Final Fantasy VII Remake – A Golden Shiny Wire of Hope

After playing the EGX 2019 demo, Tim weighs in on his most important upcoming release of 2020.

According to the saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it. Besides that being weird – cake is meant for eating after all – it seems Square Enix will not only let us eat cake, but they will continue to feed us more, and more, and more.

Excuse me whilst I sit down, and drink my goddamn tea.

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And just like that, a dream comes true.

Wow. Ok. Deep breaths. Where to start with this?

Final Fantasy VII is my favourite game of all time. It is a game that taught me the potential this medium had for storytelling and showed me that videogames could be so much more than just something you played to fill time.

This game changed my life. Never before had a videogame challenged me with complex themes, complex characters and the most evocative music I’d ever heard. This was not “press right to win” as I’d previously experienced in so many Mega Drive-era games. Here, I had to talk to people, learn their motivations and personalities. I had to explore in not only the physical sense, but also socially and emotionally – in game and in myself. The only thing that has ever captured my imagination like Final Fantasy VII was when my grandad introduced me to Star Wars as a young boy.

I remember everything about this game. Right down to the smell of the box. I’ve played it so many times that it’s one of the few games I feel I’ve truly mastered, yet replaying it never gets old for me.

As I type this, I’m still trying to process the sheer majesty of playing the demo at EGX 2019. I was shaking when I left that dangerously comfortable gaming chair, struggling to find words or process precisely what emotions I was experiencing.

Firstly, I think it goes without saying that having one of your favourite things ever remade is enough to leave anyone cautious. Mieke will testify that I’d essentially sealed myself in a little box of self-preservative denial regarding the remake, and with good reason. (Editor’s note: see? I told you it hadn’t been cancelled, but would you believe me? Like hell you would! *facepalm*)

Outside of wanting to protect my beloved FFVII from meddling harm, I needed to be real here too: Square Enix is a radically different company from the Squaresoft of 22 years ago. Hell, the gaming industry itself has changed drastically in that time. I didn’t want to get all wrapped up in hope and hype, only to be presented with a shameless cash-grab and a half-hearted effort to prettify a game that is so, so dear to me.

Final Fantasy XV was good, but not good enough considering how much time Square Enix took to deliver it after such a choppy development period. Frankly, the so-called final product at release was still incomplete. Many patches and DLCs later, and XV is almost the game they wanted to put out. However, no matter how much I may love the Chocobros, I have to concede it’s still a game that’s full of holes and, though I’ve not played it in full, I’m hearing similar disappointment levelled at Kingdom Hearts III. It seemed to me that the FFVII Remake could suffer a similar fate.

Forgive me for jumping the gun here, but if the E3 and TGS footage was anything to go by my skepticism was hugely misplaced. What I saw in both the trailers and gameplay reveals, was absolutely a labour of love for the development team. And now, having played the EGX demo, I can safely say that this goes so far above and beyond a new engine and better graphics.

FFVII always felt deep, deeper even than what we originally saw, and the remake brings that depth front and centre. From the interplay between Cloud and Barrett to the sheer bewildering scale of Midgar, what was implied and hinted at in 1997 is brought vividly to life and expanded upon further still.

It’s honestly hard for me not to gush here, to not be overwhelmed and blub about what a gift from the gods the remake appears to be. It’s not just a return to form; this is Final Fantasy VII as it’s meant to be. I’m in disbelief at the fact that I just typed that.

In terms of specifics, one of the things that impressed me most is how dangerously cool the combat system is. Combing both the traditional Active Time Battle for abilities, and real time attacks, the result is something completely unique. You’ll likely read and hear a lot of analogies, but I honestly don’t believe they fit. This is something altogether new and so, so much fun. This is not hack ‘n’ slash FFVII, strategic combat is an absolute must: timing and placement of specific attacks are critical. Proper execution of those attacks is intensely rewarding.

The cast of Final Fantasy VII always felt as though they were powerful but the combat here 100% empowers the player, making you feel the strength of Cloud and Barret through your controller whilst still offering a challenge. Mieke in particular noted the significant and satisfyingly different playstyles between the two characters. For my part, they felt right. Of course Barret is tank-y and bulky, heavy-hitting and aggressive, with Cloud coming in with swift, punchy sword swipes.

For my part, playing the battle against the Guard Scorpion – the Scorpion Sentinel as it’s now known – was a mixture of emotions I can’t quite put my finger on. Nostalgia, yes, but also excitement, trepidation, satisfaction and outright joy, experiencing my favourite game anew.

The demo itself was brief, but deeply atmospheric, stepping what may well be best foot forward for the remake, showcasing the phenomenal new combat system. It’s unlike anything I’ve played, yet it is precisely how modern Final Fantasy combat should be. I know I should be more eloquent than this, but it’s just so damn fun!

Final Fantasy VII Remake electrified me in the best way possible, surpassing my expectations and leaving me quite literally shaking. It might seem too early to call, but there’s a solid chance FFVII will be my favourite game of all time.

Again.

April the 10th 2020 cannot come soon enough.

REVIEW – AVICII: Invector

Hugely addictive and invigorating, yet tinged with a sadness at the loss that brought this game to fruition.

It’s always a good sign when you have to physically tear yourself away from a game in order to write a review on it. In fact, when I went to play it earlier in order to capture some extra screenshots for this article, I ended up playing for a good hour longer than I intended.

There was a time when the very mention of Avicii (aka Tim Bergling) was enough to make me roll my eyes and groan, thanks to a flatmate loving Levels so much that he played it on a loop for months, at full volume, with only Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO as an occasional reprieve. (I was in the room next door, so I almost went insane). I can’t say that I’ve developed any love for that particular track in the years since, but I am glad that Hey Brother brought me back into the fold.

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The triangular tunnel, this one in the forest world

My Spotify Wrapped for 2019 put Avicii at the number two spot on my list of most-streamed artists this year, and I’m pretty pleased with that. I already listened to him regularly, but playing Invector at EGX back in October had me ditching my usual playlists, and exclusively streaming my favourite tracks on my walks to the supermarket or on quiet afternoons.

I do want to avoid dwelling on the sad side of things, but it’s precisely the infectious feel-good vibes of Bergling’s music that makes the fact that Invector is a posthumous tribute all the more tragic. If there’s one thing this game does, and it does so many things so incredibly well, it’s that it illustrates just what a talent Berling possessed, and that the world is that much darker with him gone.

Dark, the game itself, certainly is not. Invector’s visuals are vivid and varied, with the songs divided into groups of four to five tracks, set in different environments, such as a forest or a valley. Players must clear each song in an environment to progress to the next one, with the final three tracks that take place in the ‘oblivion’ world unlocked upon completion of the game.

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In the city world, during free flight

Gameplay puts a nice spin onto what is a relatively simplistic formula. Instead of the usual ‘press the buttons when prompted as they reach the bottom of the track’ shtick, Invector puts players in the shoes of a spunky young woman piloting a small spacecraft flown over the button prompts, which vary dependent on difficulty level – easy had only L1, X and square, medium and hard introduced circle and triangle respectively. Additionally, players can move the ship side-to-side with the D-pad/thumbstick and – our personal favourite – shake the controller to activate a boost (this can be disabled, in which case L2/R2 can be used).

The difficulty curve is not to be taken lightly, as many of us discovered while playing the demo. I, like most seasoned rhythm game players, decided to jump in on the medium difficulty, because easy tends to be too little of a challenge. Within twenty seconds I had bailed because holy moly is it hard, at least in comparison to many of its peers. Even easy mode presents a meaty challenge, especially towards the end of the game. It really is a game where you have to start at the beginning and work your way up and whilst it can be unforgiving, it’s not unreasonable. Each song must be learned and practiced in order to be perfected, and the satisfaction of achieving a better score or getting a higher perfect streak is a hugely addictive reward.

Every song’s track is split into three sections: a flat track familiar to anyone who’s played Tap Tap Revenge or Guitar Hero, off-track segments where the ship can be flown freely into glowing orbs and a triangular tunnel. This tunnel is where things get funky; the directional prompts cause the ship to move onto the adjacent wall and the whole tunnel to roll with it. At speed, this effect is spectacular (if a little disorientating at times). It’s highly reminiscent of games such as WipeOut.

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Boosting doubles the score multiplier.

The similarity with WipeOut doesn’t end there though. Invector requires the same zen-like level of focus, where some parts of the brain have to be almost switched off entirely in order to not get overwhelmed (which is very easy, especially on the higher difficulties). The track and tunnel twist and turn, there are ‘jumps’ and the ship can crash into obstacles during the free-flight segments. With the boost active, things speed up even more, making some sections hair-raisingly fast.

At the end of each song the player is awarded a grade, in this case between S+ and F, and a percentage completion, with 75% being the minimum requirement to clear a song. Player scores are also ranked on a global leaderboard; I managed to make second place on two songs, so I’ll probably frame those screenshots for posterity. (Can I put that on my CV?)

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Second! (I’ve peaked, it’s all downhill from here)

Invector has something that so many games nowadays don’t: split-screen local multiplayer! Up to four people can cram onto the couch and play; Tim and I played it together and found it worked without any issue, although with both of us used to playing solo with headphones we found it a little trickier than single-player. Unlike single-player there is a ‘beginner’ difficulty which I think is fantastic: it allows players new to the game, or even the genre, to join in right away without being at too much of a disadvantage.

Honestly, we have virtually nothing negative to say about this game, and anything that’s not glowing praise comes down to minor gripes. My own annoyances boil down to slight accessibility issues: there is no ability to increase the opacity of the tunnel’s walls, or turn down the vividness/brightness of the background. This brightness can make it very difficult at times to see what’s coming next or to differentiate between the pink and red pickups (the shades are just a little too close to one another).

AVICII: Invector is not flawless, but its flaws are so minor that it might as well be. OK, some of the sequences seem impossible for anyone without freakishly fast reflexes, but there’s virtually nothing that can’t be achieved with simple diligence. The game is testing in the best possible way. It won’t induce a ragequit but instead spur the player on to try again, just one more time, one more go and you’ll smash that one section you’re struggling with.

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Needless to say, I missed that left turn.

Perhaps there is something to be found there between the lines, something deep and metaphorical about not giving up even when the challenge seems impossible. I choose to believe that’s true, and take that on board as something to bring out on my darkest days. I mean, hey: if I can manage to get 100% on that one song that’s kicking my ass, I can get through this rough patch, right?

Instead of ending on a joke or quip, I’ll end with a plea: if you are struggling with your mental health in any way, then please, please reach out and talk to somebody you trust. The world has lost a beautiful and artistic soul with Tim Bergling, let it not lose another one with yours.

AVICII: Invector is out now on Steam, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with all royalties being donated to the Tim Bergling Foundation.

EGX 2019: AKA That Time Where the Organisers SERIOUSLY Dropped the Ball (and Probably Don’t Care)

Now that I’ve recovered sufficiently from Expo Flu, I have the ability to put into words just everything EGX did wrong this year.

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I start with a question, an appeal almost, to Gamer Network: why? Why did you allow yourselves to be acquired by ReedPOP/Reed Exhibitions, a company known for its terrible convention practices? I obviously understand that these kinds of decisions aren’t done on a whim, but did you honestly do no research beforehand? Or was it a matter of crossing your fingers, hoping that those problems wouldn’t happen to you and signing on the dotted line?

I do want to preface the rest of this article by stipulating something very clearly: none of this has anything to do with the move to the ExCel from Birmingham’s NEC. This was a move that could’ve been incredibly successful had it been handled correctly, and had the show actually been planned more than what felt like a few weeks in advance. The ExCel is an excellent venue and, as a visually impaired person, I find it vastly more accessible thanks to it all being in one building with the halls clearly marked either side of a central boulevard.

There was an understandable amount of backlash from the moment EGX 2019 was announced due to its move south, but the terrible firefighting never really stopped from that moment forward. As the opening date grew uncomfortably close and the announcements still weren’t coming people began to fear the worst and for the most part, their fears were correct.

Honestly, I thought that it couldn’t be much worse than Rezzed and its seemingly non-existent organisation, but I was mistaken. Credit where credit is due: the few press releases I did receive were mailed out in reasonably good time, rather than three days before the event as was the case for Rezzed (thus, I got a couple dozen out-of-office replies when I tried to book slots). However, like Rezzed there were still an inordinate number of releases missing, despite devs having submitted their materials in sufficient time.

It started with a simple enquiry: did they receive my press ticket application, because I hadn’t had a confirmation email (they’re simply not sent anymore, which isn’t at all helpful).

In previous years when I’ve contacted EGX or Rezzed for any reason I would get a direct response from the relevant person/department within a day. The drop-down list on the form allowing people to select their type of enquiry is what presumably enabled said enquiries to be routed into the correct inbox. In fact, their press contacts used to be outstanding: I would often get responses to emails within the space of an hour or two.

Instead, and just like Rezzed in April of 2019, when I did receive my response from their general customer service, it was from ‘EGX18’.

I’m not sure this needs to be pointed out, but I will anyway. If you can’t even be bothered to change something as miniscule as one single number, it gives an immediate indication of just how little care and attention is now being given to something so fundamental.

From that day forward I received exactly the same copy-paste response every single time, which was in summary, “Thanks for your email, I’ve forwarded it to the press team, let me know if there’s anything more I can do.” To date, and today is Sunday 27th October, I have yet to receive any contact from the ‘press team’. During Rezzed I didn’t get contacted by the promised ‘show team’ either, although at least the person with whom I did correspond did sort out my queries in the end.

I only learned my application had been received once my ticket arrived. At no point was any enquiry met with a real answer, neither were my complaints at being left hanging. Tim was only accepted shortly before the event itself, with some people never even hearing back in time. 

Needless to say I was not excited at all for EGX once it rolled round. I didn’t book any appointments (beyond the slot already booked to watch the Cyberpunk 2077 presentation). I didn’t even sort out the shirts I was going to wear each day until Wednesday evening – this is normally something I’ve planned weeks in advance…because I’m a dork.

Despite arriving on day one at around 10am, we were told they had ‘run out’ of press badges (but not wristbands/lanyards) and when we asked about them again on Friday, that they wouldn’t be receiving any more. This left us with only the colour of our wristband to identify us to developers; we ended up having to reuse badges from previous years. (Judging by the number of silver EGX19 press badges visible on the show floor on Sat/Sun vs Thurs/Fri, this leads us both to believe we were lied to, at least about a new batch).

If that wasn’t aggravating enough, not only was the exact same lanyard available for purchase in the EGX merch store as well as a part of the free gift package given to Superpass holders, but it was also used for the orange ‘content creators’ badge round the necks of streamers (some of whom were sponsored to attend). This meant virtually anyone attending could be wearing it, rendering it useless as an identification tool.

By contrast, in 2017/18 the press lanyards issued had the word ‘PRESS’ printed onto them as well as being a different design to anything available as merchandise, meaning we were then instantly identifiable without anyone having to even look down to the badge.

Being lumped in with the general public’s entry queue was a problem we had to contend with at Rezzed this year too – previous years we’ve always been separated out – so I’ll address this firmly: a separate press/industry queue is a necessary accommodation. Devs/PR book appointments from 10am, so if we’re only allowed in once the show floor opens to the general public we’re automatically late. On the Saturday it took me six full minutes to make it inside, and I was fairly far forward in the crowd (because I can’t accurately call it a ‘queue’).

People are always going to be complaining about things that are unavoidable, such as the length of the queue for the most popular game of the show; a vendor running out of a particular piece of merchandise; the wifi being too slow. The most preposterous complaint I saw repeatedly throughout the run-up to the show was that there were no playable demos for games which have only just been announced and are still early in development. The point that I’m trying to make however, is that nothing I’ve been whinging about is unavoidable in the slightest, if only someone takes the time to demonstrate they care.

Going in, everyone knew that the show floor would be somewhat empty, aside from the Rezzed section – which was stellar, as per usual. OK, we weren’t totally bereft of AAA titles, but two of them were only presentations as opposed to playable demos. Microsoft were once again absent. Ubisoft were a conspicuous no-show (although given the recent announcement of their numerous delays, coupled with the disastrous release of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, perhaps this was for the best). Highly anticipated games shortly due for release, such as The Outer Worlds, weren’t present: I was really looking forward to trying before committing to buy.

Perhaps for me, one of the most glaring oversights was the total lack of a dedicated press/media lounge. The closest we could get would the ‘chillout zone’ but that’s not an area designed to be a workspace for people who want to sit and write, plan out content, or conduct interviews. It’s not as though the ExCel lacks the possibility.

All issues aside, we still had a great time! I think we both managed to tick off more games than we’ve ever managed to before, and still leave with a number we wanted to play. We caught ghost mice playing Cat out of the Casket; we hunted a killer in Murder at Malone Manor. We raced a humpback whale (a whale with a handbrake, no less) down a mountain in Tony Slopes, and attempted sick skate tricks as a budgie riding a tech deck in SkateBIRD.

If Tim had control over our highlights list, every single entry would simply state ‘Final Fantasy VII Remake’, because that was his must-play game of the show and the first game we headed to, and where the queues were longest (we waited about two hours I think). However, the implementation of virtual queues – something which worked well for DOOM: Eternal at gamescom it seemed – was rendered ineffectual by the fact that there was still a regular line, meaning people turned up to their slot to discover there was no space even with a good thirty monitors (approx).

Hopefully, this is not a reflection of how EGX is going to be handled from now on, and this is simply just a case of teething problems stemming from the first year at a new venue.  ReedPOP aren’t exactly a stranger to organising video game events, being the ones to run the PAX shows every year, so this is even more evidence of their total lack of care for this show.

Provided this article doesn’t get me put on some sort of ReedPOP blacklist, I’ll be at Rezzed in five months’ time. That’s more than enough time for everyone involved to pull their socks up and deliver not just what’s wanted, but what’s needed. I’ve never understood the counterproductive business model of cutting corners and lessening customer experience in the name of profit. Don’t get me wrong; there are viable ways to keep costs down whilst also providing high quality, but everything we experienced missed the mark by a mile.

I spoke to one indie dev who summed it up very nicely: he said it was great that members of the public got to come to events like EGX and play his game, road-test his demo and give him their feedback. However, it was the press/industry he deemed to be more important, and if the organiser alienates them by not bothering to cater to their needs sufficiently, then what hope do the tiny devs who rely on that media engagement have?

Time is ticking. Five months and counting. C’mon Reed, do your best to Make EGX Great Again!

 

 

 

26 Games for 26 Years – Part 1

For my birthday I decided to give a little insight into me as a gamer, and talk about some of my favourite games.

Today is my birthday. Since I’m turning twenty-six, I decided to list twenty-six of my favourite games and tell you why I love them. It wasn’t an easy task: I had almost fifty games on my shortlist when all was said and done, and paring it down didn’t prove to be a simple matter of elimination. It took a couple of days to arrive at twenty-six, though so many didn’t make the cut: Fallout 4, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Pokémon Sapphire. I suppose you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs though, right?

So off we go! For convenience I have split the list into two, stay tuned for part 2 (and thanks to the random number generator I used to generate the order!).

  1. Detroit: Become Human

I genuinely don’t believe I’ve ever been quite as emotionally destroyed by any form of media as I was by Detroit. I’ve always been one to become invested in an intense narrative, but this was something else. The story this game tells is a heavy-handed one, but not in a poorly-executed way. It’s a story that’s meant to rip out your heart and make you despair, spurred on by the outstanding performances of its stellar cast. The scariest part is that this is a glimpse into a future which isn’t wholly unrealistic, as we as a society move towards greater automation of the menial workforce. It may not break any ground in terms of gameplay mechanics but for me it doesn’t have to. As strange as it sounds, this game’s ability to have me weeping indiscriminately is more than enough for me to love it unconditionally.

Currently the digital deluxe edition of Detroit: Become Human is free on PS Plus, so definitely download it if you haven’t already! This edition also includes the digital soundtrack and artbook, themes and avatars and also the PS4 remaster of Heavy Rain.

  1. The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth +

As a kid who started her schooling in a Roman Catholic primary I’ve known the biblical story upon which this game is based from an early age. What the story doesn’t tell you is that Isaac was forced to traverse through procedurally-generated dungeons in his basement, fighting all manner of grotesque horrors with nothing but his tears, before finally facing his mother at the end of it all (if you even survive that long). It’s a game that’s punishingly difficult but still unrelentingly fun, due to its easy-to-grasp control scheme and simple, but gross, visuals. It is a lottery as to whether the dungeon layout and the items spawned will be beneficial but when they are, and you’re bulldozing your disgusting foes with ease, there’s no sense of achievement quite like it.

  1. Batman: Arkham Asylum

Whilst I won’t deny that Arkham City is the superior game in terms of gameplay – especially in the fluidity of the combat – it’s the first title of Rocksteady’s trilogy that has the superior storyline, atmosphere and setting. Arkham Island itself is eerie and foreboding, absolutely the last place you’d want to be sent for psychiatric care, and not just because The Joker set the straitjacketed lunatics from the Penitentiary loose from their cells. Danger lurks around every corner, usually in the form of Joker’s goons ready to try and beat you to a pulp – it never ends well for them. Asylum does an impeccable job at making you feel like the Batman, whether you’re gliding silently through the air to kick a thug in the head or using gadgets to find your way out of a jam. It scratches the itch that lives within us all: the opportunity to be a totally badass superhero for just one night, and it does that perfectly.

  1. Stardew Valley

When life gets me down, when adult responsibilities are overwhelming and when everything is just a little bit crud, I will fire up my Switch and launch Stardew Valley. It’s such a welcome change of pace, inhabiting a world where the most pressing concern is ensuring I milk my cows and get to the store in good time to restock my supply of kale seeds. There’s something so incredibly satisfying about cultivating your virtual farm, catching plenty of fish from the pier and maybe finding that special someone to marry. If only it really was that easy to breeze through life without a care, worrying about nothing but which town inhabitant I want to partner me at the annual Flower Dance. The way I see it is this: does it really matter that my own life might be falling apart when Dragon Roost Farm is thriving?

  1. Saints Row IV: Reelected

What’s not to love about a game wherein the opening mission involves the player disarming a nuclear missile in midair before crashing through the roof of the Oval Office and landing in the chair behind the POTUS’ desk, all to the tune of the timeless classic I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing? This game is utterly over-the-top and ridiculous, and that’s what makes it such a joy to play. Honestly, this made the list because it’s just a game that’s complete, unadulterated fun, a game in which the primary objective is to be a massive troll and mess with as many people, or aliens, as possible. With the iconic Dubstep Gun having your NPCs dancing in the street (quite literally) and the alien police turning up to shoot you if you get too rowdy, there’s nothing about this game that isn’t stupid and dumb, and that’s exactly why it’s earned a permanent place in my heart.

  1. South Park: The Stick of Truth

This is a game I didn’t expect to like. I like my fair share of gross, un-PC and offensive humour but I often find South Park a little too crude for my tastes. ‘Charming’ isn’t a term I’d usually associate with the show, but The Stick of Truth is just that, unerringly charming and packed full of sweet nostalgia. At its heart it’s a game about little kids playing make-believe in their gardens, and it’s impossible not to sit and remember the times that we did the very same as children. Of course, there is also a sequence that takes place exclusively up Mr Slave’s butt because it is still South Park after all. But the simple joy of winning a fight against kids dressed as elves using an axe made from a stop sign tied to a pool cue, healing yourself with crisps and being home in time for bed is innocently joyous, and reminds us all of a much simpler time of life.

  1. RiME
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The mysterious tower, ever-present in the distance

RiME holds the honour of being the very first game I ever reviewed. At the time, I thought it was a stunning and moving experience with a wonderfully emotive soundtrack, and whilst it definitely tugged at my heartstrings, it didn’t completely resonate with me. All of that praise is still true of course, but it’s also a deeply personal experience that can be altered by life experience, a story of loss and grief with a fair few gut punches for good measure. It’s always been a game I’ve loved based on the music and the visuals, and its relative simplicity: there is no dialogue, no walls of text giving you tips on what to do or how to play. Instead, you learn by exploration and a degree of trial and error. But playing it again after a recent death in the family is when I truly understood the story’s meaning, and what affirmed my love for it even more. It’s deeply bittersweet, but also a tool for healing, a way of ensuring we understand that grief is a process we all need to face, but as with all things it has an end if we can bring ourselves to let go.

  1. Thimbleweed Park

There were many point-and-clicks that could’ve made the list, such as the equally as zany and hilarious Day of the Tentacle. Ultimately, what won Thimbleweed a place on this list was how self-aware it is. It’s packed to the rafters with every trope and genre in-joke imaginable; my personal favourite is the specks of dust one can collect, and how characters will wonder why on earth they’re picking them up. It’s also wonderfully mysterious: the town of Thimbleweed Park is an unsettling place to be, but definitely not because the coroner, the sheriff and the hotel manager are absolutely not the same person (a-who). Thimbleweed is both a love-letter and a gentle spoof of an era-defining genre, a real nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up playing point-and-click adventure games but also a joy for newer players as well.

  1. Bioshock

Possibly one of the best games ever made, Bioshock ticks all the right boxes. Is it in a creepy, abandoned or isolated setting? Well, the city of Rapture is all of those things combined. Is it dark and twisted? Definitely! Does it involve awesome supernatural powers that I wish I possessed? Absolutely, because I have a list of people I would gladly set ablaze with the Incinerate plasmid. The final reveal was spoiled for me long before I got to actually play it – the hazard of being late into gaming – but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable to play the first time or the fiftieth. This game is dark and oppressive, filled with tension at every turn. Rapture is a beautiful and broken city, littered with the shadows of scientific achievement and the stench of death. It offers a delightfully visceral experience of the ruins of a lawless society, all with the ability to electrocute an enemy with a flick of the fingers, or summon a swarm of bees to attack them for you. Honestly, what’s not to love about that?

  1. Overcooked

From the horrific to the harebrained, we jump into the utterly ridiculous kitchens of Overcooked. Much like Bioshock this game includes fire, although this time it’s absolutely not intentional. This is because normally, frying a burger patty does not present much of a culinary challenge. Then again, most people aren’t trying to do it in a kitchen that consists of two lorry trailers that periodically separate, leaving the frying pans on one side and the chef on the other. It’s a game best enjoyed with friends, so you can cry with laughter together as you throw tomatoes around the place and yell, “But it was your job to get the fire extinguisher!”

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

If I was to cite any game as making me into a gamer, it would be this one. It’s the first game I ever really got absorbed into and to date my favourite entry in the Zelda franchise (remember the name of my Stardew farm?). There is so much to love about this game, from the cel-shaded graphics to the grandiose music as you sail the King of Red Lions across the sea in pursuit of your kidnapped sister. I was captivated from the first moment I played it; Outset Island was a tranquil haven I was sad to leave as I embarked on my great adventure but, much like Link, I soon found my stride as the mighty hero foretold in all the legends, even if that means we can’t also forget that bloody Tingle exists.

  1. Marvel’s Spider-Man

By now I genuinely believe that Spider-Man surpasses Arkham Asylum for the title of ‘best superhero game ever made’. It’s not unreasonable to call this game a complete masterpiece. Everything about it is superb; the story is superbly written and performed, swinging around Manhattan feels incredible and the combat is wonderfully slick and satisfying. This is one of the best incarnations of both Peter Parker and Spidey, right down to his flippant quips and trademark wit. There is truly nothing better than swooping in on a break-in in progress, sticking a brute of a thug upside down to the nearest wall and shooting him the finger guns as you swagger away, sirens in the distance.

  1. Portal 2

This one should’ve been obvious, given the name of this website. I love Portal as a universe for many reasons, though it’s difficult to single out any particular one. Is it because the portal gun is the coolest piece of tech ever? Or is it because the Aperture Science facility is run by the most passive-aggressive operating system on the planet? Perhaps it’s down to the fact that Aperture saw fit to name something as simple as a pressure pad the ‘Heavy-Duty Super Colliding Super Button’. Regardless of what the specific reason is, Portal 2 is a game I can come back to time and time again and never feel bored playing. I never tire of the test chambers; I never tire of GLaDOS’ wit. I never tire of Stephen Merchant’s wonderful portrayal of idiotic Wheatley. And most of all, I never tire of listening to Cave Johnson explain that for one particular test, subjects need to remember which skin is theirs so they can be stitched back into it at the end.

We’ve reached the end of part one! As I said, watch this space for part two as I continue to gush about my favourite games for no other reason than because I CAN!

 

E3 2019 – Bethesda Presser Highlights

What did Bethesda have to offer in this year’s E3 press brief?

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So here we are again, E3 2019. Of course, I am not writing this from the LA Convention Centre but rather from my sofa in drizzly England, where I’m watching the livestreams on YouTube. Honestly, I’m sorta glad I’m not in California, because the debacle that is me simultaneously trying to type these articles, take notes, watch the briefings and drink copious amounts of caffeine is not something I need to submit anyone else to.

With the Xbox briefing out of the way earlier this evening, it’s time for Bethesda’s offering. The disaster that was Fallout 76 is a dark cloud that continues to hang over their heads; Tim offered up that an apology should be one of the items of their briefing this year (it wasn’t).

In all seriousness, Bethesda had an awful lot to make up for this year and a spurned fanbase to win back. To his credit Todd Howard is a good sport about it all, but the dissatisfaction felt by fans is still ever-present. The studio’s gratitude to the community is apparent, but that doesn’t remove the bitter aftertaste of the game’s disastrous launch.

So, what pricked my ears during this year’s briefing, as someone who’s not really an Elder Scrolls fan? Trying to condense a packed briefing into anything resembling succinctness is difficult, but I’ve picked through my near-illegible notes to bring you a brief summary.

Fallout 76 – Year 2

Ah, Fallout 76. The multiplayer entry in the Fallout series absolutely nobody wanted, that released as a buggy, broken and unfinished mess. To be honest I think anything the studio does to salvage the situation is like putting a kiddie’s dinosaur plaster on a broken bone, but at least the content announced is free!

The Wastelanders expansion brings with it a new questline and stories to explore, but also brings human NPCs to West Virginia (finally!). Both this and Nuclear Winter, a 52-person battle royale mode wherein players vie for the role of Vault 51’s Overseer, are completely free. Also free is a week-long trial of the game, starting today. Bethesda clearly hope that these offerings will draw in droves of players, but honestly I’m not sure by how much the player-base will be expanding. Time will tell I guess.

GhostWire: Tokyo

When Shinji Mikami walks onstage you know you’re in for awesomeness, and boy howdy does GhostWire: Tokyo look ace. Instead of being Mikami’s lifeblood, survival horror, this is instead an action adventure game wherein we face paranormal evils in order to save the city of Tokyo. Presumably this is the same supernatural force that’s abducting Tokyo’s citizens, leaving only their clothes behind – or, sadly, a lone doggo. Why are they being taken? Where do they go? Who’s responsible? Most importantly, can you pet the pup? I have so many questions!

There’s precious little by way of information about this game thus far, but knowing its source we can be pretty sure we’re in for a terrific experience.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Sometimes all you want to do is pick up a gun and shoot some evil Nazis dead. Cyberpilot will let players fulfil their Nazi-killing fantasies in glorious VR. Youngblood lets us do it with a friend. Seeing as VR is more or less totally inaccessible to me, and as appealing as pretending to be a computer hacker in the French Resistance sounds like fun, I’ll keep my attention focused on the latter title.

Set in the 1980s, two decades after The New Colossus, Youngblood sees BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters, twins Jessica and Sophia, travel to Paris in search of their father whilst also aiding the Resistance in liberating the country from forty years of Nazi occupation. Taking control of either twin, players can either fly solo with an AI companion or be joined by a friend in co-op play.  Releasing on 26th July, we don’t have much longer to wait to kill some freaking Nazis.

Deathloop

I expected greatness from Arkane, being the colossal Dishonored fan that I am. In the glaring absence of any sort of addition to that particular franchise – excuse me whilst I cry – I can instead wait eagerly for Deathloop, which looks to be one hell of an experience.

Apparently combining a ‘mind-bending story’ with intricately designed levels and the ‘play your way’ style of gameplay we’ve come to expect from an Arkane game, Deathloop is set on the ‘lawless’ island of Blackreef and tells the tale of Colt and Juliana, two rival assassins stuck in an unrelenting cycle of death and apparent resurrection. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, or why, or how, but you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be there at launch to find out.

There you have it, BE3 over for another year. I’m somewhat undecided as to whether Bethesda have finished climbing out of the deep, Fallout 76-shaped hole they’ve been in since last year, but I’m choosing to remain optimistic. I just seriously hope that my optimism won’t turn out to be misplaced.

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.

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.