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REVIEW – Heaven’s Vault

A deep and thought-provoking story wrapped up in a beautiful and unique art-style, with the added bonus of an entire lost language to decipher.

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Source: inkle

Fun fact about both of us: we love words. Surprising I know, coming from people who write words on the internet for a not-living, but it was one of the things we bonded over very early on (that and our mutual hatred of the uncivilised barbarians who put the milk in before the boiling water when they make tea). Language, whether it’s spoken or signed, is arguably the most important thing in the universe. It’s a method of communication, of self-expression and, more relevantly to this review, a way of unlocking the lives of past civilisations.

It’s no surprise that we were instantly drawn to Heaven’s Vault. A game almost entirely driven by narrative? Check. Gorgeous art-style? Check. Entire hieroglyphic lost language to translate ourselves? Check.

OK, that last point is a very niche thing to be excited about, but for a chick who’s multilingual and the nephew of an Egyptologist it was always going to be irresistible. Deciphering the glyphs is a pleasant challenge and by now I’ve managed to decipher a fair chunk of the language, although I don’t think either of us is quite ready to take a crack at untranslated hieroglyphs in some unopened Pharaoh’s tomb. Give it a week.

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Source: inkle

Players assume the role of archaeologist Aliya Elasra, a feisty and stubborn young woman with an unquenchable thirst for history, and wanderlust to match. Skipper of her own ship, the Nightingale, she’s joined by robot Six as they’re sent out into the Nebula to search for a missing roboticist. Aliya and Six soon find themselves delving into something more than a simple disappearance as they traverse the Nebula, discovering long-lost historical sites, numerous inscribed artefacts and uncovering a millennia-old mystery.

An orphan rescued from the slums of slave moon Elboreth, Aliya is the kind of woman we would love to be friends with. She’s intelligent, independent, incredibly driven and, depending on your dialogue choices, sarcastic as hell. Now resident at the University of Iox, Aliya is also an outsider, somewhat shamed for her pursuit of the past instead of the present and general disdain for technology.

Funnily enough, despite being a robot Six is the ideal companion for her. It’s hard to refer to Six as an ‘it’ because he’s bursting with so much personality it would be cruel to refer to him as an object. With a dry wit to rival Aliya’s own Six follows her as they explore ruins together, making snarky comments about her recklessness whilst also being vocal about his concern for her safety. There are many moments where it’s easy to imagine him, after telling Aliya not to cross a crumbling bridge, sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation as she insists on doing it anyway. They’re the quintessential Odd Couple, and the dynamic that develops between them is wonderful and subtly affectionate, even if Aliya wouldn’t admit it.

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Source: inkle

Gameplay is refreshingly simple. As a point-and-click adventure it is definitely optimal to play on PC with a mouse, but the PS4 controls work perfectly fine. Aliya’s movement is measured rather than slow, with Six rolling along behind her on his own accord. Interactive points, such as objects, are indicated by a distinctive, easily identifiable marker. Aliya and Six can converse by following the onscreen prompts: she can ask questions or respond to Six’s input, with a questioning response or a statement. Some prompts are tied to certain discoveries, dialogue choices or translations, giving even more incentive to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny. What’s more, these prompts don’t remain on the screen indefinitely, so important questions can go unasked and knowledge not gathered.

The camera can be a bit annoying to deal with, as it can be difficult to get it at the right angle to display the interaction prompt. Additionally, sometimes the camera can get stuck behind objects or at strange angles, as if it doesn’t quite know where it wants to settle; this happens almost exclusively when interacting with characters, more so when they move around the area. Where it’s at its most annoying is during the sailing segments, when the camera fixes entirely in place regardless of position when approaching junctions. More on that later.

The true shining gem of this game is in the translation. Players are eased in gently at first, with a simple two-word phrase to decipher. Each word has three possible translations and any of these can be selected: just because the sentence makes sense, doesn’t mean it’s correct. As the game progresses Aliya will start identifying correctly translated words and add them to her dictionary. Inscriptions can be simple phrases of only a few words or long strings of words run together, and are found on tiny objects and huge buildings alike.

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Source: inkle

There’s an indescribable joy in studying those phrases, scrutinising the glyphs to identify the patterns, and the satisfaction in getting a translation right is palpable. It gives the game a definite sense of tangibility, like we really are right there with her, blowing the cobwebs off long-forgotten cultures and uncovering a slice of history.

And what a history it is. Aliya is an inhabitant of the Nebula, a vast and ancient area of space connected by ‘rivers’ that flow between its moons, rocks and ruins. Various artefacts Aliya collects allow her to hunt for undiscovered sites down previously uncharted paths. It’s a gorgeous, colourful landscape we would love to explore ourselves, and we’re a bit jealous that Aliya has her magnificent ship to do just that. However, this is where the game’s big flaw lies: sailing.

Controlling the Nightingale is simple. R2 and L2 control side-to-side motion by raising either the right or left sail, and X to ‘sweep’ or boost. Arrows on the ‘water’ mark which turnoffs to take when necessary, with Six sometimes also clarifying which direction to go. However, with the arrows blending in a little too well with the river we often found ourselves overshooting a junction, and even though the game gives the option to reset, it became an annoyance very fast. Furthermore, the tricky camera I mentioned before can leave players with no ability to see where they’re going or even aim for the turning in the first place.

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Source: inkle

With Aliya spending a lot of time out on the ‘water’ sailing is a painful necessity. The closest to fast travel the game gets is Aliya taking a rest in her hammock: Six will then suggest a location or two for him to navigate the ship to. Otherwise, sailing is completely manual. For Tim, these sections became simply monotonous; not even the gorgeous visuals and dreamy music was enough to distract him. For me it was less monotonous, more hair-pulling frustration as I missed turning after turning (I’d say me being visually-impaired is the main contributing factor to this though).

 

Sailing is also where the game’s rigidity comes in. Aliya can apparently only sail to where the game wants her to. Deviation from a plotted course is possible, although it’s impossible to set down anywhere but the plotted course’s endpoint. This restriction feels somewhat at odds with Aliya’s adventurous spirit, especially as players can halt their journey to investigate ruins and shipwrecks floating here and there. I suppose much of this frustration is down to being spoiled by games allowing players to jump aboard their vessel and make for the open seas on a whim. Having a definite destination for the journey isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it would be nice to just point the Nightingale downriver and see where the current takes us.

It’s a pity that sailing is such a pain because, as mentioned, the Nebula is beautiful. In fact, the entire game is beautiful. Each moon, each historical ruin is distinct, with a pleasant balance between simplicity and detail. Locations never feel crowded, whether it’s with people or objects, and thus navigation around smaller areas such as a market is far easier. The gorgeous 2D hand-drawn characters give us the feel of a graphic novel come to life, and is best viewed in motion where it can be done the justice it deserves. Plus, Six is adorable. A robot he may be but he has some of the best facial expressions I’ve ever seen.

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Source: inkle

Honestly, there’s so much to this game that I could go on for another seventy years. Incidentally, this is how long I estimate it’ll take to complete the story to 100%. The narrative is the equivalent of a miner chipping at the end of a tunnel, only to break through and discover himself in a massive gem-filled cavern, with tunnels and layers as far as the eye can see. Every single decision and dialogue choice affects the way the story progresses and that delivers an experience that feels entirely personal.

Whilst Heaven’s Vault may not be perfect, the levels of love and passion that’ve gone into this project cannot be ignored. To create an entire language for the purpose of a videogame is no mean feat at all, and the team at inkle should be damn proud of the achievement (see the developer session about it from Rezzed here). In an industry full of so many clones and sequels it’s refreshing to come across a game that pushes the boundaries of what the medium can offer. This is a deep, rich experience packed with lore and superbly written characters, and for that we really hope this game gets the acclaim it truly does deserve.

Heaven’s Vault is out today on Steam and PlayStation 4.

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EGX Rezzed 2019 – Highlights

Trying to pick just a few of the amazing games we played at this year’s Rezzed show was difficult, but we managed to narrow it down in the end!

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Very few things in life can be approached with sky-high expectations and have them be met, every time. Rezzed is one of the few exceptions, with wonderful content always bursting from every corner. The show floor this year was stunning, and overflowing with choice. Narrowing our experience down into a list of eight was always going to be tricky, and we wish we could just put ‘ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, OMG’ as the main body of this post, but we’re all about Proper Journalism here. So, keeping in mind that we couldn’t give the fudge stand its own entry as it wasn’t a game, here are our top picks from Rezzed 2019.

  1. Close to the Sun

Set in an alternate-history timeline, one in which Nikola Tesla pioneered electricity and its technology, Close to the Sun takes place aboard the Helios. The jewel in Tesla’s crown, a shining monument to scientific progress, this colossal ship is home to the world’s best and brightest scientific minds immersing themselves in their ungoverned research.

Arriving aboard the giant vessel in search of your sister, you are quick to discover that something has gone horribly wrong. Darkened and deserted, the rooms and corridors of the ship are blood-splattered. You quickly discover that it’s going to take all of your wits, and your ability to sprint, to escape the ship with your life. It’s tight and tense, with impeccable sound design and a gobsmacking sense of scale. This game is a must for horror fans.

  1. Eastward

Both of us were pinning a lot of hope on this game, and we’re happy to report that it more than lived up to our expectations. A truly beautiful pixel-art RPG, with gameplay deeply reminiscent of old-school Zelda, Eastward left us wowed with its utterly gorgeous visuals and music. The devil is in the fine and characterful details, from the cat snoozing on one of the roofs in town, to protanonist John’s habits of stuffing his hands into his pockets.

However secretive developer Pixpil may have been about this project, it’s clear that this is a creation with a lot of love behind it. The world is deeply colourful and beautifully crafted, populated by strange monsters and strange people alike. We’re definitely going to be hanging on for every reveal and announcement in eager anticipation for its release.

  1. Heaven’s Vault

This entry will be brief, because we’ve been lucky enough to secure a couple of review copies ahead of the game’s release on April 16th.

I will say that I have had the pleasure of watching this game grow from the demo first debuted at Rezzed 2018, to the finished title I have currently downloaded to my PS4. It’s like watching a bud grow into a dazzling blossom, and we’re excited to share our review of this title in due course. Suffice it to say that’s it’s as beautiful as it is unique, with its blend of 2D and 3D visuals, carefully measured pace and intriguing plot.

  1. The Breakfast Club!

We always knew this game was going to be insane, but it definitely exceeded our expectations of just how insane.

I described The Breakfast Club as the ‘Dark Souls of breakfast simulators’ and I was 100% on the money. The goals are simple: make buttered toast or grill some burgers and hot dogs. Achieving those goals, however, are not, although this game has the advantage of allowing you to blame everyone else for your failures, so there’s that. I don’t think either of us had ever really considered the complexities of sausage physics before now, but I think we mastered it considering we won the level and won a tiny frying pan. Packed full of puns and pure silliness, this game is an absolute delight for fans of zany couch co-op fun.

  1. Terrorbane: 100% Bug Free

We do love a bit of satire and meta-humour, and Terrorbane delivers that in spades in this delightfully tongue-in-cheek love letter to games development, and the medium in general. Packed full of references and shout-outs, this game is equal parts bonkers, charming and hilarious.

As a playtester tackling a game built by the world’s ‘best’ developer, you have to navigate through his broken mess of an RPG in order to pick out the errors that are absolutely Not His Fault. These include anything from cows making a noise closer to electrical interference than a moo, to a crate of pears joining your party (although it did prove itself in battle, so you go pear crate!). Some bugs are just funny, others can be exploited to complete puzzles. If the short demo has us cracking up as much as it did then we cannot wait for what the rest of the game has in store for us!

  1. The Meridian Line

You know your game is freaking awesome when you require people to press an actual ‘doors open/close’ button from the London Underground to start your demo, after providing them with a ‘ticket’ to ride (well, we thought it was cool so SHUT UP). 

The Meridian Line is the urbex thriller on the Not Tube that we didn’t know we needed. Set well after operational hours on an underground automated transport network, you’ve broken in to search for your missing brother. The atmosphere is oppressive, an expertly-crafted combination of comforting familiarity and growing unease. The focus here is on tension, and the impeccable sound design delivers this in spades, helping you understand that you are certainly not alone down there. Prepare to be plunged into darkness, to pick locks and hack computers, and contend with the network itself as you unravel the secrets the silent tunnels are hiding.

  1. RAD

Tim’s description of DoubleFine’s RAD was something along the lines of ‘Diablo meets Fallout, but neon’, which is an apt summary. Choosing one of a roster of characters wielding various weapons, players traverse the irradiated wastes of the procedurally generated Fallow, encountering and slaughtering hosts of strange monsters in a bid to revive the land. Grass and flowers spring up beneath the player-character’s feet as they breathe new life into the barren wasteland – this also acted as a useful breadcrumb trail when navigating a dungeon, as it turned out.

Our favourite moments came when we found we could use the exposure to radiation to our advantage and mutate, which led to one character spawning eggs from their back that hatched into little decoys for instance. It was next to impossible for us to tear ourselves away from the demo, the addictive soundtrack and undeniably fun gameplay gluing us to our seats and leaving us wanting just one more go. I can absolutely see myself booting this up to play, only to realise that I’m still on my sofa in my PJs and several days have passed.

  1. Metamorphosis

Of all the things I never thought I would actively enjoy, playing an insect was definitely very high on that list. And yet, the pure joy I felt from playing Metamorphosis, a game inspired by the Franz Kafka novella of the same name, was so unbridled I fear it’ll mar my view of platformers for the rest of my days!

Players assume the role of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes one morning to discover he’s been transformed into a giant insect overnight and must adjust to his new existence. In-game, this means leaping through beautiful hand-painted environments that range from the straightforward to the more abstract. Being an insect makes the first-person platforming so much more enjoyable than in almost any other game; a bug can crawl up the side of an object, so no more pixel-precision is necessary! With its source material being so famous, and open to huge amounts of interpretation, we are so looking forward to delving into the full game and exploring everything Gregor’s new perspective has to offer.

Mieke’s Honourable Mention: The Collage Atlas

In a world of fast-paced action and blood-and-guts combat, it’s always a joy to come across something serene. It’s my best friend I have to thank for bringing my attention to this game, although it definitely would’ve piqued my interest regardless of her input.

Drawn entirely in pen and ink, The Collage Atlas is an utterly breathtaking trip through a world that looks like it has sprung from the pages of a sketchbook (which, essentially, it has). As the player travels forwards, the world before them gently blooms into existence in a way reminiscent of how memories fade in and out of consciousness. It’s entirely up to the player as to how they discover the narrative and its many branches and secret areas waiting to be unlocked. It’s a game that invokes mindfulness and self-reflection which, in such times of turmoil, can’t be a bad thing can it?

Tim’s Honourable Mention: Pacer

As a huge WipeOut fan, Tim was instantly drawn to this when he first laid eyes on the stand – it did help it was probably the loudest booth in the room. Previously known as Formula Fusion, this is a anti-gravity combat racer that ‘pays homage to the old’ with a contemporary twist.

Exactly what he wants from a current-gen iteration of WipeOut, Tim’s sweaty palms and racing heart at the end of a race is an indication of how good an experience Pacer is. Crafted by a team clearly holding their inspiration in deep reverence, this lightening-paced racer captures the ‘flow-state’ required to ace a track perfectly. Tim found every track he played to be a joy, with the option to customise his ship’s stats and appearance being something he’s personally craved from WipeOut as a franchise. It’s fast, it’s frenetic and despite finding the weapons feeling a little ineffective, Tim loved every second of it, evident by the colossal grin on his face at the end.

Phew! Done! This was an incredibly difficult list to write, not just because we hate excluding anyone, but also because we didn’t play anything unworthy of an entry here. We managed to get through the vast majority of the games we wanted to play, and we weren’t disappointed by a single one. It’s always an incredible experience to walk around the show floor and take in the variety of what’s on offer, which is why Rezzed is hands-down my favourite event. and that’s not just because it’s an excuse to spend all my money on delicious fudge.

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Five Games We’re Looking Forward to Playing at Rezzed 2019

Rezzed has arrived once again, and we’re been pondering what we’d most like to play when next week rolls round.

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This time next week, we’ll have reached the halfway point of Rezzed 2019. The indie game event is back at London’s Tobacco Dock from 4-6th April and will once more play host to a show floor packed with delights that we look forward to sampling.

With just under a week to go the list of playable titles is almost complete, with the possibility of a few more announcements between now and then, and it’s shaping up to be a cracking show. Alongside devs debuting their demos for the very first time, we have some old favourites returning to the show: Beyond Blue and Heaven’s Vault are two such gems.

Combing through what’s been announced has excited us greatly for what is to come, and presented us with a tough decision about what to prioritise. With every announcement since this article was first drafted we feel our task getting harder. However, after some discussion we have managed to pare our extensive shortlist down to just five.

  1. Inmost

The first of two entries on this list brought to the show by publisher Chucklefish, Inmost is a game we wanted to play at EGX 2018 but never got round to (which will definitely be the case for about 99% of the Rezzed show floor too). Intriguing, atmospheric, and possessing some of the most innovative use of lighting in a pixel-art game we’ve seen in recent years, we’re already sucked in and desperate to learn more about the game’s universe and story.

  1. Close to the Sun

If Close to the Sun manages to emulate even a fraction of the wonderful atmosphere of Bioshock’s Rapture, then we will be very happy bunnies indeed. Involving a similarly foreboding feel, Close to the Sun also takes place in a self-governed ‘utopia’ created for the cream of the societal crop. Adding a Dead Space-esque twist to things, the place is deserted and filled with dead bodies and dread. Equal parts intriguing and insidious, we know this game will get under our skin in the best way possible.

  1. The Breakfast Club

Sometimes a gamer needs a break from the relentlessly spooky and turn instead to the relentlessly silly as a salve. Having watched the alpha gameplay of The Breakfast Club, Tim and I have agreed that in all honesty, we’re more likely to be crying tears of hysterical laughter than killing each other playing this game. (I certainly make no promises; watch your back Tim…). The likelihood of us beating any of the levels is low because it’s basically the Dark Souls of the Making Breakfast Simulators – Tim is still recovering from his I Am Bread-induced PTSD – but as long as nothing ends up on fire we’ll consider it a success (everything will end up on fire).

  1. Fade to Silence

We’re both huge fans of a good, post-apocalyptic horror experience so it’s no wonder that Fade to Silence pushes all the right buttons. What happened? Why is there an eternal winter? What is the corruption threatening the land? There’s a delightful Horizon: Zero Dawn feel to this, a sense of needing to discover the history of the world, a task made difficult by the overarching need to survive. The question is what will kill us first: the abominations that roam the landscape, or the arctic fury of Mother Nature?

  1. Eastward

If there is anything we’ve come to expect by games developed or published by Chucklefish, it’s the killer combo of gorgeous graphics and a wonderful soundtrack. We’re tipping our hats to Eastward developer Pixpil for giving us both of those things in spades! Eastward is beautiful and mysterious, with a haunting and eerie beauty to the decaying city it is set in, with which we’ve already fallen in love. ‘Escort an important side-character’ seems to have become its own niche genre of late – with The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite leading the pack – so we’re especially interested to see John and Sam’s adventure play out in this captivating world.

We can’t close out this list without a few honourable mentions. We’re definitely looking forward to playing as the adorable Birb in musical platformer Songbird Symphony (for which Tim would book a three day appointment if he could), and Terrorbane looks to be a delightfully self-aware comedic homage to both JRPGs and game development as a whole. And as always, we’re looking forward to catching up with the E-Line Media team and their ambitious project, The Endless Mission.

Most of all though we’re excited to discover the hidden gems that Rezzed has to offer, the games we didn’t think would be our cup of tea and yet become our show highlight. The show floor is a goldmine of passion and potential, and we’re looking forward to sinking our teeth into what’s on offer from a diverse and unique line-up.

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EGX 2018 AKA That Time *Tim* Didn’t Meet His Favourite YouTubers

This time it was Tim’s turn for fate to intervene and render him unable to meet his heroes.

On the whole I think I did really well in preparing myself for EGX this year, and by that I mean I didn’t make the mistake of moving house the day before (0/10, would not recommend). Instead, Tim and I made the drive up to Birmingham on Wednesday afternoon and spent a relaxed night watching Stranger Things in our awesome Airbnb. However, thanks to the apparent herd of elephants rearranging furniture above us at all hours of the morning we still spent day one wandering around in a sleep-deprived daze fuelled  nly by caffeine, as any good writer should be.

Tim’s last venture to EGX was several years ago, when the show was still held at Earl’s Court. He felt that whilst the range of games available at the NEC was preferable, Earl’s Court was definitely better in terms of location, lighting and atmosphere. He describes EGX 2018 as less of a celebration of awesome games, but more of a ‘here is the thing to see, so queue for the thing and see it’.

Honestly, I agree with him (as does the consensus of many comments from members of the public on social media). Everything felt a little flat this year, with the only real electrifying buzz present in the Rezzed section. Too much empty space, too much annoyance at what wasn’t on the show floor which, to be fair to the frustrated, was a lot.

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Enjoying some Atari Star Wars nostaliga in the Retro Zone

Despite this, the event was still packed with talks and panels, meet-and-greets, livestreams and shows, a show floor boasting 265 titles to choose from and many a merchandise stand – the hot favourite seemed to be the merch booth devoted entirely to memes, much to Tim’s despair (I’m happy to say that I adore my new coaster emblazoned with the ‘guess I’ll die’ meme, though it would be better if accompanied by a Picard-facepalm mug).

There’s a laundry list of games we didn’t get to play, which is pretty standard. Of that list, the one we’re most bummed about missing is Metro Exodus. This was the title everyone seemed to want to play, as even on Thursday the queue was insane. By the time Sunday rolled around the queues were several rows deep and probably a good four hour wait. Sadly, we’ll have to wait for its February release to play it, and I’ll make do with my copy of Metro Redux to tide me over until then.

We did get to sample plenty of other titles, however, and as usual it was the Rezzed section where we found the true gems of the show. The standout for both Tim and I was Soundfall, a dungeon crawler set to awesomely catchy music where the objective wasn’t just to reach the exit before the song finished, but also to match attacks and other movements to the beat. Playable in single-player as well as co-op (how Tim and I played) it proved an immense challenge but hugely rewarding when we managed to sync up and fight monsters in unison.

Another gem was a game I enjoyed at Rezzed back in April. Dead End Job is a bright and cartoony romp where our hero Hector makes his living busting ghosts. Packed full of witty humour, sarcasm and atrocious puns (which are the best kind of puns) it’s a hugely enjoyable bit of harmless fun to laugh at. As Tim pointed out, it was a joy to play a genuinely funny game in a climate of serious, hard-hitting titles.

Tim’s choice for game-I-must-play-at-this-show was the much-anticipated Kingdom Hearts III. Despite me being as much of a Disney nut as he is I never managed to get on with the franchise, though I am tempted to dig out my PS2 and give the first one another bash. We both played the Toy Story level – the other one available was Hercules – and our resident aficionado reckoned it in some cases surpassed the Pixar original. He regretted spending too much of the allotted time watching the cutscenes, but the gameplay he did experience was “wonderfully fluid” and left him wanting to get right back into the action and immerse himself in the game’s wondrousness.

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It is not the Keyblade which is giant, is it Tim who is tiny

Having sold my soul to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, it was inevitable that we would queue for the demo of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, due for release on 5th October. I was afraid that it would be Origins 2.0, same game but different skins, and in a way… I was right. I did spend far too long on the conquest mission, where I was repeatedly killed in battle, as was Tim. We both came away somewhat frustrated, not just at being unable to beat enough enemies but at our own decision to stick with the one mission for far too long, thus leaving us feeling as though we hadn’t really experienced the demo at all. Much like Metro, the only thing we can do is wait for release and see if it lives up to expectations (especially mine).

From violence to catharsis: Beyond Blue. Developed in partnership with BBC’s Blue Planet, the game sees players controlling marine biologist Mirai as she swims through ocean biomes, studying marine life either first hand or using a small drone piloted from her submarine. It’s therapeutic, it’s relaxing, it’s a wonderful educational tool to teach the world about the marvels of the ocean and what lies beneath its surface.

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t spend as much time as I would’ve liked in the Nintendo area, seeing as how much I love my Switch (and the three games I have been able to afford for it so far!). With Diablo III: The Eternal Collection releasing soon for Switch I was particularly eager to play it, whilst Tim checked out Broken Sword 5 for a few minutes. I have to say that Diablo is a game which requires the Switch to be docked to the TV for the best experience. The world is so detailed, so intricate, and so very, very dark that it’s difficult to both see and appreciate on a six-inch screen; this is worse for me, being visually impaired.

Regardless of us feeling rushed off our feet by the end of day four, EGX this year felt a little empty. I attribute that in part to us not going to any of the talks or stopping by the live stage to watch some gameplay for instance. Deciding whether to sacrifice time on the show floor where one could be gaming – or stocking up on memes – to watch a developer session, or queue for a meet & greet is a hefty tradeoff, especially if there’s something one is itching to see.

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Disabled gamers’ charity SpecialEffect showcasing the EyeMine eye-tracking software

We both would have liked to have gone to see PlayStation Access’s Cyberpunk 2020 livestream on the Saturday evening, but Tim had to work that day and therefore missed the show and the opportunity to meet his favourite YouTubers – it didn’t feel right going without him. We did decide that maybe we’d try to catch them to say hi the following day but sadly, seeing as we had almost twice the amount to do on the Sunday, this didn’t come to pass either. It’s a shame too because I had chosen that day to wear my Outside Xbox t-shirt and I wanted to rock up and be like “hello, I come emblazoned with the merchandise of your frenemies!”

Because I’m the lamest person ever and in all of my twenty-five years I’ve never experienced a proper pinball machine, Tim had me testing my mettle at Iron Maiden pinball. I’m pleased to report that I don’t think I was terrible at it, although the ball did end up getting lost somewhere in the bowels of the machine, which brought my play session to an abrupt end. Considering I’ve only ever played good ol’ Windows space pinball (with its ear-bleeding SFX) I’m chuffed with the result.

Leaving at the end of day four was a relief. Our feet hurt, our legs ached, our eyes were heavy. And yet, as we stood in the mile-long queue for coffee at Starbucks before starting our journey back home, we started the countdown to Rezzed 2019. Indie titles blew us away this year, and we are very much looking forward to a whole event full of crazy creativity and passionate developers this coming April.

And now to sign off with the customary thanks; to EGX, to the devs and the publishers, to Tim who took it upon himself to drive to Birmingham and back, to the baristas at Starbucks who caffeinated us. To the Very Good Doggos who kept us safe and who absolutely need to be employee of the month, for all the months, forever. Thank you, and goodnight. We’ll see you again next year.

(I would like to request more dogs next year. Just, all the dogs. Dogs.)

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: Four Things I’d Like to See

Once I’d recovered from bursting into flames at the news of a new Creed game, I thought about all the awesomeness the game could include.

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The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been somewhat of a rollercoaster for Ubisoft. For the most part it’s a series that has seen great success, but also has a flop or two (I’m looking at you here, Unity). As a fiercely loyal and long-time devotee to this franchise I will defend it to the bitter end, but I also concede that it needed a hefty break, and then a reboot.

Thus, Assassin’s Creed Origins came along and blew the series out of the depths. Bursting onto the scene with its entirely reworked controls, RPG-style skill and weapon management options and one of the most harrowing stories in Assassin’s Creed history it has earned back a lot of respect for the series. With it being such a successful game, and rightfully so, it was inevitable for there to be another instalment of the series at some point, whether it was a sequel, an expansion such as Death of the Outsider was to Dishonored or a brand new story entirely.

Thanks to this leak, that new instalment has now been confirmed ahead of Ubisoft’s E3 press conference in a little under a fortnight; Ubisoft have now released an official teaser for the game.

Provided there are no additional leaks between now and the press conference, we’ll have to wait until 11th June for any solid details – I’m banking on a cinematic announcement trailer and an approximate release date at least. Until then all we can do is take what we do know and run with it: the game is called Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and it seems to take place in Ancient Greece.

How exactly this will fit into the timeline, I am not sure. The Ancient Greek civilisation ended when it fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BCE, which is a century before Bayek and Aya founded the Hidden Ones in 47 BCE. However, with the Order of the Ancients supposedly founded in 1334 BCE, during the late period of the Greek Bronze Age, it’s not unreasonable to assume the game might take place much earlier (although having said that, the use of the Spartan helmet suggests Sparta might play a prominent role, meaning the game would indeed take place from 800 BCE onwards). Irrespective of the Age, whichever form the Assassins take are likely to be similar to Bayek as a Medjay, total badasses but lacking the iconic hidden blade.

Whatever Ubisoft has decided, it’s certainly not going to stop me from speculating on details until the day it’s released and spouting nonsense about what I’d like to see, so here are four things I think would be damn awesome if they were to crop up in-game.

1. The Olympics

An undeniable gem of Origins is the gladiatorial arenas in Cyrene and Krokodilopolis, where players can pit Bayek against the arena bosses, or the relentless horde mode and kick some major Roman butt. Killing a dude three times your size with an axe thrown from the other side of the arena, all whilst breaking the neck of another other massive dude is hella fun, there’s no other way of putting it. So with Ancient Greece being the birthplace of the Olympic Games I think it would be an enjoyable side-activity for our hero to venture into the stadium and try his hand at the various events on offer. This may be slightly tricky, seeing as all athletes were stark naked throughout and so far the franchise has been careful to retain character modesty – Bayek’s bathhouse towel, anyone?

Nowadays Olympic sport is chock full of rules and regulations to ensure not only that the athletes play fair but also that they can participate safely. Although cheating was not condoned – cheaters were forced to pay for a statue of Zeus by way of punishment – there were no rules concerning safety. In sports like boxing or wrestling athletes routinely had their eyes gouged or were savagely bitten; boxing in particular allowed athletes to continue punching their opponent even after they’d been knocked out. Winners would be dressed with a wreath of leaves, something replicated when Athens hosted the modern Olympics in 2004, and would be welcomed home as a hero.

With combat and chariot racing already having appeared in Origins it wouldn’t be a tremendous surprise for them to reappear in the guise of the Olympics. Having a boxing event would mirror the brutality of the fight clubs of Syndicate, which stand out as one of the best side-activities available in the game. Personally I would love to see another opportunity for those sweet multi-kills to appear again, and this would definitely be it.

2.THIS. IS. SPARTA.

Thanks to Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (and later Zach Snyder) most of the world is familiar with a fictionalised version of the Battle of Thermopylae, where the 300 Spartans fight a heroic last stand against Xerxes’ 30,000 Persians. In reality the battle was fought between King Xerxes I of Persia and an alliance of Spartans and Greeks (among others) led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and whilst the last stand did contain those 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians remained at the very least.

It wouldn’t be the first time prominent battles have taken centre stage in the Assassin’s Creed universe, but the inclusion of this battle, fought in 480 BCE, would certainly make sense if Sparta does play an important role in the plot. The Templar Order’s reach has almost always been much greater than that of the Assassins, especially by the time we get into the modern day timeline, and having a heavily outnumbered Assassin army face off against a vast sea of Templars would be epic and befitting of the struggle the Brotherhood has always faced against an enemy much greater in numbers.

3. Mythology Galore

We all know at least a little Greek mythology, whether taught to us at school, discovered on a trip to a museum with family or learned via the humour of the Horrible Histories book series. Achilles, invulnerable after being dipped into the Styx as an infant with exception of the heel by which he was held; Heracles, the son of Zeus and gatekeeper of Olympus; even the Styx itself, the boundary river that the dead must cross to reach the Underworld, ruled by Hades.

Origins placed a lot of importance on Bayek’s belief in the Egyptian gods and the afterlife; I would expect Odyssey to do the same. The Greeks believed that at the point of death the soul separated from the body and arrived at the river Styx ready with a coin under the tongue to pay Charon, the Ferryman, to row them across the river – he would turn away souls that had not received a proper burial. Once at the entrance to Hades the Judges would decide where the soul would go: to Elysium, where the heroic and righteous lived a happy afterlife alongside those related to the gods; to the Asphodel Meadows, where normal souls who did not deserve damnation but hadn’t achieved greatness were sent to rest; to the Mourning Fields if the soul had wasted their life on unrequited love; to Tartarus if the soul was wicked and had earned eternal punishment.

To prevent the dead from leaving, the gates of Hades were guarded by Cerberus, the monstrous multiple-headed dog. Now, wouldn’t that be a helluva fight? Imagine that: your soul is trapped in Hades but you must escape, and to do so you might fight this monstrous beast that has many mouths with which you tear you in two.

With plenty of other mythological creatures and deities to choose from there are numerous other opportunities for the game to face the protagonist off against some otherworldly foe. I for one really enjoy the Trials of the Gods battles in Origins, with Anubis remaining my favourite, and it would be thrilling to have a similar set of battles in Odyssey, whether it’s against a Harpy or Hydra.

4. Stupid Freakin’ Trojans

One of the most famous tales to come out of Greek mythology is that of the Wooden Horse of Troy. After years of unsuccessful war with the Trojans, the Greeks hatched a plan to enter the city by constructing a giant wooden horse and hiding a select number of men inside and leaving it outside the city gates. The Greeks pretended to surrender and retreated; the Trojans, thinking the battle won, pulled the horse inside the city in victory. Overnight, the men hidden inside snuck out to open the gates for the Greek army and the city was invaded. (To be honest they were asking to be sieged: I mean if I found a giant wooden horse outside my front door I wouldn’t then wheel it into my flat! As Dave Lister says in S05E02 of Red Dwarf, “Are you telling me that not one single Trojan thought ‘hang on a minute, that’s a bit of a funny pressie? What’s wrong with a couple of hundred pairs of socks and some aftershave?’”)

As comical as it is to imagine forty men crammed inside a wooden horse, it would present a prime opportunity to weave in some direct Assassin-on-Templar action. Perhaps Troy is a city controlled by the Order of the Ancients and our protagonist is one of the Greeks inside the horse, ready to sneak his way past patrolling guards to open the gates before dramatically clashing swords with his foes. Or maybe the city is an Assassin stronghold about to be infiltrated by the Order and eliminated once and for all, giving the Order ultimate control over the land.

With the Trojan War coming to an end in 1180 BCE it would be fitting for it to be the latter, The Order of Ancients establishing their power by seizing an Assassin city. This also gives an exciting possibility: if Origins told of the birth of the Assassin Brotherhood, then perhaps Odyssey will tell of the birth of the Templars?

As previously stated this is pure waffly conjecture on my part, and I have to try to make sure I don’t get too excited for what might not come to pass. All I can do is what everyone else will now be doing: eagerly awaiting the impending announcement at E3. In the meantime, however, I’m going to locate a copy of Groovy Greeks and head to the British Museum for some important research!

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Game, Set, Match

The story of how one evening of badminton turned into the earth-shattering realisation of just how disabled I was.

If you were to ask me to state the most common question presented to me as a disabled person, I would answer with this: “How on Earth do you manage to do [insert activity here] when you’re registered blind?” Prepare my own meals, walk down the street, survive without being cared for every minute of the day. Regardless of what the activity is, the answer is really quite simple; I do it because I have to.

The primary reason for this questioning is because the asker has been faced with a situation that goes against the mould a disabled person should apparently fit into, something especially true for those of us without obvious impairments. The disabled are supposed to be utterly helpless nothings, burdens dependent on others for everything, wasting resources and causing familial pain. What we aren’t supposed to be are people capable of independent function, able to buy our own groceries, play sport or go to work. For far too many, anyone with a disability who isn’t a shut-in  is a lazy fraudster. We’re not allowed friends, or hobbies. We are disabled, therefore we are nobody. This attitude is a bitter pill for anyone to swallow, but for me, coming from a life where I didn’t feel disabled in the slightest, it was a difficult blow to be dealt. For me, it was a blow dealt in one single evening.

Even though it was six-and-a-half years ago now, I still remember it with crystal-clear clarity. It wasn’t after struggling through my last term of school and A2 exams with deteriorating vision, it wasn’t the first time I had to use my handheld magnifier in class, or the day my independent living coordinator from Action For Blind People came to my house to help me apply for Disability Living Allowance. It was in the sports hall at the University of Essex, on the night the taster session for the badminton society took place.

Anything that requires depth perception has always been a bit of a challenge for me. Maybe there is an advantage to being born blind in one eye in that you can’t miss what you’ve never had though, because I adapted. I don’t think I had exceptional trouble learning to catch a ball as a child, although I always struggled with sports like football or netball and you can forget field hockey or rounders, with a much smaller ball to hit.

Badminton was different. With it played indoors I didn’t have to deal with the glare of the sun glancing off the surface of a wet court. Even at speed the shuttlecock moved slower than a tennis ball, being lighter and launched over a much higher net. It did take a while before I could get underneath it for returns (up until then I simply returned with a backhand from about chest-height), but I discovered within the first session that I could accurately plot the trajectory of the shuttlecock and actually return it. Finally, after so many years of misery in PE lessons, I had found a sport my school offered that I was truly good at.

I never played competitively, only when it was offered during PE and occasionally at the school’s lunchtime club. In hindsight, I would do things differently: I would ask to join an actual club and play seriously, making the most of the time I had left. It will come as no surprise to say I leapt at the opportunity to join the badminton club at university, where I would be given the opportunity to seriously dedicate myself to training and represent the uni in tournaments.

Arriving at the taster session with a girl from the flat upstairs, I was excited and eager to show that I had some skill, however minimal. After a short introductory talk about the club and its training times, options for members and announcement of the committee we were given racquets and sorted into groups. With several years of casual experience, I chose the middle group, the group for those with a reasonable ability as opposed to complete beginners – perhaps if I had chosen the novice group, my experience may not have been quite as traumatic, but that’s water under the bridge now.

Our first activity was a simple round-robin volley. There was no competitiveness, no hostility if the shuttlecock touched the ground. We were repeatedly told that this wasn’t a tryout, that anyone could join the club and play for fun. This was something I was good at. I felt confident as I ran forwards when it was my turn, ready to return the shuttlecock.

And then it sailed past my face and landed at my feet.

I still remember how my blood ran cold, how time seemed to stop for a few seconds, how the same thought reverberated around my skull: ‘I can’t see it anymore, I can’t see it anymore’.

Thinking maybe it was just a fluke, I successfully served and ran to the other side of the net, hoping that perhaps it was simply because I was rusty; after all, I hadn’t played in quite some time. But it happened again, and again, and again. We moved on to other games, other activities, but all yielded the same result. By the end of the session, as we returned out racquets and meandered back to our halls, I hadn’t returned a single volley. I felt humiliated.

Locking myself in my room, I cried for hours. I had to take a long look at myself, realising with horror that I could no longer see the shuttlecock until it was too close, let alone try to plot where it was going. For the first time I had run up against a true barrier that my disability had thrown up. An activity I loved had been cruelly stripped away from me. When I got the email about joining from the president of the club, I bitterly deleted it and joined my flatmate at a different club instead (which I also had to leave because I wasn’t allowed to strain myself post-radiotherapy).

In the years since then, I’ve grown to understand myself and my own limitations a lot better, which in turn has allowed me to start testing them again. I’ve travelled fairly extensively. I’m dabbling in games journalism, reporting on a still very visual media. I’ve tried other sports such as figure skating (which I still do) and diving (which I do not). Snowboarding is the most recent and considering it has an excellent path for disabled athletes, it’s a sport I’m sticking with. I’m even interested in competing in boardercross in the future (RIP my bones, probably).

But, every now and again, I think back to one particular lunchtime at school. I was in Year Ten; it was ‘focus fortnight’, a two week period where the school would run workshops and pop-up club sessions around a central theme. The theme that year was ‘Healthy Living and Lifestyles’, with the workshops and clubs offering everything from special cookery classes to tasters for a variety of sports.

One of my favourite members of staff, my Year Nine science teacher Mrs Butcher, was running a lunchtime badminton club. This particular session clashed with a number of one-off and ultimately more popular activities so it was just me, a friend and one other person in the sports hall. I teamed up with Mrs Butcher and we spent the lunch period playing badminton, chatting about science and having a laugh. I felt so happy, so in my element, so free.

I truly love snowboarding, I truly love figure skating. But nothing can recapture how much I loved that one lunchtime in Year Ten, and nothing can sweeten the bitterness of that fateful taster session. But, it’s not all bad, because if you’d asked me then, on that day in 2011, ‘how on Earth do you manage to play badminton when you’re visually impaired’ my answer would’ve been a spat ‘well I CAN’T’ followed by tears. Now, in 2018, my answer would probably be something along the lines of ‘well I can’t play the way I used to, but I’m sure I’ll find a way around it.’

Whilst I have yet to pick up a badminton racquet and give the sport another try, my change of heart is a sign of true personal growth, of acceptance. It’s turning the ‘I do it because I have no other choice’ into ‘I face challenges that I rise to and aim to overcome’. I doubt I’ll ever reach the level of proficiency I was at previously, but I do hope one day to grace a court once more. And maybe, just maybe, I can even bring back a jot of that joy from that lunchtime session, so many moons ago.

EGX 2018 – Highights

A roundup of our favourites from a jam-packed EGX 2018.

This year’s EGX may not have boasted the AAA titles we were all hoping for, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t awesomeness to be found on the show floor. Honestly, the absence of games such as Anthem was probably a good thing. Instead of spending the entire event queueing, we instead got to play some gems, and we’ve highlighted our absolute favourites below.

  1. Soundfall

A beautiful fusion of two of the best things in life, Soundfall matches euphoric bass-heavy tunes to action-packed dungeon crawling in vivid, colourful top-down environments. If ever an entire videogame could be described as ‘catchy’, then this is it.

Created by veterans from Epic Games (the studio responsible for Fortnite), the game sees a young audiophile named Melody transported to the world of Symphonia, where a great darkness, Discord, threatens to destroy the realm. Not only is the aim to reach the exit of the dungeon before the song finishes, a task that’s surprisingly difficult, but players must also time movements precisely to the song’s beat. Doing so ensures attacks are at their strongest or traversal across certain spaces is possible. The challenge can be undertaken solo or with up to three co-op partners, and is highly addictive as the craving for perfection takes hold.

The satisfaction that accompanies achieving that 100% completion of a dungeon is insurmountable, even more so when shared with friends. There’s nothing quite like smashing your way to victory in perfect synchronicity.

  1. GRIP

Having played Rollcage back in the late nineties Tim was especially intrigued by GRIP. Much like Wipeout or F-Zero, its frantic, fast and frenetic races across bombastic circuits were arguably the greatest adrenaline rush available at EGX. We’re pretty sure that this game adversely affected our blood pressure as we each had a go, especially on the ‘wild’ engine power – this moves too fast for me to physically be able to process with only one functional eye, so I sat that out.

No race is unwinnable, with the chance of a monumental change in race position possible at every second. Players can start out in first place, crash and drop to tenth and crawl back to achieve a top three finish in the space of half a lap. This, in part, is one thing that sets GRIP apart from other racing games. Being good at this game isn’t an outright necessity, which gives those of us that love racers but suck terribly at them a chance. The handling is superb with tight and responsive controls, and the cars have definitive weight behind them, even when flipping spectacularly through the air (which happened a lot).

GRIP is due for release early November, and you can bet we’ll be picking up a copy.

  1. Dead End Job

If your dream job as a kid was to be a Ghostbuster then you’re in luck, because this is exactly what you’ll do when taking on this dead end job! (*tacky pun klaxon*).

With an art style heavily inspired by 90s cartoons such as Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants, twin-stick shooter Dead End Job brings a good dose of British sarcasm to delightfully smashable environments as Hector Plasm, Ghostbuster extraordinaire, sucks up the spooks from a variety of locations. The trick is to always keep moving: it’s too easy to get hemmed into the corner and ganged up on by ghosts, projectiles and ectoplasm. Hector can earn gear or ability upgrades as he’s promoted through the ranks, such as shoes that allow him to walk through ectoplasm without being slowed or better aim accuracy. Occasionally, Hector will have to fight more powerful (and pun-tastic) spooks such as the ZX Spectre, who have their own movement patterns and attacks to dodge. Much like Ghostbusters, Hector also puts every item he destroys on the invoice, encouraging players to literally destroy everything – sometimes there’s even cash inside boxes or desks!

Undeniably the best part is that finally, after so many years, players finally get the chance to beat up something so aggravating we all tore our hair out: Clippy the Microsoft Office Assistant.

  1. Catastronauts

AKA Overcooked: Space Edition But Without the Food.

What could be worse than being attacked whilst minding your own business as you’re venturing through outer space? Well, try having the enemy’s laser blasts putting cracks into your floors, them teleporting bombs into various rooms and maintaining the shockingly poor battery-life of your guns (whilst everything is probably on fire, including you). Oh, by the way, sometimes you might have to take refuge from massive solar flares (again, probably whilst you’re all on fire).

That’s exactly what we experienced when playing Catastronauts. Clearly inspired by the hectic hilarity of Overcooked, up to four players work cooperatively to maintain the ship while under attack. Much like its inspiration, many levels restrict player movement meaning objects like batteries or fire-extinguishers must be teleported from one side to the other. Presumably not repairing cracks causes decompression, though as our ship was usually destroyed by fire or flares first, we didn’t experience this. This game elicited the biggest laughs of the show for us, and is out now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, with a Switch release in the near future.

  1. Beyond Blue

Effectively meditation in gaming form, Beyond Blue takes the award for ‘most relaxing game at the show’. Swimming beneath the surface of several different oceanic biomes, marine biologist Mirai documents and observes sea life, namely a pod of sperm whales.

Beyond Blue is developed in partnership with the award-winning BBC documentary Blue Planet II, so the game feels a lot like a playable documentary. Even though there are more heart-pounding moments and encounters, players don’t have to worry about running out of oxygen and therefore suffocating in an underwater cave which takes much of the tension out of the experience. Sea creatures can be scanned to obtain information about them, from size and weight to their behaviour patterns. When it’s impractical for Mirai to reach locations herself, she retreats to her submarine and operates a stealthy drone instead, disguised as a sea creature.

This is a game that’s not a game, it’s a learning experience. It’s a chance to explore the oceans and celebrate the life within it whilst also raising a degree of awareness about how precious this life is. An educational tool that’s useable in schools is potentially in the pipeline, containing more unseen content from Blue Planet. We really hope this will become standard in school, seeing as gaming is such an interactive and immersive media.

  1. The Endless Mission

Without a doubt the most ambitious game at the show, The Endless Mission truly lives up to its name – this unfortunately makes the game unbelievably difficult to quickly summarise.

There is a story mode, where players explore the Terminal, a hub containing portals to different game genres. The demo contained real-time strategy (RTS) where players had to survive invasion by a zombie horde, a futuristic-looking kart racer and a platformer similar in aesthetic to Spyro. However, it’s the creation mode where the game’s ambition truly lies, and boy is it immense.

A barebones version of this creation mode was available in the demo, showing off the potential of the software but also sensibly restricting what was possible. Players could mash together aspects of the three levels available: to give an example, Tim played the kart racer but in the platforming level’s map, driving through the colourful volcanic island instead of the track. The parameters of each level is entirely customisable, so players can also do what Tim did in his RTS mashup and up the health and strength of his own side so as to bulldoze the opposition (it’s not cheating if the game mechanics literally allow it!) The final release will have the opportunity to modify everything. That’s no exaggeration.

Destined to snap at the heels of the Minecraft market, The Endless Mission celebrates total open creativity, with community-created levels to be shared and displayed in the Terminal’s ‘Hall of Celebration’. The Endless Mission truly left us reeling with its staggering potential for community driven creations, and the fostering of an interest in game development to boot.

  1. Kingdom Hearts III

After thirteen years of waiting, it’s finally here.

Beautiful beyond measure, Kingdom Hearts III is a graphical masterpiece, matching and often surpassing the visuals of Pixar movies past. This comes as no surprise, given that both companies have a reputation for exceptional visuals and top quality vocal performances (Final Fantasy X aside). Being able to play in the settings of our favourite Disney movies is inspiring, and running around Andy’s bedroom floor alongside Woody, Buzz, Rex and Hamm delighted our inner kid.

With a plot likely to be so convoluted it would make Hideo Kojima blush, Kingdom Hearts returns triumphantly to PS4 and Xbox One next year to confound and utterly delight us.

  1. Disco Elysium

Nihilistic, darkly hilarious and utterly compelling, Disco Elysium presents an alternative world that is difficult to describe, yet fantastically captivating.

Not-quite cyberpunk, not-quite noir, this RPG thriller has its policeman protagonist waking up from a drunken coma, with no memory at all of who he is, creating the perfect blank slate for the player – blank slate is somewhat literal, as the player can genuinely play through the story without any clothes on (Tim’s detective wore only one shoe, whereas when I played at Rezzed earlier this year, mine had no shirt). However, with a decomposing body hanging from a tree, the detective must team up with an officer from another precinct to solve the case and unravel the mysterious world he’s found himself in. To compound matters, the detective has his own mind and body to contend with as they provide a running commentary of what’s going on inside him.

A point-and-click RPG, Disco Elysium is beautifully presented on luscious pre-rendered backgrounds. Interaction with people and full exploration of environments is simple but incredibly in-depth, with important objects painfully easy to miss. Certain inquiries can also be failed if the relative trait is not high enough, such as empathy. These traits can be upgraded, but players can also choose an archetype to start with dependent on the type of personality they wish to foster.

Suffice it to say that this game is absorbing. After what felt like ten or fifteen minutes I looked at my phone to discover we missed our next appointment by half an hour, because that ‘fifteen minutes’ was actually one-and-a-half hours! The world, its characters and environments are so immersive that we totally lost track of time, and if that’s not the sign of an absolute winner then I don’t know what is.

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Recalling Memories Retold

On rare occasions a game comes out of the blue that completely floors you. This is one such game.

I will start and finish this article using the same phrase: 11-11: Memories Retold is the reason I love videogames.

On Monday 3rd September, my first official day as a games journalist, Mieke and I were lucky enough to get hands on with 11-11: Memories Retold at Bandai Namco HQ in London. I knew absolutely nothing about this game going in, and it completely blew me away.

Set during the First World War, 11-11 is a story of two individuals on opposite sides, each reluctantly thrust into war. Harry, a Canadian photographer voiced by Elijah Wood, and German zeppelin engineer Kurt, voiced by Sebastian Koch are drawn together as 11-11-18, when the Great War came to a close, approaches.

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Source: Bandai Namco

I’ve been gaming since the late eighties. A question that’s been on my mind of late is: “what makes a perfect game?” and 11-11 is a strong candidate to answer that question. Developed by Aardman Animations – of Wallace & Gromit fame – they truly understand the unique potential for storytelling that comes with an interactive medium.

Ultimately the reason I play games is immersive escapism. Being responsible for driving the narrative forward or, in some cases, actively shaping the narrative through gameplay-based decisions is where gaming trumps all other mediums. With books, movies or television the audience is merely a passive observer of events, but as gamers we become responsible for not just what is happening, but how it’s happening as well.

The ‘perfect’ game to me is one that understands that exclusive quality of the medium, where the focus on interactivity and immersion is first and foremost. 11-11 does this in a manner quite unlike any other. If you’ve ever wondered what an oil painting in motion looks like, then look no further.

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Source: Bandai Namco

At first, this totally original art direction threw me; everything looked blurred, with details deliberately out of focus. A few minutes of adjustment were all it took to settle in. This distinctive visual style not only singles the game out but serves a storytelling purpose as well. War is difficult to comprehend. It is overwhelming, terrifying and confusing, and that fact is reflected in a visual style that deliberately obscures details.

The sound design, too, is fantastic. The vocal performances are sincere and heartfelt, and the fact that an actual German plays a German character does not go amiss! The beautiful orchestral score and the often literally explosive soundscape all make for exceptional high quality, and an often harrowing experience.

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Source: Bandai Namco

I played this game for twenty minutes, and yet I am already fully invested in its world and its characters. Kurt, the German engineer, is compelled to go to war after he learns his young son is missing. Despite not being a father myself, I instantly felt an emotional attachment to his plight. Kurt is not a soldier; he is thrown into war because of the love he has for his son, hoping to find him.

Harry is an enthusiastic and naive young man, sold on the ‘adventure’ of photographing war. Very early on, he learns he was mistaken to believe the propaganda and promises of those who convinced him to risk his life photographing the battlegrounds.

After only twenty minutes with these two I absolutely need to see where their stories go and how they are connected.

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Source: Bandai Namco

Another important element of narrative-through-gameplay is that we don’t do what every war game has done thus far. We’re not soldiers here; this isn’t about killing the bad guys. We’re an engineer and a photographer, a father and a young man. We are not triumphant heroes or warriors. At one point we’re even a cat.

Yes, you read that right, 11-11 has you play as a cat (and how, I might add). This cat has the most cattish controls of any cat/cat-like character in gaming history. The animation and control scheme for the animal are *perfect*. This is genuinely difficult to admit as a dog lover, but this game really knows how to cat!

As for why we play as the feline? The developers have mentioned that it is important to offer a different – or rather, indifferent – perspective on human warfare. We’re set to play as other animals through the game too.

As promised, I will end how I began. 11-11: Memories Retold is the reason I love videogames. I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy and experience it in full.

11-11: Memories Untold has an initial release date of 9th November 2018, and will launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.

Post-gamescom with Bandai Namco

Hanging out at Bandai Namco’s head office and playing video games isn’t a bad way to spend a Monday, it turns out.

As desperate as I was to be there this year, gamescom 2018 just wasn’t a possibility. Sometimes the realities of life override the role I take as a member of the enthusiast press. This meant I spent a week bitterly scrolling social media, watching everyone have an awesome time whilst I was stuck in the UK.

Fortunately for me, Bandai Namco offered those of us who couldn’t make it to gamescom the chance to play the games available on the show floor in the tranquillity of their office in Richmond. I’ve actually already been to one of these press junkets approximately a year ago, but this was the first foray into games journalism for my ‘new hire’, Tim.

Sadly the giant Pacman machine that I set a high score on during my last visit wasn’t present. In its place was a delightfully macabre statue of a skull, promoting one of the eight games playable at the showcase, The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan. Incidentally this was the first game I played.

Coming from Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games, Man of Medan is the first of an anthology series titled The Dark Pictures. This reminds me a lot of a hidden object horror anthology series I used to play called Campfire Legends, so I’m hoping Dark Pictures will be just as enjoyable.

Man of Medan takes place on an abandoned ship which, as the protagonists discover, is filled with the undead. There wasn’t much by way of gameplay – it felt more like a tech demo than a game – but what the demo lacked in comparison to more action-heavy games, it certainly made up for in atmosphere. The groaning wreck is dark and eerie; the tight corridors are filled with rust and stagnant puddles and there’s an awesome sense of foreboding about what could be around the next corner. Tim experienced some texture issues, and we both felt the controls needed polishing, but our consensus is that this has the potential to be a fantastically terrifying game, reminiscent of old-school survival horror.

Having played it first, Tim described One Piece World Seeker as ‘Japanese AF’, which is a fairly apt description considering it’s based on the One Piece anime. Players assume the role of rubber-limbed Monkey D Luffy as he explores a colourful open world, an island ravaged by war. The art design reminded me in particular of Ni No Kuni, similarly bold and bright.

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Source: Bandai Namco

However, whilst the world is vast and interesting and the combat mechanics themselves are fun, the gameplay is repetitive and rapidly becomes a little tedious. What’s more, enemies respawn, meaning if you slip off a cliff and end up on the path below, you’ll have to fight the five guards you just defeated once again to reach the spot you were at previously. This, factored with the apparent inability to lock-on to enemies and the loose controls made what should have been an enjoyable experience an unnecessary annoyance. It was confirmed in an interview during gamescom that earned ability points could be used to upgrade existing abilities and unlock new ones, so hopefully this should take some of the monotony out of it, but with release not too far away it’s slightly worrying to feel like so much polish is still needed. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Next up for us both was 11-11: Memories Retold. Now, the only way I could accurately describe this to people if they hadn’t seen any promotional material would be to say it’s like playing an oil painting. The art style is so beautiful and unique that it’s impossible to fully appreciate if it’s not in motion; screenshots look like concept art. Whilst I did really love it, it was Tim who was truly blown away by 11-11 – to the point where he’s written an in-depth article about it –  and it’s easy to see why.

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Source: Bandai Namco

Set during World War One the game follows two concurrent storylines, flitting between each at various intervals. One story is that of Harry, a young photographer from Toronto, the other is that of Kurt, a worker in a zeppelin factory in Germany, both of whom end up serving in the trenches. Harry is tasked with photographing the war as experienced by a British Army general, and Kurt enlists in order to find his son after learning he is among several officers from his regiment listed as MIA. During an incredibly heart-pounding sequence, players take control of first Harry as he goes over the top and traverses No Man’s Land and then Kurt as he fetches ammunition and water for his fellow soldiers. With bullets flying left and right, Harry’s fear of death at the hands of the enemy is palpable, something which is taken up to eleven when he and Kurt find themselves in the tunnels beneath the trenches face-to-face. Suffice it to say we were both wide-eyed when we’d finished the demo.

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Source: Bandai Namco

Of the four games available on that particular machine, Twin Mirror was the one I saved for last. I’ve been intrigued ever since the trailer during Bandai Namco’s E3 presser. Developed by Life is Strange devs Dontnod Entertainment, Twin Mirror tells the story of Sam Higgs, one of the most unsympathetic protagonists we’ve ever played as. Waking up hungover in a hotel room, Sam tries to piece together his drunken night after discovering his bloodied shirt in the bathroom; he’s not bleeding, so whose blood is it?

In order to reconstruct his memory Sam must retreat into his mind palace where he constructs a sort of simulation he can manipulate. Options for his movements or interactions can be watched or altered, and players can shift into the real world to look for clues that might help him solve his mystery. Initially I couldn’t think of what the mind palace reminded me of aesthetically but I’ve now realised: it’s very reminiscent of the Void from Dishonored.

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Source: Bandai Namco

Tim wasn’t as gripped by Twin Mirror as I was, but colour us both intrigued. Sam is an unsympathetic drunk, who came face-to-face with a garishly-dressed double of himself. It’s clear he’s a figment of Sam’s imagination but is this because he’s simply insane, or does he have a split personality? Seeing as the double appears fairly prominently in the promotional artwork for the game I’ll hazard a guess he’s going to play a significant role. Maybe this will be another exploration of mental illness, continuing what is a growing trend. The first of three episodes is set to release next year.

Venturing back out into the main area Tim got a hold of Soulcalibur VI, only after I had displayed my immense lack of skill at fighting games by having Geralt of Rivia, this instalment’s guest character, repeatedly beaten up and booted out of the ring by Xianghua. I did, however, manage to win one round by blasting her with Igni and then subjecting her to the wrath of my sword, so at least I have that going for me. I am not ashamed to say I’m not a fan of fighting games purely because I suck at them, although for what my opinion would be worth, Geralt’s fighting style had been captured to a tee. It was genuinely as though he’d been plucked from The Witcher 3 and thrown into a ring. He is quite slow to move and attack, but deals hefty damage.

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Source: Bandai Namco

Decidedly more of a fighting game expert than me (and a long-time Soulcalibur fan), Tim made it his mission to play as every character on the roster by the end of the evening. He was very impressed with Grøh, one of two new characters introduced in VI, in particular his side kicks. In fact, he describes the animation and character design as ‘very cool’, and particularly enjoyed the new mechanic where time would slow to a crawl, broken by the first person who manages to block or attack (I don’t remember seeing this, but then I probably didn’t press the right buttons to trigger it).

Although we did play both playable missions for Ace Combat 7, we found ourselves bored by it. I played the VR build that was available the previous junket I attended and found it surprisingly enjoyable, despite my relative inability to use PSVR as a visually impaired person. Perhaps it’s a game that can only really be enjoyed when fully immersed, or perhaps it’s purely that it’s just not our cup of tea. Either way, it wasn’t a game we lingered on.

 

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Unlike me, Tim does not suck at Soulcalibur

Though we didn’t get a chance to play Jump Force as there were only two available machines, we did go head-to-head in My Hero One’s Justice – I politely declined Tim’s challenge of playing 1v1 in Soulcalibur because I knew I’d be beaten instantly and I’m a terrible loser.

Based on superhero manga/anime My Hero Academia, this is my kind of fighting game. It’s crazy, it’s zany, it’s bright and silly. Picking a main character and two sidekicks from the roster, players then brawl in a 3D environment that’s totally destructible. As in the source material, characters are Quirks, people born with superpowers. These powers can be utilised to great effect during fights which, combined with destructible environments is a recipe for pure fun and carnage. The visuals are incredibly bright and have a distinctly comic book feel which suits what I’ve seen of the source material perfectly – I am not the best person to talk about this, however. Tim, ever the serious martial artist, wasn’t particularly impressed with how silly it was and immediately voiced his preference for Soulcalibur and Tekken (I won almost every fight against him, which I’m sure had nothing to do with his comments whatsoever).

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Source: Bandai Namco

And just like that it was over all too soon, as is the case with any gaming event. We left with some stylish Twin Mirror postcards, buzzing with conversation about the past few hours (in Tim’s case this was mostly just 11-11). Thanks a lot to Bandai Namco for having us for the afternoon, for giving Tim his first taste of life as a games journalist, and for giving us so much awesome content to look forward to in the coming months.