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Oxenfree

Oxenfree

Olly olly oxen fbt Oxenfree is basically a teen adventure written by John Hughes, produced by John Carpenter and directed by Spielberg using watercolours. It’s great stuff; an abandoned island filled with portals, time loops and disembodied voices explored by a bunch of teens in a 2.5D world that reminds you of early adventure games. But with a modern twist. Lets get twisting. Full of beer, weed, and the usual angst, a bunch of teens take the last ferry to deserted Edwards Island, an old military base famed for the friendly-fire sinking of a US sub during the war. During their beach party, the teens explore a cave where their radio picks up a strange frequency, which causes the kids to pass out and wake in different parts of the island. Discovering some kind of mysterious time-loop, it’s up to teen Alex to reunite her friends and break the cycle of Edwards Island. Mostly, the puzzles you face are Alex closing/opening portals and affecting time-loops by dialling her radio to the right frequency. And it’s not a typical walking sim since we’re rarely alone – the focus isn’t even on the strange goings on, it’s on the characters. It’s a dialogue sim. The puzzle is how you play Alex; who she is, how she regards her friends and how they see her, and how much events from her past, like her brother dying, have impacted her. The teens chat almost constantly – about the island, the situation, their relationships, and the fact that they’re growing up and apart. They joke, get distracted, needle each other, go off on tangents and never miss a chance to flirt, and amazingly, you quickly get into being Alex and answer naturally. We get timed reactions, driving their narrative and significantly impacting the plot and ending, but it’s a lot more subtle than just paragon / renegade. A standout midway through sees Alex choosing who goes exploring with her; even those pals she’s fallen out with take great offence to not being chosen. That the teens are still concerned about how they’re regarded by their peers when there’s paranormal goings on feels accurate - it somehow effortlessly captures the subtle minefield of adolescent egos and how fragile they really are; those kinds of decisions do mean the world to a kid. You let things go or demand they be talked out, realise you have less in common with one teen and develop a better understanding of another, and cause them to like or dislike Alex, sometimes without meaning to. It’s incredibly complex and satisfying because it feels so natural, like being a teen - there’s no real right or wrong answers just emotions that mean way more than decisions. You don’t have to say anything at all, just leave opinions or worries hanging. You don’t have to have all the answers. For the most part Alex is stuck with Jonas, her unwanted, unwilling new step-brother while the other teens are Clarissa, her dead brother’s girlfriend who still harbours resentment toward Alex for what happened; Ren, her childhood friend who she’s not been spending much time with, and Nona, a hanger-on. But its up to you how all those friendships develop, how open and honest you are with them, which influences they share. Still, all this chatting isn’t getting them off the island, and its ghostly inhabitants aren’t making it easy for them. Often a ‘time displacement’ will occur, where a sequence repeats until you figure out what it wants or it shows a glimpse of a possible future - or past - if you carry on down that path, and eventually the displacements reveal more of the island’s strange inhabitants and what they want. It’s a great ghost story, but while it all comes down to Alex’s understanding and what she’s prepared to do, its those relationships that stay with you. There’s even a Game Plus mode, where Alex+ is aware of certain events from the previous play – throughout, she would realise time was looping - allowing you to further influence the outcome, possibly stopping the loop from ever occurring. Or reoccurring. The only thing that stopped me from trying again was the background music. And by background, I mean overwhelming racket that ruins the entire game. It’s the only criticism I have of Oxenfree, but it’s a big one. Composed by ‘scntfc’ (learn to spell, hipster), it’s a ‘soundscape’ for each area and stage in the story. Largely it’s like listening to every single game soundtrack from the 80s, at the same time, accompanied by a 2-year-old on pots and pans. I had to turn on the subs just to understand what was being said it’s so overwhelming. In one section there’s at least 3 different tunes playing simultaneously over the sound of a clock ticking - it’s so bad there’s a Reddit thread of people begging for a mod or hack to get shot of it. Some are convinced it’s actually a bug. It even ruins the ending, where the kids resolve their issues depending on how we interacted, followed by a touching Stand By Me style epilogue based on Alex's friendship choices, is entirely drowned out by the sound of what seems to be a Pan Pipes cover of a Metallica track. And you can’t turn it off. Alex can have her radio open at any time, and thankfully that forces the music to stop – that I preferred radio static to the soundtrack says everything. To be fair, I did listen to the soundtrack on Spotify and it's really good - just too distracting when you're knee-deep in teen angst and ghosties. Oxenfree so perfectly captures real teen conversations; pointless to everyone else but mean the world to them – and often even the most obvious answer is wrong just because they didn’t want to hear it, and it makes you think like a teen; more than once I chose an emotional response rather than an authoritative ‘we go this way’. Its amazing that we have a haunted island, horror elements, a mystery to solve, non-linear events to navigate, time-loops and death, but it’s the dialogue that compels you to push on. There’s multiple endings, but rather than good/bad, I got MY Alex's ending, decided by dozens of off-hand remarks and reactions. It was my journey – at times it literally was, during one Loop Alex’s name switched to ‘FBT’, as if I wasn’t already lost in the game. If you turn your speakers off it’s one of the best adventure games since Lucasarts shut up shop.

Lucius III

Lucius III

FBT babysits the Antichrist one last time… The Lucius series does have its fans, at least those who enjoy it for what it is. The first, a dour tale of a little boy murdering his family for Satan was pretty much a walking sim – it was a lot of fun to watch, but not particularly satisfying to play – I wanted to murder my mom not watch it happen… Lucius II, taking onboard the comments that the original was too linear, was a batshit-crazy free-roam murderball where you killed indiscriminately. And was a terrible buggy mess that didn’t work. So, with the bar set pretty low, is it third time a charm? Having claimed the scroll that holds back the Rapture, Lucius returns to his old town with McGuffin - the cop-turned-accomplice - in tow, to set about breaking the scroll’s seven seals so Old Nick can take over. Murder spree optional. Like the sequel, we have an open world and this time it’s an entire town – I envision sneaking into houses, setting up accidents and murders, but there’s nothing here. It’s like wandering around Google Stadia. Not one person on the sidewalks, cars on the streets, not even people in houses unless they’re story-dependant; it’s entirely empty. Except for dozens of pointless Devil toy collectibles. I’m not here for achievements. Where’s the murder stuff? McG takes Lucius for a wander to meet the locals/victims, then they set up camp in an abandoned fairground where they intend to recreate biblical events to break the seals. Lucius’ plan seems to be ‘find someone who vaguely relates to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and murder them’. Lucius III’s plan is to have us game like it’s 2003. Lucius III is full of shoestring shenanigans. Cutscenes in particular come in for some serious budget-cuts. Often the voice-work sounds like it was recorded through a Mask, and scenes don’t reflect choices; I killed some kids and later went to their mother’s house where she told me the kids are playing upstairs - and they appeared in the final cutscene too. Characters float off, walk through walls or sink into the floor, and often freeze once the scene is over. When this happens the autosave is no use, so it’s back to the very start of the chapter, and that gets tiresome quick. Worst of all though, the cutscenes go on for an interminable time, often with everyone just kinda hanging about waiting for someone to say 'cut'. Instead of editing or altering them, the developers actually just added an achievement when you skip... You can tell a lots been cut, most notably the Halloween party everyone bangs on about; Lucius even has an outfit for it, but we never go – or maybe he does and I missed it, you can miss some of the optional murders, which is easy given the plot-holes and slapdash shortcuts. It’s obvious this has been condensed; there’s seven seals to break, but once we have the four horsemen done, McG just locks everyone in the church and tells Lucius to kill ‘em all to hurry things along (And then afterwards asks where is everyone). There’s a ton of other random bugs, shortcuts and weirdness going on, but they kinda add to the eerie feel of it. One bug even stopped me from getting changed in the morning, so I had to bring about the Apocalypse in my favourite stripy Bear PJs. Lucius does seem to have calmed down a little. This is much closer to the original where only plot-dependant things can be interacted with. He has telekinesis, will get firey and can mind-control when needed but that’s it. A bizarre as it is pointless aspect is Lucius can now turn into a Raven and flit above the town to get a bird's eye view of how basic the game is. I only used it once with purpose, and in the finale where we descend into hell - a platforming sequence when the raven ability would be useful, we can’t use it. There’s a lot in this game that just seems unnecessary... There’s a whole subplot which is exactly the plot of Psycho, but unlike Norman, Lucius will hurt a fly; one of the Horsemen is a black man who Lucius inexplicably kills by conjuring up some KKK to lynch him - and he even wears the cutest little outfit. He also uncovers a paedophile who he gets publicly arrested to maximise the family’s shame, then hangs him in his police cell in front of cops. But, against my expectations, this really does have a charm. I didn’t expect it to, I thought the first was a missed opportunity, the second a mess, and this would be more diminishing returns but somehow through all the cheap, buggy issues, Lucius III is surprisingly effective. It mostly comes from Lucius being downright unnerving. In the first game he was blank, in the second he was badly drawn, but here you can see him thinking. There’s an intensity to him, the way he’s just watches, oozing malcontent, glowering at an increasingly afraid McG... It’s a lot of fun watching him stare at people and thinking ‘ah shit you dead’ when you realise he’s fitting them up for a Horseman-shaped coffin. He’s inscrutable but clearly dangerous, and the way he just silently wanders off – like after using barbed wire to hang a Horseman while McG throws up - is really unnerving. I’m playing him and he’s scaring me. It’s more of a puzzler than the original, this time we figure out how to do it and we’re more involved so the kills feel more ‘satisfying’, and the story builds so well – this is the end of the world we’re bringing about; it does feel like you’re summoning the Devil. And if you’re struggling with the main plot, you can always take a break and go side-murder someone. Lucius will kill people purely for shit n' giggles; like a weird Napoleon Dynamite character who he had zero reason to kill, or boys he tricks into taking LSD - they have no baring on the plot really, its just Lucius letting off steam after a tough day bringing about the Apocalypse. Lucius III is buggy and cheap but its cold, dead heart is in the right place. Despite all the annoyances and logic-farts I had a great time. There’s a good/bad ending, which makes no sense and it’s totally laughable taking the good route; we’re the Antichrist, we were only ever going to choose the bad option. I figured this game would send me to hell, and it did, but it’s all right here. I kinda like the little mute manic finally. No idea how many people we murdered together across the three games, but I’m gonna miss him. See you in hell.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther

FBT vs The Great Outdoors. The Great Outdoors wins. Dear Esther is basically a flashback to when your mum would make you turn off the computer and go outside to play, because it was better somehow. Well, it isn’t. Deposited in a windswept, deserted island in the Hebrides, we’re an unnamed man who wanders the island, recalling memories and composing a letter to Esther. And that’s it. It’s like getting lost in google maps street level. There’s no direction, hints or clues. On the plus side, there’s no infuriating puzzles; on the negative side, there’s no infuriating puzzles. It’s just this bleak island which triggers our character’s internal monologue as he formulates a letter to Esther. There’s not even a Slaughtered Lamb you can duck into for an ale and game of darts. But then, that's the point. Walking Sims are all about taking in the sights, being an observer and delving into a story that's already happened - I loved Gone Home, and one of the reasons for that was I became invested in the family, concerned for them. But Dear Esther just takes it too far. It's too disconnected, distant, desolate, like the location. A lot of critics raved about DE at the time, spouting about feeling ‘contemplative’ afterwards and moved by the experience, but... no. It’s just a critic’s darling, one of those games they rave about because they can spew superlatives and be all intellectual. Bottom line is, you can have the same experience in Skyrim with the mission marker turned off. The dreamlike, disconnected narrative absolutely has its moments – what is the significance of this place? Why do this here? Is he here to find her, is he hiding from her? Why mention the hermit that lived here, what are the strange markings, and what is the letter for? Am I really here? What is his plan? The problem is, the game leaves it up to you decide, and really all I want to do is leave. Without some mystery, some curiosity, there's no momentum so eventually you lose interest. Once you get over the beautiful island, there's not much else to hold you here. The island might be a metaphor for his life, but meandering through a metaphor for hours means you drop the meta and wonder what it's all phor. At one point I commit suicide just to liven things up; he hears a voice telling him not to wade out to sea, so I do, but he just washes up again. You’re just walking and waiting for the guy to pipe up – and, it’s fair to say, the dialogue is often over-wrought rather than gripping. If I’m supposed to want to understand this man or Esther, then it fails, partly because the story becomes confused and partly because WTF are you on about. It does provoke some interesting thoughts about gaming; open world games subtly push you forward; you think you’re left to your own adventures, but you’re not really – they’re crammed with stuff the devs want you to be doing. And now, I understand why. All I ended up considering, as I stood on some windswept hill, was why is this a game? It’s just too abstract; I get how unique this is, that its an interactive novel, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that, well, it’s boring. Unless you’re a huge fan of the Hebrides. And at times, I am. The battered coastline, fields, valleys and cliffs, the sounds of the wind and sea, it is an incredibly real and haunting place, but not for long. Another frustrating thing is there’s no save option. You have to find all the fragments and cremation urns to unlock a chapter, and since you have zero clues, notes or suggestions, you end up like some Metal Detectorist staring at every blade of grass hoping it’ll trigger a chapter unlock. When Auto Save is your only encouragement, you’re in for a slog. Basically, it’s like being conned by a rambler friend to take a hike but then they spent the entire miserable, wind-swept afternoon banging on about their ex - I grew up in Devon and once, a friend and I got lost on Dartmoor. It was two long hours before we found the car again, and the only thing that kept us going was arguing over who’s fault it was. This reminded me of that, and this time I don’t have anyone to argue with. And it was his fault. There is something undeniably beautiful and brave about Dear Esther, and I was annoyed that I couldn’t get on with it. I understand those who found it affecting, but for me, that's what the movies and books are for. Games involve us. I played the app version during my commutes - a perfect situation to just wander a beautifully rendered island and get lost in a story of regret and loss, but I kept just staring out the window instead; least that journey felt like it was getting somewhere.

Lucius II

Lucius II

Lucius is back, and this time he’s not letting physics stop his rampage. Little Lucius, the son of Satan who killed his entire family on dad's orders, has been committed, understandably. In hospital, his powers fade as the Old Man's followers chose a new Son of Satan to worship. When the doctors try electro-shock therapy on Lucius it reactivates his powers - and his determination to win daddy’s favour over this new pretender. It’s a murder-off. The only thing I want to murder is the game itself. Everything you want is here – free-roam, tons of kill ops, scary little kid with evil powers; every limitation from the first game is unleashed but the game is just broken. It can’t actually deliver the freedom it offers or compete with how creatively murderous you want to be. Rather than The Omen vibes of the original, this is like playing Hitman Jnr. You have targets, options, and must kill without being seen or suspected; everyone is a possible victim, be they plot-dependant or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but no one really seems bothered that everyone’s getting murdered - one time I used pliers on a gas canister and fired it at an orderly causing a huge explosion. Awesome. Left bodies everywhere. And everyone got over it and went back to work within seconds. But even when you’re set to unleash an amusingly grisly death, the game is there to f’it all up for you. I mean, I’d get lazy if I had telekinesis too, but can’t Lucius just pick something up for once? Why does he have to levitate everything? Saves leaving fingerprints I suppose, but when you do grab something, it ragdoll-trails behind, bumping and crashing, getting stuck, flying off or suddenly dropped at the moment of murder. The amount of times I lost things that passed out of the game space. There’s just too much freedom and not enough control, its less a precise murder-sim and more like a demolition derby. Everywhere you look, options, hints, clues, highlights, comments appear suggesting you use this and that, but there’s no guarantee the game can actually deliver it. I was rubbing my hands with evil glee when I realised I could try to kill a doctor using a defibrillator; but what happened was I spent ages dragging it around after him, then he strolled past and walked into the trolley and got fried. I’m a master of murder. Sometimes a murder’s difficulty might be down you, the opportunity, or a whole raft of game-related bugs, glitches, or random barriers. An early kill required me to get into a locked room. There was a child-sized vent so I spent ten minutes throwing a can at to open it and when I managed it, the door opened. How?! When you do use powers, you're rarely in control or even understanding what they're doing. The way things work is a total mystery - objects can pass through things and open doors on their own. I’m here for murder, and I don’t get to enjoy it ... You know what I mean. Although this is basically a stealth game, you can’t really stalk your victims in a way that’s satisfying, because they’re impossible to predict. It was great when I used a can to knock lose a gas valve then levitated some cigarettes to the guard who dutifully lit himself on fire, but he was clearly unperturbed by flying cans and floating fags; to make this satisfying, we need more than 2004-era stealther AI that dismisses brutal murder with ‘must be seeing things’. If I see a child dressed in a black mourning suit with a gas canister levitating over his head, I’m not going to just dismiss it. They will walk randomly, get stuck, freak out or not, ignore a body or not, see you or not see you, care or not care, it’s a mess. You do get mind-control, but it just ruins the flow when you spend an age planning a kill, finding the tools, reaching the vic and now they get suspicious so have to do a Jedi Mind Trick, hide, then go back and find they’ve reset. Its better to just take the easy options to level up. In order to escape the hospital, Lucius must find an ex-follower on each floor, from whom he gains more powers, more understanding of who his rival is and what he must do; all explained by terrible, cheap cut-scenes. We have multiple floors of the hospital to kill through before the first game's idiot detective, McGuffin, unsurprisingly now a believer, rocks up to take us to the nearby town where our Satan-sibling is murdering. He ain’t seen nothing yet. And neither have I. Not that murder should be easy, but this is hard work. I hate to give up, but the combination of cheapness, indistinct options, bugs, sketchy AI, flawed control system and the game’s own indifference just stops it from being fun. It was better when I was focused on killing my family, not anyone I fancy like Postal 2. Nothing much matters and combined with the fact nothing much works, there’s just nothing much to it. The original worked because no one suspected the kid. Who can forget the time you had to pause the murdering because mother made you go brush your teeth? Here we’re just a shaved head away from being Hitman, and we’re talking Absolution here – not that the first Lucius was Blood Money. What really annoyed me is a jokey, flippant tone that runs through it; it undermines the cool horror of being a murderous kid, like even the game isn’t taking this seriously – if it actually worked, I’d be more forgiving of the puns and jokes. Still, the kill opportunities are inspired. They may be ruined by the game mechanics but when they work its worryingly satisfying. Poisoning donuts was a personal favourite, but slippery liquids is genius. Lucius II is a badly done stealth game that was clearly a lot more fun for developers to design than it is for us to play. There's a huge amount of potential here, but the game won't let you be the little demon it wants you to be. There is a final sequel, Lucius III; I just want to enjoy being a murderous son of Satan, is that so wrong?

The Town Of Light

The Town Of Light

FBT is committed. In 1938, a young girl, Renée is sectioned in Italy’s Volterra Psychiatric Hospital, infamous for its cruel treatment and extreme practices. Years later, Renee returns to the now decrepit building to discover what really happened to her – and why she suffered. What makes this haunting is Renée’s story is accurate to the hospital’s real-world reputation. We’ve played games that adapt historical events into entertainment, but there’s nothing entertaining here, instead Town of Light deserves praise for how constantly sickened, angry, and helpless you feel. Problem is, it’s the helpless bit that drags it down. ToL is more of a hidden object game than a walking sim; there’s not much in the way of direction, just a hint to find an area and then an object which triggers a cut-scene. And rather than a linear experience, the whole, vast hospital is open to you, so you’re nosing around room after room, ward after ward, floor after floor, just looking. When you do get a cut-scene it’s a relief – which is the wrong reaction to whatever horror Renee subjected to, but at least it’s progression; for the most part we’re not building toward anything, and it distances you from her story when we do relive her experiences, That sounds nit-picky, but the game is aimless, despite what we’re facing and uncovering – I want to experience what Renee did, expose what horrors they put her under, but it’s just spread too thin. It would have been a truly affecting, tough game if it had been linear or more focused, but images of her experiences, her childhood, her memories and the events she witnesses unfold in a dream-like way, and there’s just too much plodding to keep up a momentum. It all comes together brilliantly (and horribly) but it drags so much you become somewhat immune to the sheer amount of horror she suffers. As Renee recalls the events, and reasons for being there, we realise nothing can be trusted – some of the memories might have been invented by her mental condition, others by the stress of her treatments, or fantasies she sank into to survive – but what’s worse is the hospital covering up events or impressing their own moral virtues that made her condition worse, creating a vicious circle where they intensify her treatments due to her reactions to their acts. The hospital records detail a ‘stranger’ broke into the grounds and she seduced them, but we see memories of her being raped by an orderly. She finds records of a ‘spontaneous self-abortion’ when it’s clear they performed it illegally to cover up the assault. It makes you so angry, but once I’m back to wandering the halls, that feeling dissipates. Added to which are some supernatural-like elements. It could be in Renee’s mind, but occasionally doors lock or unlock, lights go on or off, and there’s Layers of Fear style sequences where areas shift and change. The game’s horror was in the stark reality of it, it doesn’t need this. There’s 14 chapters to get through, and by the time you’ve reached 7 or 8, it feels like it’s ending, but it just keeps going. Sequences like a return to a warped memory of her school, and several wanders through the hospital’s grounds feel like padding. It only took me 3 hours, but I’d swear it was 10. Had it tapped out at 2 hours and stayed on course, it would have had way more impact and stayed with me for longer. As with most walking sims, it’s not really a game as such, more an experience, and in this at least, ToL excels. It seems more of a statement on the horrors of institutions like Volterra than an actual game, and they chose the medium as a way for us to see and feel it first-hand. It doesn’t shy away from what people were put through in the name of ‘care’; off-hand references to her being tied to a bed for 15 days, being left next to a girl who was choking to death on her own vomit, the electro-shock ‘therapy’, and I could barely stand to watch the final treatment they perform; the game even pauses to give a full medical description just so you know exactly what’s happening. Its horrible because it happened, and the reveal about Renee's original reason for being admitted was just heart-breaking and rage-inducing. It’s an incredibly brave, contentious hate-letter to the era of ‘asylums’, basically Nellie Bly’s exposé in game form and as such, can’t be criticised. It’s a horror in the worst way – this isn’t zombies, this is people turned into zombies so they’re easier for society to deal with. But as a game, it lays it on so thick, but then stretches it so thin, you disconnect from it all.

Lucius

Lucius

FBT plays The Omen the Video Game. AKA, the ultimate Murder Sim … Lucius is one of those games where no matter how much you complain about it, it still sounds awesome. Even though I know it’s not, I’m convinced it was great. On 6/6/66, little Lucius is born into the wealthy Wagner family. On Lucius’ sixth birthday, his real father – Satan – appears and tells him to start collecting souls to repay a family debt. Lucius silently agrees and starts offing everyone in the house, revealing family secrets. Since Lucius is a silent ‘hero’ we never really know if he’s enjoying murdering everyone in sight. He is unnervingly blank and emotionless, even before the old man triggered his homicidal tendencies. He has a cute notepad he writes his plans in, and they are disturbingly indifferent. I have no idea how he chooses his victims, Satan never specifies and Lucius doesn’t react to a scolding or chores with murderous intent, you just toddle him around the house until he spots a particular someone and it’s game on. Well, it’s not really a game. Murdering people should be a lot more fun than this. It should be a pre-school Assassin’s Creed, where we’re planning and executing, literally. We’re not watching routines, spotting opportunities, finding weaknesses; the kill is pre-planned. Lucius picks his prey, we gather the required tools and a cut-scene has all the fun. You spend a lot of time looking for things; in fact, Lucius ran for 22 miles (4 shy of the Marathon Achievement, damnit) during my playthrough. While all this is going on, a Detective (‘McGuffin’ amusingly enough) keeps investigating and deciding they’re all accidents. He’s at the mansion so often he gets invited to Christmas dinner – where we kill the butler with an icicle. That was actually a good one, and there are some nice touches like you get given chores if you bump into mum; Muuuuum, I’m trying to murder the maid, do I have to brush my teeth now?! But while doing those chores increases the household's opinion of you, they don’t help in-game; it would be great if particular people were suspicious and caused problems unless you charmed them – or offed them… The deaths are epically graphic, the kind you’d expect from Mortal Kombat’s Fatality moments, but you’re indifferent because there’s little in the way of planning or ownership of the kill and since Lucius is silent, no emotional investment - even when he escalates to family members. I just don’t get joy out of a successful kill. Sorry, I mean, I don’t get a sense of achievement having murdered someone. No, that doesn’t sound right either ... - I love the setup, the house, the way it apes Omen, and Lucius is terrifyingly blank, but this is a walking simulator and I signed up for a Murder Simulator. As we progress, the little tyke’s rampage is augmented by Dad giving us special powers - that further remove you from the wet-work. I get that Lucius is the Prince of Darkness and would have a few demonic tricks, but they’re not as much fun as getting your hands dirty. Early on you gain telekinesis, which allows you to make objects lethal but because it’s predetermined you’re not being creative with it. Later you gain mind-control, so now I just wave my hand like a murderous Padawan and folks are leaping off balconies, firing nailguns and sticking their heads in lawnmowers. Yawn. By the end I’d murdered 20 people but never felt guilty/triumphant, because I didn’t really do it. It is grisly, gory and cool, but its not down to your own imagination or ingenuity. I guess I hoped to have the game reveal I had a natural talent for whacking people, that I can murder with panache… There’s also a fair few frustrations. You’re always lost, even with the map (which is no help), and that gets really frustrating when certain missions require stealth – it’s never not funny to be a murderer who can be sent to bed if you get spotted after dark, but that resets the entire mission. You never heard of a checkpoint? Telekinesis is a real pain to use - one murder has us use it to direct a hair dryer into a bath. Classic horror film stuff, but when I finally landed it I was relieved rather than pleased I’d electrocuted someone. And it can be buggy; the few one-on-one fights are a crapshoot, NPCs can be impossible to find, some requirements are down to sheer luck, doors won’t open, you get stuck, and your fireballs often don’t work – being the Antichrist can be annoying. As you’d expect, it comes down to a fiery standoff with priests - followed by a sudden ending which leads into Lucius II. But the best of the franchise isn’t Lucius, it’s ‘Lucius Demake’, a rework as an 80’s 16-bit game. Somehow it’s a lot more fun playing a blocky antichrist. By the end, I wasn’t sure about if I should write a review or see a therapist. I didn’t enjoy playing Lucius, but I enjoyed being Lucius … All the ways I think Lucius could be better make me sound psychotic – more open world, engagement, planning, character building, options, opportunity and freedom to kill … I was expecting Rockstar’s Bully meets Manhunt, but it's just a hidden object game. Still, looking back Lucius seemed great fun in its own way. You’re just hitting your marks, and not in the way you’d hope but I did enjoy it once everything was set and the victim walked into my trap. It’s no Murder Sim though, Jack Thompson can relax. It’s not made me want to kill. It is a shame I don’t have a maid though…

Borderlands 3 TVHM + Season Pass 1

Borderlands 3 TVHM + Season Pass 1

FBT is back in Borderlands 3. Moxxi made him do it. I hated BL3. It was everything the original set out to destroy, a smug AAA game playing it safe for the franchise. If Borderlands was a meme-sharing Redditor, BL3 is a corporation using their memes to appeal to the kidz; which is exactly what the appalling social media parody villains, the Calypso Twins were. God I hate this game. But, I’ve played every Borderlands (even Legends) and all the DLCs. I gotta do the Season Pass; BL3 was already DLC-like with the planet-hopping but some of the series’ best moments happened in the DLCs – just look at General Knoxx or Tiny Tina’s efforts. Classics. And I should give BL3 another chance. Here comes True Vault Hunter Mode… The Calypso Twins have not aged well and it’s not even 2 years old. At least in BL2 you could love to hate Jack, but not only are the Twins out-of-date caricatures, they’re badly written and crap villains. Genuinely annoying, they drag everything down - not that the rest of BL3 is shooting very high. Its repetitive, even for a Borderlands game, but not once does it push, refresh, or otherwise alter the Borderlands formula; sure, if it strayed too far it wouldn’t be BL anymore, but this is B-side bollocks that feels like a first draft. The majority of the characters, missions and moments are pure dad-joke / dad-dance cringe. It’s got none of the wit or that deranged, dangerous, life is meaningless tone of BL1 or 2. It’s just a bad comedy. But, if you’re just after more BL then BL3 does come into its own in TVH mode, much like Pre-Sequel did. Once you’re making some serious money, gaining brutal weapons and the skill trees get spicy, it all comes together shooty-wise. Most of the creatures feel like reskins of BL originals but the Jabbers are better than I remember, even if they feel like a rip-off of the Rippers from Shadow Warrior. Playing as Fl4k and unlocking my pet’s ability to revive you really opens things up and I actually start to warm up to BL3, at least when fighting. Then the Calypso’s rock up and spoil it with their terrible jokes and boring main plot. How did a BL game make raiding Vaults a chore? I guess the rot set in with BL2 when you saw your BL1 mercenary elevated to hero and we saved the day intentionally. But BL2 was good, it was funny, thrilling, unfair. It turned BL1 up to 11 and ended by promising BL3 would be a rip-roaring scramble to open vaults and enjoy the riches, a mad scavenger hunt. Instead, BL3 throws the Calypsos in the way and thinks it has substance, tries to expand the whole Vault, Eridian, Siren thing into some epic story-arc. Like we ever cared. We’re Vault Hunters, we don’t ‘run toward the danger’ - leave that universe-saving to Commander Shepard; I’m here for money, fame and guns that talk back. By the end, while I’m infuriated by the Twins, the bad jokes, the unimaginative missions and the bloated, cliched plot, I have to admit … BL3 still my least favourite Borderlands. Can the DLCs change my mind? The first DLC released, Moxxi's Heist of the Handsome Jackpot, has my beloved Moxxi tasking the Vault Hunters with taking back her casino, which Handsome Jack stole. They must have had a brutal breakup given he also destroyed her Underdome and she had us ruin his replacement. Hell hath no fury... The casino, a giant space station, is gaudy and brilliantly laid out, stuffed with insane fights and ridiculous side missions that get more ridiculous the further you go. Moxxi has us round up a collection of folks living in the Casino to mount a heist on Jack’s personal pleasure tower and reclaim the place, and it’s as absurd and that-will-never-work as you’d expect. This is more like it. Without the Calypsos we’re back to petty squabbles and self-enrichment. This is what BL3 should have been – a smash n grab that spins wildly out of control. It even has a whiff of Bioshock about it – the casino locked down when Jack died, so everyone who was playing the slots got trapped and formed into gangs just like the Splicers, we link up with Pre-Sequel’s Timothy the Jack Double who is the only one who can access Jack’s office just like Bioshock’s Jack, we’re helped by a guy who represents the working classes like Atlas and the big bad is a Ryan-looking, Fontaine-style mob villain who communicates on screens. Bioshock and Borderlands together at last? Oh this perfect. Although we’re only ever in the casino it feels big and constantly changing. The fights are all great shootouts, the plot zips along and the dialogue is hilarious – was this actually a BL2 DLC they forgot to release? And there’s so much money rolling around – smashing fruit machines for cash (be careful) is what Borderlands is all about. Handsome Jackpot is a really good, clever, funny, insane DLC that is exactly what you want from a Borderlands. There's even a tiny Interstellar nod, I think. And there’s lots of Moxxi, who Timothy-Jack continues to make a fool of himself over. Same. I was hoping she’d join in as a side character but she’s mostly just directing from a far. Always out of reach… Guns, Love and Tentacles sees the Vault Hunter travelling to Hammerlock and Wainwright’s wedding on a planet home to the corpse of a gigantic, Cthulhu-style Vault monster – which is worshipped by a cult led by Eleanor whose husband was ‘absorbed’ into the still-beating heart of the creature, and from where he can possess bodies to reunite with his missus; and of course picks Wainwright as his next possession… I was already enjoying this one when it suddenly got better – Gaige, my preferred Vault Hunter from BL2 is now a wedding planner (!) and sidekick for many missions. GL&T is just good fun. Lots of creepy towns and forests to fight through, tons of even weirder than usual NPCs thanks to the cult’s influence, and some solid horror references – including the obligatory Evil Dead nod. Its one of those DLCs that’s as much fun to look at as it is shoot through. It’s similar to Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and TK Baha's Bloody Harvest, with some Borderlands-style Lovecraft touches – like tentacles rising out of toilets… Borderlands always did great fantasy-horror art design, and it’s brilliant here. Besides the usual beasties, there’s the “Bonded”, forms of possessed beings and people under Eleanor’s control and they are brutal, including ones that can reanimate fallen comrades – that’s all we need in Borderlands, having to kill things twice. GL&T is also pretty heart-warming. Both Hammerlock and Wainwright join us for separate missions and admit to worries and fears about their pending nuptials, leading you to convince each they’re perfect for the other as the bullets fly. You can also pick up recordings detailing Eleanor and her husband’s history, giving them a more tragic backstory than you’d expect. Putting aside the humongous number of bullets you’ll get through, under it all is a really sweet little game. Love conquers all. Except those goddamn Empowered Khel tanks. So that’s two solid DLCs, both of which have gone a long way to redeeming BL3. Up next, Bounty of Blood, an Asian-infused Western that has us looking to claim the bounty on a group of outlaws. Westerns have always been the backbone of Borderlands, and now we’re making like a proper bounty hunter in the wildest west? Get in. Get out. This one really had the potential to top BL2’s Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty. It’s similar – bad-ass female villain, opportunity for weirdness in an isolated, scorched setting, but it’s just a one-dimensional bad guy (well, gal) attempting to release a bio-weapon to take over the planet – not only is that a tired, over-used plot but it’s basically BL2’s plot. And no idea why she’s obsessed with taking control of a ruined planet with one ghost town on it. Or why she needs a Vault-sized monster to do it. Even with the blossom trees and Japanese architecture (which again reminds me of Shadow Warrior) it’s generic nothingness. Now this is a BL3 DLC. There’s just no real quirk to it, and while its rarely funny, it’s not serious enough either to be the dark entry it thinks it is. Other than an underground cave sequence with the beautiful and deadly Bellik and a Jurassic Park in-joke, there’s little that stands out or feels much different from the main game. It’s a real shame because this had the potential to dial Borderlands back to its cray-cray roots. It should have been High Noon Borderlands style, instead it’s bedtime. Meh. And finally, Psycho Krieg and the Fantastic Fustercluck – in a mash-up of Pre-Sequel’s Claptastic Voyage and BL2’s Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, the Vault Hunters are convinced by Tannis to enter the mind of BL2 Berserker Krieg and discover why every Psycho she’s ‘probed’ has a hidden memory she dubs ‘Vaulthalla’… and we agreed to this because Tannis promised we can keep all the guns we find in his imagination?! Although this doesn’t have the emotional heft of Assault On Dragon Keep, Fustercluck did occasionally buzzsaw me in the feels. I’m not that keen on learning the background of Psychos (partly because it’s a painfully unoriginal origin story), but we have a great time helping Krieg’s split personalities come to terms with each other; ‘Sane Krieg’ just wants out of their head, but ‘Psycho Krieg’ has buried some secrets deeper than either of them realised. Their symbiotic relationship is touchingly explored as we visit key memories from their past and confront the loss of Maya; her kindness was the only thing they agreed on. Action-wise this is perhaps the most varied of all the DLCs – and the main game. It leans into the Mad Max Fury Road influences (and a totally random Matrix nod), but as we explore each part of Krieg’s mind, we battle Loader Bots, Bandits, COV, Hyperion soldiers in surreal, twisted realities, like mini-DLCs within the DLC within the main game inside one head with two personalities. Meta. And there’s evil versions of Vault Hunters, revealing how Krieg’s fractured mind wouldn’t allow him to form friendships. There’s also a train – the one at the start of BL2 when Kreig first saw Maya - that can appear mid-fight to send you flying, before we have a boss battle; a boss is a train? How did this awesomeness end up in a DLC?! I’ve never played BL2 as Krieg, but next go, I will. Why his story (and Krieg himself) was relegated to a DLC rather than the main game, especially after what happened to Maya is one of many BL3 questions I have for Gearbox. Fustercluck doesn’t reinvent the Borderlands wheel, but it shows where the series is actually capable of going. Insane, emotional, and original, not to mention a solid shooter with some grand set-pieces - is that so hard? So, is the DLC collection worth getting? Yeah, totally – it’s interesting that the DLCs rely so heavily on previous BL characters and events – struggling to contend with your forebears, BL3? Moxxi is pure BL1 insanity, Hammerlock is a sweet diversion, Fustercluck is an example of what BL can do when its heart is in the right place and Bounty of Blood is good for grinding and farming at least. Just a shame you have to buy the main game to play them. Season Pass 2 is a con, just reworked arena fights and a new skill tree. I’ll wish-list it… but those DLCs are a great addition to BL3; even if they triggered me to play BL1 and 2 instead. If, like me, you didn’t click with BL3 first time but you’re thinking of a replay, it doesn’t get any better. Your time’s better spent in BL1 or 2 – or PS for that matter. I didn’t expect BL3 to innovate, but it could have doubled-down on what BL1 and 2 did – those games took Torque’s question to heart - "I am here to ask you one question, and one question only: EXPLOSIONS?" Since the original there’s been tons of games aping its mayhem and BL3 feels like one of them instead of a BL game. If BL1 was amused at itself, BL3 is just pleased with itself. Like Torque, BL3 sold out for 12 dollars and a high-five.

Rise of Insanity

Rise of Insanity

FBT walks into the mind of a killer. And walks right back out again. I’m strictly a lights-on kinda guy; when horror gaming that is. So I was kinda interested in / scared of Rise of Insanity, a horror walking sim where you navigate the mind of a man with a split personality, one of whom wants to commit murder – kinda reminds me of that Jennifer Lopez film The Cell. I'm gonna be J-Lo? Lights off please. The opening warns me that not only should I use caution if I have a weak heart, but that the makers are not responsible for what happens after the game has been played. After?! A psychologist is treating a man who dreams of killing his wife and daughter - but doesn’t have a wife or daughter. The good doctor, or maybe stupid doctor, encourages the man to mentally live out this fantasy in the hopes that the second identity reveals itself. And into his mind we go. Except, we seem to have entered the mind of someone who really liked Layers of Fear - rooms change as we navigate a tortured mind where not a lot makes sense - but the key difference is in Layers of Fear it did all make sense in the end. Here, the environment – a desolate sanitorium - is so overused and cliched in gaming, it’s as if the developers used stock game layouts which came free with the game-engine. It doesn’t really help us understand what’s going on, it’s not part of the journey. Adding to the shoddy look are the unintentionally hilarious subtitles. Unless they’re supposed to represent his fractured mind? The other thing about Layers of Fear, it had a compelling story that got harder to stomach as it revealed itself. You got increasingly disturbed and saddened at his/my acts. The idea of Rise of Insanity is fantastic; that a Dr enters the mind of a patient to understand their subconscious trauma while risking becoming overwhelmed; add in the fact that he might be entering multiple personalities, one of which is murderous, and you’ve got the makings of a great game, but you figure out the twist within minutes and the game does nothing to make the trip compelling – emotional involvement is what makes horror unsettling. Most of the horror is derived from lazy shock-jumps and sudden audio clangers. This is like when you used to get into your car, turn the key and then the stereo would blare out and scare the crap out of you. You navigate a floor of the sanitorium, solving a puzzle so tedious or redundant you question the point, then you’re bounced back to explore again. I don’t mind that this isn’t doing anything we’ve not seen before, but it’s not adding anything to the genre and worse, it’s not giving me a reason to push on. The game does nothing to make me feel invested, interested, or curious about why it happened; I guessed what happened, but there’s nothing to make the reason interesting. I’m just mindlessly trudging along, passing by visuals that have no relation to the obvious story. What’s really frustrating is the compelling central idea of a man being both innocent and guilty due to his condition isn’t remotely explored, and it’s clear the game doesn’t know how to bring that idea to a boil, it just pulled together typical horror imagery and tropes and drops in ‘reveals’, as if we didn’t already know. We know the what, what we want is the why, the how, and for you to put us through the ringer to understand it. What I don’t get is why this guy’s mind is so intent on not revealing any of the truths. Why does it block a corridor until I open a cupboard and look at things that didn't reveal anything? Why doesn’t it have much of an imagination? And why are there rubber duckies everywhere? Every time you pick one up it makes the quack-squeak. Terrifying. The final few moments where it all comes together is pretty good, but why did I have to hold down the forward key for two hours to reach “thought so”? The Park is a good example of a short, sharp, shock of a walking horror, where you want to stop walking because you’re beginning to piece together what happened and don’t want to be right – you’re invested (even if that game’s non-ending sucks). I’m not remotely interested in what the doctor’s uncovering. Even if I hadn’t guessed it, I’ve seen it all before. Walking sims have one goal – make you walk a mile in someone’s shoes; but since the reveal of who’s shoes, who’s mind and who’s to blame is telegraphed almost immediately, who cares? Two hours is a long walk. I could have played this with the lights off, that’s how unscary it was. I was hoping for more to happen after the game than me just uninstalling it. #walkingsim #fbt #adventure #horror

Blair Witch

Blair Witch

If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise – FBT wandering about lost and pissed off. Nine year-old Peter goes missing in the Burkittsville woods. Joining the search party is Ellis, whose mutt, Bullet, picks up Peter’s scent. Breaking from the search party they find a destroyed campsite, where a camcorder shows Peter was abducted. Determined to find him, Ellis goes deeper into the woods as night falls… Blair Witch never has a happy ending and we know that going in. Ellis is primed for the Blair Witch to mess with – an ex-solider with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, now a cop currently on stress leave after a bad shooting, as well as dealing with a broken marriage; he doesn’t have a chance. I don’t care, I just want to make sure Bullet gets out alive… At first, this is amazing stuff. The woods are disorientating and deep, you can walk anywhere, get lost, see things out the corner of your eye. It’s incredibly atmospheric and disturbing. Bullet does a good job of ferreting around and pointing the way, but really you’re just glad for the company. You always feel utterly isolated and a real sense of unease creeps in. Problem is, boredom also creeps in. Blair Witch was developed by Bloober team, the maniacs behind Layers of Fear, Observer and the recent Medium, and just like those games, once Ellis is lost you can’t trust anything; but rather than be disorientating or dream-like, it’s a bit distancing. Rusted trucks revert to being new, dry riverbeds turn into surging water stopping you retracing your steps and so on. We’re just here for the witch to toy with, but it’s nowhere near as visceral as the original film which kept everything lifelike and matter of fact, which is far more unnerving. Here we have time-loss, time-travel, flashes of events to come and things changing around you. So, you just blunder on, waiting for the next change. And again, just like Layers there’s a reality-bending element. When you find a video cassette, Ellis can watch, rewind and pause, which affects the world around him. Sometimes it’s a great little clue-reveal mechanic, like pausing on Peter dropping a baseball causes you to discover it on the path, other times its just a bit daft, like being able to rewind a tree falling to get past it. Those are standard Bloober team tricks, but they make this feel more closely aligned to the much-maligned sequel, Book of Shadows. Thing is, being lost in real woods is scary, but being lost in a video game is just frustrating. Pretty much our only action here is to ask Bullet ‘which way’ then go that way, but if he doesn’t know, you’re just going around in circles staring at trees until something triggers and all the fear drains away. And sometimes its unintentionally confusing – you run into invisible walls, get turned around if you step outside the area and don’t know if you’re on the right track or not - I was expecting this to be terrifying, to be unable to take a step, but quickly you realise this is little more than a walking sim. Much like Layers of Fear this is largely a story experience, but it's not the Blair Witch's story or Ellis' battle to survive we're experiencing, it's his issues - not to dismiss PTSD but its not what we're here for. The other problem is we’re not alone out here. Here, you’ll discover those tree-sprite things, like a pissed off Ent. If you shine your light on them they’ll attack, so you need to be careful with the torch, or use the camera’s night-vision which is scary, but while its tense and all, it feels like filler to have some monster jumping about. What made the original movie so scary was you knew ‘she’ was out there but you never saw her. And Bullet, for all his good-boy-ness isn’t really used. He wuffs away and does his thing, but you never really fear for him or feel a bond. Ellis gets stressed if he’s too far away, but that too feels forced and since the wood is all the same, chasing him into a dark corner is no less worrying than anything else we trudge through. At least it means something might happen. Their relationship is oddly lacking, he’s more of a cool sidekick than part of the plot. Ultimately, this feels shallow and a bit manipulative. It’s not really Blair Witch, it could be any witch. The camcorder time-altering feels gimmicky, the manipulation of time and space is pointless and tacked together to reflect PTSD as if its implying its all in his head when we know it's not - its called Blair Witch. Ellis is a great character, haunted by his soldiering days and failure as a cop, he’s just a guy trying to do good – he only goes into the woods to try to help, finding Peter is his salvation and you feel sorry for him. And that’s the problem, we know how this is going to end the second he steps into the woods, but the game doesn’t do enough to make us hope for a different outcome. He's just really unlucky. I get that it would be a struggle to recapture what the movie did, games need to have input and actions, and maybe my hopes were set too high for this. Blooper Team have knocked out some great games (Layers of Fear) and some bad ones (Layers of Fear II), and if anyone can bring the witch home it’s those guys. It does have its moments, but even they can’t compete with the real Blair Witch. I was hoping to go back to the purity of the original film; basically, be so terrified snot rolled out of my nose.

Tales from the Borderlands

Tales from the Borderlands

FBT tells a tale. I avoided TftB on release. You dive into Borderlands for a shooter Looney Tunes experience not some Lucasarts throwback. But three years after Telltale collapsed, Gearbox has re-released it, and hungry for a solid Borderlands experience after the pitiful BL3, I decided to give it a punt even though it seemed an idiotic tie-in cash-in. Turns out I was the idiot. TftB is as far from Borderlands’ main series as you can get. Told mostly in flashback to a mysterious bounty hunter, we’re point and clicking two unreliable narrators; Rhys, who is trying to claw his way up the Hyperion corporate ladder after Jack’s death, and small-time Pandorian hustler Fiona, who attempts to sell a fake Eridian Vault Key to Rhys. When the deal goes south, they find themselves hunted by Hyperion and half the Galaxy’s bounty (and Vault) hunters. Looking for a way to bargain their way out, the two unlikely partners stumble onto ‘Gortys’, a mysterious, child-like robot which is the key to a Vault-sized treasure… First, the criticisms. A lot of the time, this is a walking sim. There’s a minimal puzzle or choice to be made, usually we’re walking them between cut-scenes or listening to them bicker - we’re just along for the ride. There are several QTE moments though, which brings me to my second criticism. We’re still getting PC games that Don’t. Let. You. Modify. Keys?! I’ve never been a WASD but to get this to work how nature intended, I had to employ an AutoHotkey Fix which made QTE’s all the more fraught, trying to remember what I’d hotkeyed Q to or where E now was. But even though this is a far cry from Borderlands proper, TftB is close to perfect… I barely miss fragging skags or visiting a New-U… As they stumble from one close shave to the next, Fi and Rhys gather a gang of reprobates, including Fiona’s pragmatist sister Sasha, needy and nerdy accountant Vaughn, and robot Loader Bot, who doggedly supports Rhys and Fiona despite them endlessly putting it in fatal situations. Plus great little cameos from Athena and Janey Springs, and Brick and Mordecai making a Pre-Pre-Sequel appearance; and finally I understand why Rhys trusts Zer0 so completely in Borderlands 3, and get to see Scooter’s departure, which was surprisingly touching. But the real star is adorable robot Gortys, and her C3P0/R2D2 relationship with Loader Bot. Now I can take a break from shooting characters and hang out with them instead, TftB has given me a whole new appreciation for the series. This totally ‘gets’ the Borderlands tone – we might not be struggling through yet another second wind or Skag Gully, but it totally nails the feel without ever pulling a trigger. The same insanity, lawlessness and complete disregard for laws or logic is as much a driver here as any totally unfair showdown in the main series. I still hate Borderlands 3 though. Early on, Rhys hacks a chip recovered from Nakayama, the villain of BL2 DLC Big Game Hunt, who was obsessed with bringing Jack back from the dead - and thanks to Rhys, his dream is realised. The chip included a self-aware AI of Jack, now inside Rhys’ head, who attempts to sway Rhys away from the rest of the gang with offers of letting him take over Hyperion, which is all Rhys ever wanted. I sense some player choices coming on… Although the choices you make echo and impact episodes later, they don’t ever touch the actual narrative. No matter how much of a Jack-loving ass you play Rhys as, or double-crosser you make Fiona, they still stumble toward the Vault and save the day. All you’re doing generally is altering how people perceive Rhys and Fiona, there’s nothing substantial you can affect – there’s some impacts and inconsequential NPC’s fates in your hands, but nothing story-altering. Characters shake off a choice with ‘so anyway…’ and snap back to the plot but that’s fine with me; the story is so desperate, thrilling and out-there that I don’t want to interfere. You’re having way too much fun and settle into deciding what kind of people Rhys and Fiona are and react accordingly, knowing this is all way beyond them. Every episode sees Rhys and Fiona in increasingly outlandish, outrageous Borderlands-believable situations that are as thrilling as they are insane – the scene in episode Catch-A-Ride! where they’re all leaping about over speeding trucks to recover Gorty while pinging one-liners is pure Indiana Jones awesome - topped only by a Hyperion corporate stooge finger-gun fight... now where the hell is Q again!? And the final fight, while awesome is just a precursor to a great little cool-down chat between Rhys and Fi as they reflect on how far they’ve come and how much they’ve changed – or not. It might actually be my favourite Borderlands ending. In fact, this might be my second fave Borderlands game... come on, they even get a Ferris Buller ref in there. TftB is mostly just here for a good time, a quick-moving, rip-roaring adventure but the charm, wit and sense of friendship they layered into it makes TftB something special. All in, TftB is a solid 10-hour game, just right. This being a Borderlands spin-off you’d expect it to have short-cuts, random events and paddling-pool level shallowness but it’s full of brilliant characterization, set-pieces and fun; Loader Bot’s unshakeable faith in the leads, and how they actually took his faith to heart was the stuff you’d expect from full-on emotional dramas, not some jokey cartoon game. It’s got some heft to it. To think this was followed by BL3… Playing this, I finally understand why the gaming community was so devastated at Telltale’s collapse. I loved Tales of Monkey Island, but I missed the others, and I’m gutted. At least two of my favourite games I caught up with last year, Firewatch and Oxenfree, were made by Telltale alumni. Telltale lives on I guess, but I really missed out. The only thing I hate, other than the key assignment thing, is this has triggered me to replay Borderlands 3 just for the chance to see some of those characters pop up again. But I’m going to struggle to shoot any Loader Bots. This is essential adventure gaming - even for those who hated Borderlands.

Why We Game - RPGs

Why We Game - RPGs

In this special, Previous Weapon’s reviewers TheMorty and FBT argue over their favourite RPG games (instead of just celebrating the genre like we asked them to). TheMorty - What sets apart the RPG genre is their expansive nature. Be it exploring maps and meeting odd-looking NPCs, or hunting wild animals and chasing rare collectibles, spending half an hour trying to scale atop a mountain just to take in the view is something breath-taking that rarely exists outside of the sandbox. FBT – True, RPG is pure fantasy escapism and for me, the truest RPG is in the fantasy genre. To shape a world and forge a hero only really happens convincingly in fantasy. While FBT has always enjoyed frolicking with elves, my favourites are set in the expanse of space, and none before let you explore it like X: Beyond the Frontier (2000) did. The ultimate flight-sim is a journey through the vast, emptiness of space without ever having to land on a planet. Instead of worrying where you left your shuttle as you walk across empty moons, you don’t ever leave your ship as you explore 54 different systems, trading with outposts, and fight your way through a horrifying alien force with a weapon capable of obliterating all of mankind. X is one of the last great ‘joystick’ games of its era before controllers rendered them obsolete. Makes me nostalgic for the days of accidently waging war with a fleet because of the awkward mapped button to the right of the base I kept hitting. Lets leave TheMorty lost in space. If getting lost is your thing though, may I recommend The Elder Scrolls? Dismissed by some as a dumbed-down RPG for newbies, I say sod the purists; Tamriel is amazing. Morrowind’s high fantasy setting is pure RPG; you can entirely ignore the main mission, the world is alien, the inhabitants are incredible and the whole game is Tolkienesque in its fantasy richness. You can just live there - once you’ve murdered someone and taken over their house. And then there’s Oblivi- Oh god, he can talk about TES for longer than it takes to play them all. Back to space, and if you’re not interested in putting in the time to get your pilot’s licence, you can always hire someone to do that for you. There’s no better pilot in the galaxy than the Normandy’s thinks-he’s-really-funny-but-is-actually-really-annoying Joker in Bioware’s Mass Effect. This RPG makes your choices matter. Paragon or Renegade, you choose who lives, dies and is loved as Shepard planet-hops their way to preventing the galaxy from being destroyed by an ancient race of ethnic-cleansing machines. Every tiny choice, like stopping to help a Volus cross the road or choosing to exploit a Salarian Merchant for discount, comes back to help or haunt you with each and every turn of the path. Mass Effect is a thing of beauty, but what about Oblivion’s flowery, bright glades and jagged obsidian plains to prance about in? I can own a wizard’s keep, a vampire’s dungeon, a shack or a grand house. I can become a fighter, a thief or a murderer for hire while I keep Tamriel’s Hell at bay. And then there’s Skyrim … Bloated, boring, full of racists and with a greyscale colour-scheme, it’s terrible; and also filled with so much stuff that you can ignore all that and be your own, true elf. Building your own home, finding a wife, adopting kids, and then going fishing by the lake to avoid the family is what RPG is all about. Space RPGs are often draw heavily on games that have preceded them. When Bioware made Mass Effect, they already had a near identical RPG, Knights of the old Republic. Meaningful narrative decisions where each choice moves you closer to the light or dark side was trialled in one before being honed in the other; KOTOR even sees the actors behind Kaiden and FemShep make their RPG debuts, recruiting a roster of companions. It feels like déjà vu, but the difference is that KOTOR is a turn-based RPG, meaning it’s not how quick you can shoot your way out of a situation, but how effectively you are able to use the loadout at your disposal. You have time to make decisions and can avoid conflict all together with a carefully timed blaster warning shot or by using your Force powers of persuasion. Role Playing as a Star Wars character? That feels to constraining. Its binary; light/dark, good/bad. That’s not RPG. And neither should be Assassin's Creed, but it’s getting more RPG with each release. My fave so far is Odyssey, a world so vast, filled with so many side quests and events, it’s an historical RPG you get lost in for months. And the Misthios is a classic RPG character - a nobody drawn into a world-event you ignore in favour of misadventure while making choices that have huge repercussions. And we have ‘romance’ options (well, sex options). AC is so far from its roots now the next game will be set in space. Okay, I’d play that. Talking of genre-mashing, can a session-based strategy be RPG? Yes, according to me. XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Firaxis’ sci-fi strategy magnificently deploys you, top-down style, as commander of a space fleet desperate to stop an invasion of Outsiders, shapeshifting aliens intent on enslaving mankind. Unlike other RPGs where choices appear as dialogue options, XCOM forces you to make decisions in the heat of battle. In XCOM, you can customise every character, levelling up their attributes and forming a real emotional attachment. Then, all it takes is accidently moving forward one too many squares and your indispensable squad mate is gone and not just from this mission. If they die, they die. No do-overs, no restarting from checkpoints, that’s it. Complete your mission as best you can and train up another rookie recruit from scratch; investing emotionally in an NPC is pure RPG. The Far Cry series isn’t RPG, but like stable-mate AC it seems to be moving toward it, and Primal does qualify - you’re the lone hero trying to establish a new home for your clan; you build a town, bring in traders and specialists, face moral choices. It’s not a pure RPG, our character’s journey is dictated by the main mission, but if you want to live by your wits and by the spear, this is the game to do it. Fair play, Primal is an RPG. Continuing to meet FBT halfway, hows about an earth-based sci-fi RPG? One of the best Sci-Fi RPGs of all time is the original Deus Ex (2000). Many see it as an action FPS with stealth-elements, but there’s so many qualities that RPG purists adore. Everything is down to you and how you build a skill tree, tailoring it for a truly unique experience; lockpicking and computer hacking help with a stealth-focussed playthrough whereas the medicine trait is a must for brawlers looking to shoot first and ask questions never. What’s not to love about going toe-to-toe with enhanced enemies in cybernetic warfare? The fans agree – check out mod remake Deus Ex: Revision. The problem with RPGs is all the walking. Test Drive Unlimited (2006) is a different kind of RPG; it lets you roleplay as a rich person. You collect cars, wear expensive clothes, buy huge houses, and parade your cars around Hawaii. We’re not saving the world, owning the world is the goal of the game – you’re basically role-playing as Jeff Bezos. When you can’t remember which mansion you parked the Pagani in, you know you’ve made it. Is FBT really over here arguing for racing games as RPG? Fine, I’m adding First Person Shooter. There’s a lot of open-world space shooters, like Borderlands or Rage, but none that have all the hallmarks of a 50hr+ game, that is until The Outer Worlds. You wake in a dormant ship with no memory of how you got there or what you’re supposed tobe doing, and like all good RPGs you figure it – and who you are - out as you go, served with a side order of Good or Evil to shape your story. They even throw in a giant, wearable moon head to sweeten the experience. The gameplay is very much in the mould of Obsidian’s most successful RPG, Fallout: New Vegas... just in space and with way less glitches and shorter loading time. The scenery is breath-taking to the point where you often forget you’re playing a game as you get lost looking up at the stars to see moons and planets align. STALKER is like the forgotten RPG; it was destined for greatness before Fallout 3 eclipsed it, and just when it seemed poised to make a comeback, the Metro series trumped it. But I have a soft spot for its world and attempts to be more realistic - battered weapons, scant supplies, stronger enemies, unnerving AI (for its time), the local wildlife, those strange nuclear bursts; STALKER was an inner city lout to Fallout 3’s public school boy. Hang on, FBT is finally onto something - Fallout 3. That conceivably is the defining RPG. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where every choice, dialogue option and action you take informs not only the world but your character, you can truly be the master of your own destiny as the Lone Wanderer. FBT – I have to concede, Fallout 3 is the best example of RPG – you’re a nobody and can chose to stay as one, or save the planet. The choice, alongside a million others, is yours. I agree, Fallout 3, the best RPG - but only because it’s Oblivion with mushroom clouds. TheMorty – Anyway, what’s clear to me is SciFi really has some of the most diverse and aspirational RPGs. Taking on the role of a galactic explorer, a hardened marine or even just a pilot who just wants to fly and trade. But, to FBT’s wild, rambling point, almost any setting or environment can be an RPG so ultimately, the reason RPG is the most exciting, immersive genre in gaming is because it’s all on you. You’re the one saving or ruining the world. And we chose to go do something else instead.

>observer_

>observer_

FBT is in Rutger Hauer’s head. Rutger is in a dead person's head. Not sure who of the three is worst off. In 2084, a megacorp has taken control of Poland following a tech-plague affecting the transhuman populace. A specialist force, known as Observers, police the survivors by hacking into their implants to investigate crimes. When Observer Lazarski receives a call from his estranged son, he enters a tenement slum only to become trapped inside both the building and the minds of the inhabitants as he investigates his son’s fate. Observer is like some David Lynch remake of a French expressionist film that was based on Blade Runner as told to David Fincher as he directed a NiN video after he’d eaten a Guatemalan Insanity Pepper while partying at Keith Richards’ house. It’s a completely inscrutable, insane, higher-consciousness trip that leaves you feeling like you’ve stared at a strobe light for eight hours while listening to Rammstein. It’s one of those games that only really makes sense to the developers, who can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Still, developers Bloober Team are experts at head-messing; Layers of Fear, The Medium - those guys like their sanity-messing nightmares. But Observer is as much of a nightmare to play as to experience. Its execution is great. Trapped in the decaying building, it’s little more than a claustrophobic corridor that seems to close in on you like a cyber-punk version of the hotel in Barton Fink, baring down as you knock on doors, interrogate tenants, hear disembodied voices, investigate clues and try to make sense of the mounting body-count you uncover. Cool too is being Rutger Hauer. Obviously that evokes Bladerunner, as if the visuals weren’t already heavily indebted to the film, but his honey-tinged yet threatening voice works so well; a dogged but determined, not to be f*ked with gumshoe hoping against all the evidence that his son is still alive. The problem is instead of Ridley at the helm, we’ve got Tony Scott. It’s the only game I’ve played where that seizure warning is actually a promise. As Lazarski tries to navigate the minds of those he jacks into, he’s subjected to an extraordinary level of flashing, jump-cuts, fuzzy lines, rapid movement, altering perspectives and shifting focus. It’s pure chaos and in the midst of it, you’re expected to solve puzzles and challenges – I keep falling into a fugue state, an altered reality where I am my PC and my PC is me. It’s like being in a real dream and just as confusing. One sequence has me chasing a shower stall. In all honesty, it gave me a cracking headache every time I entered a mindscape, to the point I was loathe to do so. It’s literally nauseating. And if you do survive the onslaught of images, the final sequence of each dream has you trying to evade a lumbering Borg-like thing searching for you. A representation of the plague virus, trying to avoid the cyber-big-daddy is a mix of careful movement and luck. Mostly luck. Those sequences are like listening to someone describe their dream; annoying. Within a few hours of corridor-pounding, I begin to suspect my son’s been murdered by a door. You spend most of your time opening and closing them, manually. Click, hold, pull or push. This place is supposed to be a slum but I think the landlord might have been my Dad given how many times I meet a closed door. Is there a draught? Am I letting the heat out? Its infuriating, but once things do heat up it becomes a key mechanic, opening a door just a crack to see what’s behind it, but until then, it’s a real pain in the mouse trying to get about. Besides the doors, walking around the corridors is a slog too; up and down stairs trying to find an apartment, knocking on doors and interrogating the locals in largely redundant dialogue choices, you realise there’s not really a lot of point in us being here; we don’t make the logic leaps or piece it together, we’re just opening doors for Rutger. It’s a real pain until the nightmare-puzzle sequences, and then it’s a different kind of pain. The slow progress does drag. You have two scans available to spot items of interest, but I’m not sure who is finding them interesting. Much like an old-school puzzler, you’ll pick up an item then put it down then later get sent back there to pick it up again. Or he’ll spot a picture frame so you wait while he scans it then says “it’s a picture frame” and puts it down. Why?! So after you do scan something relevant, you get the clue, figure which of the identical apartments it relates to, and pick your way through a crime-scene while trying to avoid the body on the floor demanding you jack into it. Pass me the Hedex Extra, I’m going in. This wants to be more Bladerunner than Bladerunner but it’s just the look not the soul of it; corrupt mega-corp, downtrodden lower-classes, a rundown building, retro-future look, rain-drenched neon with pigeons flying about as hover-cars and floodlights pass overhead and huge adverts play on the sides of skyscrapers. Still, while vom-inducing, the nightmare sequences are often incredibly clever, subversive experiences; a trip through someone’s first day at the megacorp is actually a fairly accurate representation of the nightmare of working in an office, apart from the wiring that slithers about like a snake... But most of the time it’s like being subjected to the Ludovico Technique. It’s put me off gaming. Next time I see a Seizure warning I’ll feel compelled to turn the PC off. Ultimately, Observer is barely a step up from a walking sim, but I’m not sure the story is really compelling enough to just be dragged along by it – it has it's twists and it’s incredibly inventive, but it takes a lot of doors to get through it. The ending seems to question what is the point of it all, and that is kinda what I was wondering; but by then I had too much of a headache to care.