, events or things of interest, it would have worked so much better as a tight, linear race against time. Wasting hours returning to a planet, pirouetting about for a new lightsaber hilt when hundreds of kids’ lives are at stake just seems daft. Get on with the story. I played this for 24 hours and 20 of that was either falling or backtracking. And when we’re not falling down pits, we’re using force abilities to push balls around ancient ruins. The Master’s trail leads us to uncover the tombs of The Three Sages – more like The Three Stooges. Why do all long-dead aliens enjoy securing things behind puzzles that take one second to figure out and one hour to complete? What’s wrong with a lock and key? One of the planets is Dathomir which is the only truly challenging planet – for a Jedi. The place that Darth Maul came from, we tangle with tons of his brethren while chasing down the last surviving Nightsister who is the coolest character in the game. I visited Dathomir early, when I was seriously underpowered just to have some proper Lightsaber mayhem instead of all the whingey teen drama, and happened to unlock the dual-saber. Worth it. We also get to tangle with a Dark Jedi there, who crashed during O66 and became corrupted. The final third of Fallen Order is top-notch, but Dathomir is the game’s highlight. Besides our own backtracking the game does it a few times, and it screams padding – this is actually a pretty small game. We visit Kashyyyk at least twice - and where I rage quit constantly; am I really wall-running up a tree and getting a lift off a giant bird that reminds me of Neverending Story? And we return to the Jedi Master’s homeworld way too many times. And each time you do revisit somewhere, the locals respawn. While the game thankfully respawns you right at the wall you just fell off, dying sends you back to a checkpoint you have to have activated earlier – if you don’t, you go back to the one before… And if you ‘rest’, while health is replenished, so are all the locals. And your heath stims are also re-created, weirdly. Since you gain XP for kills, it becomes a bit Borderlands-like respawning everything to farm for Skill Points and since it all respawns after a plot point anyway, you might as well rest up before a boss-fight. You’ll need it. The boss-fights are gigantic button-mashing messes. Your only tactic is to run behind and stab over and over. They look great but they’re not even remotely interesting or exciting, although the few fights with the Inquisitors do make up for it. For the boss fights, the developers claim Dark Souls was their inspiration – again, might I suggest Star Wars as an inspiration? Did you even want to make a Star Wars game? I’m amazed we got a Lightsaber. Elsewhere there’s fairly unimaginative creatures to cut down like acid-spitting spiders and various other beasts, and of course Stormtroopers, including Scouts and specialists armed with that lightning-saber thing and Troopers with shielded mini-guns. You can learn to reflect laser-bolts which is fun, but often the fights with Imperials are scrappy mob-fights. You’re clearly no match for just one so the game throws tons who all gather and melee away, and you never get that “I’m a Jedi!” feel you did from earlier games, where you just Forced ass. A weird thing is the Stormtroopers have a sense of humour. They’re not as chatty as the villains in NOLF but they have ‘humorous’ exchanges – like one complaining his visor has a smudge on it so he won’t be able to blast straight. Oh ha-ha. Or them reacting to Cal’s moves in ironic, self-aware ways. It just doesn’t work as well as they think. But… it’s still Star Wars, and there’s just enough of that old magic to keep you going. Once you’re seasoned enough for Dathomir it heats up big time and everything just flies right. It’s pure Star Wars – escapades, fights, lightsaber-building, scraps and scrapes, battles, and an awesome, terrifying cameo. The force is finally with it. So much so that when I unlocked Game+ I dived straight back in. And then discovered Game Plus doesn’t include your past Skills & Unlocks as God intended, just the … ponchos. And then I rage quit, for the last time. Fallen Order’s heart is in the right place, the world looks great (at least, it looks great when it’s not stuttering and lagging) and there’s some really touching and exciting moments, especially at the start and end; and Cal’s droid, BD-1 is all the cute in the world. At times I really felt like I was in Star Wars, but mostly I felt like I was in another game. It’s certainly not my most hated game of last year, but it is the most disappointing if you signed up to be a Jedi. It’s JJ Abrams Jedi compared to the Han-shot-first Katarn Jedi.

Layers of Fear

FBT takes a cowering, terrified walk through mind of a madman. Most walking sims see you padding through somewhere that holds a memory, or some significance, which Layers of Fear has. They tend to feature a lead who needs to confront some aspect of their life in order to move on, as does Layers of Fear. They usually have puzzles and events but it’s all about discovering the hidden truths, a reality hiding in plain sight. And that’s what Layers of Fear is about. So, it’s a walking sim. Except, I’ve never been too scared to actually walk in a walking sim. There’s even a VR version. F'that. In the 1920s, an artist heads to his workshop, driven to finally paint his life’s work. Navigating his stately home to find the tools and inspiration he needs, the artist becomes unhinged as he’s subjected to all the horrors the house - and his mind - has been keeping secret. The first few chapters are astounding. It’s a master-class in game design and keeping you off kilter. You are utterly disorientated as corridors change, doors appear or disappear, ornaments, pictures and objects move in the corner of your eye or leap out at you. It’s like playing The 7th Guest on mushrooms. You’re constantly either terrified or confused. As each part of the painting is completed, via increasingly horrific means – a lock of his daughter’s hair, blood … the house becomes more decrepit, surreal, aggressive towards him as he delves deeper into his past actions toward his muse-wife and child, obsessively looking to draw out inspiration as the desire to complete his masterpiece becomes all consuming. What started as an uneasy, dream-like logic puzzle becomes a house of horrors you drive further to reach the objects he needs to create the perfect picture and ease the guilt. It becomes a nightmare trying to navigate the house and his fractured state of mind, being terrified at every corner – if it even is a corner. You can become completely stressed, convinced you just walked through a door that’s no longer there, questioning everything you see. You never feel safe, you become conditioned to really not wanting to open a door. And then there’s nothing behind it except another door. And now you really, really don’t want to open that one. The only problem is after a while, that level of intensity just exhausts you. The first few chapters really get under your skin, as if the house is toying with you, but once it starts to torture you, you get desensitised. It’s like those early 00’s movies, 13 Ghosts or the Haunting remake (this references the original brilliantly in one scene, and there’s an early Evil Dead nod), and it becomes a tired pantomime jump-scare grind. There’s also the fact that as a walking sim, you’re never really in any danger. You can be sort-of killed, and those moments feed into which ending you confront, but in later levels you start to feel like you’re in a fairground haunted house, enjoying the scares but never feeling threatened. It would have been more effective to slow down rather than double-down. The story of what happened to his family, how all-encompassing his work became and how he slid into obsessive behaviours is compelling but so fragmented and flash-frame shock-reveal dependant that it doesn’t quite land emotionally, and without that you just push through, trying to get the picture finished. You are caught up in his mania, and worried about the wife and child, but it feels like the game considers the plot secondary to the next ‘whoa’ moment. Often you feel this is as much a demonstration of developers’ creativity as it is storytelling. You sometimes step away from the game and find yourself pondering how they did it, trying to spot the shifts and changes. A lot of the events have no relevance and feel a bit cliché – a doll stands up and walks. Scary! But why? Still, it is incredibly inventive. You completely lose any sense of reality, it’s a dizzying, terrifying experience, an astonishing if theatrical look at schizophrenia and paranoid delusions; you’re reliving, like a dream, both a terrible trauma and the realisation it’s your fault - unable to face up to what he’s wrought, the painting is the artist’s way of working through that realisation, and we’re influencing it - your choices decide how that picture takes shape, based on your interactions and if you go toward or evade certain events. Like I’m in any state to make a considered choice. Somehow, I managed to get the ‘best’ ending out of three possibilities. Not sure any of them would be considered a ‘good’ ending given the reveals, but I can’t bring myself to play it again to find out. Layers of Fear also features a solid if short DLC where you can play the daughter, and through her memories you see how events came to pass, while choosing to follow in father’s footsteps or mum’s wishes for her daughter. It’s not got the same sense of dread, and it’s a great deal more overt in the choices you must make to lead the daughter to a resolution and understanding, but as a side game detailing the events from a different point of view, and exploring the artist’s breakdown, it’s compelling if unsurprisingly stuff. Certainly this isn’t the first time a video game has scared us, but Layers of Fear is the first time I’ve truly felt lost in someone else’s nightmare and unable to escape - I have to go further to get out; it’s scary trying to make sense of the insensible, realising you can’t trust your own eyes or ears. For maybe two hours of its four-hour experience this is truly incredible. The rest is mind-numbing. But great to look at. If you dare...

What We Gamed - 2020

FBT and TheMorty reminisce about spending the year indoors. What lockdown? TheMorty - What a year! Suddenly everyone has all the time in the world to game. Sadly, not for me… Being stuck at home 24/7 meant battling my toddler for the console, and he has backup – his Mam. It meant I had to reconsider what gaming means; I developed a new outlook, how a game’s purpose is the same no matter what world, characters or events occur. It’s about the experience, the connection, the sense of achievement that matters. FBT – You buying that? TheMorty has not played anything this year that doesn’t have ‘Nickelodeon presents’ above the title has he. During Lockdown I discovered how much I like doing nothing – in the real and digital world. The original Walking Sim Gone Home came close to being my GitS (Game in the Sales), Previous Weapon’s version of GOTY. It’s a thing of beauty and revealed how nosy I am; rifling through people’s stuff was amazing. As was the nothing-really-happens Firewatch. It’s Hipster mumblecore for gamers but it’s so good. TM - So FBT sat watching someone else do all the walking? Makes a change from him sat watching someone else do all the work. At least he’s gaming. For me, locked down with a toddler is a fresh kind of hell. Goddamn Paw Patrol. A household meeting was held, negotiations took place, and a trade-treaty was signed to avoid the disasters of a no deal XboXit. The compromise was downloading 3+ games “we can all play”. GTAV is technically 3+, right? GTV Online is full of people acting like three-year olds anyway. FBT – Sometimes I didn’t even walk. Her Story should have been boring-as, a game where we sit at a Windows 95 PC and watch recordings of a woman being interviewed by police after her hubby turned up dead. But it was so compelling trying to figure out if she did it or not. Much like Stories Untold where I sit at my PC playing someone sitting at their PC playing a game of someone sitting at their PC. So confusingly good. I did leave the house though, virtually, in Cloudpunk, which lets me be a futuristic Amazon Delivery Driver. Like we won’t all be working for Amazon in the future. There was just something so calming about being an NPC, flying about the neon city with my AI-mutt, messing up parcel deliveries. TM – I don’t feel so bad now if that’s how FBT spent his Lockdown. Kid’s gaming is essentially decaf gaming, but I see it as setting my son on the right path, the start of a life-long addiction. But as much as I try to introduce him to Sonic and Mario, my gateway drugs, his is … Paw Patrol: On a Roll. At least I’m gaming. There’s something refreshing about not dealing with a million key-combos, moral choices, action-scenes and, whatever. FBT – Hey, I’m not one to judge. If the TheMorty wants to play puppy, good for him. I went for a different kind of animal. A replay of Jaws Unleashed confirmed it’s the most insane game of all time, and unplayable, but it’s impossible to dislike. As was Maneater. Blasting around eating everything in sight with a Discovery Channel Shark Week-style commentary was the most fun I had this year. Just the right side of nuts. Play/Swim it. TM – Well, maybe Paw Patrol will have a Shark DLC at some-point. When I was kid, my dad distracted me with wooden train tracks, and I wanted to continue the tradition. Not real ones of course; I introduced my lad to Tracks: The Train Set Game. You can design the most fantastical and unrealistic tracks you can think of – while adding a nice authentic touch of having a bedroom floor as background. It’s like you’re really there. Yes, I'm doing onscreen what the kid has in his real toybox upstairs but whatever, it was fun. Even when the gosh darn ding-dong-diddily (there’s children present) controls erase the wrong pieces or join two random bends together by accident, triggering frustration and tears (from me not the child). It should be a Rage Quit review but not in front of the kids. FBT – as Lockdown becomes the new normal, I needed to recall happier times, and PW.com is supposed to be about the replays, so I revisited Trespasser. And spent most of the time looking at my own boobs. I have been in Lockdown too long. No wonder my wrist doesn’t work. I finally caught up with Doom 64 which I’d avoided thinking it was just an N64 reskin. It was like rediscovering Doom. Talking of which, during lockdown I didn’t murder anyone; my 3-part article on Murder Simulators was a fun replay of all the games that ‘responsible parents’ think will lead you to kill, and I didn’t, not once. TM – while FBT tries to convince us he’s not a ticking timebomb, I went way back in time to 1997’s Total Annihilation. Build, destroy, defend, conquer - a format that’s been over-complicated in every strategy game since but here, against an AI so poor it made the game infinitely more exciting, you could play 1,000 different games and have an entirely different experience each time. A game could end in 10 minutes or 10 hours. Incredible. FBT – I too went back to 1997 and visited a LucasArts game I missed first time around – Outlaws. It’s not up there with Blood or Heretic, but it had some lovely artwork, clever levels, and a solid story – all the stuff I didn’t care about back in 1997. This time around though, I appreciated what it was trying to achieve. And Red Dead Redemption II isn’t in the sales yet, so this is the best western I’ll get for a while. TM – the Boris U-turns caused me to devolve back to the glory days of basic gaming, all the way back to The SEGA Mega Drive. The Mini is amazing, pre-loaded with 40 throwbacks to my wasted childhood. I started with the original Golden Axe, as it was the first console game I ever owned and nothing typifies 1989 quite like a medieval, sword-slinging He-Man. Playing entirely without saving, it took me an entire day to complete eight, three-minute levels. It was controller-smashingly frustrating. Reaching the end boss with one bar of health and my last Continue only to be brutally slain (again) and having to restart from scratch was something I’d rage quit in modern games, but here I hunkered down and restarted, and the satisfaction when I saved both the King and his Princess was immense. FBT – Lockdown is getting to me. Time to get out of here. To the Moon. Deliver Us The Moon was a real surprise. A tiny Indie game with big ambition, it almost pulls it off. Basically a Walking/Floating Sim where our character takes a one-way, last-ditch trip to the Moon to restart its production lines and save the Earth, by the time you reach the end you’re so invested in what happened, what sacrifices need to be made, its powerful stuff. Not so powerful that I felt compelled to do something with my life, but that’s what games are for. TM – Okay, while FBT makes like Bruce Willis, I’m facing the Armageddon that is bedtime. After I get the tyke to bed, I loaded up … Paw Patrol: On A Roll. If my profile’s going to show Paw Patrol’s got more hours than Red Dead II it had better be at 100%. After “we’d” saved some ducks, bunnies, fixed an eagle’s broken wing and saved that eternally irritating chicken, the tyke had aced it. The replay value of this brand for a toddler is infinite, so I can’t say it wasn’t value for money. Okay I enjoyed it, shut up FBT, least I’m not the one who actually liked Mafia III. FBT - Mafia III is a good game in the wrong franchise, TheMorty – try finishing it to find out. But Mafia Remastered is now one of my all-time fave games. Focused story, great gunplay, solid characters – it’s closer to the Sopranos than The Godfather in how the Mafia are just a bunch of self-serving crooks who’ll cross each other in a second and use words like Loyalty and Family to justify it. It’s the first time I’d recommend a remaster. TM - While FBT was reviewing games I’d already reviewed, the nurseries re-opened and I could play adult games; the mistake I made was reading FBT’s reviews this year. I’d be halfway through one of his signature rants and think – that sounds bloody awesome! - pick the game up, but by then he’d be raving about some other game so I’d go get that, but then he’d tear up another which caught my attention and… For instance, FBT’s trip to the Halcyon system got me hooked on Outer Worlds. It was just so engaging, a bitesize New Vegas – perfect. But by then he was gassing on about Maneater and got me thinking - Echo the Dolphin meets Carmageddon with a Goat Simulator garnish?? What’s not to love! I also got into AC: Origins but then I read his review and realised, yeah, it is bland. Eventually I had to stop being a sheep and play a game of my own. TM – Having been unshackled from my family responsibilities, I started with The Sims 4… I’m amazed FBT’s not a Sims fan – the chance to play God? But life’s stressful enough without having to play it though a depressing simulator as well. Constantly being broke, hating work, crying all the time, the wife banging on that I haven’t done the dishes, trying to get up that career ladder, not showering – wait, I am talking about my Sim there, aren’t I? FBT – Like TheMorty, Lockdown has allowed me to let some social expectations slide. Only dressing from the waist up, showering only when I realise that smell isn’t coming from the litter tray, standing in rooms blankly staring at walls – wait, am I TheMorty’s Sim? Closest I got to the Sims was The Stanley Parable, which was incredible and reminded me how much I don’t miss the office. It’s ruined gaming for me, but it was worth it. TM – even in Lockdown FBT and I found a way to argue, this time over the best RPG games for a Why We Game special. While it was great going back and having a blast on some of my favourites, I discovered a real hidden gem in X-Com: Enemy Unknown which is hands down the best strategy RPG I’ve ever played. It is truly magnificent; straight to the point and minimalistic, it dedicates time to focusing on in-game battle strategy and building a militaristic force to battle the never-ending horde of shapeshifting Aliens. It’s my GitS for 2020. The first game I’m playing in 2021 is its sequel. TM - Not being able to meet FBT for a beer n’ bicker this year was hard, but we had a couple of virtual pints and experimented with some temperamental cross-platforming. We raised some cartoon hell in Crackdown 3; but since FBT had already done a playthrough because, teacher’s pet, he had a peak Terry Crews that could bound buildings, heft cars and punch an enemy over a mile away. Whereas I had a punch-drunk Audley Harrison who needed multiple level-ups to unlock cars and weapons – the stuff we’re here for. TM - But what it really highlighted was the lack of cross-platform titles and the work that needs to be done on that untapped potential. Gears of War 4 co-op was briefly fun, but its dial-up level of connective unreliability killed it. “Why aren’t you moving….” became the catchphrase as we got booted out 2 minutes into each level. It left us with only the death match option, which ended 10-2 to me. And Microsoft, figure out the xbox-PC audio issues will yer? I can’t hear FBT blaming internet lag for another loss. FBT – one of my biggest issues this year has been with BT Broadband. But sometimes downloading games wasn’t worth the hassle. I raged through Crackdown 3, Duke Nukem’s Bulletstorm Tour, Crysis 2, and the interminable frustration that is Beyond: Two Souls. Why do Quantic Dream refuse to let gamers play their games? I still have Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human to play; but only because Steam won’t let me refund them. TM – what is it with FBT and subtlety. Hating Quantic Dream’s offerings is like dismissing art because you don’t understand it. He’s the same with Remedy’s work too – when it’s Max Payne he’s all ‘yeah, bullet time!’ and missing the subtext, give him Alan Wake and he’s all “it’s not Doom is it”. Wait for our Agree to Disagree review of Control early next year. How he can love rifling through a teenager’s bedroom but not cope with complex characters and motivations is Beyond me. I meant the teenagers’ bedroom in Gone Home, just to be clear… TM – ... he even found teenager’s underwear in Firewatch’s wilderness? It’s a talent I suppose. FBT – from one Teenager to another, 2020’s GitS for me is A Plague Tale. Young Amicia guiding little bro Hugo through the Plague, the Inquisition and hordes of crazed rats is amazing and awful; it’s a truly disturbing, compelling, sad game and even the magical rat-controlling final third can’t dissuade me; GitS of the year. Plus, it pretty much sums up 2020. So that was the year that was. 2020. It wasn’t so bad, when reality wasn’t a factor. TheMorty’s GitS choice was a eight old game while FBT went for an Indie title – that what PW.com is all about, but it’s easy to see why they picked those; the Triple A’s haven’t brought their A-Game in years. Name one in 2020 that wasn’t marred by bad reviews or worse bugs. 2021 promises mega releases like Far Cry 6, Hitman 3 and Halo Infinite - aka Sequels, not originality; PW.com will keep looking back and to the Indies for an escape. Up-and-coming reviews include TheMorty’s Jurassic World vs FBT’s Jurassic Park Genesis, FBT’s Lucius trilogy and TheMorty’s Paw Patrol: On a Roll... Or maybe that’ll be reviewed by TheMorty Jnr.

Richard And Alice

FBT thought this would channel the spirit of LucasArts. Oh boy… In the near future, Richard wiles away his time in a comfy prison until Alice, a new inmate, arrives in the opposite cell. As she describes life outside, where an environmental disaster has caused an endless snowfall and the breakdown of society, they try to figure out the nature of their strange prison, their reasons for being here and each other’s secrets. Split into two parts, we control Richard as he fumbles to build a relationship with the prickly Alice while trying to make sense of their incarceration, and in flashback, we’re Alice trying to survive the apocalypse with her impossibly adorable son, Barney. In many ways, it’s better that this recalls the 90s golden adventure game era with its basic blocky graphics and text dialogue. The look is so retro you fall into a comfy, safe place and then the story creeps up on you - like when Alice discovers chained-up bodies in the house she and Barney are squatting in, where it's implied they were being traded; maybe for food, before being left to starve. It’s not exactly realistic but it hits so much harder, it’s not what you expect from an aesthetic that reminds you of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Had it been some hyper-realistic Last of Us it would have been anticipated and felt heavy-handed, but here the desperate and sinister goings on get under your skin. Knowing Alice is alone creates a tension you’d not expect looking at it's visuals. Where's Barney?! In Alice’s story there’s a The Road vibe about it, with Alice and Barney standing in for Man and Boy - no real destination, just trying to keep going, while in Richard’s plot there’s the suspicious nature of the prison itself – why would a cell have a leather sofa, TV and its own shower, why would the inmates be slowly encouraged to be self-sufficient, have a computer where they can email requests to the never-seen guards? And then there’s the question of what they did to wind up here. Alice claims she’s in for murder, while Richard says he’s an Army deserter, but their stories don’t always ring true. I’m playing two unreliable narrators? As a point and click game, we’ve done this before. Click on an item to make them use it or admonish you for suggesting it. You’re trying to solve whatever hardship Alice is up against, then figure out how to move Richard’s narrative along before the next day starts. They’re pleasingly straightforward and reminiscent of puzzlers of old – in one, we need oil, there’s a can of it frozen in the snow, we find a battery lighter with no batteries, find batteries, thaw the oil. Not mind-blowing or frustrating, just pleasing problem solving. At about three hours it is short, but long enough. Much more and it would have become exhausting dealing with either the world dying or being in prison. It’s a bleak, brutal story and you know it’s not going to end well. Often there’s multiple dialogue options or actions - that means we’re looking at different endings, which invests you in those little blocky characters. While the end reveal is a bit hokey, I just hoped I’d reach an okay ending for them - but I’m guessing none are a ‘good’ ending. Although this was released in 2013 a lot of its themes seem relevant now, in the age of Covid – life on hold, isolation, distrust, survivor guilt, conspiracy theories, as well as environmental themes and government’s intentions toward the population. All of that as well as a moving story about a woman and her kid, presented in a way that reminds you of your childhood? Seriously messed-up. But a seriously good game.

Firewatch

FBT is Walker, Wyoming Ranger. Is Firewatch a Walking Sim? Yeah, kinda. An adventure game? Sort of. An art game? I suppose. I don’t really know what it is, other than one of my favourite games of the year. Henry is a regular guy who takes up the job of fire lookout at Shoshone National Forest after his beloved wife takes ill and he can no longer care for her. Henry is just looking for somewhere he can be left alone and avoid facing up to what life has thrown at him, but even out here in the wilderness life can still throw things. On his first day, his supervisor Delilah, aka “D” contacts him over the radio, setting some ground-rules; the most important being she’s not the silent type. She pesters and chats away, curious about him and why he’d take this job. Naturally Henry evades all her probing questions, and focuses on being equally pleased and appalled at what life in the forest means – an outside toilet? Henry’s early chores are monotonous, repetitive and ‘Day X’ keeps popping up to show how long we’ve been doing nothing. But it’s strangely compelling. We know Henry is here to avoid what’s happening at home, and he’s not really suited to the outdoors life, but D keeps teasing out parts of his life he’s been trying to avoid. A lot of the time you’re just walking while Henry reports on obstacles and rock-falls or just gives location updates – it should be incredibly boring, but it’s the exactly opposite. Somehow you fall for Henry and just want the guy to find some peace. Shame D won’t give him any. Later, D sends him to investigate some fireworks. Henry discovers they were set off by a couple of drunk girls, who accuse him of perving before running off. Soon after, Henry’s lookout is vandalised and more seriously, the radio communications are cut – suspecting it’s the teens, D sends him to scare them off, but he discovers their camp seemingly destroyed and them nowhere to be seen. Henry and D begin to suspect they’re being watched – Henry finds a note detailing their conversations and clues lead to an unmarked, gated-off area under Government control. As a distant fire threatens to blow toward their towers, the two become increasingly paranoid and focused on who is watching them. In a way this is quite Hitchcockian – it kinda reminds you of Rear Window but in opposite – D, stuck in her tower like James Stewart, sends Henry (that is, Grace Kelly) on increasingly risky trips to uncover the secrets of the park. But it might just be in the bored head of D – or is she messing with him? Is he part of some experiment? Is D in Henry’s head? The look of Firewatch is fairly basic, almost cartoony, so you can’t really argue the wilderness is realistic enough to feel lost in, but meandering the Park feels peaceful, ruined only by Henry’s constant worry about bears and falling off cliffs. What really gets to you is how satisfyingly mundane Henry’s life is – just how he wanted it; you get why Henry took this job, and when the mystery pops up again, the missing girls, the strange goings on and legend of a missing ranger, it’s unsettling. One thing I did realise though, I could never be a park ranger. To navigate you use a map and compass, learn the landmarks, orientate yourself. But not once did I strike out in the right direction. More than a few times I’d leave my station, manly walk toward wherever D had sent me, and suddenly find myself back at the station. Even with a map, a compass and two drunk, naked college girls to find, I still go in circles. The real star of the game isn’t the Park or the mysteries it holds, it’s Henry’s relationship with D. Conversations are always realistic and sweetly pointless, D is also sly, and occasionally flirty – especially when she’s got the Tequila on the go. You become reliant on anything she says, desperate for some sort of human connection; you realise how important just chatting is and how broken Henry is. A moment they share looking at a fire in moonlight is beyond special, but the key thing is they’re both so real. During the radio chats you often have multiple choice answers, and while key events are linear, how their relationship evolves is up to you – you can even entirely ignore her/find yourself unable to share if you want, and at times she would press me on details that I, at that stage, wasn’t ready to confront, let alone share. It’s incredibly involving; and when Henry suspects D might be involved in the mystery we're uncovering, it's a jolt. The ending polarised critics, and it’s easy to see why, but for me it was perfect. The whole thing has a Hal Hartley meets Wes Anderson vibe, and you shoulda seen it coming, it was never about what was happening in the woods, it was about what was happening in Henry’s world. It’s not a walking sim, it’s not an adventure game, it is art. We’re just along for the ride, and it’s an occasionally scary, exciting, mysterious, moving, engrossing and beautiful ride.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

FBT is back in the AC world as he goes full skinhead on Assassin’s Creed Vanilla. I'm back! After last year's epic AC playthrough, where I picked my fave assassin and fave AC game, Ubisoft is back with another instalment in the ageless secret war between control and freedom. Will Valhalla upset my AC game rankings? Nope. In 9th Century Norway, young Eivor is orphaned during a Viking raid. Adopted by another Jarl and raised with heir-apparent Sigurd, the two become feared raiders and troublemakers. But when their father acquiesces to King Harald, denying Sigurd his claim to be Jarl, the siblings depart for England intent on creating their own kingdom. Hitching a ride are men claiming to have business in Britain for their order, The Hidden Ones… Oh My Odin, did this game piss me off. I don’t know why everyone’s comparing Valhalla to Odyssey. It’s a reskin of Origins. They’ve just replaced sand with mud. Same menus, weapons, actions, same pointless bird. But the thing about Origins and Odyssey is that Bayek and Kassandra were flawed and volatile, and it was personal; Bayek’s quest for his child’s murderer, Kassandra for her family’s linage, and their stories collided with the Templars (Cult, Order, League, whatever) as they try to control the politics of the era. Here, while Eivor suffers Visions of her betraying Sigurd and has Odin as an imaginary friend pressing her to take all the glory, we’re not a heathen brute tearing across England; we’re the politest, most woke Viking ever. Every AC lead starts as a cocksure brat and ends embittered but better for the experience. But Eivor is blank from start to finish. I chose a skinhead look because, well, we’re in Britain, but cut-scene Eivor doesn’t want to plunder, she wants to be pals. She’s passive, pulled along by events instead of driving them. It’s true that once her blood is up, she cuts through Saxons like bloody butter and when we’re in control there’s axes and heads flying everywhere, but she doesn’t seem that bothered. She just holds the line, has few emotional beats or problems, doesn’t even struggle really, she’s just going through the motions. Which is exactly how the story plays out too. I thought we’d be causing mayhem across England, yelling ‘for Valhalla!’ as we rampaged - instead, I’m yelling “for f’s sake!” as I come across yet another generic situation, mission, event as we try to claim England from King Aelfred. Every region is the same and the local bigwig is the same. It’s the classic “Hi, I have a self-contained problem, fix it and you shall have my support”. Meanwhile, Sigurd and the Hidden Ones chase an artefact which draws the attention of The Order of Ancients. Even The Hidden Ones seem uninterested in the Order’s plans, they just give me a list of names like “While you’re out can you kill those lot and get some milk?”. Only two of the FORTY-FIVE Ancients are directly connected to the ‘story’, and some of them actually seem quite pleased they’ve been assassinated and can leave. It’s a sub-plot, and the only reason to bother at all is because it brings the hidden war back around to the series’ beginning. It’s so perfunctory that you can almost see the to-do list Ubisoft ticked off; assassins, Isu artifact, check Wikipedia for some historical refs, templar kill-list, lunch. There’s also lot of callbacks to earlier games, like ACIII’s Homestead which is fun, and some which were best left in the past - being able to hide a hulking Viking in a posse of priests (?), chasing flying paper; glad that’s back, love being reminded that AC’s parkour has never really worked. The hidden blade is back too - why? To appease the superfans who raged about it missing from Odyssey, like Kass’ spearhead wasn’t vastly superior – there, I said it. We never join the order, why give it to Eivor? Stealth is pointless and it’s out of character for a Viking anyway - and when we do use it, for some inane reason we get a slow-mo shot of the blade slicing through bone and gristle like Sniper Elite. Why? Much like a needless detour to Vinland (The US of A), couldn’t the effort that took be used to fill areas in the U of K? The scale of Valhalla is frustrating. Ubisoft dialled back the RPG in favour of the ACII era but placed it in a landmass technically bigger than Odyssey – then spread it across one third of England – it’s practically 1:1 scale! In other words, miles of nowt. Origins tested the patience of even the most hardened explorer with its miles of desert of nothing, but this… I’ll admit it’s ever changing and often very pretty, but when you do stumble across something, be it towns, people, or places, they’re similar and get very generic and repetitive. You can take your longship for a punt down the rivers, but there’s not really much point after a while. Each county will have a few forts and camps knocking about, but they re-populate and serve no purpose – you can totally rinse ‘Cent’, but it doesn’t alter the balance of power or reduce the king of Cent’s influence, making attacks a bit meaningless, and most seem quite welcoming to the foreigners – how inaccurate of Brexit Britain is that? And major events always result in the same castle storming event. You’d expect some sort of intrigue; the king of Suthsexe wanting Essexe under him before he’ll provide an army to take down Oxenefordscire say, but then their king makes a counter-offer - or we just blast through them all, but no. Aren’t we supposed to be invading? We’re not sacking, pillaging, conquering, there’s not even any brigandage, whatever that is. You can raid monasteries for supplies to build your camp, but even that doesn’t bother the God-fearing Christian Lords of England. In the vast nothingness there are ‘events’, fun mini-problems to fix, but they’re timewasters or map-wide collectables to gain a weapon you won’t use. Most of the other ‘points of interest’ scream filler (and those Cairn puzzles can FO), none more than when Layla has to complete cyber assault courses to unlock a teaser to Eivor’s fate – that’s cool, I’ll wait. You can find Knowledge Books that give you some great bits of British-style violence like head-stomping someone who’s down; the only time Valhalla feels like its drawn inspiration from Britain and its re-enacting scenes from outside a Kebab shop on a Friday night? It is thin on the ground when it comes to British nods. There are some incongruous in-jokes like references to the doggo Fenton (and Keith Flint which is cool), a couple of the big-game hunts are mythological creatures like Black Shuck, we can see Stonehenge, Sutton Hoo and some of the chalk sculptures (but not the bloke with the penis), a few legends like Excalibur and real-life leaders, places and battles, but it feels very ‘that will do’. Britain’s not embedded in the story, it’s not a deep-dive like other AC experiences - we do set fire to someone in a Wicker Man, so that’s inaccurately something. The most fun you have as a Brit is trying to find places you know. I have several friends from Nottingham and enjoy slaughtering their ancestors and laughing at how it was originally named ‘Snotingham’ – accurate. But I don’t feel lost in lore, like I’m in Dark Ages England – Hellblade was an indie title and it batters this in the immersion stakes. It just feels more Vanilla than Valhalla. And where the hell is Kassandra? What was she doing for the last thousand years? I assumed she’d be following Isu clues, guiding Hidden Ones, at least having a bit of fun – I got excited when I spotted her partying with Vikings in the trailer, which seemed in-character for her but no, all the Viking women just have her hairdo. Cost-cutting Malakas. Perhaps due to using Origins as a base, Valhalla actually feels dated, while Eivor is like a patchwork of other heroes - ‘use Ezio’s parkour, get Edward’s idle animations, use Connor’s missing personality’. It feels cheap, there’s no new innovations here, and while the release was a standard Ubisoft shitshow, it remains buggy and stitched together. There are some nice little touches, like flinging weapons NPCs drop, and… actually that’s about it. All this sounds like I’m winding up for a rage quit. And at times I came close, but I plundered the British Isles for a butt-aching, girlfriend-annoying 130 hours. I often really enjoyed Valhalla – I lost hours looking for Brighton, loved wandering the countryside, took a stroll along Hadrian’s Wall, and I enjoyed being a Viking; the down ‘n dirty brawls, calling in my clan to raid a monastery – but all the fun I has was my own making. I dislike how empty it is compared to what the Dark Ages, Viking conquests and England’s strive could have offered. If Britain had been leaner, like the Unity/Syndicate era it would have been intense, and that would have forced me to focus on the story - but it’s spread so thin, over so little, I just lost track of what it was trying to tell me, what it was building toward. But … when Valhalla does shoot it’s shot, it hits hard; the ending reveals are brilliant and I have to admit, the lacklustre story suddenly makes solid sense. And that’s the problem – 9th Century England, Viking mythology, The Hidden Ones, Order of Ancients, me, it’s all irrelevant; the entire game was just set-dressing for Ubisoft to roll out yet another AC reboot. Layla's story is hilariously reduced to flicking off a switch - she was built up as the first Assassin-Templar, the one to balance order and chaos but Ubisoft are clearly jazzed for their new direction and ship her off in favour of what happens next; it makes no sense and has plot-holes bigger than the map, and I should know better, but I am stoked … it’s such a good ending it made me forgive 130 hours in 140 sq. kilometres of mud and nothing. I mean, I should be pissed I just spent all that time and effort to reach a cliff-hanger (and one that won't be explored in the DLCs), but man, I can't wait for the next AC Odyssey-based game.

Call of Cthulhu

Cthulhu calls FBT. New number, who dis? We’re Pierce, the classic gumshoe. Drink problem, check. Ex-soldier struggling in post-war peacetime, check. Messy office with a ceiling fan, check. But instead of a femme-fatale knocking on his frosted glass door, we get her dad; he wants us to travel to Darkwater Island (not at all ominous), to uncover the truth of his daughter and her family’s strange death. The only clue is the daughter’s bizarre and horrifying artwork… Right from the get-go it’s clear Pierce is up to his neck in murky water – and he’s not alone in there; a great early scene sees him wading through water and a tentacle grabs him, only to be revealed as seaweed – who hasn’t felt seaweed and immediately assumed sea monster! This time though, there is one. Given Lovecraft’s original novella is almost a hundred years old and one of the most heavily derived works in horror, it’s no surprise that CoC feels familiar; a remote island, secretive locals, gothic mansion, a surly groundskeeper, an asylum, cloak-wearing worshippers, suspect deaths; we meet superstitious fisherman, read about a huge, mysterious catch that fed the entire island, and meet a harbour-master who claims an aged photo of him with a peg-leg is actually his father... But it’s not the literary influences that make this feel familiar, it’s the gaming clichés. CoC looks solid but it has a whiff of budget about it – there’s a lot of replication and few locations, and the detail is very last-gen, as are the NPCs, who do that generic gesticulating and vague lip-sync. The auto-save only triggers at key points, so you can’t risk quitting until a cut-scene - if you do, or you die, it’s back to the start and clues, hidden items and even skills are reset. You’re invested in ensuring Pierce is prepared for the Great Old One but feel constrained by the game’s fairly basic world and interactions. Still, for the first few hours this is fantastic stuff. The dread builds, the locations are creepy and it’s clear that there’s something terrifying under Darkwater, like a tentacled IT and it’s been waiting for you; Pierce’s grip starts to loosen as he sees worshippers in Cephalopod masks and watches Davy Jones (the one with the Locker, not the one from the Monkees) gut someone – who then reappears healthy and ‘hazy’ about what happened; is it all in Pierce’s mind? He even starts seeing himself in the paintings alongside the horrible creatures. And, the things in the paintings don’t stay there. An early ‘boss fight’ sees ‘The Shambler’ escape a painting and start hunting Pierce. It’s like a mini Alien Isolation – he even hides in closets. It reappears later in a mind-cracking level where you alternate using two lamps, one to light a route and pass barriers blocking the way of the other lamp, which lets you open doors, so each impacts the path of the other. And, of course, the Shambler is also wandering the halls. Which are in a hospital. At night. And one lamp has to be refilled, so the further you go, the less oil you have to find your way back … When he’s not being harassed by demonic watercolours, Pierce tries to be a detective about it all. While he quickly accepts all is not natural in Darkwater, he does concentrate on clues and even has a detective mode, where he’ll CSI a crime; some of his detecting is Sherlockian, some more Sci-Fi where he figures out huge plot points from a knocked over candle. The more clues you pick up, and occult books you find, the more he risks his sanity but is able to direct his questioning and make sense of it all. Like any of it makes sense. Pierce is subjected to all sorts of horrors – hallucinations, altered realities, grizzly deaths; he even gains control of NPCs (one of which battles Shambler again) as well as gets lost in his own frantic mind; we face so many twists, turns, reappearances and other worlds we might as well be playing Inception the Video Game. But, as the player, we can see through all the smoke and mirrors so you’re often waiting for the increasingly unhinged Pierce to catch up. And while you’re waiting, you notice the world isn’t the only thing that’s disjointed. It’s got some fairly major dialogue choices, and often you’ll only get one question in before the scene ends, which adds tension since you never know what’s relevant and where it leads; poor Pierce, he’s got his wavering sanity and my ‘should not have skipped that cutscene’ skills. But then you start to notice events aren’t really reflecting your choices, and other narrative jolts don’t go anywhere. Sometimes I learnt about the impact of a moment in a loading screen text. A lot happens within cut-scenes, and the work you’re putting in feels irrelevant. I get “you have changed your destiny” or warnings about how reading Occult books affected his sanity, and wonder if I’ve sent Pierce down a dark path, but after a few hours you realise Darkwater is just a Dead-end. Pierce has a lighter and an oil lamp he can use to ferret around, but it’s not like we’re wandering through a rotting mansion where using a lamp exposes you or you need to inspect everything. Instead, you see an icon for lamp, light it and look! A clue. I’m not reliant on my detective skills or my ability to hold a lamp, I’m searching for cut-scene triggers. I’m not saying I want it to be like LA Noire where he’d pick up anything not nailed down, but none of it really matters, we’re just going through the paces. A couple of moral choices you’re forced to make have no actual impact unless you’re an Achievement hunter, and by the end, no matter what you witnessed, said or state of mind you left Pierce in, the final choice is left up to you like a gothic Mass Effect 3. There are four possible endings, and both the endings I experienced were incredibly rushed and disappointing; one was a rage-quitting “the f* was that?”, while the ‘cannon’ ending isn’t much better. Like The Wicker Man, Pierce’s fate was sealed the moment he set foot on the island but instead of that reveal where everything we did was predetermined or fate, it's just a linear story pretending we're impacting the outcome then rug-pulling us. What were all those choices about anyway? Not like Pierce was ever going to make calamari out of Cthulhu. Still, CoC does create some real fear and unease at times, and the deranged hallucinations are top work, and it’s great being in an old-fashioned horror story; it’s also faithful to Lovecraft, and perhaps some of its missteps comes down to the fact that Lovecraft is impossible to adapt as a video game. Lovecraft works on the page because your imagination takes over, but in a game we're in control, and discovering all our efforts are for naught is annoying especially when the reveal doesn’t really explore our part in it. Read the book.

The Stanley Parable

FBT is in an office playing at trying to escape an office. FBT has left the office. TSP might be the best game I’ve played since Portal. The comparisons are fair – Portal was an inspiration, it’s on the source engine, we play a hapless character trapped in a silent, empty place being toyed with by an omnipotent voice that seems trustworthy but might not have our best interests at heart. And it’s mind-boggling. I wish I’d picked this up on release. But quickly I realised this isn’t the best game since Portal, it’s just ruined every game I’ve played since Portal. It’s not got the scope, detail or gameplay complexity of your average Triple A, and that’s its strongest element – it pricks at those games until you can’t take them seriously anymore. Or take my gamer-self seriously anymore. Or my office. Stanley is a typical clip-on tie, white-shirt wearing office drone. One day, he notices the entire office is empty. Unsure of what to do without a memo or manager, Stanley ventures out of his cubicle and makes decisions on his own for the first time. At least, as far as the Narrator lets him. As he explores, Stanley is accompanied by the narrator, an observational, jovial voice that calls to mind the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I follow his suggestions, expecting him to promise Cake, but I actually reached the ending in about five minutes. Oh. Well, that was cute. And that’s where it gets interesting. The next go I disobeyed the narrator, who started narrating all the stuff I was doing instead, justifying my actions, making them seem intentional and interesting. I rebelled, kept taking random routes and backtracking but he had a comment for everything, it was like no matter what I did, the narrator made it clear my actions were expected, planned for, and even starting working with me to figure all this out. I even leapt off a parapet to Stanley’s death. And the narrator was ready for it. TSP started out as a HL2 mod, when budding developer Davey Wreden (and William Pugh) realised even free-roam and choice-driven games have inescapable narratives no matter how much freedom you think you’re given. With TSP he sought to subvert that expectation. And oh boy did he. The fun of TSP is trying to work out all the different endings, the ways the game anticipated and controlled your playthrough. They’re rarely obvious; some you uncover by accident, some build up and others are totally left-of-field. There’s some that parody gaming itself, like stepping outside the map or activating cheats. Although the game ends after each, it’s more like a loop than a restart; I kept hiding in the broom closet to the narrator’s annoyance, then later ran past to see the closet had been boarded up. At times the narrator is a manipulative, nasty piece of work, other times you can turn the tables on him, and at times it seems the game is double-crossing him as much as Stanley; he's not infallible. A few endings take some doing to discover (as in, look up walkthroughs on YT – I think the Narrator would appreciate the irony of using someone else’s narration to reach endings) but they’re all rewarding, clever and satisfying. It even has one where another narrator steps in (the narrator’s narrator?), and you can end up in other games in the Narrator’s Steam Library … I managed 18 of the 19 (known) endings – I skipped the one that requires you to play a mini-game for 4 hours - but I can’t believe TSP actually has an ending. Although TSP was fully released in 2013, it’s remained an intensely popular game – and a PC exclusive. But there's an ‘Ultra Deluxe’ version due for release on the Unity engine to allow console gamers a go. It’s an enhanced version with new adventures and endings for Stanley. I’m already looking forward to the ‘HD Remix’ version. It’s not until you play TSP that you realise how much games have been lying to you. You don’t beat a game, you reach the end of a predetermined path. It doesn’t matter if you turn left or right, play good or bad, they all still lead to that last cut-scene. Even online games have an unescapable goal. It’s a painful parody of us thinking we have some input when we game – any decision you’ve agonised over, from which route to take in Gears of War to stopping the Reapers; TSP makes a mockery of your decision-making skills. It’s also painful if you’ve ever worked in an office. It’s like the gamer version of Mike Judge’s Office Space - one time, the narrator tricked me into thinking I had a wife waiting at home, only to cruelly snatch the dream away and force me to tear down our home and replace it with my cubicle one keystroke at a time. That one hurt. It’s also like Groundhog Day - you keep repeating your day job until you find the ending that means the most to you. You’d expect this to run out of steam quickly, but it’s so cleverly constructed I’ve been at it for hours. TSP is the one and only time I’ve been happy to be stuck in an office. It’s made me look at choice-driven games differently, and gaming in general – if wandering the same boring office for hours can be this much fun, what are other games doing? Stanley had my number right from the start - while wandering the menus getting everything how I like it, I turned on Achievements – and got an achievement for turning on achievements. Leave me out of your parody. Oh God, I am Stanley. I should quit my job. But I won’t. I’ll just keep trying to get Stanley the ending he deserves.

The Suicide of Rachel Foster

FBT steps over the line in this walking sim After the death of her father, Nicole returns to the family hotel to put it up for sale, with the proceeds willed to the family of a young girl, Rachel, who committed suicide years before. Trapped by a snowstorm in the isolated and dilapidated hotel, Nicole finds herself facing up to the ghosts of her family’s past and uncovering the events that led up to Rachel’s death. But as Nicole realises what happened all those years ago, we realise we’ve been duped into a melodramatic, manipulative mystery that leaves you feeling uncomfortable instead of moved. That’s if Nicole could actually move. Just like What Remains of Edith Finch, Nicole is the slowest walker ever. If I were in a terrifying, creaky hotel expecting to see the Shining twins around every corner, I’d put my foot down. This should be a run-like-hell sim. And dragging her heels is not the only thing Rachel has in common with Edith. Young woman forced to return to empty family house? Check. House filled with regret and family secrets? Check. Eerie goings on and a sense that the supernatural is at work? Check. It’s Edith Finch meets Gone Home (it's even set in the 90s), but without those games’ whimsical melancholy. Instead we get hints of Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath meets The Shining – that’s the carpet from the Overlook, I expect to see Danny trike by or find myself outside Room 237. There’s other references you pick up as you slouch about; it’s a good mash-up, but feels familiar. There’s a Firewatch aspect too; Nicole is in radio contact with a FEMA agent who was checking everyone in the county has battened down for the storm. They have the same prickly relationship which slowly thaws, and Nicole is initially unlikeable, but as her resolve and grip weakens, a much more fragile person is revealed, one who hasn’t ever dealt with what happened here. Shame we have to deal with it. The hotel is so vast you’re perma-lost – which works at first, making you feel alone and uneasy; the corridors are claustrophobic, the open spaces make you feel exposed and the excellent sound mix of creaks, bumps and wails combined with clues suggest you may not be the only guest at the Timberland. But you might be the only living one. As you dig around Dads belongings and your own memories, things start to happen. The twisty hotel starts to bear down on you and it builds in almost unbearable ways – a door that was sealed mysteriously opens, we walk into a freezer and it locks us in; we’re constantly on edge and the game just keeps ramping it up. At one point the lights go out. Ignoring all the lighters lying about, Nicole uses a Polaroid camera, letting the flash illuminate the way. It’s terrifying as hell, the game’s standout moment. Later, she discovers ghost hunters rented a room for an investigation and we watch a video of them being so terrified of something they left everything behind; and the room has been bolted shut … inside, Nicole discovers a parabolic mic they dropped; I was scared enough turning it on, but suddenly I heard a breathing behind me that terrified me so much I had to go turn the lights on, not sure if it was in the game or not. The more Nicole uncovers, the more the hotel seems to wake up. But what does it have to do with Rachel? In truth, nothing. While a walking sim’s location is important, it’s the storytelling that draws you in – and it starts off well, with the family running the hotel happily until it’s discovered dad had been having an affair with one of Nicole’s school friends, Rachel. The fallout saw Nicole taken away by Mum, Dad becoming a hermit and Rachel talking her own life. It’s heady stuff to dig into, and you uncover some really uncomfortable truths - not about the story, but the game. Rachel is never given a voice; she’s not even an enigma you solve, she’s background to the family’s woes, blamed for the break-up. We never learn about her, her side of this. She’s just the catalyst to get us to the hotel, her suicide a Hitchcockian McGuffin to kickstart the plot of repressed Nicole put through the ringer for her own good, like a bloodless Saw film. Dad and Rachel’s relationship is played without comment, an affair rather than abuse; it’s almost romantic, with Dad implied to have groomed her but also genuinely loved her, letting him completely off the hook - and it’s suggested Mom was difficult and disinterested in Dad; poor guy, give him a break? The only way Rachel is described is physically, as the school hottie, appearing ‘adult’ and said to be ‘mature for her age’ … all classic justifications putting the blame on her - and we find sexualised drawings of her. Yet the devs use the image of a child’s retainer, the classic symbol of adolescence as the game’s motif - designed like a butterfly, the image of change, beauty, freedom. It feels very uncomfortable, tawdry, outdated – if not completely insensitive, and then you remember the game’s title, and infuriatingly even that’s a cheat, a set up for a final act reveal you’d expect from a daytime movie. To use the word Suicide then intentionally rug-pull us into a cliché small town, big secrets plot is offensive. Even more maddening, the ending puts you in Rachel’s shoes, given the choice to ‘stay at the hotel forever’. In my ending (presumably there’s several given the conversation choices and events), I actually committed suicide then realised I could back out of it – and got an Achievement called “All together, again”. Everyone connected to this story is dead. It’s just distasteful. Even with a warning about suicide themes that’s a pretty irresponsible sequence, since how we got there is confused and contradictory. A game has to be exceptionally well-considered to pull off contemplating suicide as an achievement, and this isn’t even close. Rachel is often powerful stuff about how secrets and events tear people apart, and the hotel is at times the best walking sim/cowering experience I’ve had yet, but just like Nicole we’re sucked into the hotel under false pretences. As a game, Rachel is an occasionally brilliant if derivative walking sim. As an experience, it’s irresponsible and upsetting for the wrong reasons.

Beyond: Two Souls

FBT doesn’t play a game. A young woman, injured and silent, is brought to a local sheriff's office. Before they can get anything out of her, a SWAT Team descends. Moments later Willem Defoe runs in and finds her gone and the SWAT Team in pieces. Flashing back, we discover the girl, Jodie, has an imaginary friend who is anything but imaginary. Or friendly. For all of Quantic Dream’s claims that they’re trying to create something new in the gaming medium, this feels incredibly hackneyed and seen-it-before. Girl has superpower that she struggles to control, is cared for by kindly doctor who is decent but has dangerous plans, she winds up working for a shadowy government team looking to weaponize her, she rebels, becomes a fugitive … I’m guessing, at this point it’s still downloading. But once I’ve got it loaded up, I see what QD are trying to achieve; remove the last obstacle in preventing a game from being perfect – the gamer. I’m not playing this. I’m just doing the stuff QD couldn’t be arsed to animate. Opening doors, sitting down, standing up again, turning on taps. What is it with QD and their obsession with the mundane? Why break a cut-scene to have me open a door then resume the cut scene? No other developer puts so much emphasis on the daily crap we game to escape from. It's not absorbing or immersive, it's annoying. Why do I do all the admin and the cut-scenes get all the fun? Is this to justify the cost of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe? And when we do get some action, it’s QTE time. At its most challenging it’s that goddamn car bouncing scene in GTA San An. The only gamers who’ll enjoy this are closeted Dance Dance Revolution fans. Why can’t I actually control the fist fight, or the gun fight, or stealth? It’s so arrogant of QD, like I can’t be trusted to play this. Every action is pre-ordained – I have to do it the way they say. I’m an afterthought. They lovingly animate Ellen Page doing something exciting, then think ‘oh yeah, chuck in a QTE for the ape playing this’. Plus, when we do get control it’s impossibly frustrating; a dot appears, you sway her toward it like a drunkard, and make her interact. But if you don’t hold the button long enough or press the wrong one, she cancels the action, the camera swaps to a different perspective for no reason and you have to start all over again, or it counts as her failing and moves on. Or you get stuck in a ‘NO! AGAIN!’ loop over and over. It’s not me! Why am I here? What is the f’ing point?! This is like watching a movie that randomly pauses and all you have to do is press play again. I’m close to pressing Eject. Playing as her ethereal sidekick can be fun at times though. Often, while we’re ‘Aiden’ there’s options to be a complete bastard, and you take them just to get out all the frustration. But here comes Quantum Dream making sure we’re not having too much fun. Almost all the actions, responses and behaviours Aiden or Jodie exhibit can have repercussions, which just paralyses you, turns you into the world’s most well-behaved poltergeist. This is basically one of those old Chose Your Own Adventure books. Sure, we’re picking the path, but what happens on it is totally out of our control. As I button monkey my way through the plot, I realise its rail-game nature isn’t just exposing the plot’s shortcomings, it’s exposing the mo-cap’s limitations. They look like Ellen Page and Willem Defoe, and sometimes it’s beautiful, but you’re watching so intently it reaches Uncanny Valley levels, it’s the dead eyes and lack of emotion you pick up on, not the feeling or story. And since the game is non-linear, bouncing back and forth through her story, it's hard to anticipate or build the kind of person Jodie is, or what Aiden is. Is she really this reluctant, or hiding the true scale of her and Aiden’s powers? Is Aiden her protector or abuser, is she using him? It doesn’t involve you in a way that gets you curious or invested – for a game dedicated to storytelling, it’s all at QTE-arm’s length. QD, either put me in charge or just make a movie. Oh for crying out loud, they entered it into the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. If we’re supposed to be so invested in the story, why make is so achingly cliché and corny? An early moment sees young Jodie attend a birthday party - all the cliches are here; jock kid, stoner, slut girl, toadies, who bully her with such ferocity it’s screaming ‘bring out the demon and screw them up like every teenage horror movie that has a girl with dangerous powers does’. We’ve all seen Carrie. Even the reveal of Aiden’s true nature is a groan-worthy ‘didn’t think it would be that obvious’ moment we’ve seen in a ton of straight-to-video horrors that caused me to QTE my way to the exit screen. Easily my most hated game of the year. So many Walking Sims have done this story-driven experience far more effectively; at least there I control the walking. This isn’t even an original concept let alone plot. I do applaud what they’re attempting here, making games as art, favouring narrative over action. But I need to be involved in a way that doesn’t boil down to a boss battle with a doorknob. I loved QD’s first game, Omikron: the Nomad Soul and really wanted to like this, and at first I didn’t mind the interactive element but this is not “Interactive storytelling”, it’s Quantic Dream not letting us play with their toy.

Cloudpunk

FBT tries his hand at being a delivery driver. Hope you’re not expecting any packages. As expected, the future is ravaged by environmental disasters, evil corporations and retro-synth music. Nivalis, a Mega-City-One kind of place, is starting to fall into the ocean due to the city’s increasingly buggy AI that controls its infrastructure. Those who remain in the city are corrupt, desperate, or both. Into this bleak world arrives Rania, who joins no-questions-asked Cloudpunk Couriers as a driver to pay off her debts. It’s her first night, and most Cloudpunk drivers only last one, one way or another. Gonna be a long night. Aesthetically, we’re in Bladerunner here, but also there’s vibes of The Transporter - Cloudpunk’s only rules are ‘don’t open the package, don’t ask any questions’ - but also Futurama, given Nivalis’ cartoon voxel look and the weird subplots that emerge from the simple task of taking a box from A to B. We’re also getting some Fifth Element, Coruscant, pretty much every sci-fi blue-collar worker in corrupt city with flying cars trope. But that’s where the comparisons end - Rania is no hero; we don’t open a package and get thrown into some conspiracy or adventure, we’re just an Amazon delivery driver, trying to get through the shift, trying not to get involved. It’s almost plotless, and largely threat-free. It’s just do your job, listen to the stories behind the delivery. It’s refreshing being inconsequential. It’s surprising how compelling it is to just have a simple task. Pick up, drop off. Normally I hate those kinds of side missions in an RPG, but it’s all I have to do, navigate the bustling city in my ‘HOVA’/Spinner, land, find the drop off, get the next package. This isn’t even one of those delivery or taxi games where it gets increasingly hard or you’re against the clock. It’s all about Rania and the characters she meets and this big, strange, uneasy city she’s turned up at with nowhere else to go. Rania’s not alone though. The only thing she brought with her is the harddrive for her dog AI, Camus. Unable to afford a dogs body for him, she plugs the mutt into her HOVA and while Rania tries to keep her head down, Camus makes like a dog and sniffs everyone’s butts, making friends and drawing her into the city where everyone is as unimportant as Rania is. Meanwhile, you’ll see neon flicker, engineers lament that the city seems pissed off, and occasionally entire buildings collapse or shift. The place is alive somehow, or maybe it’s just dying. Often, during deliveries or chats, Rania will be faced with a choice or asked to dole out advice, and you have no idea how they may pan out. They rarely impact the gameplay, just Rania’s mood as the impact gets reported back to her. One had me delivering a package that ticks. Presuming bombs don’t tick in the future, I delivered it. Later I heard the building had been levelled. Whoops. One had me pick up a suicide’s belongings to deliver to his family, but Cloudpunk wanted the goods to pay for the pickup. Annoyed, I intended to deliver to the family but accidently delivered to Cloudpunk; but then later met the family who it turned out encouraged the act. I was glad I screwed up that one. Nivalis is a horrible place and it beats down on Rania mercilessly. There’s humans and Androids, and then there’s ‘Automaton’, machines that on some level are aware, like Camus who Rania encourages to be more than just a good boy. The megacorps that own the place also own the people, forcing almost everyone into some form of servitude to pay off debts they’ll never clear – to the point of taking children as payment. Not even death is a release; the corps just download your mind into an Automaton. It’s a terrible place. And then you park, and it gets worse. The on-foot camera is infuriating. There’s no free-look, instead the camera switches view, which also flips the controls making navigating a headache-inducing nightmare. While the city looks great from the air, once you’re on the ground you realise there’s not a lot to look at or do – it looks like the work of some Minecraft obsessive and it’s hard to disappear into; it's beautiful, and there’s tons of ‘find me an x’ NPCs to interact with, sending you around the complicated streets picking up crap, but they usually boil down to a long-winded examination of the human condition - some relatable, some touching and sad, others thankfully skippable, but after a while, combined with the infuriating camera angles and lack of immersion, it gets a bit tiresome. Back to the Spinner. I mean, HOVA. Flying around is soothing and enjoyable, especially once Camus figures out how to turn on his radio, but getting into traffic can be a bind. They have zero AI and just rear-end you or refuse to move. For saying you spend maybe 80% of the game in the HOVA, clanging around while listening to Camus question the human condition, it’s not as relaxing as it could be. Eventually, against my will, I get bored. This is a beautiful, subtle, thought-provoking game, a kind of walking-sim that explores identity, purpose, self. But there’s just too much game and not enough gaming. I finished it in 13 hours, and that was twice as long as it should have been. Maybe monotony is accurate to what Rania is experiencing; I enjoy the idea of avoiding drama instead of diving head first as you would in most games, and when it does all coalesce, it’s a huge moment – all her tiny, inconsequential experiences suddenly meaning something; I’m just a delivery driver, I just want to finish my shift. It’s an odd game – or maybe I just can't make up my mind. I loved just doing my job, but then got bored of it, yet when plots did surface I was irritated they took me away from delivering. It’s just not quite interesting enough and too whimsical when plots pop up. Along with the grating on-foot sections and same-old driving sections, it should just time-out, yet there’s something so compelling about Rania and her desire to just finish the shift. I keep coming back to it, enjoying the anonymity of just being a background character. It's just satisfying, and it stayed with me, and that is the mark of a good game. And the mark of a good developer is them constantly updating and improving it, as Ion Lands have done - the latest update adds Cockpit view, which makes it even more immersive - and Bladerunner like. And beautiful. Easier to park too. For me, the real ending isn't the fate of Nivalis, it's when Rania, beaten and tired, finishes her shift and heads for bed; yet tomorrow she’s got to do it all again. I’ll be more understanding to late delivery drivers next time. They may hold the fate of humanity in their ‘sorry we missed you’ cards. Hang on, I was in the whole time!

The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure

FBT enjoys the Darkling Room’s holiday slides. The Past The point of Blast from the Past reviews is you recall the game, talk about how great/crap it was, then re-play to see if that opinion still holds; but I can barely remember anything about Lost Crown other than giving up. But I always bang on about loving point & click classics and I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, so did I just give up too easily? And it’s rated 80/100 by Fortean Times, that’s good enough for me. Maybe I was too hasty. Finding evidence of the afterlife takes patience, time to learn some. Still a Blast After accidently-on-purpose downloading incriminating files on his boss, our hero Nigel arrives in ‘Saxton’, intending to lie low. Instead, he gets blackmailed into investigating paranormal legends about the quaint little seaside town, and discovers not only are they more than just legends, but Saxton might be the final resting place of a long lost Anglo-Saxon crown, which the ghosts don’t want disturbed… I haven’t played anything this point and click in years. I click, Nigel walks, I point, Nigel comments. Standard stuff, but what marks this out is its real. Rather than a digital world, we’re presented with actual photos which Nigel walks about in. It’s a bit like Dad walking in front of his beloved carousel slide projector showing holiday snaps upside-down, and it’s distracting watching someone 3D walking around a 2D static image, but once you get your eye in, there’s a depth and realism to it, and it gives it a surreal tone – the uneven cottages, bramble-filled lanes, desolate beaches, gothic landscapes and pokey streets, it’s like you’re on some local ghost walk for local people. I keep expecting to turn a corner and find The Slaughtered Lamb. But Saxton has its own locals to worry about. As Nigel continues his stroll through the village, piecing together the place’s secret history, he uncovers various ghosties and paranormal goings on, and this is where it gets really fun. There’s some great devices Nigel gets to play with, I feel like I’m on Most Haunted. An EMF meter, EVP recordings, a night vision camera, it’s all good fun standing in a beach cave going ‘is there anyone there’ and seeing the EMF flicker or audio being recorded. And Nigel gets to stay in an obviously haunted house complete with bumps in the night. It’s so atmospheric and well observed, clearly steeped in ghostly history as Nigel finds ways to exorcise the ghosts and reveal the crown in this Wicker Man-like town. It reminds me of Broken Sword too – city lad gets caught up in an adventure that’s far bigger than him; Nigel is like a British George in a flat-cap, he’s lost, sarky, bemused, and befuddled by it all, but doggedly keeps going because he’s also curious – as are we. And he gets a female sidekick. It’s got that fish-out-of-water charm that keeps you going. Still, it is a slog at times, has to be said. I do struggle with the pacing and clues, and it is a bit meandering and unfocused at times. There’s so much of Nigel just slowly tramping along, slowly looking at things, slowly turning and slowly continuing, and another issue is how completely inscrutable it is. Nigel might be at sea here but I’m sunk. Its GameFAQ time. It’s one of those games that proudly doesn’t hold your hand, but sometimes you do need a bit of guidance to keep your energy levels up. There are times where its budget shows – sometimes it feels jammed together and the voices seem clipped or sown, giving Nigel the occasional air of William Shatner. But I have to wind my neck in here - this is how classic adventure games are; I need to talk to a guy, but he’s grumpy because he wants his dinner. But his missus needs ingredients. So its off to the woods to find wild veg, then chop it, then stew it, and finally he’ll tell us something. That’s how point and click adventure games work. You’re supposed to tease your way through it, it doesn’t come to you and while it could do with some focus, that’s because I’m unfocused after years of games, even adventure games, doing the heavy lifting for me. I need to work for those ghosts, they don’t just appear. Or disappear. I had so much fun with Nigel once it got going. It reminds me of something from Nigel Kneale like The Stone Tape or that original Central ITV production of Woman in Black, just so ‘every day’ yet bleak and foreboding. But it also reminds me of getting my head down and puzzling my way through an adventure and that sense of achievement when I aced it. And, this was made by one guy, from “Cornwall, just off England” … The Darkling Room also created the Dark Fall series, and now I have to go buy those and everything else they’ve done. Their in-coming Glastonbury game looks awesome, but what I love is their commitment. They actually went on a ghost hunt to research this, and some of the recorded events are in the game – how’s that for emersion? And the ‘Saxton council’ website they created to support its release is not only still live, but the stuff of Blair Witch legend. It even has clickbait links. I’m actually 50/50 on if the place, and ghosts, are real. I’m glad I gave up on this a decade ago, because now I can really appreciate it. This is a purist’s game, this is how adventure games are supposed to be – back in the day it would be subtitled ‘the graphic adventure’. Several times I thought ‘that’s enough,’ but then realise I’d not left and when I did quit, I was curious about what Nigel was going to uncover and went back, enjoying a bit of good old point and click. It’s just nice being a Nigel again. This was so rewarding and it's done Blast from the Past proud - I've reconsidered my opinion and resolved to dust off some old point & click games. It’s a travesty this isn’t on the App Store. It kicks the ass of those god-awful ‘adventure mystery’ or hidden object games; being able to dip into this for a while on the commute would be amazing.

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