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Gat Out Of Hell

Gat Out Of Hell

We're gonna shoot the devil in the face. Often, standalone add-ons are a little out there. Freed of the main game’s need to deliver a full experience, they can go a little off-script or explore a kookier element of the main game. But the last Saints Row ended with us as Emperor of the universe and the DLC saw Shaundi marrying a Velociraptor. How insaner can SR get? The gang find, and of course, muck about with Alastair Crowley’s Ouija board. Naturally, a portal appears and spirits away the Boss - also naturally, Gat points his gun at the board until it opens another portal, and sends him (with Kinzie, who wants to go because it’s her Birthday) in to hell, where the Devil wants The Boss to marry Jezebel, his daughter. Gat decides the best option is just shoot the devil in the face. Insaner? I had to ask, didn’t I. In Hell, Johnny and Kinzie link up with Vogel, a villain from the original SR era, who suggests Gat cause enough of a ruckus to draw the Devil out for a face to face; having done that, Gat of course then shoots the Devil the face; but that just impresses big Red, who demands Johnny marry his daughter instead. Vogel suggests Gat free others trapped in hell and take over various regions, absorbing enough power to go one on one with his future father-in-hell. Hell is pretty much Steelport with some lava and a red sky, in which zombie-like NPCs meander but it’s still great to be back in SR world. In each of the regions there’s a particular super-power Gat will need for his throw-down with the Devil, and each area is occupied by someone who has earned the Devil’s displeasure – Shakespeare (who has become a nightclub DJ), Blackbeard the pirate, Vlad the Impaler, and the DeWynter Sisters from SR 3rd. Each is trapped in their own hell we must free them from, and in return they give us the usual challenge-based side missions and unlock an ‘Arcane’ power that will get us closer to shooting the devil in the face. Again. Basically the game is one big City Takeover from the main games, where we do the same insurance fraud and timed runs, take over posts and towers to 100% an area. While it feels familiar it doesn’t come across as a quickie-reskin or a bloated DLC, plus we get more Gat than we’ve had in years, Kinzie at her Daria-channelling best and loads of meta-references and in-jokes, including a cut-scene that has the convoluted plot explained to Gat, who just wants to shoot the devil in the face and go home. Super-powers such as speed and leap are still present, but Gat quickly earns his devil wings and once you get those, you rarely touch the ground. You can go for miles, skimming lava and across the sky like a sociopathic Superman. One side mission, Salvation requires you to swoop about catching souls before they hit the ground and it’s just a joy - all games with a flight element should be this much fun. Each region’s super-powers can be upgraded; good job flying is so much fun, you need those souls. You find a sigil where killing enough demons will unlock the next power, and they’re all worth it. Blast and Stomp are fairly obvious but fun, while Aura gives you immunity or takes health from enemies, but the big bad is Summons, courtesy of Blackbeard. Initially you can call in a gaggle of Imps to do your dirty work, but get that fully upgraded and you’ll have a huge ass-kicking Demon destroying everything in your path - it’s especially fun when there’s a Hell Demon around, just kick back and watch them scrap. Returning to Vogel’s Ultor headquarters lets us swap between Kinzie and Gat; they have the same powers but it’s down to Kinzie to plan and Gat to shoot, or in one cut-scene, sing. Jezebel does a brilliant high-school-musical number where she laments her father’s control and wishes for freedom, and Gat gets caught up in the moment. She tries again later, but this time Gat cuts her off with ‘yeah, we ain’t doin that again’. She agrees to help Gat take down her dad to save The Boss, who the Devil still has on ice, if Gat lets her join the crew; Jez, a valley girl cheerleader with horns who has (understandably) serious daddy issues will fit right in with the Saints. The final standoff with the Devil is an old-school boss fight but with the powers fully upgraded it’s a wicked showdown, and after an awesome cameo, Gat is given a multiple choice ending; one of which leads to Agents of Mayhem - yeah, we ain’t doing that again. Its a real shame this was followed by AoM and an even worse shame that this awesome gang aren't back for a universe-hopping SRV. Instead, we get that Saints Row reboot that looks like a Nickelodeon spin off series. Usually I wait for games in the sales, that one I'll wait until Epic offers it for free...

Trüberbrook

Trüberbrook

It’s quantum physics versus point and click in this hand-crafted indie game Hans Tannhauser, a quantum mechanics student, wins a competition he doesn’t remember entering - a trip to the remote German village of Trüberbrook. Intending to use the time to work on his thesis, he instead becomes caught up in the strange goings on in quantum defying Trüberbrook, the gateway to multiple realities, and perhaps the end of this one. Trüberbrook was partly funded by Kickstarter and heavily inspired by the classic era of LucasArts and Broken Sword. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but while this is one of the most beautiful adventure games I’ve ever seen, I am living proof that looks aren’t everything. The design was achieved by the developers making actual detailed miniature scale models which were then scanned in; there’s so much depth and volume, you want to reach out and touch it. Smooth yet surreal, it’s the perfect backdrop to the equally strange story which feels like it’s aiming for X-Files, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks – but actually hits like a Dr Who episode with Sylvester McCoy playing the spoons. Hans is clearly intended to emulate Guybrush Threepwood or George Stobbart, but while Guybrush’s ebullient nature allowed him a wry comment, and George Stobbart had his befuddled, self-aware irony and red nylon panties, Hans just doesn’t have the charm or personality to pull off a lead we want to follow. He just kind of drifts along while the story – and reality – unravels around him, and the other characters seem dead inside, droning dialogue and plot points, acting in surreal and odd ways that feel conscious and deliberate. Hans does have a spunky female sidekick for a while, a-la Nico, but their banter falls flat too. The plot, which sees Hans slouching about trying to stop someone using a machine that lets them travel to other realities, never really comes into focus because Hans has the same energy I put into emptying the dishwasher – he’s not the unlikely hero, anyone could have done this and even when it’s revealed his ‘winning’ the competition was deliberate because of his background in Quantum Physics, it’s a stretch to believe he’s the only man for the job. It just doesn’t do the best with what it has. The Quantum fluxes just mean random background changes instead of mind-bending, witty, hilarious, exciting changes in reality or situations like the throwback-done-right Oxenfree; much like the characterisation, voice-acting and puzzles, everything takes a backseat to the world they’ve built. We don’t inhabit or interact with it, we just look at it, like we’re visiting a Model Village. Schlepping back and forth and forth and back to the same 3 or 4 locations to pick up this or that really starts to drag. There’s also diversions, roadblocks and long-winded issues Hans has to resolve to move forward and those seem to have little to do with anything. And don’t get me started on the long-winded unskippable dialogue cut-scenes and a five-minute-long ‘concert’ we have to attend for no damn reason. And the unskippable end credits that include everyone who donated to the Kickstarter… A lot of the puzzles are pointlessly complicated and drawn-out but when the problems -let alone the solutions- are so nonsensical it really grinds. Most are so convoluted you would never be able to guess ahead of the result – this is little more than a hidden object game where you click anything highlighted, pick it up if you’re able, then later click another object and a problem you didn’t know was a problem is solved. For example, one needs Hans to buy nuts to fatten crows so they’ll land on a satellite dish and their now heavy weight breaks it so a girl stops watching TV and leaves so we can get the TV's Cathode tube for an invention. TF are you supposed to figure all that out? I did all that without realising or knowing I was actually solving anything. It just sort of happened as I went along. It’s the most literal point & click adventure I’ve ever played. But I still can’t hate it because I love looking at it so much. It’s not just their ability with miniatures that makes this world so spellbinding, the models have been lit in a way that gives them a texture and physicality and the way the CG characters navigate the world makes you think they’ll step outside the screen like a friendly Sadako. This should have been a short film. There are moments that raise a smile, like when the weather suddenly changes, or the quantum thing we’re trying to build winds up looking like a Keytar. But somehow, despite it sticking closely to the LucasArts recipe, it misses the secret ingredient and ends up being bland. It feels very meanspirited to attack Trüberbrook given its beauty and indie status, but you can’t escape the fact that it’s just not very good.

Mortyr 1944-2093

Mortyr 1944-2093

In 2022, FBT travels to 1944 and 2093 in a game released in 1999. The Past Mortyr was one of those budget Quake clones that was released straight into the bargain bin. I remember Mortyr's time-travelling plot as logic-free but to play it was full of fun, a straight-shooting FPS with some pretty locations and an unforgiving playstyle, a Wolfenstein meets Bladerunner mashup. I think I remember it fondly, the fact that I still have my original disk from the 90s suggests I liked it - or maybe no second hand shop would buy it... It seems to have been completely wiped from existence now, not even GOG carries it. It’s as if someone went back in time and erased it; but forget your futuristic digital platforms, armed with my disc and a barely functioning XP rig, it's time to go back in time. Still a Blast? In 2093, the Nazis have ruled since various allied defeats resulted in them winning WWII. Our hero discovers the Nazis have a time-machine up their sleeve which they used to alter events and win the war, then stay in power, so you sneak in and use it yourself, transporting back to 1944 when the Nazis suddenly started winning. Having righted that wrong you returned only to find the Future Nazis still in power, tooled up with laser-gun wielding soldiers and ED 209-style death machines, so you needed to put an end to them as well. But hang on, if I changed the past, surely the future should be… nevermind. Time(travel) has not been good to Mortyr. This is more Wolfenstein than a Quake clone, and not just because it's mostly set in a Nazi Castle. There’s some lovely art design, especially in the churches with stained glass windows shining coloured lights over the action, the gothic castles, dark ruins and snow soaked locations that have a menace to them, but it’s a strictly linear who-has-the-most-bullets-wins sort of thing - and it’s rarely me. We’ve got various German soldiers to dispatch, welding rifles, rocket launchers and flame-throwers, at least in the 1944 section. Back in 2093, it's all pulse rifles and ED-209 style mechs, but in both timeframes they’re idiots. How did they take over the world like this? It is fun being back in the Quake-Clone era but retro only gets you so far; it’s toughness isn’t due to bad Nazis, it’s bad coding – either the sights are off or the hit-points only register when I’m aiming to the left, and the AI is non-existent; they just run toward you, firing their 100% accurate guns. German engineering I guess. I can clear out a room then a battalion of Nazis comes running out of it when an alarm goes off, or just appear behind you when you pick up a key. It’s games like this that really hammer home how classy Quake was. It’s nice to span two time-frames but they’re completely unconnected; there’s a lot of unrealised potential there and it would have been more interesting to have each WWII mission include an optional objective that impacts the future, making 2093 easier/harder depending on what we did (destroying the ED-209 plans would be a start, those things are just unfair), it would have involved you a lot more to know you were lessening their grip. As it is, it’s just two mini FPS’ mushed together with a time-travel McGuffin. Mortyr is a cheap shooter; the level design is like spaghetti, the AI is broken, you can’t aim, it uses cheap respawns for fights and the future portions look like a knock off of Doom 64 while 1944 looks like Call of Duty 1 on low settings. But I still kinda like it, its like a bad movie. I am in the minority though. On top of the universally bad reviews, it suffered a troubled production, a crowded release period and US stores’ hesitance to carry a game with Nazi imagery, all of which contributed to Mortyr disappearing; you can only find it on eBay or Abandonware sites nowadays. But Polish developers Mirage didn’t set out to take down Infinity Ward or id, they just made the best game they could – they even gave it a sequel, which ignored the time-travel element. That was equally derided, but the first “Battlestrike” game was released as Mortyr III so the series has its fans. There’s some nice little moments like the false ID that gets you past Nazis without shooting, scripting that sees the last Nazi run off and return with reinforcements, and the bats swarming when you let off a shot in a courtyard; look past the bargain bin feel, and Mortyr is just a simple blast-fest, a game you have some fun with then forget as I did, and will again. Lock, load and look out behind you.

Saints Row IV GOTC Edition

Saints Row IV GOTC Edition

A Blast from the Past Review FBT is a Puckish Rogue. The Past I loved SR3rd. It was like playing a game by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, at once a parody and a homage, the Blazing Saddles of gaming. And at first I thought SRIV was even better than SR3rd; The Boss becomes The President, aliens invade, we’re stuck in a Matrix-like version of Steelport and Keith David played himself. Best. Game. Ever. But after a while it got a bit too silly and worse, samey - who’d have known having superpowers would get dull? Once I could fly and speed run, I never got into a car again, and a lot of the on-the-ground mayhem that made SR3rd fun was lost. Plus, it was a little hard to stomach knowing it was originally a DLC for SR3rd. I was paying top dollar for a bloated add-on? Now I think about it, did I even like it? It’s listed on PW.com as my number one Guilty Pleasure - is it? I know I had a great time, but was it a great game? With the 'Game of the Century' edition on sale, time to see if the President should get re-elected or impeached... Still a Blast? So SRIV throws us into CoD action where the Saints team up with MI6 to take down the leader of SR3rd's villains STAG and The Boss saves the world to the strains of Aerosmith’s I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing, and lands, literally, in the White House as the next President. That’s a hell of a tutorial. Our presidency is of course dogged with controversy; some accusations, like installing Stripper poles in the Oval Office, may have happened but we should focus on this administration’s efforts to Fuck Cancer or Feed the World. And then an alien force, led by Zinyak - a cape-wearing theatrical luvvie - invades and takes over earth, placing each of the Saints in their own simulated hell for safe-keeping. Thankfully, Kinzie ‘I told you so’ Kensington has freed herself, along with VP Keith David (“You freed Keith David first?!”) and rescues The Pres, before sending us into a simulation of Steelport to learn how to defeat Zinyak. And how do we do that? By using hacked superpowers to retake Steelport and cause as much mayhem as possible. Well alright then. Leaping into the air will allow you to glide for periods of time, which is the only way to travel, made all the more fun by us letting out a presidential ‘woohoo!’. Combined with speed run, you’ll never get in a car again; fully upgraded, speed is so fast you create a vortex of spinning objects in your wake, which crashes around you when you come to a stop. Heroic. And a hindrance; running up walls means you can be staring at the President’s backside for an age when they get stuck, and if you super run toward a mission-critical object, it’ll get damaged or flung into the distance. Meanwhile, Elemental powers weaponise you - telekinesis means flinging folks for miles, you can shoot ice and fire, and create atomic-sized shockwaves. Superpowers in the hands of a President who installed stripper poles in the ‘white crib’? This is gonna be good. Lets not forget the outrageous weapons though ... Smashing the hell out of Steelport with superpowers is awesome, as is fighting Zinyak’s troops, right up to superpower-resistant mini-bosses, but there’s loads of challenges as well, usually related to a super power in some way - Genki is back too; Zinyak is a fan and has Genki create challenges - a standout is levitating huge balls of yarn to destroy things. The ‘survive this wave’ challenges are standard but spruced up by the simulation dumping anything from Zinyak’s troops to legions of Genkis’ (Genkii?) to corrupted NPCs at you. This games’ weapon mascot is the Dubstep gun, which does what you'd expect and is as hilarious as you’d expect, but the showstopper is a black hole launcher; when that thing is fully upgraded there’s nothing left standing, not even me because I keep firing it at point-blank range. Still fun. In fact, SRIV is so much fun I barely grumble about it leaving the tone of SR3rd behind. While it's a slog flying about collecting glitches to upgrade powers, I never stop doing it and it’s too much fun to not fly; when I do periodically lose my powers and have to drive, I moan about it. This is a progression from SR3rd not a sequel and if I want to drive cars, I’ll load SR3rd. I’m happy being an insane Supergirl who can't resist the call of the stage. While the comedy can be overwhelming, and now nearly a decade on, a little dated, this isn’t the forgettable bit of silliness I first thought; SRIV is a clever parody of overly-serious, save-the-world epics that all games seem to be those days - but SRIV has a focused narrative amongst all the mirth as well. There’s some surprising twists and emotional beats, and while the missions might be ridiculous, they’re as thrilling as they are funny. The final missions as we take out Zinyak are easily as epic as the games it’s teasing. Still, it’s the funny that makes it; name another game where I can fly, live in a censored 50’s sitcom or watch Roddy Piper and Keith David have a fight in a They Live in-joke? And then there's the insane amount of DLC; other real world folks like Ashly Burch become sidekicks and there's tons of weapons, clothes and additional add-ons to make it all the more nuts, should you want to dress the Pres as a caveman or pirate, complete with Flintstones style car or four-wheeled Galleon. Bless Volition for just going for it. But the larger story DLCs make it even better, if that’s possible. Saints Save Christmas sees The Pres helping Santa reclaim his grotto - it’s constantly hilarious and loads of fun taking out evil gingerbread men; it even has A Christmas Story references and a warm and fuzzy ending, Saints-style. But the real ringer is Enter The Dominatrix, which has so many levels of meta I can’t keep up. The Saints are interviewed about the original SR3rd DLC that became this game, which means them complaining about SRIV's filler missions, logic and continuity issues, plot holes and jokes about characters (Kinzie’s “so many Mary Sue characters”). SRIV isn’t all about mucking around in the simulation though. We also muck about rescuing over half a dozen people from their personal-hell-sims; MI6 agent Asha’s is a pure Splinter Cell/Metal Gear parody, while Pierce's nightmare is a giant can of Saints Flow - but a standout is Benjamin King. His rescue from a SR scene is a great nod to its origins, but also features my all-time favourite gaming line; ‘so what’s the plan?’/‘gonna get the band back together then we take out Zinyak’/‘that’s not a plan that’s a goal!’. The team all have Mass Effect-style loyalty missions that not only give them superpowers but also impacts our final suicide mission which includes a terrible, self-aggrandising speech from The Pres that would have made Shepard proud. I can't play Mass Effect without smirking now. In fact, Mass Effect really does come in for some ribbing; we can romance the crew, although not with the same subtlety or consideration - “I’m looking for rough sex and Kinsie scares the shit out of me”. The Keith David jokes aren’t limited to ME either; he played a character in SR I & II, something the other characters keep noticing, although Keith denies it and The Pres even makes a reference to Requiem for a Dream. The crew are all in awe of Keith, but one of his idle lines is him saying how well everyone is holding up while he’s ‘freaking the fuck out’. The crew aren’t much help considering I saved them; despite Earth’s fate hanging in the balance, they’re are often found lounging about, playing cards, reading smut magazines that feature Shaundi or forgetting what we’re doing; you can be pestered by Zinyak’s UFOs and all they have to offer is ‘oh look a UFO!’. When we’re piloting a spaceship, Kinzie demands we do a barrel roll - when we refuse, Vice President Keith David yells ‘spin that shit!’ But the real scene-stealer is Zinyak. The Pres is clearly outmatched but trash talks him anyway, only for Zinyak to dryly say ‘what are you going to do, bravado me to death?’ - His rage quit in DLC Dominatrix is awesome but the petty snides between him and The Pres are amazing; “It’s a quote from Macbeth!/Sorry I don’t really follow Scottish hip-hop”; while driving with Pierce, the two of us start singing along to the radio, only for Zinyak to burst into song too, overwhelming our sing-a-long and leading The Pres to yell ‘Zinyak butchered Biz Markie!’ SRIV is, as Volition often stated, a love letter to their fans and it shows in the same way Mass Effect’s Citadel was such a joy to play; it feels genuine, and for us; and that’s rare in Triple A games now. It’s as different from SR3rd as that was from SR II and how many series’ can claim to constantly evolve and deliver something not only new, but relevant? We end as the Ruler of the Universe, and instead of daft that feels about right for the Saints; its sad that this was followed by the shocking Agents of Mayhem and now the 'more realistic' reboot. Meh. I’m glad this wasn’t just a DLC - SRIV is no longer a Guilty Pleasure, it’s an absolute pleasure and way better than I remembered. On the surface it’s a daft superhero comedy game where ‘with great power comes no responsibility’, but it is a lot more than that; it might have been released in 2013 but those who dismissed it as just a piss-take comedy are missing out. It’s awesome.

Normal Lost Phone / Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story

Normal Lost Phone / Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story

New number who dis? Both games are played entirely within a lost phone that we, the player, find. In Normal Lost Phone, it originally belonged to a teen called Sam, living a seemingly typical teenage life – fussy texts from Mum, clingy GF, friends that come and go, teen dramas, school pressures and cliques, and secrets. Meanwhile, in Laura’s Story, she has the perfect life – a doting boyfriend, a fantastic job, tons of friends; too perfect. And they’re both missing. In many ways those games are like a text version of Gone Home meets Her Story via Stories Untold. We’re poking through someone’s life, their inane conversations and emails, all seemingly innocent until suddenly you catch something a little off, a comment in a text that doesn’t match a mention in an email and down the rabbit hole of ‘wait a minute…’ you go. At first it does feel intrusive going through someone’s phone, reading intimate messages, scrolling through their pictures. It’s voyeuristic, like when you read texts over someone’s shoulder. But that feeling does fade. Because the games need you to stay focused, there’s little in the way of distractions or dead ends. There’s few Apps, photos or messages that aren’t relevant and quickly you’ve exhausted everything. Those are more of a linear story where you unlock chapters. But that linear story takes some work. Coming up against a passcode means you scour comments, attachments and pictures to figure it out, which then reveals more story and previous texts or comments take on a different meaning. You’re constantly piecing things together, uncovering secrets and hidden plans. You do get caught up in it, even if it’s all fairly obvious but it zips along nicely – I completed both in under three hours. They may be short, but the phone-owner’s lives are complex and it’s in watching them navigate their situations that elevates the games beyond short timewasters. Sam’s story is the more compelling of the two, as he struggles to maintain intricate lies and secrets both to those around him and himself until a sudden, almost poetic Deus-ex-Machina ending. Laura’s story though, while often chilling, isn’t as persuasive. We figure out what’s going on immediately, and then the majority of the game is ferreting about looking for codes and passwords to uncover more red flags, causing it to drag before an all too easy resolution. Still, as a story it is an unsettling and all-to-real read, and the ending where we become a participant in her story is satisfying. In both cases, once you’ve uncovered the main story you have the option to wipe the phone, erasing everything about them – bricking the phone closes a chapter, one that you decide if anyone else gets to read. Neither game has that slow boil tension of Gone Home, but they’re incredibly clever, and Sam’s story was a fascinating and often moving glimpse into someone else’s life; both reminded me of that quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. And I did breathe a sigh of relief when Laura finally realised her situation. If nothing else, the Lost Phone games are a frightening exploration of how much we confess and confide to those damn things, and that they don’t forget. Besides the intimacy we share digitally, innocent comments reveal so much when linked together; just by reading texts and comments I’m able to piece together enough to unlock the entire device, and some of the puzzles, like finding Dad’s birthdate by scrolling through pictures and checking the date-stamp are both satisfying and terrifying. I need to change my passwords. Both games are available as an iOS/Android app, and totally worth a couple of quid to play on the commute. And since it presents and behaves like an actual phone, they’re worth playing just for the people on the tube looking over your shoulder.

Telling Lies

Telling Lies

FBT is searching for the truth amongst the lies. And the boredom. I loved Her Story, so this ‘spiritual sequel’ went straight on my Sales wish-list. If watching one person talk for hours can get me that excited, four talking heads has to be awesome… Karen (Karen?) sets about reviewing recordings related to David Smith, a deep-cover FBI agent to understand what happened after he infiltrated an environmental terrorist group. While in Her Story we’d watch a lone woman’s statement to eke out clues and keywords to pin down what happened, in TL we only see one side of a conversation, meaning a whole lot of just nodding and ‘uh-huh’. You can find files of the other end of the conversation, but it means a lot of nothing to trawl through. It’s basically like watching me on the phone with my mum. As David joins the terror group’s public front, a social media pressure group, he gets in with Ava, an idealistic environmentalist and develops feelings for her, compromising both his marriage and the mission. Struggling with his dual-life, David starts using a camgirl, ‘Max’, to confess, while secrets start to surface as he cracks under the pressure. That makes it sound complex and compelling, but it isn’t. It’s largely watching him chatting, then tracking down wife Emma, Ava or Max’s reaction, which is usually them getting annoyed with him. The deep cover operative blurs the lines plot is already overused and this takes it nowhere new, so it struggles to keep your interest – and we’re supposed to be piecing it together. Twice. I quickly run out of things to search for, bored of another argument with the wife, a clip of him convincing the group he’s legit, Ava getting needy, Max clearly scamming him. We're just watching him blur lines, get into trouble with various women, pout and brood while getting told off for not being home. Whereas Her Story’s approach worked because it was focused and you had to concentrate to pick up the subtleties, here I’m not drawn in so I don’t know how to reach the inevitable ending, and start searching for phrases from undercover cop films. Some of which work. This feels worryingly close to those great/terrible FMV of the 90s, we're one step away from Night Trap. Another unfocused element is Karen’s intentions. Is she trying to prove David innocent, track down someone who knows what really happened, learn a covered-up truth? We’re not told what Karen is after, so we don’t have any direction. Karen only has until 5am before the FBI shuts down the connection, and it winds down in semi-real time. There’s actually few lies to uncover, what we’re really doing is deconstructing David’s deluded ‘knight in shining armour’ self-belief. We’re basically spending hours watching three women realise they’re better off without him. And that’s fine, but whenever I find a video of one of them telling him he’s out of their lives, I spend ages trying to find out why and keep coming back to he’s a deep-cover agent with emotional problems who’s unable to handle the pressure he’s under. David is far from innocent, but he’s something of a victim too and even Karen arguably destroys his legacy by releasing the footage (no idea why) - well, releases what we uncovered. And in my case, that wasn’t a great deal. My FBI after-report showed that I’d watched half the videos and focused mostly on cam-girl Max… can’t lie about that. But in my defence, her way of getting info out of David while giving nothing away was compelling. And I could guess the rest, although I didn't need to as I managed to find the final video by luck. It’s like knowing exactly what you want to Google, but clicking I Feel Lucky instead. I didn’t. Within five minutes of starting TL, I’d understood the story and what was going to happen. What I hoped for was some fun figuring how it all unravelled, but there’s no intrigue, threat, danger, or surprise to it all. The terror group plot goes nowhere and what we’re left with is a cautionary tale of an unfaithful husband and a warning not to trust Camgirls – who go on to become successful writers who produce novels with ‘strong female leads’. TL is basically a bad daytime soap opera where beautiful people whine about how unfulfilling their lives are. The characters are paper-thin, the plot reheated and the point of it all hazy. If the story was how a corrupt FBI agent got taken down by three unconnected women that would be something, but it’s not that, it’s not anything really. It’s like an episode of Thirtysomething on random, and just as forgettable. Who remembers Thirtysomething?! I am so disappointed in this. It took me three hours to reach the end, and it was exactly what I expected at the beginning. It’s a great concept, and at times I did get involved, but mostly it’s like listening to one side of someone’s phone call. Telling Lies lacks the originality and twists that compel you to keep digging. Karen should have just demanded to speak to the manager.

Why We Game - Villains

Why We Game - Villains

FBT explains his favourite bad guys and why he killed them. In movies, the villain is often more fun than the hero, but in video games you rarely wish you were fighting for the other side. Bosses are usually lumbering cheats with over-sized health bars like they're compensating for something. But this is a list of bosses, final and mini that I’ve loved to hate - or in some cases, hated killing. Frank Fontaine, despite being the actual Bioshock baddie is often forgotten in favour of Ryan; from setting his beloved city’s self-destruct to stop ‘Atlas’ getting it, to letting his own son beat him to death to prove his point, Ryan is a tough act to follow and Fontaine seems a panto villain in comparison. But... It’s true Bioshock loses something after Fontaine is revealed, but that’s not his fault. Fontaine and Ryan were similar – they believed in the self, in being unrestrained, but Ryan did compromise himself; he robs the Splicers of free-will, the backbone of his belief system, to do his dirty work - making him the very parasite he rallies against. Fontaine never compromised, never wavered. No pontificating, no grand speeches – yes, he goes on a bit, and his plan is convoluted, but Fontaine knew who he was; a crook. Nothing more complex than that. It’s rare that a narrative-driven experience, be it a game, movie or book has just a bad-guy to foil. Villains nowadays need motivation and are usually, well, more like Ryan. Fontaine is a refreshingly simple gangster. I hated killing Vaas in Far Cry 3. Not because I liked the nusto, but because losing him two-thirds of the way through is a major mistake the game never recovers from. The final boss Hoyt is a sneering pillock who tried to be scary, whereas Vaas is scare. The time with Vaas is gaming gold. From his opening scenes mocking us in the cage, setting dogs on us, making us run Forrest, setting us on fire, explaining insanity, trying to drown us, shooting us point-blank - and still anticipating us surviving? He’s not just an insane maniac, he's like a cat playing with a mouse and the impact of Vaas feels bigger than the game actually planned; a strange connection builds between him and Jase, one that is criminally wasted once he's gone. Jase and Vaas were like Batman and the Joker, they completed each other, reflected each other – most importantly, Vaas is the madman Jase might become, yet he's what Jase needs to be to survive. It always felt like Vaas knew what Jase was walking into. Vass claims the definition of insanity is repeating an act and expecting a different outcome, but once Vaas and Jase break the cycle, the game ironically gets samey. But Vaas isn’t the only bad guy in FC3. Buck is something else again. A sadomasochistic bastard who takes pleasure in upsetting Jase with tales of abusing our pal Keith - he’s so horrible you feel Jase’s rage, and look forward to gutting him. FC3 does astonishing work of making Buck and Vaas very, very dangerous men and the tension, the fear and anger that you get just looking into their eyes is unnerving. Sticking with the FC franchise a bit longer, one villain that caught me off-guard was FC4’s Pagan Min. At first I thought he was an effeminate Asian cliché, but while there’s some North Korea vibes to him and the story, you realise he’s actually a brilliant antagonist – and that all he ever really wanted was for you to take control of Kyrat. Mid-game, when he’s calling to ask if Denis Rodman might be persuaded to visit, he seems just a typical self-aware meta villain, but you start to suspect he’s more than that, and when he saves your life or talks about tough love, he’s not just toying with you, he’s trying to turn you into the king Kyrat needs, makes you see the truth of the place. When he finally allows you to put your mum’s ashes to rest and explains how he ended up like this, you actually feel for him. It’s the only game where I sided with the bad guy, then went and killed the supposed good guys Sabal and Amita. Exactly what FC4 is saying with all of this isn’t clear, but when did an FC have a satisfying ending? Min is a brilliant baddie. At the beginning when he says “you and I are gonna tear shit up!” that’s the game I wish I’d played. The Golden Path suck. Perhaps the oddest villain on my list is Songbird from Bioshock Infinite. Odd because he’s completely ineffectual, a strictly scripted threat. Deeply in love with Elizabeth and utterly dedicated to keeping her in Columbia, he and Liz are Big Daddy and Little Sister 2.0. The sequence where you find a prototype lying on the floor forced to watch an endless repeat of images and the only one it reacts to is a photo of Liz is heart-breaking. Songbird’s tenderness towards Liz is affecting and his ending is a beautiful, horrible moment. What makes it ten times worse is Infinite is an insanely frustrating, smug game that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny and after his emotional end, it all turns to shit; but Songbird soars above all that to become the most effecting and interesting character in it and one of my favourite ‘monster villains’. That he's been completely forgotten is a travesty. He is gaming’s King Kong. Actually, the real villains of Infinite are those goddamn Luteces. They caused everything that happens, do nothing to fix it even though they can time-travel, effect reality, brain-wash people, and know the events that will unfold yet keep them from Booker and expect him to behave differently to all the others. So what’s the actual outcome of Infinite? The Luteces survive! If Booker dies before Comstock is created, Columbia is never built so they're not murdered; everyone else winks out of existence and they live? God I hate Infinite. Anyway... if we're talking about inter-dimensional ghosts, there's only one on my list... F.E.A.R Alma. That moment where you’re in the security office and turn to see her at the window, those bloody footprints approaching you, the time she flickers in and out while you’re stuck in the lift or see her shadow in a dark corridor you have to walk down … and that damn ladder moment. Alma is fear. FEAR exploited every good horror trope. Occasional jump-scares, seeing shadows, lights flickering and swinging, things fall off shelves; you see something out of the corner of your eye, the feeling of being watched; and the way you’re Pavlov’s Dog-conditioned to get nervous whenever you see ‘unknown signal’ on Comms. FEAR knows what scares you, and the scariest thing is this seemed to be just another shooter. FEAR tricked us. Heavily influenced by Japanese horror, primarily Dark Water and Ring, we know this little girl and we know nothing’s going to stop Alma. But like all good J-Horror she’s tinged with sadness; she was wronged, and now we’re front and centre for her revenge. We see little Alma exacting horrible, skin-melting revenge on everyone but she doesn’t seem to mean us any harm - she’s curious, and that’s even more scary. The threat is left to the older, emaciated Alma rushing at us screeching. Great, two terrifying Almas, but it’s interesting that the little curious girl is the one that gets to you, not the monstrous banshee whose hugs can kill. Throw in the X-Files like conspiracy to both hide and exploit Alma, a heartless corporation, the mysterious (and cannibalistic) Fettel, and our own part to play and you’ve got a heady narrative to disappear into. And this is a shooter? I hated Arkham Knight. I hated it so much. But for all the problems I had with it, there was one unmistakable piece of brilliance. The dead Joker. In Arkhams' Asylum, City and even Origins he was the conniving, dangerous character you expect. What you didn’t expect was his death at the end of City. The Joker doesn’t die any more than Bats kills. When Knight opens with his body being cremated you still expect him to jump up, to be revealed as someone else, do something. But no, he’s gone. And then he came back. Now Bats’ personal Tyler Durden, he constantly needles Bats about living no real life, taunting him about the people he’s not managed to save; Bats losing his mind to the The Joker means he would effectively be reborn; now that’s how you bring a character back from the dead; in Bats’ mind, the Joker is alive - and more gleefully villainous than ever. Talking of pure villainy, the Sphere in Prey (2006) is an odd choice but it stuck with me; for most of the game, our hero Tommy is fighting his way through its bowels. First time I’ve ever been inside a Villain; that stays with you. Returning to earth every few generations to abduct humans for spare parts, the Sphere is a living, breathing torture factory that just gets worse the further you go while ‘mother’, the Sphere’s consciousness taunts Tommy. Mother is like a lot of unseen, goading voices we’ve dealt with before but whereas GLaDOS or Shodan were aggrieved AI’s, what’s at the centre of the Sphere is much worse. We just spend hours knee-deep in reconstituted human remains, watching people being ripped limb from limb, seen tortured aliens, even our weapons are built out of still-aware creatures; this place is horrible and when we reach Mother, it’s a … human who lets all this suffering continue in return for immortality? You MoFo. That she fused your girlfriend to another creature and made you kill her is just one reason why offing Mother will be such a pleasure, even if it's an overwrought boss battle, but Tommy’s final act of sacrifice to break the cycle of the sphere is a grand bit of game story telling. Shame they tacked on a franchise-starting ending that never happened. Saint’s Row 4’s Zinyak is an awesome villain. The time he interrupts the boss and Pierce's sing-along to Just A Friend (topped only by him rage-quitting the audio commentary in Dominatrix) is awesome. And he’s such a luvvie. He’s a grand old-school villain with no real need to do the things he does, it’s purely for his own amusement and ego. He even wears a cape. He’s like Ming in the 1970s Flash Gordon movie. SR4 is a mad game and a lot of the time you’re not really thinking about Zinyak, you’re too busy being a nutso hero with superpowers but kudos to devs Volition for managing to create a memorable villain when you have such an overwhelming lead. No villain list would be complete without Portal’s GlaDOS, but there’s a good reason for that. She’s one of the best villains of all time. Her constant assertion that there’s cake at the end rings hollow the first time you see ‘the cake is a lie’ scrawled on a hidden wall, but by then you’d begun to suspect the automated voice directing you to test is anything but automated. You realise she killed everyone else, and now she’s after you. But she’s powerless while you’re outside the testing areas which is a new dynamic in games, a largely helpless villain, so all she can do is taunt you up until the end where a battle of wits plays out over a thing that makes shoes for orphans. Portal might be a mind-twisting logic game but it’s all about GLaDOS. You don’t replay it for the puzzles, you go back for GLaDOS. Her return in Portal 2, when she’s stuck to a potato and learns some humility is where you realise none of this was her fault and maybe she’s not so bad. But just as you’re thinking it’s a cop-out to humanise her, GlaDOS regains control – and then deletes the memory, proving she was always the dyed-in-the-wool villain we love her for – “I think that one was about to say ... I love you.” Another amorphous, ‘can’t be reasoned with’ villain is WAU in SOMA. And it’s not even a villain. You know how your mum would make you eat your greens, clean your teeth, get in the bath, and would justify those tortures with ‘its for your own good’ – that’s WAU. On a deep-sea science base, a disaster occurs that traps everyone under the waves. WAU, the station’s AI follows its programming – ‘protect mankind’ – but, because it doesn’t understand quality of life, it activates this liquid circuitry smart gel stuff and begins bonding people to machines, creating artificial lungs and body-parts to ensure their survival as they decay. It’s beyond horrible. Until you discover survivors digitised themselves into hard-drives to be transferred to a Holodeck style virtual reality, but WAU began placing them in the various machines around the place instead. Now it’s beyond horrible. This place is literally a living nightmare. Some don't even understand what happened to them, some you find begging you to end their suffering, but it's those who beg to keep living that are the ones that mess your head up. WAU is the best villain in recent gaming – because it’s just doing it for your own good. But my favourite villain is the one in Spec Ops The Line. On the surface it's a CoD knock-off, but as you progress you realise The Line is something you cross, not play. When you finally reach the renegade US General responsible for all you’ve endured in the ruins of Dubai, it turns out he was dead long before you got there, and you were looking to find excuses for your actions. None of this had to happen; you did it because killing everyone, committing atrocities and reaching the big-bad is what soldiers (and gamers) do - the game was playing you; it makes you consider how you play shooters; you let your comrades die, killed supposed traitorous soldiers, murdered innocents and doomed survivors to die just to reach a boss battle – but not this time. The Line has the best villain of all time. You. And so, those are the guys, gals and machines that had me smirking as much as scowling. They’re all very different but all have one thing in common – they’re not video game bosses. They’re conflicted, corrupt, conniving characters. One thing that struck me is how many of my all-time fave games don’t have an appearance here – I guess not every good game needs a great big bad; Mass Effect’s Reapers are perhaps the literal biggest bosses faced, but they’re rarely in it and just provide Shep with a reason to keep fighting. But a good bad guy can really make a game something special. You want the right boss for the right game – Serious Sam would be a lot duller if we reached the end only to discover Ryan playing golf. But this list of reprobates, I’d have a beer with all them. Except Buck. And I’d be very nervous about spilling Vaas’ pint. But I’d do a karaoke with Zinyak. And share my cake with GLaDOS.

The Uncertain - Last Quiet Day

The Uncertain - Last Quiet Day

FBT has achieved sentience. And is uncertain what to do with it. At some point in the future, humankind wiped itself out, leaving behind menial robot servants. At a loose end, the bots create a society, emulating humankind, but - in theory - without the wars and stuff. One such bot, RT-217NP spends its time foraging for electronics and fashioning them into items for other bots to buy, but when a shuttle crashes outside its cottage, the truth behind the robot’s idyllic existence is exposed. This is one of those games that really should be awesome but just refuses to be. The setup, of 'Artie' (RT) padding about a desolated village making a living off what humans left behind is great, as is Artie’s misunderstandings of the things humans left behind – I’m like a tall Wall-E. There’s a nice subplot about how Artie has become a bit obsessive, even human, disconnecting itself from Updates to stay separate from the Bot collective, and the idea that what we leave behind takes our place and repeats our mistakes is top-notch. And the world, courtesy of Unity, is beautiful. When the story kicks in, it starts to slip into the ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ trope, but I can work with that. What I can’t work with, is how the game is obsessed with ruining it all. You can click some things for Artie to walk to but the shot changes and Artie gets stuck on things you can’t see. Sometimes you click and Artie doesn’t move, because you needed to press a direction key instead, but then in exactly the same situation you need to highlight something to make him go there. Sometimes a cutscene will trigger but nothing happens, it was just an animation of him walking, and you only realise you’re back in control when you impatiently tap a key and Artie moves. It’s just incredibly frustrating to move the bot about, one moment it’s like a Granny shuffling about, the next it’s a Granny on a Segway. Sometimes you’re just letting Artie deal, other times you’re in charge, but we just don’t seem to get along. You can spot a solution but Artie will not recognise a thing until it needs the thing – for example, it was recharge time. The charger was clearly offline, so I walked Artie to the generator. It doesn’t need it. But you said you need to recharge? Go to the charger, guess what? It needs power. Back to the generator. Or Artie needs a thing to solve a problem but doesn’t elaborate on why it needs that one specific thing, not all the identical things lying about, causing you to click everything waiting for luck to do its thing, or objects pop into existence once Artie says it needs it, even though you know for a fact that thing won’t be there because you already checked there earlier; oh look, now it’s here. Sometimes Artie even changes its mind, you scrabble about for what Artie’s after, give up, go back to check in case you missed something, and Artie now just fixes it. It also feels like humanity must have died in the 1990s because Artie needs to dial up on hardline computers to connect with other bots or get info. How did humanity create sentient bots but not Wi-Fi? And then there’s the gameplay. The first puzzle is finding a battery in Artie’s house to power a radio, hear a pre-recorded message about the impending war and Artie then just cracks on. What was the point of that?! We spend ages faffing about doing nothing puzzles, but hardly any of it is character-driving or defining, no hint of Artie’s off-centre humanistic qualities until another Bot explains Artie’s entire personality and situation for us. Why have some environmental puzzles that provide background we already know, and then have explainer-Bots relate backstory to a room full of bots who know all of this? The game taps out at around ten hours, and most of that is trying to control Artie, scratching through padded puzzles, and waiting for the story, and badly translated subtitles to catch up. I actually only picked this up because part two, Light At The End was released and it looked good so I figured I should play this first, but if Light At The End is anywhere nearly as frustrating as this, as the later reviews seem to suggest, I doubt I’ll bother. What’s really annoying is how charming an adventure this starts out as; Artie is great, the world interesting and the set-up with Artie an outlier is all good. And it’s an indie title and I always have time for those. But nothing really works. Just watch Wall-E again instead.

The Turing Test

The Turing Test

FBT takes the Turing test. And fails. Or passes, not sure. The original Turing Test suggests someone asks questions of two others, out of view. But if one of those hidden people was actually a computer with the same knowledge, could it convince the interviewer it was real? Turing’s party trick became the central argument for AI – if a computer convinces someone it’s human, does that prove it has consciousness? The question here is, can Turing Test trick gamers into thinking it’s any good? The first puzzle is how to get the damn thing loaded. First go, it expanded the screen to IMAX levels and I had to force it into windowed mode just to reach the settings. Second go it kept crashing until I found out the first save file corrupts and had to keep going back to the folder and deleting it before loading. I’m smarter than the game already. The second puzzle is, am I supposed to fall for this? Ava Turing is awakened from status when her fellow scientists within the lab go silent. In order to reach them, she has to pass logic locks that are impossible for an AI to solve because they require intuition, to protect the crew from AI hacks. Am I expected to be surprised when Ava turns out to be an AI? And if she’s not, I’ll be equally disappointed. The third puzzle is, why isn’t there a Portal 3? This is a Portal clone. We’re using energy balls to power lifts, deal with gravity wells, light paths, sensor pads to unlock doors that remove the portal-balls when we leave for no reason, and it’s set in a sterile, empty space filled with unnecessary tests. What did the scientists do in this lab, build puzzles? The only thing missing from Portal is the best part – GLaDOS. Instead we get T.O.M., the soft-spoken station AI who needs Ava to pass the tests since he’s unable to do so. As the two progress, they ponder what it means to be human, why they’re there, what programming and experiences T.O.M has had, and what drew Ava there. It’s nice enough but like listening to polite, forced conversation at the next dinner table, hoping one will eventually spice it up with a clanger like "So you forgiven me yet?" but no. At one stage T.O.M mentions the puzzle layouts require both human and AI problem-solving skills; are we working together? Because T.O.M is zero help when I get stuck. Unfortunately the puzzles aren’t any more exciting than the conversations. After four or five of them, it starts to feel repetitive and smug rather than clever. In Portal you got a ‘ah!’ when you beat it, and often there was no set way to get past a test, just figure out what needs to be done - that's intuition, human thinking, but here the puzzles require precise placement of boxes, or power points or bridges moved or whatever. Its pure logic. If there’s only one solution, a computer would simply keep trying every variable until it found it – the difference between humans and AI, as the game itself points out, is leaps of logic not adherence to it. That’s what worked in Portal, you needed to imagine how to solve it. The later ones do get more complex, but I never think outside the box; just get bored with humping them everywhere. It tries to add in urgency by having T.O.M claim the scientists are dying and we need to reach them quickly, but not to sound like an emotionless AI, that’s not exactly compelling. If my puzzle-smarts directly related to the scientist’s fate, like getting one wrong killed someone or I had to make decisions on which puzzles to do which impacted their chances, or I had to solve puzzles that benefited one but caused another to struggle, turn it into a balancing act then I’d be more invested and it would be human, but as it is, this isn’t a Turing Test it’s Schrodinger’s Cat; they’re alive and dead until I reach them, so the panic doesn't matter. But, as I proceed diligently like all good computers, I spot things that makes me think like a human instead. During one puzzle I spot someone wandering down a corridor. I thought they were all trapped and dying? T.O.M has a distinct HAL-like vibe, and I uncover comments from the crew that cast doubt on T.O.M’s claims, and discoveries they made that might trigger panic back on Earth. I start to wonder if there is more to this, and Ava does have a feistiness to her that computers don’t; except for that Abort, Retry, Fail era. What exactly was the difference between Abort and Fail? Was DOS doing a Turing Test on me? I have to admit, I am getting curious about the outcome. Am I leading T.O.M to the scientists? Am I helping him finish the job or am I learning how to do it? A mid-way twist does shake up both the narrative and the puzzling, and finally TT comes into it's own - shame it didn't just open with that. It does seem as if the game’s aware of our human/AI reveal assumptions, but the course correction isn’t enough to forgive all the puzzles it took to get there, or exciting enough to soldier on afterwards. While some say the puzzles reflect the story, I don’t really buy it, you’d get as much enjoyment watching the dialogue scenes on YouTube, but you’d not get any more detail watching a walkthrough of the puzzles. They do change and evolve, but it’s more frustrating than rewarding because they have no true impact and you just want to skip to the end. The story experience was good but the game experience was like playing Portal’s B-sides. There is a nice theme around what does intelligence mean, what is it to be human, what is consciousness, but I was hoping for something a bit more mind/programming-bending. Like the Turing Test, this just proves there’s more to life than solving puzzles. If I wanted to move boxes while being ordered about by an AI I’d go work in an Amazon warehouse.

Immortals Fenyx Rising

Immortals Fenyx Rising

Fisher-Price Assassin’s Creed At first glance, this is a new low for Ubisoft. Inspired by a bug the developers hit during development of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (?!), the whole thing is a reskin; the horse, eagle, gameplay, setting, design – it’s like playing Odyssey through a cartoon TikTok filter. It’s even voiced by the Odyssey cast. It’s being passed off as a Triple-A priced franchise title too, how is this not a budget spin-off like Blood Dragon?! I’m so outraged I can’t wait to play it… After Typhon escapes the Underworld and imprisons the Olympian gods, Zeus seeks help from Prometheus, who offers to use his foresight and tell the story of Fenyx, a mortal looking to save her brother after Typhon’s actions turned him to stone. Not believing a mortal can beat Typhon, Zeus agrees to a wager - if convinced Fenyx is their only hope, he will release Prometheus who is still chained to a rock and missing a liver... And so, begins our story. I really expected to loathe this as a cash-in kiddie remake of Odyssey, and at times it does get a little too twee, but what saves it is Prometheus’ ponderous narration, which Zeus constantly interrupts or alters to make it more entertaining – and harder for Fenyx (or more bizarre). We’ve seen this before, such as Call of Juarez Gunslinger and Borderlands 2’s Assault on Dragon Keep where the unreliable narrator throws stuff at us, but it really works here with two narrators arguing and influencing the events, as Zeus tries to excuse his petulance as a God and rewrite history, and Prometheus maintaining a subtly insulting narrative aimed at the Pantheon’s pettiness. An early zinger, “Didn’t I turn her into a lion?” / “You turned a lot of people into a lot of things” / “Yeah, I need to stop drinking” sets the tone. The rest of the tone is light and fun, and eventually I get won over by it. It never steps outside of Odyssey’s shadow, but it does eventually find its own way, especially in the power-ups and RPG experience. It is its own story, even if it feels like a rejected part of the Fate of Atlantis DLC. With bubbles, bright colours, playful sound effects, gems awarded, no blood and caricature leads making it feel like some kids’ cartoon based on Odyssey it should grate, but for the most part it’s just an easy-going game with a charm to it. I’m liking this. In keeping with Odyssey (and Ubisoft’s love for reskinning and incestuous/cost saving sharing between franchises), we gain bird and horse companions and meet various legends from the Pantheon, who we free or fight, and there’s a fair amount of side quests, distractions, Typhon’s minions and other legends to battle while we reclaim areas like in Far Cry, plunder treasure and do platform or puzzle-based challenges which award upgrades, powers, weapons or items. There's a lot of distractions. Fenyx starts with limited stamina, which drains quickly and adds a level of anxiety as she can get exhausted, leading you to be tactical about how you approach areas. Even just hanging off walls or treading water drains it, and fights can’t be won by endlessly hacking. She has three weapons, a sword for quick hacking, an axe for power slashing and a bow with respawning arrows, all of which can be swapped out and improved via crafting, and her skill-tree lets you build the usual improvements - but she also gains powers from helping the Gods, building her into a demi-god worthy of mention by Homer. The creatures we face are strictly pre-school in look, but Immortals has also carried over Odyssey’s satisfyingly scrappy fight sequences and stand offs. We even get sneak attacks and some solid power moves. And Fenyx herself is fun to be around. Plucky, confused, and often not taking it seriously, she’s on the adventure of a lifetime and looking to prove herself a hero. It’s a bit odd playing someone who acts about ten years old, but her ways of opening treasure chests – from slapping it to dropping the People’s Elbow - and her reactions to the increasingly weird events work really well to keep you in the just-for-laughs mood. It’s all good fun but you never shake the feeling that this is some jokey mod for Odyssey. And it’s oversized - if you’re aiming to hit 100%, you’re looking at 40 odd hours, and that’s a long time to stay invested in what amounts to a one-joke game you’ve played before. Had it stuck to the Far Cry Blood Dragon mould of 15-odd hours it would have stayed fresh and fun; much like its inspiration, it’s bloated and samey towards the end. On top of the Odyssey comparisons, the style puts you in mind of Zelda, especially Breath of the Wild and it’s nowhere near that. It doesn’t do anything remarkable to deserve hours of play, and there’s three full-length DLCs too. It’s one of those games you have fun free-roaming for a while in, then find yourself sticking to the main plot just to get it done. There is some clever commentary in there, but it’s often trying to be funny instead of leaving the ridiculous to Greek Mythology itself. Having Gods revealed as indifferent, clumsy or vain is nothing new - and according to the developers, it’s a commentary on social media influencers; what, the Patheon’s acts didn’t provide enough material?! Ultimately, this is a Fisher-Price Assassin’s Creed. It’s a solid game and a lot of fun, but one of those RPGs you dip in and out of rather than disappear into, there for when you fancy a laugh. It could have gone in a lot of different ways, such as choosing which narrator to follow, position Fenyx as Godlike or Human, or been a pure parody and turned its aim towards the puffy self-importance prevalent in gaming now; or maybe Ubisoft’s self-plagiarising... at least they got in an early joke where Zeus kicks off about certain game’s bloated openers. It would have worked as a parody of what AC’s become. It’s still better than Valhalla though. How do you screw up Vikings!? It is what it is though, and listening to Prometheus and Zeus bicker and pick holes in Greek Legend is totally worth it. It’s made Greek Mythology accessible too. I used to get all my history lessons from Assassin’s Creed, now I know the Pantheon a little better too. Who says games aren’t educational?

The Fall II Unbound

The Fall II Unbound

FBT takes another fall. In The Fall, battle-suits included ‘A.R.I.D’, an AI designed to take over if the pilot got into difficulty. Relentless in reaching help for her pilot, ‘Arid’ broke the AI Laws shackling her and eventually became self-aware – which was good, because then she could express genuine surprise at discovering her battle-suit was empty all along. What did it mean? Let’s find out… Picking up immediately after, the suit – well, its head – has been wired up to a network where Arid’s being infected with a virus by an unknown ‘User’. Finding a way to travel through the network, Arid takes over other AI-controlled suits she finds, forcing them to do her bidding as she races to stop the User and save herself; now that she really is a ‘self’. The three AI’s that Arid encounters are a C3PO-style AI within a Butler-bot, stuck in his programming to serve long-dead masters, ‘One’, an AI in a battle-suit that has gained ‘oneness’ amongst the other drones, and ‘Companion’ who runs a pleasure bot. Arid doesn’t really stop to consider their circumstances or programming, and largely just coerces, tricks or outright forces them to help as she tries to discover why the User is trying to infect her with an AI-killing virus – but she also realises she's part of the problem; she infected the other AI with both the virus and her autonomy… And that’s where The Fall II should have faded to black with a ‘to be concluded’. But no, we’re only half done. Oh boy… It’s fun for the first half because Arid, as a new consciousness with no emotional depth, didn’t consider the other AI’s ‘feelings’ or worth. Its great/horrible watching her manipulate or torture the others to reach her goals. To cliffhang it there with her discovering her empathy would have been great; not that the second half isn’t equally compelling - now understanding sympathy and responsibility, Arid escapes back into the network to undo the damage before the virus causes an AI Apocalypse – but The Fall II is an epic 10 hours, and that’s 5 hours more than we can comfortably stand. It’s ironic that Arid develops self-preservation just as we start to lose it. A lot of the niggles from the first game are actually magnified in this expanded sequel, almost as if the developers took the criticisms and turned them into challenges. To reveal the story you need to do a lot of guessing and clicking, guessing and walking (well, ambling since the Bots walk about as fast as my Gran), guessing and getting annoyed. And that’s a shame because when you’re not annoyed, you’re amazed by what The Fall II is trying to do. It is compelling; in the first game we were Arid the hero, sort of, now we're basically the bad gal. What is identity, why a need for purpose, how do we value ourselves; all those elements feed into Arid's growth, but for a game about being aware, there’s a lot we just mindlessly do; shining a torch on things, clicking on them, not really knowing what you’re doing. Most of the puzzles are so vague it only makes sense after you’ve solved it. And later, all three AI’s become available within each other’s Bots – so One can help Companion recognise her worth and she helps 3PO make choices, and that’s great but its agonising getting there. Bad enough when Arid had multiple options and things to click on that might or might not work, but now its times-three? You spend an age on one AI, coaxing out some individuality, then Arid’s display shows the Companion is one-third aware. Oh come on, no one that bouncy is that unaware of herself. It is a point-and-click game in Hardcore mode. When we’re not clicking, we’re either lost in the Network - You’d think an AI would be a bit more logical about objectives, you don’t have a GPS, Arid? – or we’re shooting at squishy representations of the virus, which feels even more tacked-on this time around. We also have One doing a streetfighter side scrolling battle with the drones, but that gets tiresome quickly – until he trains Companion to do it and she batters all her abusive johns. That was good. The other issue is the original had a great sense of mystery and otherness about it. It delved into what consciousness means while we watched Arid doggedly try to find help while never questioning why she was doing it. This is one of those sequels that decides to go deeper and expand on the original's precise premise, but in doing so gets a bit bloated. Problem is, it’s a side-scroller, so play-wise it’s not really got anywhere to go – only the story can expand, but to give it space the game gets repetitive and that causes you to lose interest in the story, it almost cancels itself out. The second half is worthy though, story-wise. It is satisfying to be helping this time, to have Arid actually worry and feel regret, and the subplot of human’s attitude toward automatons, and fear of AI is really well done – it’s just a shame all those charming moments are buried under so much lumbering about, clicking. The Fall II Unbound is a rewarding game if you can persevere. It just takes a lot of patience to see it through, especially that midway point where you think it’s done but realise you’ve basically got to do it all again in reverse, but ultimately it pulls it together and left me wanting more. This was released over three years ago, but there's no word of a Part III, and it would be shame not to see it all resolved. Just hope it doesn’t take so much clicking. Read FBT's The Fall review here

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

FBT investigates the mysterious disappearance of his gaming expectations. In a destitute mining town, little Ethan Carter creates wild stories to escape reality, but when a real evil is unleashed and those around him dismiss it as another of his stories, he contacts famed paranormal-investigator Paul Prospero - who arrives to find Ethan has disappeared. The opening warns the game will ‘not hold the player’s hand’. Pah, I’m a seasoned adventure gamer; mysteries, puzzles, super-natural goings on, nonlinear events? I got this. But literally everything, even the plot - let alone the gameplay - is a complete mystery; I don’t even know where to start. I do not got this. My first deduction as Prospero is that Ethan didn’t vanish, he got lost. This place is huge. It’s like Fallout '76 with no NPCs. Or Players. It’s an open-world puzzler, and that breaks my gamer mind. I need someone to hold my hand! There’s no map, mission marker, clues, just open space. This is unnatural. But then you walk a path and stumble into events that need investigating. The scenes are done like any other crime investigation game; you piece it together then watch it unfold. The real challenge is in working out what the hell you need to cook up a cut-scene. I find a murder scene and the thing I’m missing is a rock – I only discover that because I happened to pass one and text popped up telling me ‘a rock’. Prospero’s particular about his evidence; surely any rock would have done? Later, a puzzle required a pair of scissors to trigger detective mode. Where were they? Miles away, in a lift shaft of course, and the game didn't even tell me I needed the scissors. I would have closed the case with ‘stab wound’. But once I’d put together the crime scene, it made sense. It’s the kind of game where the clues only click once you’ve solved the puzzle and they then lead you on. It’s often little more than a hidden object game – one has me looking for a cast-iron crow, which I found - after an intensely irritating period of foraging - at the foot of a Jesus statue. I only found it because I’d gotten so frustrated I went to pray for help. Besides the family’s fate, there’s several of Ethan’s own stories we can tease out of the wilderness. And by teasing I mean sheer luck. Early on, as I trudged along, I just happened to glance over and see what looked like a traffic light in the woods. Turned out to be a puzzle, which I figured out by chasing an astronaut through the woods. I lost him, and then I couldn’t find the traffic light thing again. Eventually I did and went on a wonderous trip through the cosmos and got a better understanding of Ethan’s desire to escape this horrible place and his indifferent family. Hugely rewarding, insanely annoying – I could have missed that. Those side stories are wonderful, if you can find them, and you won’t. They remind me of What Remains of Edith Finch, where you’d open a door and be transported into another world and story. But at least there we only had a house to navigate, here we’ve got a county to miss things in and you lose hours of your life poking about and finding nothing. One of the stories even includes a hide and seek with a zombie miner who kills on sight, before we unlock an Eldritch-style monster from the deep. Some imagination this kid has got, and it starts to wind me up that I might have missed other Ethan adventures. Had it been a smaller, more controlled world or their locations made some narrative sense that piqued your curiosity as happens in Free-Roamers you’d be more inclined to go exploring. It’s either straight ahead for the plot, or frustrating wanders for the puzzles. It’s an incredible world though, beautiful and believable, and there are times I just wander contentedly; I found a great puzzle where I had to navigate through a house by working out which room went where while I was in it; and I only found it because I went off the beaten track to see the view. At times the only thing that’s vanished is my patience. Eventually though, I realise the open world is a lie, or at least a distraction - it’s a linear game inside an open world. You can reach the end by walking in a straight line, just following the path Prospero started on, and once I figured that out, I was walking full steam ahead. But… Eventually, I reached the ending; but it wasn’t the end. In order to fully reveal what happened, now in Ethan's room I can interact with his drawings and travel to where the undiscovered stories are – now we get a fast travel?! So not only is it filled with puzzles that only make sense when you solve them, we have a game that you basically start at the end. But it’s okay, I can’t stay mad at this. Once I had experienced all of Ethan’s stories, the real ending took shape, and every single criticism melted away. I realised it was my own free-roam conditioning that kept sending me off the beaten track into nothing. I’ve never played a game that annoyed me right up until the end and then I fell in love with it. It made me realise it was my expectations that were the problem, that this is what true art-games are supposed to be. For once, I actually had to think for myself. That was, in retrospect, incredibly rewarding and satisfying. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter did give me a hand, it made me reconsider what to expect from games and how lazy a gamer I’ve become. Maybe now I’ll leave the mission marker off more often, not consult the map as much. Here’s to more open-world puzzlers. It’s an extraordinary, moving, brilliant, compelling game. When you play it backwards.