Get on with it

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood promotional artWhen Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was first announced, my reaction was one of suspicion. It’s not that the AC series hadn’t produced spinoffs before: there were two for the first game and one for the second already. And it’s not that I didn’t fully expect Ezio’s decision at the end of ACII to come back and bite him–or at least someone–in the rear end. However, ACB wasn’t a spinoff: it was a fully-fledged game giving Ezio more limelight than I thought he deserved. The fact that it also looked like a poorly-disguised vehicle for multiplayer didn’t help. All in all, it felt like an unnecessary filler episode.

KillchainJust to get this out of the way: I am not a multiplayer person. With some very rare exceptions, you’ll never see me advocating it. Blame it on my completionism, my non-competitiveness or my extensively exploratory gaming style, but there you have it. So all I know about ACB multiplayer is that you can play as a variety of Assassin types.

Back to the matter at hand. Despite my first impression, I did give single-player ACB its due. And well…it is a filler episode, there’s no way around that. But if you like Ezio, you’ll probably be glad that he gets more screentime. And if you don’t, there are other things that Friendly faceACB could reel you in with. For instance, it confirms a trend of memorable secondary characters. Our good old pal Leo is still there, even though his relevance to the main plot is greatly reduced; he’s only there to provide Ezio with gadgets (including parachutes) and some sidequests to destroy his war machines, which he doesn’t want used by the Templars. Additionally, the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC provides him with a lengthier side-story.

Other recurring faces include Caterina Sforza, whom Ezio gets to know a lot better, if you catch my drift, and the garrulous, yet sympathetic mercenary captain Bartolomeo d’Alviano, thanks to whom Ezio finds himself involved in a rather hilarious linguistic Nemesisepisode. But the main highlight of the cast is the main villain: Cesare Borgia, son of Rodrigo, ACII’s big bad. As Ezio, for some obscure reason, spared Rodrigo at the end of ACII, it’s only fair that his son should want payback. Let’s not mince words: Cesare is a colossal jerk. But he’s precisely one of those you love to hate. Flamboyant, petulant, arrogant and infinitely ambitious, he provides enough theatrics and cruelty to make you want to kick his butt. I may also rather like his dark looks…Anyway, no story about the Borgia would be complete without Lucrezia, Cesare’s infamous sister, and sure enough, she’s there, even though her role is less prominent than her sibling’s. And if you’re wondering whether the game upholds the historical rumours concerning the two, the answer is clearly ‘yes’.

When in RomeThe storyline I found to be distinctly weaker this time around. Ezio finds himself in Rome, trying to sap Cesare’s influence and put an end to the Borgias. And…that’s about it. You’ll spend 95% of the game in Rome; the rest is comprised of Desmond’s sequences, which are set in modern-day Monteriggioni, and some short secondary missions, which briefly take you back to Florence, Venice and other, hitherto unknown locations. I find this to be a distinct flaw: part of the appeal of the AC series so far, for me, has been the exploration of different cityscapes, so to be effectively limited to one city, no matter how large and varied, feels restrictive. Moreover, the plot casts Ezio in a rather poor light: he made a big mistake, and now he has to fix it, but considering the amount of faffing he gets up to once again, he doesn’t seem to be in too much hurry to do so. Then again, what are seven more years when you’ve already spent twenty doing who knows what, right?

ParatrooperCombat is virtually identical to ACII with some additional gadgets. Parachutes have already been mentioned, thus allowing Ezio to survive potentially lethal falls. Moreover, he now has poison darts, which spare him the trouble of walking up to guards to poison them, but also a crossbow, which has the advantage of a longer range over throwing knives and silence over the gun. What’s more, Ezio is now able to dual-wield, usually the gun alongside a sword. The most significant change, however, is the introduction of execution Learn it, love itstreaks. To wit: if you select a different enemy than the one Ezio is currently killing (it has to be in the middle of the killing animation), he’ll immediately kill him in one hit straight afterwards, and you can keep going until everyone’s dead. That is, provided you don’t get interrupted, as other enemies can attack you while you’re doing this. The key is pre-empting attacks by keeping an eye on their health bars. If one starts flashing, that enemy is about to attack, meaning that Ezio should target him next. It’s not always easy, but if you manage it, combat becomes a cakewalk. I’m not sure that’s an advantage, but there you have it. If you need practice, you have the Virtual Training Program, an upgrade to the Animus which allows Desmond to participate in a variety of simulations–both combat- and agility-related–as Ezio.

Gameplay also receives several noteworthy brushups. First of all, while Desmond simply had to perform a set goal during each of Altaïr’s and ACII Ezio’s memories, the new and The way you do the things you doupgraded Animus spices things up. Now, simply achieving the mission goal will only grant you 50% sync. If you want the full 100%, you’ll have to fulfil an additional requirement, such as completing the mission within a certain time, killing the target in a specific way or not falling into water (or some other equally arbitrary condition), presumably to do things exactly like Ezio did. I understand the developers’ desire to keep things challenging, but I found this change aggravating.

FireworksSecondly, instead of renovating Monteriggioni, you now renovate Rome. In order to start renovating a district, you have to free it from Borgia influence, which involves killing the local Templar captain, then setting fire to a lookout tower. You can then put shops back into business, renovate monuments (eg. the Coliseum) and sewer tunnels, which are a new addition to allow faster travel between the various districts, but also assign vacant buildings to various factions, thus strategically distributing groups of courtesans, mercenaries and thieves throughout the city. As if that weren’t enough, each faction now has a set of challenges Ezio can undertake (such as killing a certain number of guards with poison). There are various advantages to completing these (reduced hiring costs, new weapons), and they’re also needed for a trophy/achievement.

Have at them!Last but not least, the reason behind the game’s name: Assassin recruits. Partway through the storyline, Ezio will be able to help civilians being harassed by guards. In return, they will pledge themselves to the Assassin cause. Ezio can then send them on missions, which will gradually increase their rank. Mission difficulty is indicated by stars and a percentage of success. Obviously, you don’t want to send a fresh recruit on a 4-star mission: if they fail, they die, and you’ll have to recruit someone new. Recruits can be of either gender, depending on the location where you find them, and their names are randomised. You can change the colour of their outfits and, once they gain a level, Full-fledgedupgrade their weapons and armour. When they finally reach the rank of Assassin, you can travel back to the Assassin HQ to formally induct them into the Order via a ceremony. The advantages of recruits? Ezio can summon them in combat or have them unleash an arrow storm, which usually kills all soldiers in the immediate vicinity. Of course, this only makes fighting even easier…

Overall, I’d say that this game is a mixed bag at best. It does have its good moments, and after a while, you get into the old AC-swing of things. On the other hand, it also shows distinct signs of getting bogged down by bling. I was already concerned about excessive variety in ACII, and ACB only adds more chips to the pile. Ultimately, you’ll still wind up with a mountain of cash and a boatload of optional things to accomplish that make you lose track of the overall goal. On the other hand, if you just go for the overall goal with as few distractions as possible, you’d end up with a rather meagre story, more akin to a scraggly, underfed pony than a well-groomed, healthy purebred. Desmond’s plotline does get a rather shocking twist at the very end, but apart from that, it’s still as I kill you!dull as before and doesn’t help the rest of the game. I guess it’s not easy to deal with this sort of hybrid: crammed into ACII, the events would’ve felt inconsistent and tacked on. But, as a standalone game, it’s a bit too light, and, in the immortal words of Monty Python, I frequently found myself mentally telling Ezio to “get on with it”.

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Something like a phenomenon

The culprit: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation, PlayStation Network, PC)

Reviewing Final Fantasy VII is somewhat daunting, because of the enormous hype that surrounds this monolith of videogaming culture. The first Final Fantasy game to hit the PS, introducing cinematics and 3D, it’s unquestionably the most popular episode in the series and has achieved cult status, since it was many people’s first FF. If you want an indication of the scope of the phenomenon, try browsing an RPG-related forum, and you’re likely to encounter several screenname variations on either Cloud or Sephiroth. The other measure of the game’s popularity is the number of spinoffs it has generated: an OVA (Last Order), an animated film sequel (Advent Children), two prequels (Crisis Core and Before Crisis) and a spinoff sequel featuring what was originally an optional character (Dirge of Cerberus). I’m not even sure that the naming of these spinoffs was accidental (AC, BC, CC and DC? Come on…).

Claim to fameI won’t deny that the game has its merits: the characters are memorable (whether in a good or bad way), the villain has style and flair, the story is compelling and has little in common with preceding games in the series. Where FFVI only dabbled in steampunk, this one dabbles, dips and takes a belly-flop into it, transporting the series into a completely futuristic setting, with the heroes facing a radically different set of problems than in the previous opuses. There are still super-deformed sprites–which, incidentally, look like Legos, with their blocky hands and lack of noses–, but the characters also get the luxury of normally-sized incarnations during cinematic sequences and battles, thus taking expressiveness to a new level. Summoning sequences are also one of the big graphical highlights. Granted, by modern-day standards, the quality is very dated, but you can imagine just how awesome it must have seemed back when the game first came out.

That being said, I’m one of those people that have always felt that FFVII was absurdly overrated. Yes, it’s a very good game; yes, I would gladly replay it anytime, but it’s been blown out of all proportion. Some fans would have you believe that it’s the ultimate masterpiece of videogaming: well…it isn’t. I don’t even number it among my top five games in the series. And even objectively speaking, there have since been better, more innovative and interesting games in general, whether in terms of storyline, characterisation or atmosphere (I won’t say graphics, because that’s not a fair criterion). First of all, the ending is seriously underwhelming. This may be one of the driving reasons behind the spinoffs (besides the desire to milk fans for cash capitalise on the game’s popularity), but you may be left wondering “was that really it?” Secondly, a sizeable chunk of the cast consists of characters I strongly dislike, which makes it a little difficult for me to empathise with them. Thirdly, the driving idea behind the storyline may be a good one, but the execution is somewhat…lacking in places, and the tone of the game is sometimes almost jarringly goofy. Mind you, I’m judging this by juxtaposition with the hype FFVII has generated: had we simply been talking about a ‘normal’ game, I wouldn’t be that bothered by it. And last, but not least, the translation is not up to scratch in some places. There are mistakes, inconsistencies, and let me insist how lucky you are if you’ve only played this in English. My first copy of the game was in French, and boy, was that ten times worse.

FFVII has never been remade, much to the dismay of fanboys and fangirls the world over. However, if you own a PS or a PC, the original game is freely accessible–although PS copies are probably rather expensive now–, and there are plenty of good reasons why you should give it a go if you haven’t already, even if it’s just to see what all the fuss is about. Just don’t expect a life-altering experience, that’s all I’m saying.

 Detailed review available! Read more here.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.

A hard nut to crack

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate + Tales of the Sword Coast (PC, Mac)

Under a blood-red skyIf you’re a fan of RPGs in general, and WRPGs in particular, you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate. Even more than a decade after its release, this game is still considered a milestone for the genre, despite the dated graphics, the perfunctory voice acting and the staggeringly complex combat system. There’s even an Enhanced Edition currently in the works. Baldur’s Gate was also responsible for propelling its developer, the Canadian studio BioWare, to fame, establishing it as one of the most successful WRPG creators for years to come. And while they’ve recently suffered a massive decline in quality, this game was made back in their glory days.I won’t lie: it takes some getting used to. It has quite a few flaws and kinks, some very annoying, some only mildly aggravating, and a modern-day player, used to shiny graphics, fully-voiced dialogue, speed and streamlined combat mechanics, might find it difficult to like. Still, if you can get past its shortcomings, there’s also a lot of great stuff, particularly if you consider the saga as a whole. Kind of like a nut: you have to crack the shell first to get to the good part, but that good part is what you remember afterwards. The game is vast, detailed, involved and Verbosenot afraid to take its time (sometimes excessively). It features extensive dialogue, a very large cast of characters which includes some truly memorable individuals (something BioWare is renowned for and still does well) and a compelling storyline. It’s biased towards male players, as all games used to be back in the day, but that’s hardly a shocker and doesn’t really prevent it from being enjoyable.

The main difference between JRPGs and WRPGs is the latter’s emphasis on choice, which is abundantly present here. The protagonist is essentially a blank slate for you, All hail Tolkienthe player, to customise to your heart’s content, and, for someone used to JRPGs as I was, this kind of freedom is genuinely a breath of fresh air. Baldur’s Gate is as typical as WRPGs get, being based on a pre-existing high fantasy setting (i.e. a medieval environment, abundant borrowing from Tolkien–elves, dwarves, halflings, the whole nine yards–, and a pantheon of deities who actively influence the lives of their worshippers), the Forgotten Realms, which had previously been featured in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games and several books. While it creates some continuity issues with the latter, they are not necessary to understand the game’s premise, and you can perfectly well head into it without ever having heard of the Realms before. The one big hurdle to leap is understanding the combat system, but you don’t necessarily need to master all its intricacies to have a working grasp on things.

PC games have this advantage over their console counterparts that they are much more open to player involvement. By that, I mean modding: various and sundry additions, written and implemented by players themselves. This can range from bug fixing, to restoring cut content, tweaking the combat system, adding customised weapons and armour, or even creating entirely new quests and characters. As luck would have it, the Baldur’s Gate modding community is still very active, even after all this time, and the game is thus blessed with an extensive array of goodies to pick from to improve your experience. Some of them–specifically, the ones that fix bugs and rebalance the game–are pretty much indispensable. Others are so well-written that I couldn’t imagine playing the game without them. This isn’t to disparage the original developers’ efforts–which, after all, have resulted in a game that people still want to play after more than ten years–, but many dedicated modders have produced amazing things. In the end, this makes Baldur’s Gate an impressive collaborative venture: a game which is only further enriched by its audience. And that is an undeniable quality.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Be very afraid of the dark

The culprit: Amnesia: The Dark Descent + Justine (PC, Mac)

Dracula would love this placeYou who are faint of heart, stop reading now. I thought that Penumbra was a strong contender for the top spot on my horror list, but Frictional Games have since outdone themselves and produced Amnesia, premium quality, high-octane nightmare fuel. Taking a common plot device (amnesia) and running away with it (into a dark wood) has never been so effective, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the scariest game I have played to date. People–and the game itself, in fact–will tell you to play at night with the lights off. Well, even with the lights on, I was still terrified. Heck, to this day, I can’t look at a picture of a Grunt for more than a few seconds without wincing.

Everything that Penumbra did right is reused and amplified in this game, from lack of combat to unreliable perception. The interface is largely Carpet needs cleaningthe same (first-person view, hand cursor and physics engine), as is the menu. The game is set in XIXth century Prussia, in the foreboding Brennenburg Castle, situated in the middle of a forest. You are put in the shoes of Daniel, a young Englishman, who wakes up, confused and disoriented somewhere in the building. He can barely remember his name, and yet he must make sense of both his surroundings, which are anything but reassuring or safe, and his situation, which is downright horrifying. You discover snippets of Daniel’s history from short texts on loading screens, but also through flashbacks, letters and diary entries strewn throughout the castle…which he has left for himself. Apparently, his amnesia is self-inflicted and voluntary, and if you’re wondering what could possibly have driven him to such an action, well…play and find out. I’ll just say that he was involved in an ill-fated archaeological expedition, and it was all downhill from there.

Worse for wearDaniel is one of the game’s best assets, as a channel for fear, because saying that he has a fragile psyche is an understatement. Philip, his predecessor from Penumbra, could panic if staring directly at an enemy for a prolonged period of time. But compared to Dan, that makes him a paragon of stoicism. And where Phil was a gasper, Dan’s a professional whimperer. He whimpers like a boss. This is especially striking when compared to his normal, somewhat gruff baritone, showcasing just how much of a wreck he has become. Dan’s other defining characteristic is his severe nyctophobia. Just walk him through a dark corridor, and you’ll see what I mean. The screen will start distorting and blurring, and you’ll hear the unnerving sound of grinding teeth. Should he remain without a light source for long enough or witness one horrifying event too many, hallucinations­ may kick in. Those could be bugs crawling across the screen, imaginary corpses or a portrait distorting into a nightmarish vision (this is a particularly nasty one). That, or he will start talking to himself. This is a system most likely inspired by Eternal Just how mad are you?Darkness: besides his health meter (indicated by a human heart on the menu screen), Dan also has a sanity meter (indicated by a brain and spinal cord). You can increase it by solving puzzles or stabilise it by staying in the light, but its natural state, so to speak, is a steady downward curve. Should it ever deplete completely, Dan will collapse on the floor in a gibbering mess for a few seconds, before getting back up with a hit to his health. The problem is that if this happens when an enemy is nearby, he might as well be blowing a foghorn.

To make matters worse, since Dan can’t fight, his only recourse when faced with a hostile is to cower in a dark corner until it lumbers away. Except that, with his condition, you’d better hope that it happens quickly. This makes for some particularly tense moments, and a crucial issue in the game is balancing the amount of ambient light: enough to keep Dan decently lucid, but not enough to make him a sitting duck. This is compounded with the fact that both of his Feeble lightlight sources are limited. Where Phil had his trusty, inexhaustible glowstick, Dan has an oil lantern–and available oil refills are scant at best–and some tinderboxes, which he can use to light candles or torches. The other commodity in short supply are laudanum vials, which are used to recover health. Another clue, if you needed any, that you need to avoid damage as much as possible.

SilhouetteEnemies…oh god. The most common type–and, unfortunately for me, the one I find scariest–is the Grunt. Affectionately dubbed ‘Mr.Face’ by the fanbase. This should clue you in as to the most distinctive part of its anatomy. And I’ll leave it at that. If you want a clearer image (think very carefully before deciding), look here. I just don’t want this thing staring back at me every time I look at this review. *shudders* Although your mileage may vary: some people find the Brute, which shows up in later levels, scarier. It’s certainly more deadly, as it will usually down Dan in one hit, whereas he can weather Wet footstepsa couple of Grunt slashes. The third enemy goes by the uncouth moniker of ‘Kaernk’ and…it’s invisible. To some, that’s even more terrifying than visible monstrosities. Fortunately, it’s the rarest enemy of the three. Unfortunately, the sequences involving it are pretty harrowing. There’s one other hostile out for Dan’s blood, but I’ll leave you to experience that one for yourself.

There are three endings to the game, and while one of them is indisputably bad, it’s a toss-up as to which of the other two is the best. Up to you to make up your mind, but there’s certainly food for thought involved. The other positive aspects are the graphics and the music, composed by Mikko Tarmia, who already worked on Penumbra. Where Safe for nowthe former game had that gritty, semi-industrial feel to it, Amnesia is unabashedly baroque, with wooden furniture, thick red curtains and carpets, and old stones dimly lit by flickering candlelight. An old castle is a perfect setting for horror, and Amnesia  is more pleasing to the eye than its predecessor. Especially the Back Hall…at first. The Back Hall also features my favourite piece from the game’s soundtrack, a surprisingly calm, solemn and soothing track, which contributes to giving the place a temporary aura of safety. The rest of the soundtrack is none too shabby either, successfully upholding a creepy, gloomy atmosphere, with some disturbing sound effects interspersed with the music.

Several months after the release of the game, an expansion titled Justine saw the light of day. While it’s also set in the XIXth century, it bears no relation to Daniel’s story (or a very tenuous one), and features a different protagonist–amnesia being the only common characteristic–and a very different perspective on things. The goal She's got a plan for youthis time is to find a way through a series of psychological ‘tests’, set up by Justine, a French noblewoman, who is a sadistic sociopath (it’s no wonder she’s named after a book by Sade). You find yourself in her Cabinet of Perturbation, and she guides you through a series of phonograph recordings she has left behind. It’s a shorter experience than Amnesia, but no less intense. There’s still no combat and only three enemies, but they all used to be Justine’s suitors…before she decided to experiment on them: Aloïs, the tennis player, Basile, the carpenter, and Malo, the violinist. Each represents a different kind of ‘love’ and exhibits the corresponding personality: Aloïs is needy and devoted, Basile is rough and abusive, and Malo is passionate and…well, insane. And if I were in their shoes, I’d swear bloody revenge on Justine as well.

No guardian angelJustine is also made significantly dicier by the inability to save. Your character dies, you start over from the beginning. And considering that there is an excruciatingly difficult chase sequence towards the end, the likelihood of having to start over is a very real one. So if you become frustrated after being repeatedly mauled, like I did, you may consider installing a mod which implements saving, fittingly titled “Softcore Justine”. This problem aside, I did enjoy this storyline for its difference in tone. It even has a chilling twist ending. Special commendation goes to the profoundly unsettling messages on the wall of the mazelike Crypt corridors (“death shall move across the floor”Writing on the wall gave me a hearty wave of goosebumps) and to the adrenaline-charged music which plays when a Suitor gives chase. Still gives me a jolt when I hear it.

Into the darknessAll in all, Amnesia is a heck of an experience. There is room for improvement, such as randomising enemy encounters, which are currently scripted and therefore lose some impact after the first playthrough, but don’t let that deter you. It would just be the cherry on top of a deliciously terrifying cake. If I had to recommend one horror game above all others, this would be it. But I decline all responsibility for any involuntary yelps, screams, nightmares or sudden trips to a different room which may ensue.

High-speed stunts and fictitious pastries

The culprit: Portal (PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Whee!Sleeper hits are great. Not only are they a proof of inventiveness from game developers, who, despite not banking on commercial success, decide to try something new, but also a testimony to the players’ curiosity. In short: think outside the box, play outside the box. That’s how innovations occur.

Portal was just one such sleeper hit. Released as part of The Orange Box package by Valve, it is set in the same universe as the Half-Life series, at some point in time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. However, it’s not required to have played either one of those. Portal is a largely self-contained experience and works perfectly fine on its own. You’ll probably miss some references, but it’s nothing dramatic.

She never agreed to thisThe premise is a simple one: you are put in the metaphorical shoes (she’s actually barefoot, with only some leg springs for support) of Chell, a young woman who somehow ended up as a test subject in a strange facility named Aperture Science, all glass walls and pristine white surfaces. She is awoken by a robotic female voice, an AI which identifies herself as GLaDOS, and informs her that she must make her way through a series of test chambers, to ultimately be rewarded with “cake and grief counselling”. She then proceeds to instruct and advise her on getting through the tests…in her own way.

Open doorsChell’s available commands are pretty basic: she can crouch, jump, pick up objects or press switches. However, the core of the gameplay is the clever use of portals: oval-shaped holes which can be created on almost any flat surface with the help of a portal gun (or Handheld Portal Device), which Chell acquires a couple of rooms in. There are two types of portals: a blue one (primary) and an orange one (secondary). Chell can freely pass between them and reposition them at will, and if they’re not situated on the same plane, she’ll be reoriented head up in relation to the gravity upon exiting. The only thing she can’t do is fire a portal through another portal. The idea is straightforward, but the possibilities are endless, allowing for creative use of space to resolve what may at first appear to be impossible conundrums. You could have her put a portal on a wall and one on a ceiling through the door of a different room, for example. And don’t worry about falling from too high: as long as it’s a floor Chell is landing on, the leg springs will take care of it. This is a wonderfully adaptive system, and it wasn’t long before I found myself ‘thinking with portals’, as the advertising for the game puts it, and hopping my way through the various rooms with relative ease. I say ‘relative’ because, while it may be easy to figure out the principle behind a certain puzzle, the execution may require some fine-tuning, as well as some top-notch reflexes.

Let's see you figure this outOf course, if that’s all there was to it, the game would be too easy. So it also presents Chell with impediments, such as moving platforms, timed switches, pools of acid, High Energy Pellets, which she’ll need to redirect, or Material Emancipation Grills, which will not only vaporise any solid object that’s not the portal gun (although they have also been known to ‘emancipate’ fillings and teeth…), but also reset any previously placed portals. Chell will also encounter sentry turrets, which, despite greeting her in disarmingly polite, childish-sounding voices (“hello, friend”) will attempt to shoot her on sight, intoning guilt-inducing messages such as “I don’t hate you” or “no hard feelings” when she destroys them. To counteract all these obstacles, Chell only The one and onlyhas her wits, her portal gun and Weighted Storage Cubes. These are…well, exactly what the description says: large cubes meant to be used as props for solving puzzles (usually by being placed on switches). Although one of them, the Companion Cube, designated by a large pink heart drawn on each of its sides, may come to hold a special place in Chell’s tribulations.

Are you still there?Portal’s other major distinguishing feature is the delightfully quirky black humour pervading the game, the great majority of which is dispensed by GLaDOS, who also sings during the ending credits. On the surface, it sounds like she’s providing helpful advice. However, when you hear things like “while safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals, the Aperture Science High-Energy Pellets seen to the left of the chamber can and have caused permanent disabilities, such as vaporisation”, you may very well start asking yourself questions. This, alongside the friendly killer turrets, the sometimes less-than-reassuring instruction diagrams found at the beginning of each test chamber as well as the strange scribblings which start to crop up in hidden nooks towards the end of the game, all ends up creating a unique blend of the worrying and the hilarious.

The main portion of the storyline is fairly easily cleared, once you get the hang of the portal mechanics. However, you also have access to the Advanced Chambers and the Challenge Mode under the Bonus Maps heading of the main menu. The former are chambers 13 to 18 from the main game, redesigned to be more difficult. The Challenge Mode takes place in those same chambers (now identical to the main game), except with one of three restrictions: clear the chamber placing the least You take the cake!portals, taking the least steps or the least time. Each chamber has its own set limit for each of these categories (represented by a cake on the tally screen), reaching or beating which will grant you a gold medal. There are also limits for the silver medal and the bronze medal. And, of course, there are achievements/trophies involved. By order of difficulty, I’d say the “least portals” challenges are the easiest, while the “least time” ones are–and by far–the hardest, especially for people playing on a console. Moreover, folks on the Xbox 360 actually got their own version of the game, called Portal: Still Alive, which contains a whopping 14 additional test chambers.

Ad infinitumAll in all, Portal is great fun. However, for the sake of providing some criticism, I must say that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. There is an interesting backstory to the game (which has since been explored in a comic entitled Lab Rat and in the sequel, Portal 2), and GLaDOS may be a wellspring of repartee, but this can only go so far when, in point of fact, you’re being made to do the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, the game is rather short, so you won’t have time to get bored on your first time through. It does, however, mean that it suffers in the replayability department, since, apart from collecting hidden radios, it’s the same old show. Still, I won’t be a party-pooper: in spite of this, Portal remains one of the most original games released in the past decade, and the premise behind it is Mmm, cake...wonderfully inventive. GLaDOS has become a fan-favourite (for good reason), and chances are you’ve encountered the “cake is a lie” meme somewhere at least once. In short, give it a try. It’s a blast. Oh, and did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls?

Somewhere beyond the sea

The culprit: Bioshock (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

I’m not usually a big fan of shooters. For me, an enjoyable game includes at least one of three things: a solid storyline, well-developed characters or a unique atmosphere, none of which tend to be a shooter’s strong point. Besides, blowing up heads isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Still, I’d heard enough praise for Bioshock that I became curious and decided to give it a shot (pun fully intended). It’s an FPS alright, and a pretty violent one at that. But it does have two of the aforementioned things: an elaborate storyline and a captivating atmosphere.

UnderlitThe game takes place in 1960. You control Jack, a bloke on a transatlantic flight, which, as his luck would have it, crashes. He comes to in the middle of the ocean, the only survivor of the catastrophe, and realises that there’s a lighthouse nearby (yes, in the middle of the ocean). Inside, he finds a bathysphere which takes him to an underwater metropolis called Rapture. As he gradually discovers through various recordings left behind, the city was founded in secret after WWII on the principle of free enterprise by a guy called Andrew Ryan, who got fed up with both capitalism and communism. So he gathered the best and brightest in all domains, and gave them free rein to create and innovate. Around 1950, a substance named ADAM was discovered, allowing for selective rewriting of a person’s genetic code, ranging from regenerative properties, to cosmetic enhancements, to being able to shoot fireballs. It was produced in small quantities by a sea slug, but implanting said slug into human hosts (specifically, little girls) dramatically increased the yield. This led to the creation of Little Sisters: girls ‘repurposed’ to produce ADAM. The problem was that ADAM abuse caused dependence, mental damage and severe physical deformities, gradually Unlikely paircreating a violent substrate of the population (Splicers) which fought over it. Eventually, Little Sisters were sent to gather ADAM from their corpses, but since that exposed them to attack, Big Daddies were created: heavily altered human beings, mentally conditioned to protect the girls with their lives. However, this didn’t prevent civil war, which erupted in 1959, and Rapture, as Jack finds it, is a wrecked battleground where Splicers roam the streets. Stranded after his bathysphere is destroyed, he’s contacted by a guy calling himself Atlas (a reference to Ayn Rand, whose work heavily influenced the game) who offers to help him escape in return for assistance in rescuing his family.

Somebody hit the lightsRapture is an original creation and a unique setting, combining eerie beauty with nightmarish desolation, and managing to be both grandiose and claustrophobic at the same time; a drowned, fallen Eden. It has a dated charm to it, with its art deco architecture (think Rockefeller Center), old 1950s-styled posters on the walls, and a soundtrack composed of 1950s music. Of course, all this has been copiously damaged: there are fires, busted walls and leaks all over the place. Splicers wander Bunny hug!among the rubble, chattering to themselves, ruins of human beings in torn cocktail outfits and masks, work blues or fishermen’s overalls. And then, every once in a while, you’ll hear the heavy stomp and bellow of a Big Daddy or the creepy singsong of a Little Sister, before glimpsing the pair trudging around a corner: a hulking, unnatural form in a diving suit and a scrawny girl with glowing yellow eyes, a ragged dress and a long syringe attached to a milk bottle.

Dali's evil twinDuring his stay in Rapture, Jack will get up close and personal with its inhabitants (the sane, the insane, the mutated and the gleefully bonkers, such as Sander Cohen) and sample the local delicacies. Read: shoot things in the face and shoot up on ADAM. Splicers constitute the bulk of enemies, and while Big Daddies aren’t hostile unless Jack actively attacks them, you can probably guess that he’ll be required to do so at some point (and it is, at first, a hefty challenge which requires preparation). He has access to a wide selection of weapons, ranging from a wrench, to a shotgun, to a grenade launcher, but also a plethora of Plasmids and Gene Tonics, which can either be found lying around or purchased with ADAM at Gatherer’s Gardens machines. Plasmids grant offensive Electric veinsabilities, like shooting fireballs, lightning or even bees, telekinetically throwing objects or hypnotising Big Daddies, and when you first acquire them, you are treated to an amusing cartoon-drawn ad explaining their use. They also require a constant supply of EVE, a modified version of ADAM, which is a blue substance found in large syringes (let’s not even get into hygiene concerns). Gene Tonics are passive enhancements, which come in three varieties: Combat Tonics enhance Jack’s fighting abilities (eg. Armored Shell reduces physical damage taken by 15%), Physical Tonics augment his overall condition (eg. Medical Expert makes First Aid Kits 20% more effective) and Engineering Tonics boost his competence with machines (eg. Speedy Hacker allows more time for hacking). Because Rapture is populated with a variety of those. There are gun turrets and security cameras (which summon gun bots when they detect Jack), both of which can be hacked to use against Splicers. Health Stations (which offer an HP refill for a price, but can also be used by Splicers) can be hacked to reduce their price and make them lethal to Splicers. Where's Mario when you need him?Vending machines, which sell food and ammo, can also be hacked to reduce their prices, and the odd safe can yield up sizeable amounts of loot. Hacking is achieved through a minigame, which requires building a pipe to direct fluid from one end of a grid to another. This isn’t always easy, and a failure will result in an electric shock and some bots being summoned.

PolaroidAnother item which will give Jack an edge in combat is the research camera. Once found, it allows him to take pictures of enemies and bots, which reveal their weaknesses. Each picture is rated according to its quality (well-framed, close-up, action shot, multiple enemies). Dead enemies are worth less, and photographing the same enemy gradually yields fewer points, prompting Jack to go find fresh blood after a while. There are five ‘levels’ of research for each subject: levels one, three and five grant damage bonuses, while levels two and four grant Gene Tonics.

Not the kind of bank you hold upWeapons can be upgraded at Power to the People stations, while Gene Tonics and Plasmids can be equipped at Gene Banks. Moreover, junk items (like tubes or wire) can be combined to create rare ammo at U-Invent machines. Jack’s HP and EVE supplies are indicated by a red and blue bar at the top of the screen and can be replenished either with First Aid Kits and EVE syringes (of which he can carry up to nine each, when fully upgraded) or with various foodstuffs and items, either purchased, found lying around or looted off enemy corpses. Snacks (crisps and cakes) and bandages will replenish HP, coffee will replenish EVE, Pep Bars will replenish both, cigarettes will replenish EVE at the cost of some HP, while alcohol will do the reverse. Until you find the Booze Hound Gene Tonic, that is, which will turn alcohol into the most profitable resource in the game (making it replenish EVE instead of draining it). It won’t prevent Jack from getting woozy if he imbibes too much though, so make sure he’s not about to be jumped by a Splicer before going on a bender. Finally, there are a number of Vita-Chambers dotted around, which will revive Jack should he get stomped. More Resurrection centralimportantly, this won’t regenerate enemies, so he can just pick up where he left off. If you’re looking for a challenge though, set the game to the Hard or Survivor difficulty and turn the Vita-Chambers off. There are trophies/achievements for that, appropriately dubbed “Brass Balls” and “I Chose the Impossible”, respectively.

Splattering Splicers is all well and good, but, to spice things up, the game throws a moral dilemma at you. Soon after his arrival, Jack runs into Brigid Tenenbaum, the woman who originally created the Little Sisters. However, she gradually began to feel remorse and decided to save the girls, killing the slugs inside them with a special Plasmid. She offers it to Jack and urges him to save the Little Sisters he encounters–which entails killing their Big Daddies, affectionately dubbed “Mr Bubbles”–, promising a reward. Atlas, on the other hand, tells him to simply “harvest” them (ie. forcibly rip out the slugs, which kills them), as that will yield more ADAM. You can thus take two Toasty Mr Bubblesdifferent paths through the game for two different endings: either save the Little Sisters (which results in Tenenbaum gifting you with surplus ADAM, as well as Plasmids and Tonics) or kill them all. Personally, I could never do the latter: simply hearing a Little Sister crying after you take down her Big Daddy (“wake up, Mr Bubbles…”) is enough to push all my pity buttons.

Overall, I enjoyed Bioshock. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it delivers on its promises and does it in style. The dark atmosphere and moral implications of the storyline both Come one, come all!do a good job of enhancing the FPS experience. Rapture is an aesthetic treat, and the Big Daddy-Little Sister pair has become iconic. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea though, and if you’re easily squicked, you’ll probably want to give it a wide berth. Otherwise, if you’re looking for something different from a run-of-the-mill bullet-fest, look no further. And if you haven’t had quite enough, the Challenge Rooms DLC provides some optional missions to put your survival instincts to the test.

Madness? This. Is. Japan!

The culprit: Hatoful Boyfriend (PC, Mac, download only)

There are moments in life when you’re left wondering “what the hell did I just see?” Things that baffle you beyond reason. Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those things. It’s no secret that some cultural peculiarities of the Asian world will always puzzle us Westerners (and vice-versa), particularly in the entertainment sector. But this…

First things first:There are no words... Hatoful Boyfriend, as the name indicates, is a dating sim. This is not a genre I would normally touch with a 10-foot pole, but this game was brought to my attention by an utterly fearless forum acquaintance, who pointed out that, not only was it completely insane, but also surprisingly well-thought out (how’s that for a paradox?). My curiosity was piqued and, since it only cost $5, and since I’m always up for unusual experiences, after some deliberation, I decided to take the plunge. For the record, there is a free demo version available, but trust me, you WANT to get the full version. That is, provided you want the game at all. Not only does it include a secret character, but a substantial extra storyline as well. The latter basically explains the entire backstory of the game (you’re in for some shocks, let me tell you), but also puts you in control of a different character and is very different in tone.

The first thought that comes to my mind in association with dating sims is “dirty little secret”. It’s not the kind of game you’d normally go trumpeting around the rooftops about. I’m fairly sure, however, that you’ve never experienced anything quite like this UFO before. I certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the premise: in the not-too-distant future, a particularly Not quite Hogwartsvirulent mutation of the avian flu wipes out most of humanity and simultaneously makes birds sapient. Not exactly your usual sappy romance setting. Be that as it may, the consequence is that birds take over society, and a human girl (that’s your protagonist) finds herself enrolled in a high-school for gifted birds. All the while living in a cave and hunting for her meals. I’ll just let all that sink in for a moment.

Obviously, since there are no humans around at the school, her only romantic prospects lie with birds. And before you start backing off in dubitative disgust, I assure you that nothing sexual ever happens. There isn’t even any PDA to speak of. Thankfully, might I add. That’s not to say that nothing dodgy ever happens, because one of the potential romantic subplots is steeped in textual gore (and some innuendo). And two others are so Overreacting much?WEIRD that no description could ever do them justice. That aside, this premise is also what explains the title of the game; “hatoful” is a play on the word “heartful”: “hato” means “pigeon” in Japanese. Not that “heartful boyfriend” makes very much sense in English, but we’ll just let that slide. The actual translation of the game is fun and well-executed, barring some rare, bizarre cultural references and the odd typo/spelling mistake.

The first part of the gameBad boy is devoted to establishing the setting and introducing the potential romantic interests (except the secret character, whom you’ll have to go digging for). For starters, you can pick your character’s name at the beginning of the game. You can also opt to have a ‘humanised portrait’ of each of the eight romance options displayed. Whenever a potential prince charming is first introduced, a title screen with his name and portrait appears. If you pick the humanised option, there will also be a picture of what he would look like if he were human (well, except one of them…he just looks like a bird in both). This greatly helps to make them more relatable. Uh...nice suitOtherwise, you’re stuck with a pigeon, three fantails, a quail, a partridge, a mourning dove and a bleeding-heart. Sexy (not). They are, respectively, the protagonist’s best friend, two aristocratic fellow-student brothers and a wacky sports enthusiast, the narcoleptic math teacher, the creepy school doctor, a quiet bookworm and a…well, I guess anime-freak will have to do as a description. Yeah, that’s the secret character.

Not very tactfulAnyway, the concept is simple: once you decide which birdie makes your character’s heart flutter (ho ho ho), you then proceed to win their affection by choosing specific actions or lines of dialogue in conversation or at certain events (there’s a sports event, a school festival, fireworks, etc.). You can save at any time, which is helpful if you’re at all unsure of what to do. Every once in a while, you’ll also have an electives day, where the heroine can choose between attending math, music or gym class, which will raise one of her stats: wisdom, charisma or vitality, respectively. This will affect her chances with some of the options. Some of them even have slightly different outcomes, depending on which stat you choose to boost. Finally, you can also buy some beans to gift to the bird of your choice for the in-game equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Each has their preference, so this affects the protagonist’s chances as well.

This is all rather straightforward, and the game, additionally, never overstays its welcome, by making each storyline manageably short (about 30 mins). Moreover, you can fast-forward through parts you’ve already seen by clicking on the arrow in the upper right corner of the screen. Each ending grants you an image in the Gallery, as well as some mysterious notes in the Archive section of the main menu, which add a disquieting undercurrent to things. Once you’ve seen them all, including a side-storyline which involves pairing up two other birds who have nothing to do with the school, and a ‘bad ending’ where the heroine fails to romance anybody–or “anybirdie”, as the game humorously puts it–and, startlingly, gets killed by a group of hawks for it (these two Or is it?endings can be achieved in one go, by the way), you’ll have access to the aforementioned extra storyline. This takes longer than the usual playthrough, restricts saving to certain key moments, involves all potential romantic interests, with you in control of the best friend, and…let’s just say that it’s a mix of crime, thriller, horror, melodrama, comedy, romance, RPG and sci-fi. And that it will blow your mind.

You wouldn’t expect talking birds to make for particularly relatable characters, and, while I’m not familiar with the conventions of the dating sim genre, I don’t suppose that character development is a priority. Surprisingly enough, though, these birds do get their own backstories (most are substantially padded out in the extra Pigeon buddystoryline), and, after a while, they just start feeling like ‘normal’ characters, and you end up empathising with some of them. Not all romances end well, and not all of them are equally successful in their execution: there is, for example, a definite bias towards the best friend, who easily gets the most–rather moving, might I add–content and makes the most sense as a partner. Two of the other romances are also very predictable.

She gets bonus points for quoting Valkyrie ProfileStill, for a game which I had zero expectations for prior to playing, Hatoful Boyfriend turned out to be a pleasant, thoroughly entertaining surprise. This isn’t an all-time-great, by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone (definitely not to male players), but it you’re curious and would like to experience something completely different, original and utterly cuckoo (see what I did there?), go right ahead.

Fulfilling great expectations

The culprit: Riven (PC, Mac, PlayStation)

Riven had some pretty big shoes to fill, as the sequel to one of the most famous games ever made. And I’m happy to say that, not only did it successfully match its predecessor, but actually trumped it in every respect, resulting in my favourite game in the Myst series, an opinion shared by a large portion of the fanbase. And this despite the fact that it adopts a mostly linear structure which would not be reused in subsequent games, thus making it something of a standalone in the series. Be that as it may, between its release in 1997 and the release of Myst III in 2001, Riven sold over 4,5 million units. Doesn’t quite match Myst’s 6 million, but it’s close enough to indicate a successful sequel.

In terms of gameplay and presentation, Riven is very similar to its older brother, but its scope is much greater, despite mostly taking place in a single age. Sounds paradoxical, but this titular age, on its own, is four to five times as large as a single Myst age, which, in a series so heavily based on creating immersive worlds, is something I can only applaud. The graphics have greatly improved, which also helps with immersion and creates a deceptively peaceful atmosphere with a disquieting undercurrent. If you get the feeling that you’re being watched…well, that’s probably because you are. Overall, the storyline is darker than its predecessor and has greater urgency to it, but also a significantly stronger backbone, culminating in a momentous, satisfying conclusion. With Sirrus and Achenar out of commission, the Stranger now has to deal with the fact that they lured their mother away to Riven to make trapping Atrus easier. Needless to say, it has resulted in a pretty big mess. Puzzles abound, just as they did in Myst, but they are more complex, more numerous and probably the most organically integrated in the entire series. This also fits the theme of the game, conveying the feeling of a cohesive structure attempting to hold a disintegrating world together (there’s a reason it’s called Riven).

Riven has never been remade, which I find to be a distinct shame. None of its successors have been remade either, but they either have free roaming or a 360° camera, none of which Riven has. Which means that, since the release of RealMyst, it’s the only game in the series which is still restricted to its original slideshow presentation. There is, however, an ongoing, fanmade project called The Starry Expanse which intends to remedy that. I hope it comes to fruition, but even in its original form Riven a wonderful, beautiful game, and if you enjoyed Myst, you are pretty much certain to love this one too.

Detailed review available! Read more here.