Pokédemon

The culprit: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PlayStation 2)

Enter the heroMy feelings about Curse of Darkness are a rather mixed bag. Its predecessor had it easier. As the first Castlevania game chronologically and a valiant attempt to reinvent the series in 3D after the lacklustre efforts on the Nintendo 64, Lament of Innocence could get away with being formulaic in a series that pretty much epitomises the word. Curse of Darkness doesn’t have that luxury: it’s third in line chronologically, and the 3D novelty doesn’t work anymore. And while it does try to mix things up a little and ends up being more than a little quirky, the effort feels distinctly half-baked. As if the developers were mostly going through the motions, rather than genuinely trying to produce something new and interesting. But then, ‘new and interesting’ tends to be too much to expect from most long-running game series.

Curse of Darkness is set three years after Dracula’s Curse on the NES, in which Dracula–formerly Mathias Cronqvist, as people who have played LoI will know–was defeated by Trevor Belmont, a descendant of Mathias’ friend, Leon Belmont. However, before he died, Dracula cursed the land, resulting in a recrudescence of monsters and general proclivity for conflict among the people.

Dramatic posingThe first thing worth noting is that the main protagonist is not a Belmont, although this has happened before (e.g. Alucard, Soma Cruz) and will happen again in later games. Trevor does make an appearance, but he’s not the main focus. Thus, the player is put in control of Hector, a former Devil Forgemaster of Dracula’s. During the events of Dracula’s Curse, Hector was sent to confront Trevor, but used the opportunity to escape, as he couldn’t tolerate Dracula’s evil any longer. Dracula was defeated, and Hector tried to live a quiet life. However, another Devil Forgemaster, called Isaac (who clearly thinks he’s too sexy for his shirt), was jealous of Hector’s status as Dracula’s favourite and wanted revenge for his betrayal. He kept tabs on him and orchestrated a plot that got Hector’s wife executed for witchcraft in order to draw him out. Isaac’s other goal is to resurrect Dracula, which is why Trevor eventually gets involved as well.

Yes, reallyThe more atypical characteristic of the game is the environment. The main focus of most Castlevania games is the actual Castlevania, i.e. Dracula’s Castle, which tends to be the setting for most, if not all, of the story. Here, Castlevania doesn’t even exist for most of the game. Thus, Hector spends most of his time in the Wallachian (N.B. a region in Romania) countryside, traversing forests, mountains, temples and even a town (although it’s deserted). Before you get all enthusiastic, though, the difference isn’t really blatant. The colour palette is generally a variation on ‘drab’, and the level designers don’t seem to have mastered much beyond corridors. Thankfully, transportation is somewhat facilitated by Memorial Tickets, which will take Hector to the last Save Room he used (marked in red on maps), or handy teleporter…chairs. Actually, saving is also achieved via chairs. In fact, chairs are a recurring joke theme in this game. Each area in the game features several seating items (often in hidden locations) that Hector can plonk his rear on, which are then collected in a completely surreal secret room.

"Ziggy played guitar"Another prominent difference lies in combat, which is one of the main points of interest in the game. As he is not a Belmont, Hector doesn’t have access to their trademark whip weapon. He is, however, a Forgemaster, meaning that he can use a whole plethora of other stuff, including swords, spears, axes, knuckles, and some joke weapons such as a nail bat, a frying pan or even an electric guitar (and yes, he actually plays it to attack…). Every weapon has its own set of attack combos. Hector’s equipment also includes the more traditional helmets, armour and accessories. Most of this can be crafted from items, which can be dropped or stolen (once Hector learns the skill) from enemies.

"Bring meee tooo life"Weapons are not Hector’s main speciality, however. As a Devil Forgemaster, he has, first and foremost, the ability to create Innocent Devils (IDs). If you’re wondering about the name, the explanation is that, while they are dark beings, they have no inherent moral compass and simply serve their creator with utmost loyalty. Certain areas in the game contain forges: small rooms where Hector can unlock a new type of ID, which he can then name and summon to accompany him. Familiars have been used in other games in the series, but this is their most involved and detailed iteration. There are six types of IDs: fairies, melee, birds, mages, actual devils and, making a comeback from LoI, pumpkins. They all boost Hector’s stats in some way, and every type has a speciality. Fairies can heal and open locks; melee-types can smash walls and floors; birds can carry Hector over chasms; mages can stop time and burn vines; devils can hide Hector underground (to pass under obstructions); and pumpkins, while worthless in combat, give him the heftiest stat boosts.

Unleash the dragonIDs fight alongside Hector, and you can either control them manually or let the A.I. handle it. Some can even chain attacks with Hector when an onscreen prompt appears. IDs level up from combat, just as Hector does, gradually learning new abilities and extending their Heart Meter. This not only serves as their HP, but also depletes a little whenever they use a special move, thus making them the equivalent of sub-weapons in other Castlevanias. Hearts can be found by smashing candles, dropped by enemies or regained by performing a Perfect Guard (i.e. guarding right before the enemy attacks), once Hector learns the ability.

How to grow your pumpkinWhen first unlocked, each ID appears in a default form, and each type has several different evolution paths to choose from, except the devil-type, which only has one, and the pumpkin, whose evolutions are purely cosmetic. When Hector fights alongside an ID, enemies drop different coloured Evolution Crystals, depending on the weapon Hector kills them with. Once you pick up a certain item, you’ll be able to consult each ID’s evolution Fuzzballchart in the menu, showing how many crystals are needed for each form, and what that form’s stats are. Some are more useful than others, and some look decidedly goofy, considering the general atmosphere of the game. E.g. all of the pumpkins; the Proboscis Fairy, with its fake nose and moustache; or the adorably cuddly Iytei (probably a misspelling of “yeti”), which even features in a boss battle, as Isaac has one too.

BenignIDs will also sometimes drop Devil Shards, which allow Hector to create another ID of the same type, but with improved stats. These increase with every generation, so it might make sense to go through several iterations before settling on your favourite. Early on in the game, Hector will encounter Julia, a witch who has escaped persecution by living in isolation in the mountains and looks uncannily like his deceased wife. I’m sure you can guess where this is headed. What I’m not sure of is why in the world the “she looks like my dead wife” trope is considered as a good basis for a budding relationship. Anyway, Julia offers to help Hector defeat Isaac: he can buy items in her shop, but she will also store his surplus IDs for him, and he can swap them at will by visiting the shop using Magical Tickets (another Castlevania staple). This makes it possible to have several evolutions of one ID type available, which can be a definite plus (e.g. with Fairies).

"Fly me to the moon"Other elements in the game are more typical. There’s an optional dungeon, accessible with a bird-type ID, called the Tower of Evermore, which consists of a series of 50 identical, enemy-filled rooms (wahey), and an optional superboss, accessible with a devil-type ID. Once you finish your first playthrough, there’s a Boss Rush mode and a Crazy mode, to increase the difficulty. You can also replay the game with Trevor, who can use whips and sub-weapons (instead of IDs), and collect stat bonuses instead of EXP, but can’t access Julia’s shop or store consumables. And last but not least, Michiru Yamane’s and Yuka Watanabe’s soundtrack is still one of the game’s main attractions, even though I found it to be somewhat less memorable than in LoI. The highlights are the darkly blazing “Abandoned Castle – The Curse of Darkness”; the groovy “Balhjet Mountains”; the ominously lilting “Garibaldi Courtyard”, complete with tolling bells; or the surprising “Mortvia Fountain”, with its salsa-like rhythms.

Cannot...unsee...To sum things up, this is a rather uneven effort. It’s fun enough while you’re plugging away at it, but rather forgettable when all is said and done. None of the characters manage to rise above the generic, the dialogue and plot are as exciting as stale bread, Isaac should REALLY put some clothes on, the Saint-Germain character feels out-of-place, the attempts at humour are rather jarring, and the level design is, to put it bluntly, boring. On the other hand, the music is great, and raising Innocent Devils is quite entertaining, adding a distinct “gotta catch ‘em all” vibe to it all. Then again, this is supposed to be Castlevania, not Pokémon.

His brother’s keeper

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Elemental, my dear WatsonI’ve played sequels and prequels before, but this is the first time I’ve come across a bona fide ‘interquel’, that is, an entire game set between two pre-existing ones. So, if only because of this, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands made me curious. Released in 2010, it’s set between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within in the PS2 trilogy, and it does answer a legitimate question: what did the Prince do for seven whole years, before the Dahaka caught up with him (although, I also wonder why it took the Dahaka so long to get to it)? And while the events of the game are a bit too short to have taken up that entire interval, it’s still an answer to the question.

The other peculiarity of The Forgotten Sands is that, aside from the PS3 and Xbox 360 version (which is the one I played), it also exists on the Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS with a completely different plot on each console. I must say that I find this particularly bizarre, but also suspect. Perhaps the Prince did all of what goes down in these games within that seven-year interval, which would be legitimate, but then it’s as if the developers were inciting people to purchase all of the different iterations of the game to have ‘the full story’. Or perhaps they’re trying to say that the Prince could have done any and all of these things, which serves to trivialise the story somewhat. What’s also suspect is that the game comes on the heels of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which essentially attempted to restart the series in a different setting and with a somewhat different Prince, but proved to be a controversial move, even though–or maybe because?–it was a hell of an example of a downer ending. With all that in mind, The Forgotten Sands may be considered as an attempt to return to the ‘tried and true’ success of the PS2 trilogy in order to placate fans.

Overview of a disasterThe real question is: is it successful? Well, not quite. Mind you, it isn’t for a lack of trying: there has been a genuine effort to keep gameplay interesting. It’s just that the storyline somehow fails to be entirely engaging. Or maybe it was because, after three games, I’d gotten a bit tired of the PS2-trilogy Prince and his shenanigans.

He's got a planBe that as it may, after his misadventures in The Sands of Time and his realisation that he was maybe a bit of an idiot, the Prince decides to go visit his elder brother, Malik (who still manages not to call him by name a single time over the course of the game!), and ask him for advice on how to be a good ruler. However, when he arrives at Malik’s castle, he finds it besieged by an army that’s trying to breach its treasure vault to obtain “Solomon’s Army”, a fabled magical force that is somehow supposed to be locked within. The Prince manages to get inside the fortress and finds Malik, who admits that he can’t win the siege and is about to release Solomon’s Army to defend his kingdom by using a special seal. After the whole Sands of Time fiasco, the Prince is understandably wary of this…and he turns out to be right.

Impressive hornsWhat Malik unleashes reveals itself to be an army of sand warriors led by an Ifrit (a fire djinn) called Ratash. The army turns everyone into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are protected by the two halves of the seal. The rest of the game focuses on stopping Ratash, with a bit of a twist thrown into the proceedings, albeit not a wholly unexpected one. It’s not a bad story, per se, but it does feel like a re-tread of The Sands of Time, more so than the two other games in the trilogy, especially since, within the original PoP chronology, it’s set directly after The Sands of Time.

Watery helperMind you, the Prince’s powers are not focused on sand this time around. He manages to acquire the help of a Marid (a water djinn) called Razia, who has been protecting Malik’s citadel for a long time and lends him elemental powers. Much like in The Sands of Time, the Prince needs to find entrances to the magical fountain where she resides before she bestows these on him. He can now either leave a trail of fire behind him when he runs, which damages all enemies caught inside it; shoot a beam of ice with each sword attack; create a whirlwind to damage multiple enemies or put up rock armour.

SkelnadoThese abilities are considered as magic, and the Prince accordingly gets four magic slots to power them up. He earns EXP by killing enemies and breaking sarcophagi that can be found in out-of-the-way spots, and can use it to upgrade either one of the four abilities, his HP or his magic slots (up to eight).

Walk on waterOn top of that, the Prince also gets abilities that he can use at will, without depleting his magic slots. These include the good ol’ rewind mechanic that has become a staple of the series. However, this time, it’s not infinite: a metre determines how far you can go back. There’s also the ability to solidify water for a limited amount of time, thereby making it usable for platforming; the ability to fly over some particularly large gaps; and, later on in the game, the ability to materialise destroyed walls in places where they used to exist.

Skeleton crewAll of this is pretty neat and probably the main attraction of the game. The power to solidify water, in particular, sees a lot of use and will put your reflexes to the test, as you will need to alternatively pass through sheets of water and use them to climb, for example. Other than that, the combat and exploration mechanics stay very similar to the previous games. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and jump from column to column. He still fights with a sword and can jump over enemies to attack them from above or from the back. He can also unleash power attacks and kick enemies that have shields in order to bring them down. He can no longer block attacks, but he can dodge them, which essentially boils down to the same thing. On the other hand, he can no longer recover HP by drinking water, which I always thought was a bit silly. Instead, he can break vases or boxes and sometimes find HP or magic refills in them. Probably less silly, but also a lot less realistic.

I'm outta hereUltimately, The Forgotten Sands is quite fun, from a pure gameplay standpoint, especially if you’re a fan of the PoP series. And it’s refreshing to see a female companion who isn’t all over the Prince, for once, even if he is admittedly less of an arse than he was in The Sands of Time. Still, the game feels a bit like déjà vu, and even though it’s blessedly free from the all-pervading emo-ness of Warrior Within, I guess that a) there’s just so much you can do with such a specific setting, and b) it’s all rather anticlimactic, considering that the Prince’s story was, for all intents and purposes, already finished by the time the game came out, and you know exactly what’s going to happen after the game ends. That being said, I don’t doubt the writers’ ability to come up with yet a new entry in the series somewhere down the line. I just wonder how advisable that would be. Answer: probably not very.

Who’s your daddy?!

The culprit: Bioshock 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Faceless heroThere’s a saying that goes ‘can’t have too much of a good thing’. Well, actually, you can. Take the premise for Bioshock 2, for example. You know that point towards the end of the first game, where Jack had to partially transform himself into a Big Daddy? That was cool, wasn’t it? And unexpected too. So, in the wake of that, putting you into the shoes of a Big Daddy for the entire second game is distinctly less unexpected. And when that’s pretty much the only defining characteristic of the protagonist, killing the surprise really doesn’t play in his favour. Granted, Jack wasn’t the most personable guy around, but at least you heard him speak, and he had a recognisable face. Subject Delta is just a dude in a diving suit. You never even learn his real name.

Bang bangAs it turns out, Delta is an Alpha Series Big Daddy. Alpha Series were the first prototype of Big Daddy, not as heavily modified as Rosies or Bouncers and bonded to a single Little Sister, with the disadvantage that, if anything happened to said Little Sister, the Big Daddy would either fall into a coma or become psychotic. Delta was the first of the Alpha Series to be successfully bonded to a Little Sister. Unfortunately, she was Eleanor Lamb, the daughter of Sofia Lamb, a notorious psychiatrist who was invited to Rapture by Andrew Ryan. Lamb’s ideology was diametrically opposed to his–extreme altruism vs extreme individualism–, and she slowly began indoctrinating her patients and founding a cult. Ryan therefore imprisoned her, and Eleanor was turned into a Little Sister. However, Lamb eventually escaped, located Delta, hit him with a Hypnotize Plasmid and forced him to kill himself in front of a horrified Eleanor.

'Sup palCue 10 years later. Eleanor is now grown up and her psychological conditioning has been undone, but she wants no part in her mother’s schemes, which set her up as a messianic figure. Due to receiving massive doses of ADAM, she has developed a psychic connection with all other Little Sisters. Since Delta is the only ‘father’ she’s ever known, she gets the girls to collect samples of his DNA and resurrects him in a Vita Chamber. Due to their bond, Delta has brief telepathic visions of her. However, it’s a guy called Augustus Sinclair, one of Rapture’s top businessmen, who takes it upon himself to guide Delta to her, somewhat like Atlas from the first game. Whether this means that he’s like Atlas in other respects as well…you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Adolescence is a bitchChronologically, this takes place eight years after Bioshock. So Ryan is dead, and Rapture is quickly deteriorating even further. This means darker, more dilapidated surroundings, but also more difficult enemies, including two new kinds of Big Daddy (and a third one in the Minerva’s Den DLC), one new kind of Splicer and the Big Sisters: grown-up Little Sisters who have become violent and unstable after years of ADAM consumption and serve as additional protectors for the Little Sisters; they notably have cages on their backs for transporting the little ones, festooned with ribbons, and their oxygen tanks are decorated with childish scribbles. Big Sisters are fast, agile and strong, can throw fireballs, teleport like Houdini Splicers, and drain ADAM from corpses to replenish their health. I like their aesthetic as well: the gangling silhouette and leg braces suggesting a badly-controlled spurt of growth.

Second-rate villainIn general, Bioshock 2 is a lot more female-oriented than its predecessor. Brigid Tenenbaum was the only prominent female character in the first game, but here, besides the Big Sisters, you have Lamb, Grace (one of her aides) and Eleanor. What’s more, Delta works more closely with the Little Sisters, and Lamb’s ideology is like a perversion of the cliché female attribute of selflessness. This is a valid direction for a sequel to take, but Lamb doesn’t have the same aura as Andrew Ryan did and feels a bit tacked on.

Men on fireGameplay, however, has improved, and combat has been made more strategic. The basic mechanics are the same: Delta needs to fight through hordes of Splicers and tackle Big Daddies (and Big Sisters) using Plasmids and Gene Tonics. However, while Gene Tonic mechanics remain the same, Delta can now use Plasmids and Weapons simultaneously, and both the Plasmid and weapon selections are different. Rather than finding Plasmid upgrades, Delta can now upgrade them himself at Gatherer’s Garden stations, just like weapons. Instead of a wrench, his default melee option is a goddamn drill, like a Bouncer Big Daddy. Instead of a pistol, he has a Rivet Gun, like a Rosie Big Daddy. And instead of a crossbow, he gets a Spear Gun. The Chemical Thrower, however, is gone. What’s more, you must now choose which weapons to upgrade, because there aren’t enough upgrades for all of them. On the plus side, the Research Camera, which grants damage bonuses against enemies, now films instead of taking photos and can be used alongside a weapon during combat, making researching much easier.

ReflexesDelta also gets a Hack Tool, which allows hacking from a distance and can deploy miniature turrets in combat. Hacking has also been made easier. Rather than having to play Pipe Dream like in the first game, now you simply need to stop a moving needle inside a blue or green zone. The latter simply hacks the machine, while the former also grants a bonus (e.g. a discount). Landing in a white zone fails the hack and inflicts damage, while landing in a red zone also triggers an alarm and summons bots.

Everything else stays the same: health and EVE (necessary to use Plasmids) are respectively replenished with First Aid Kits and EVE syringes, as well as food, which can be found or bought at vending machines, as can ammo. Surveillance cameras and bots can be hacked to your advantage, as well as Health Stations, which will poison the Splicers that try to use them. And Vita Chambers are still around to bring Delta back should he suffer an untimely demise.

Rapture adoption servicesThe main plot device also remains the same: how to deal with the Little Sisters, who now unfortunately all look identical. Was it so difficult to at least give them different hair colours, like in the first game? Rather than simply choosing whether to rescue or harvest them, Delta can now also have them gather ADAM for him first. Each time he kills a Big Daddy, Eleanor can persuade the latter’s Little Sister that Delta is actually him, so that he can “Adopt” her. The Little Sister will climb onto his shoulders and travel around with him, signalling ADAM-rich corpses that she can harvest. The problem is that this will prompt every Splicer in the vicinity to come after her. They can’t kill her, but they’ll interrupt her, so Delta will have to fight them off. Each Little Sister can gather from two different corpses. Afterwards, Delta needs to take her to a Vent and decide one final time what to do with her. Rescuing the Little Sisters prompts Eleanor to give Delta gifts, but they are less numerous this time around, which is meant to make the ‘harvest or save’ choice more difficult. I still can’t bring myself to harm the poor things, though, so the dilemma is, once again, lost on me. Whatever your decision, once Delta has dealt with four Little Sisters, an ear-splitting shriek will signal a 30s countdown until the arrival of an angry Big Sister, which seems somewhat incongruous if you’re actually trying to save the girls.

Wolf or LambBe that as it may, Delta’s dealings with the Little Sisters affect the ending, just like in the first game. Moreover, they also affect Eleanor’s outlook on life, which is an interesting change and an additional layer of responsibility to his decisions. This also extends to Delta’s dealings with Lamb’s three main allies: sparing or killing them also influences Eleanor.

A multiplayer mode, entitled Fall of Rapture, has also been added, but since multiplayer’s not my thing, I have no idea what it’s like. On the DLC front, there are two single-player offerings. The first one is called Protector Trials and is reminiscent of the Challenge Rooms from the first game, except that, in keeping with the main game’s mechanic, it involves an unnamed Alpha Series Big Daddy protecting Little Sisters while they gather ADAM. The second DLC, dubbed Minerva’s Den, is more story-based, and follows another prototype Big Daddy called Subject Sigma, as he tries to retake control of Rapture’s supercomputer, The Thinker.

Father figureOverall, I have ambivalent feelings towards Bioshock 2. It’s not a bad game, but something feels lacking. On the one hand, the combat is fun and challenging, and Delta’s Big Daddy-ness does allow for some nifty perks, from being able to wander around underwater to having more interactions with Little Sisters; there’s notably a part of the game where you experience their mental conditioning first-hand. Delta’s influence on Eleanor is also a clever addition. And Rapture is still a compelling, disturbing, nightmarish setting. On the other hand, the storyline isn’t quite up to scratch. Neither Lamb nor Delta is a very interesting character. And the fact that both DLCs also feature Big Daddies as protagonists really doesn’t help. Just how many self-aware Big Daddies are there in Rapture, anyway? Bottom line: if you enjoyed the first Bioshock for its combat, you’ll find plenty to like in this one as well. If you enjoyed it for other reasons, you might feel a tad disappointed.

Potato batteries and combustible lemons

The culprit: Portal 2 (PC, Mac, PlayStation3, Xbox 360)

Wire octopusA good sequel is always a pleasant surprise. But a good sequel to a sleeper hit is a special kind of treat. The first Portal was a flash of wickedly funny genius out of left field. Portal 2 confirms that the series is in the hands of consistently brilliant writers. In other words, the cake wasn’t a lie.

By now, the qualities of the first game have been widely broadcast, but, shocking as it may seem, it did also have flaws, the most notable of which was repetitiveness. While its length successfully prevented that from becoming a major problem (at least on first playthrough), more of the same for a whole second game would’ve been problematic. Well, Portal 2 avoids that problem, and, in retrospect, makes the first game feel like a bit of a prototype. Which, to be entirely fair, it was.

FashionistaYou are still in control of Chell (with a mysterious wardrobe upgrade), whom, as you may remember, the first game left in rather dire straits. Now, she is awakened in a stasis room–or Extended Relaxation Centre–by a voice on the intercom for a short tutorial: the controls are pretty much the same as before: walk, jump, crouch, pick up stuff and, later, place portals. She’s then put back to sleep; when she next awakens, several years–or decades?–have obviously passed (c.f. the pillow). An autonomous, rather worried-sounding personality core named Wheatley contacts her and helps her escape, as she has apparently been scheduled to be terminated. This leads to two discoveries: one, the Aperture Science facility is huge; two, it’s now in a rather poor state.

BreakdownThus, instead of the pristine white rooms of the first game, Chell now travels through dilapidated, half-overgrown environments, once again with the goal to save her skin. This gives the game a more chaotic feel. You now have to get even more creative with the rules, and the puzzles still provide just the right level of challenge, between figuring out the solutions and executing them.

Walking on lightChell still has a portal gun, since that is, after all, the founding principle of the series, but many new gadgets are also introduced, such as Aerial Faith Plates (boing!), Hard Light Bridges and Excursion Funnels (i.e. tractor beams). Weighted Storage Cubes (and the Companion Cube <3) also make a comeback, now joined by their cousins, the Redirection Cubes. Of course, the game would feel incomplete without the good ol’ turrets, which now come in startlingly humorous varieties, including an Oracle Turret. They’re still just as deadly though–well, mostly–, but the game’s autosave function will take care of any accidental demises.

BlinkyWheatley accompanies and helps Chell, much as GLaDOS did in the first game, with the difference that he is mobile and visible. A lot of people seem to dislike him, and I can see where they’re coming from: he’s very different from GLaDOS, a bumbling, manic worrywart instead of a cool, cynical mastermind. Still, I enjoyed the change of pace, and there’s more to him than first meets the eye.

Science bubblesApart from what’s left of the main facility, which notably features some brilliant safety advertisements for Aperture employees, such as the ‘Animal King Takeover’, Chell also gets to explore the underbelly of Aperture, as she visits the ruins of its old premises, located in a salt mine. How and why she gets there is up to you to discover, but predictable it certainly is not. These levels are slightly harder, as the state of the infrastructure makes them more dangerous to navigate, and the devices used back in the day were different from the ones you may be accustomed to. Chell gets to sample old test chamber prototypes, but also gadgets that were abandoned as the facility developed, such as gels, which you’ll find shooting out of pipes and can direct on various surfaces at your convenience.

Speed trackBlue (repulsion) gel allows Chell to bounce very high; orange (propulsion) gel allows her to go into Speedy Gonzales mode; and white (conversion) gel allows her to coat surfaces in white paint, thereby enabling the placement of portals in previously inaccessible locations. Some people may find the gels rather haphazard as a means of puzzle solving, but I thought that that was the whole point: they were discontinued as a product, after all, there’s gotta be a reason for that. Overall, I found this a welcome diversion from ‘normal’ portal mechanics and a way to keep the player interested and constantly on their toes.

The man with the lemonsThe Old Aperture levels also serve to introduce, via recordings, the now-defunct but legendary Cave Johnson, founder of the company, champion of scientific progress (well, sorta…) and author of truly epic speeches, such as the one about combustible lemons, which I will let you savour firsthand. It also creates a much-enhanced backstory for the game, something that was markedly absent from the first opus. It successfully builds on the already present theme of science gone haywire, and I found that it brought welcome depth and context to the table, as well as some startling revelations. It’s also at this point that you will have to deal with a very special potato battery.

Much ado about spaceI feel I should also mention the ending of the game, which manages to be hilarious, completely crazy and emotional at the same time. Spoilers are out of the question, of course, but, just to give you an idea, the description of the achievement you receive for experiencing it reads “That just happened.” I must also put in a word for the Space Personality Core.  You’ll know why when you encounter it.

Laurel and HardyPortal 2 introduces a two-player mode instead of the challenge rooms of its predecessor. Each player is put in control of a robot and tasked with testing out experimental chambers. Since they are robots, they are in no danger of dying, which makes them perfect for the job and is precisely the reason why they were created for testing. There’s a squat, rotund ‘male’ robot with a blue eye called Atlas and a tall, oblong ‘female’ one with a yellow eye called P-Body: they even made it onto the game’s cover, which, admittedly, is a bit misleading, because they barely appear in the main game, and you never control them. Be that as it may, in two-player mode, each has a portal gun, which allows players to work with four portals instead of two and thus greatly expands the scope of what they can do. Again, as with all multiplayer modes, I’ve not touched it, so I can’t really give an opinion on it. However, I’ve heard a lot of praise for it, and I have to admit that the robots are cute, at least, and that the Portal universe lends itself to this kind of gameplay pretty much ideally.

Good adviceOverall, I thought Portal 2 was an excellent follow up to its predecessor, expanding on the original story in all the good ways and creating a wonderfully exhilarating, fun experience, filled with humour, surprises and even more gravity-defying stunts. Of course, there will always be things to criticise, and complaints have included a lack of direction in the second act of the game or the length of loading times. None of that bothered me, however; I had a genuine blast and, to anyone who hasn’t played this yet, I put the following question: “what are you waiting for?”

Three is a crowd

The culprit: Fatal Frame 3/Project Zero 3: The Tormented (PlayStation 2)

She that remainsThe Rule of Three is all well and good, but it doesn’t always work. It’s also very rare that all three parts in a trilogy are of equal quality, and while the Fatal Frame series ultimately continued to a fourth and a fifth instalment, The Tormented is the tail end of a trilogy, in more ways than one. It’s still a fine piece of horror. In fact, on its own merits, it’s probably better than many horror games out there. But by comparison with its predecessors and even with its immediate successor, I felt that something was missing.

IndelibleFirst of all, the formulaic bent of the series is starting to take its toll: heroine explores sprawling locale haunted, among others, by a powerful female ghost after a gruesome ancient ritual gone horribly wrong, with a camera that has the ability to harm spirits. You still feel isolated and vulnerable, the sound effects get under your skin, the atmosphere is thoroughly creepy and disturbing, with a special mention for the the Stained Corridor, the “Under the Floor” section (…oh god) and the Flickering Hallway, as well as ghosts such as the Crawling Woman, the Engravers and Woman Brushing. However, at this point, the ratio of gruesome Shinto rituals prone to horrific failure is really starting to pile up, straining the player’s suspension of disbelief.

Doomed trioAnother formulaic element: the first game featured one protagonist, the second game two. You guessed it, The Tormented has three…and, in a flight of Dickensian fancy, they’re all related, which further undermines the suspension of disbelief. The main heroine is Rei (at least her name doesn’t start with an M like in the first two games), a 23-year-old photographer, disconsolate and guilt-stricken after losing her boyfriend, Yuu, in a car accident where she was at the wheel. Working as her assistant is Miku from the first game, now 19, and still feeling guilty over her brother’s demise. Starting to see a pattern here? The third protagonist is a novelty, as he is, uncharacteristically for the series, male. Kei is a 26-year-old writer, friend of Yuu and uncle to–surprise, surprise–Mio and Mayu from the second game, meaning that he’s also got a guilt-stricken niece on his hands. Since the series subscribes to the belief that women are naturally more sensitive to the supernatural, Kei is significantly less adept at the whole ghostbusting thing than either of his female co-stars. But hey, credit where it’s due: at least he’s there, and he’s trying.

Silent snowThe single biggest flaw of the game, in my eyes, is the sloppiness of its narrative: it tries to do too much at once. Not only do you have three intertwining storylines, but the means of their intertwining is weak at best. Basically, there’s an urban legend that states that, if a person faces unbearable guilt and/or longing for a dead loved one, they eventually have vivid dreams of a manor, which gradually become more absorbing, the person spending more and more time asleep, until they can’t wake up anymore. Additionally, their body becomes gradually covered by a peculiar tattoo. Then one day, they simply vanish, leaving behind a dark, person-shaped stain. As you can guess, this starts to affect all three protagonists, although, in Kei’s case, it’s more by proxy, since Mio is already in the advanced stages of this affliction, and he’s simply trying to help her. Which isn’t quite playing by the rules, but you could say he feels guilty for her predicament.

Shadowy menaceThis phenomenon is based on an ancient ritual, but its circumstances are so vague that it almost feels like an unnecessary addition rather than the driving force behind the game. You’re never even sure when or where it took place. And where the physical details of the rituals in the first two games were at least plausible, this one…nope. I mean, sealing a shrine in a dream? Tattoos in someone’s eyes?! There’s also something about the main villain’s anatomy that really bothers me…you’ll probably see what I mean.

Mirror, mirror on the wallThe Manor of Sleep is also a rather inchoate construct: while it has a basis in reality–the house that Rei and Miku visit at the beginning of the game–and its ‘core’ inside the dreams is the same for anyone who ‘visits’ it, it also recreates locales from each dreamer’s memory. For instance, when you’re in control of Miku, some rooms from the Himuro Mansion will appear, while when you’re in control of Kei, places from Minakami Village will pop up…even though Mio and Mayu are the ones that have been there, not him. The end result is that the game spends too much time rehashing the past and not enough time establishing its own identity, which is a glaring weakness. To add to the choppiness of the exposition, some scenes take place in the ‘real’ world, inside Rei’s apartment…which also inexplicably becomes haunted over time. Ever played Silent Hill 4: The Room? Yep, just like that. Although this does result in a shower scene that would put Psycho to shame.

Working girlSeveral gameplay features also make a comeback from the previous instalments. There are different difficulty settings, an alternate ending which becomes available after the first playthrough and a Mission Mode, which pits the characters against various combinations of ghosts. Each playthrough is graded at the end of the game, and you can use the accumulated points to purchase various goodies for subsequent playthroughs, such as additional lenses or costumes for the characters, although you first have to meet certain conditions (e.g. completing the Mission Mode with a certain grade) before they become available. Then there’s also the pause screen: just leave it on for a while for some…interesting results.

Snooping aroundGameplay and combat also remain basically the same, albeit with certain additions, some more successful than others. Whenever Rei falls asleep, either she or Miku or Kei will appear in the Manor (yes, this doesn’t make much sense). The goal is to explore, solve puzzles, and pick up notes and recordings. Rei can listen to these on her cassette player once she wakes up. She can also develop pictures she takes in the ‘real’ world and hand them to Miku for research purposes. At any point during a dream, you can choose to make Rei/Miku/Kei ‘wake up’ by exiting the Manor, if you find yourself running out of supplies. This will restore the character’s starting stock of camera film and respawn certain items, like Herbal Medicine or Purifying Candles (another SH4 callback). These are possibly the most annoying addition to the game: once you start finding them, they effectively put a timer on your explorations. Without a candle, the screen turns grey, and your character is not only more prone to ghost attacks, but the main villain (invincible at that point in the game; yet another recurrent situation in the series) also starts pursuing them until they either exit the dream or find another candle.

Deceptively safeGhosts still come in three flavours: hidden ghosts, whose presence is only signalled by the filament/capture circle of the camera turning blue; vanishing ghosts, which only appear for a short time; and hostile ghosts, which can appear randomly just about anywhere in the manor. This can happen even in a room with a save point, which is designated by a blue lantern and will become inactive if this occurs. A word of warning: there are several very difficult vanishing ghosts this time around, especially at the beginning of the game, before you reach the first save point, which means restarting if you fail to capture them…Of course, you could simply move on, but these pictures are worth quite a lot of points, which serve to upgrade the characters’ cameras.

I don't think he's swatting fliesYes, plural: in addition to having slightly different abilities, each character has a different camera. You can upgrade their basic functions (e.g. range or power), their lenses, which cost a different amount of spirit points to use (obtained from letting the camera charge up while aiming at a ghost) or their special abilities. Since there are three cameras, though, this means accumulating a LOT of points. Rei’s camera is the most balanced one, as she’s the main heroine and the one with the most screentime. Kei’s is the worst and notably doesn’t have a special ability (instead, however, he can move heavy objects and hide from ghosts). Miku can’t use lenses, but, being the most spiritually attuned of the three, she has two special abilities and a massive damage potential, in addition to being small enough to fit into crawlspaces. On top of all these camera upgrades, you will also find several add-ons that will automatically grant them new functions, such as Measure, which displays a ghost’s HP.

Shoot her now!Combat happens by aiming at a ghost with the capture circle and letting the shot charge up (c.f. the symbols around the circle) for maximum power. Film functions as ammo, and higher grades of film deal more damage, but are also rarer. You also get more points for well-framed or close-up shots, as well as shots of multiple ghosts. When the capture circle turns red, you have a “Shutter Chance”, which inflicts more damage (Rei’s special ability, Flash, helps to trigger this). If you wait until the ghost is about to attack (the Alarm function helps), you may hit the infamous “Fatal Frame”, which not only deals extra damage, but also pushes the ghost backwards and leaves it open for combos: just take another photo when the screen flashes again, and you can keep going until the ghost is defeated or out of range.

DisorientedFrankly, combat is probably the most satisfying aspect of this game, which isn’t much of a compliment, because the series’ main appeal for me, up to this point, was the effectiveness of its setting and atmosphere. The old formula still works, to an extent, but it’s starting to wear at the seams, and the haphazard lore-building genuinely hurts the game. I guess the idea was to create a cohesive whole with the previous games and bring them all to a conclusion, but this robs The Tormented of its own identity. Rei’s story had potential as a standalone, but diluting it with the other two significantly weakens it, leaving it no room to spread its wings. The result is disappointment.

Letters to the dead

The culprit: Dear Esther (PC, Mac, via Steam)

Breaking the cloudsIt’s a little difficult to say what Dear Esther really is. On the one hand, it’s been presented and advertised as a game, from indie developer thechineseroom, but you’ll quickly realise that there’s not much actual gaming involved. I guess ‘semi-interactive art film’ would be a better definition. And I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t somewhat disappointing: I went in expecting some sort of Myst-like adventure, but ended up with something very different instead. However, I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t affected at all. Quite the contrary, actually, due to a mix of haunting music, lovely visuals and some heartbreaking writing, which all mesh together to form a peculiarly mesmerizing atmosphere.

Lone sentinelThe premise is simple, if somewhat mystifying, especially in hindsight. You are put in the shoes (read: first-person view) of an unknown character, appearing on a stone jetty in front of a lighthouse on a forlorn island in the Hebrides. The game greets you with a voiceover: a man reading a letter to the “Dear Esther” of the title. And from there, you’re essentially left to your own devices. Except that all you can do is walk. You can’t jump, you can’t run (that one can get especially aggravating at times, when you have long distances to cross), you can’t even interact with your environment. No picking things up or twiddling with buttons, levers or what have you. You do have a flashlight, but that automatically turns on whenever you enter a darkened environment. Player agency? Yeah, not the game’s strong point.

Not for the hydrophobicOne thing you can do besides walking is swim, but that only sees limited use in some specific situations. If you just try to swim off the island, there’s only so far you can go before the game–rather distressingly, I might add–forces you to go under and respawn on the shore. Which makes sense, I guess: that water must be awfully cold. That said, do try it out at least once. Trust me.

Within this framework, all that’s left for you to do is explore. Observe. Listen. And take in. The game is split into five main areas of uneven size (which are gradually unlocked for easy access from the main menu once you’ve reached them in the game), and while it Standing stonesdoes keep some autosaves, you can also save wherever you like. The voiced narrative is your guiding line, popping up at predetermined spots on the island. All excerpts of letters to Esther, explaining the backstory piece by piece. The developers did pull a neat little trick here, however, to add replayability. Several different texts may trigger at the same spot, and the game randomly chooses one. And no, you can’t walk away and come back to hear a different one: you’d have to reload a save or play the game again. This allows for a slightly different perspective on the story each time.

Lonely lightThe essentials are in place fairly quickly: Esther is the narrator’s wife, and she is dead. How she died, what surrounded and followed this event, and, ultimately, why you’re on this island (and exactly who the character you’re controlling is supposed to be), I will leave you to experience for yourself. Because this is the heart of the game. And it’s beautiful, if unrelentingly sad. If I had to criticize it, I would say that the language may seem a tad overblown at times, especially towards the end, where the cohesiveness of the narrative starts to–intentionally–fall apart, and the metaphors and images become rather extravagant. Some may say that this is the game trying to show off how artsy and poetic it is, just because it can. There’s also the fact that the ending offers very little in the way of answers, and you may end up more confused than when you started out. At this point, it all depends on how receptive you are to the game’s own brand of mystique: either you buy into it, or you think Eye in the skyit’s a load of hogwash. I’m in the first category: some passages moved me profoundly. In fact, I dare you to get as far as “From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love. Come back…Come back…”, without experiencing at least a slight shiver.

Distant lightsAside from the emotional narrative, there’s the eye candy. The exterior of the island is bathed in an overcast, late afternoon light, with pinkish clouds slowly sailing across the sky, and the greyish tint of twilight beginning to settle on the forlorn landscape (it helps that this just so happens to be my favourite time of day). Besides the dilapidated lighthouse, there’s a beached cargo ship, the ramshackle remains of a hut and an aerial, blinking a red eye in the distance. Oh, and caves. Lots of caves. And, running like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout these surroundings, mysterious symbols–chemical formulas, electrical circuit diagrams, drawings–and a string of candles. Possibly ghostly figures, as well, if you’ve got a keen eye. And, accompanying all this, the music, all eerie violins and lonesome piano notes, never intrusive, occasionally goosebump-inducing, always poignant.

UnderworldOverall, I have mixed feelings about Dear Esther. On the one hand, I hesitate to qualify it as a game and feel slightly…cheated in that respect? I did spend time scribbling things down, in the hopes that they would come in useful later, to no avail. On the other hand, I’m not sure that added interaction wouldn’t have spoiled the overall impact. Because the lack of player agency becomes an integral part of the experience as you progress. Would the ability to pick up stray pieces of paper or bits of rock have added anything to it? Most likely not. Would puzzles even have made sense within the framework of the narrative? Again, probably not. So, really, I’m not sure that Esther could have been anything else than what it is: a nugget of condensed beauty, loss and sadness, defying classification. And I shall leave you with the game’s own words:

Fragile armada“From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.”

Someone else’s legend

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo Entertainment System, GameBoy Advance, Gamecube, as part of The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition, Wii and Nintendo 3DS via Virtual Console)

Forgotten heroHave you ever wondered why The Legend of Zelda series was named after Zelda? It’s not that I mind a female character getting recognition, but let’s face it: Zelda’s role in the series is secondary at best, and there are some games where she doesn’t appear at all. In fact, all things considered, it should really be The Legend of Link.

You’d think that the first game in a series would provide a good reason for its name (c.f. Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, even Final Fantasy), even if later games have a more tenuous link to it. Not so with the original Legend of Zelda: the princess only appears at the very end. And since it’s Patience is a virtuevery easy to miss the in-game backstory, which only appears if you wait instead of pressing “start” on the introductory screen, you may very well get through 99% of the game not knowing who she is or even that she exists. And you won’t know that Link is called Link either. This has actually created some confusion among players (myself included), who used to think that Link’s name was Zelda for a while.

Not that the in-game backstory is all that informative, especially if you’re playing the original NES version of the game, in which case, you’ll be treated to a painfully garbled Engrish text. The game then asks you what you want to name your character (this is where you can name Link ‘Bob’ if you haven’t watched the intro and have never played a Zelda game before), and he Helpful adviceis then plonked down in the middle of a rocky clearing in overhead view (a trademark of early Zelda games). The only noteworthy landmark in the vicinity is a cave. Inside this cave, Link finds an old guy, who tells him that it’s dangerous to go alone and hands him a sword. Either the sword is a cousin of Lilarcor from Baldur’s Gate II, or the old guy needs to get out of his cave more.

Nowadays, games often receive criticism for excessive hand-holding. Here, you’ve got entirely the reverse problem: the game omits to give you any sort of pointers as to where to go. I guess the idea was to let the player adventure at will and figure things out on their own. Which, admittedly, is a laudable goal: after all, exploration and discovery Could you be a little more specific?are what adventure is all about. Except that the desire to keep on exploring is based on finding clues and rewards, and if that is lacking, you run the risk of people simply losing interest. There are clues in this game, provided by a squad of identical old men. However, these clues are a) usually hidden in out-of-the-way rooms inside dungeons, and b) a tad on the cryptic side.

This is compounded by the fact that combat is pretty damn brutal, so aimlessly wandering around while looking for the entrance to a dungeon or a cave–which may or Keep walking...may not contain treasure or a shop–can quickly become an exercise in frustration, especially since enemies respawn whenever you leave a screen. In other words, you could randomly wander into one of the harder dungeons from the get-go, or spend five agonising, finger-nibbling minutes clearing a screen of tektites (those annoying bouncing insects) while trying not to get hit, then go to another screen, realize you’re going the wrong way, retrace your steps Go grab the money, you dolt!and have to face the same tektites again. Although you’d probably have the good sense to dash for the nearest exit this time around. That being said, slaughtering enemies is also a good source of money (or rupees, as they are called in this game), and considering just how stupidly expensive store-bought items are, this may be something you’ll find yourself forced to do sooner or later. And trust me, it’s not fun.

Total ripoffWhat’s more, not all stores have the same prices. So if you don’t know that beforehand, chances are you’ll find yourself cashing out for a bottle of potion…only to find the same potion being sold for much cheaper at another store a few screens away. And yet the game never tells you these things! It’s as if it were intentionally designed to penalize newcomers, which is completely mind-boggling to me. To add insult to injury, there are the archery mechanics. At one point in the game, Link acquires a bow. But the game apparently decided that arrows were too much of a hassle to implement. So, in exchange, each shot automatically subtracts the cost of an arrow from Link’s wallet. There’s no clearer metaphor for throwing your money away.

Target practiceCombat difficulty is further increased by the fact that Link doesn’t handle very well, only being able to attack facing the four cardinal directions. What’s more, while he has a shield, he can only block projectiles (not melee hits) and only if they so happen to align with said shield. In other words, avoiding damage is a losing battle. The problem here is that, when Link’s life-meter–represented by a line of hearts at the top of the screen–is full, his sword gains the ability to shoot lasers energy out of its blade, thus allowing him to attack enemies from a distance. This is extremely handy, but it also makes avoiding damage that much more crucial. And that much more frustrating when you can’t.

At this point, Zelda fans would probably say “come on, this is an old game, cut it some slack and look at its legacy!” Yes, this is an old game. And yes, oldschool games did have this tendency to be finger-numbingly difficult. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the first Super Mario Bros. That aside: it’s not because the game is par for the course with its contemporaries that it’s necessarily still enjoyable nowadays, even accounting for the innovations it helped introduce. The ability to save comes to mind: this was one of the first games to have this kind of feature. That’s great and all, but you "Save" is just a manner of speakinghave to get Link killed to be able to do this. You’ll excuse me if I don’t jump for joy. What’s more, whenever Link gets killed, he loses all the consumables he acquired prior to that point. So, say you made the effort to collect rupees to buy some bombs and potions prior to entering a dungeon, but then Link got killed by the boss. When he respawns, he’ll lose all the items he bought…but won’t get his money back. And if only for this reason, I never even tried finishing this game on console. Back when I first got it on NES, it was too difficult, and when I purchased it as part of the Gamecube Zelda collection, I didn’t even try playing (especially after seeing what Zelda II was like…), but went straight for an emulator instead. I’d rather conserve my progress when I save, thank you very much.

Objectively, this game does contain all the basics of a Zelda game. There’s a lad named Link, who must rescue Princess Zelda from the evil Ganondorf while collecting pieces of the Triforce. The gameplay and combat involve a variety of collectable objects, many of which have since become staples, The fountain of lovelike the boomerang. Many iconic enemies and creatures–such as tektites, keese or fairies–pop up. Even the music will be reused in later titles. But that’s just it: everything is basic. And if you’ve played the later games in the series, chances are you’ll feel like something’s missing. If you haven’t played them…don’t bother with this, unless you like gaming archaeology or have a massive bout of nostalgia. The game hasn’t aged well.

One person’s legend is another person’s nightmare. And this certainly isn’t my legend. Nor is it really Zelda’s, for that matter.

Very bad trip

The culprit: Sanitarium (PC)

Wake in frightI knew it would be difficult–if not impossible–for any game to match Amnesia in my horror charts, but that didn’t prevent me from continuing my search for inventive representatives of the genre. I can’t remember now where I first heard of Sanitarium–a fairly obscure effort by the now-defunct DreamForge Intertainment (sic) published in 1998. But hear about it I did, and its premise of a delirious romp through a man’s disturbed psyche intrigued me enough to pick it up from GOG.com.

The ‘delirious romp’ element is certainly there. You are put in the shoes of Max Laughton, a medical researcher, whom you first see leaving a hospital in a hurry, taking his car and making an excited phonecall to his wife. However, it’s a rainy night, Max is driving hard on a winding road, and his brakes end up failing, sending him over a railing and into a ravine. Welcome to the loony binHe then awakens inside what appears to be a mental asylum, with bandages all over his face and a serious case of amnesia. How he got there and why–a car accident doesn’t equate to madness, after all–, that’s up to you to discover. It quickly becomes apparent that Max’s environment is not real, and he wanders from one nightmarish vision centred on a common horror trope (e.g. children, aliens, body horror, clowns, insects, hospitals, ghosts, divine curses) to another, sometimes even finding himself embodying different characters. During these travels, there are short bouts of lucidity, and ultimately, the visions do provide the key to what really happened to him.

In urgent need of plastic surgeryThis is a fairly solid premise, and discovering the various scenarios that Max goes through is the main attraction of the game. Some are more successful than others–especially the two opening episodes and the conclusion to the circus episode–and while I wouldn’t say any of them are downright frightening, some are seriously disturbing. There are many graphic scenes, images and descriptions–blood, slime, corpses and body parts–, and even though the dated graphics and isometric view dampen the impact, I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re especially sensitive or squeamish. That said, I should put a word in for one of the final scenarios, where Max is put in the shoes of what is probably the last character you’d expect. The problem is that, as the plot unravels, you Stephen King would have a field dayrealize that the underlying storyline just isn’t all that compelling, and that while Max’s nightmares feel symbolic and get under your skin, you’re sometimes not entirely sure what it is they’re symbolic of. And while they’re interesting in and of themselves (certainly more so than the actual plot…), there’s really not much to connect them together, thus resulting in a disjointed experience.

Still, the atmosphere is properly eerie and gruesome, and the ideas are there. However, a game lives and dies by the execution of its potential, and, in this case, if the execution isn’t outright fatal, it at least leaves Sanitarium moribund.

QuestionnaireThis is a point-and-click game, and progress is based on an uneven mix of puzzle-solving and combat. Max can converse with NPCs to gather clues about his surroundings via a system that feels like a hybrid between Mass Effect and Final Fantasy II. Every interlocutor has their own list of topics or questions they can address, sometimes sequentially, meaning that discussing one topic will grant you access to another one. Max can also pick up a variety of objects, stored via an inventory system, which he will then use to interact with his environment. As for the uneven distribution between puzzles and combat, there are only two battles in the game. It seems that more were originally planned, but never made the cut, for some reason or other. This has a strange consequence. On the one hand, it feels like a jarring imbalance, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t think that combat is a necessity in a game. On the other hand, however, it’s probably just as well that there isn’t more of it, considering how painfully clunky the Want some pumpkin pie?controls are. It’s very simple on paper: you automatically enter combat stance and simply need to click on the enemy to attack it. But compound that with a moving target which you can’t lock onto and you have yourself a recipe for frustration. To make matters worse, the way movement is designed in this game makes it near impossible for Max to dodge incoming attacks. Granted, this is a bit of a moot point, since you’re allowed to save wherever you like and, if Max dies, he’ll simply respawn prior to the combat sequence. But you must still win the fights to progress, and this is, therefore, distinctly aggravating.

It only looks straightforwardTo clarify the movement issues: you pick a direction and keep the right mouse button pressed while Max saunters over to where you need him to be; he can’t run. This is already awkward to achieve, but he also has an outright maddening tendency to get stuck on corners or simply not move quite where you directed him. Having delved into the issue, I found out that this is apparently due to the programmers skimping on movement angles. Be that as it may, there are instances where this may make you want to tear your hair out, particularly during the finale, where you’re presented with a ‘walking’ puzzle involving shifting patterns and a timer.

When a game has no fatal flaws, it’s easy to overlook and forgive minor ones, like graphics or voice acting. When there is a fatal flaw, however, these small aggravations suddenly become so much weight to drag the game down further, and this is exactly what You talkin' to me?happens here. Stilted movements, plasticky-looking cinematics, pseudo-humorous credits, shoddy voice acting, it all comes to the fore. Max himself is the greatest offender here, with many of his lines sounding forced, overemphatic or gratingly whiny. Mind you, we’re not talking Valkyrie Profile levels of quality (or lack thereof) here, but then Valkyrie Profile had a lot to redeem itself. This game…not so much.

It's right next to Crazyville via Bonkers RoadTo sum it all up, I’d call Sanitarium more of a curio than a must-have. It starts off with good intentions–or at least original ones–, and there are moments of genuine creepiness and unease, but the delivery is so uneven that it mars the overall product. Ultimately, it feels a bit like watching a bunch of B-movie excerpts: entertaining, perhaps even intriguing, but overall sloppy and inchoate.

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”.

State of grace

The culprit: Journey (PlayStation 3, via PlayStation Network)

The beginningIt’s seldom that I’m blindsided, swept away and awestruck by a game. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Journey, the latest offering from indie developer Thatgamecompany. Having downloaded it upon a friend’s recommendation, I started out with little more than idle curiosity, only to be promptly and thoroughly spellbound. It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most stunningly beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play and a uniquely emotional experience in its own right, made all the more powerful by the fact that it doesn’t contain a single spoken word. Simply put: it goes straight for the heart.

The game opens on a sweeping vista of a desert; glittering sand as far as the eye can see, inexplicably dotted with a multitude of gravestones, while a lonely cello spins out a thread of melody (“Nascence”). Then what looks like a shooting star goes streaming across the sky, Sandy munchkinlanding beyond one of the dunes. The next thing you know, the camera pans down to reveal your character, sitting cross-legged in the sand, as if meditating. This queer little figure in a long red cloak is immediately sympathetic in and of itself, with its glowing white eyes, shadowy face and what appear to be small pointy ears peeking at the top of its hood. As you pan the camera around, a dune with two gravestones on top comes into view, and climbing it reveals your goal: the silhouette of a mountain with a cloven summit looming ominously in the distance. As for the purpose and meaning of this journey, that’s for you to determine. The game doesn’t give any definite answers.

First stepsThe gameplay is very straightforward, yet elegant. The first notable thing you come across after descending the initial dune is a shining white symbol on top of a small ruin. Approaching it has the effect of creating a short strip of cloth with glowing embroidery at the back of your character’s hood, like a short scarf. You’ll also notice more strips of cloth fluttering above the symbol. The scarf enables your character to fly (by flapping their cloak like wings), as long as there is embroidery remaining. When it runs And whee!out, approaching the aforementioned fluttering strips of cloth will recharge it, and you’ll notice several clumps of them dotted around the landscape. Moreover, finding more white symbols will gradually extend the scarf, thus allowing for longer bursts of flight, which is an infinitely more graceful means of locomotion than running around on spindly little legs.

Strips of cloth come in a lot of varieties, from small patches like the ones you encounter at the beginning, which resemble schools of fish, to long, seaweed-like bands and other living creatures which appear to be entirely made of cloth. They all Encounterhave aquatic characteristics, and, indeed, after a while, it seems more like your character is swimming rather than flying. Anything made of cloth will also recharge your character’s scarf. The most common type of creature vaguely resembles a dolphin. They emit soft chirping noises, tend to travel in packs and will occasionally carry your character on their backs, if asked.

Singing in the sandAsked? Why, yes. I did say there wasn’t a single spoken word in the game, but that doesn’t mean your character is mute. Pressing O will make them sing a note. The longer you keep O pressed before releasing it, the louder and stronger the note. This has various effects: it will call any nearby cloth creature for assistance, and, more generally, serves to interact with any cloth construct you encounter. Moreover, if you’re an inquisitive explorer, you’ll come across several murals which appear blank at first glance, but will reveal carvings or glyphs when ‘sung’ to. These might not make much sense at first (not the first one you find, at least), but they help to establish the game’s backstory.

Lady in whiteSpeaking of backstory, there’s another, more straightforward means of filling it in. The game is subdivided into several stages or levels, punctuated by platforms with a statue of a robed figure which looks a lot like your character. Interacting with these will trigger visions describing how the desert and the ruins came to be, as well as allowing you to progress to the next stage of the journey. It’s a simple, but all-too-sad tale of paradise lost, and every vision is steeped in a regretful, nostalgic aura.

Deep blueBoth of these feelings permeate the game, which isn’t to say that they’re the only ones. Every stage of the journey has its own look, dynamic and prevalent emotion associated with it: wonder, awe, empathy, exhilaration, fear, enchantment, determination, as well as both hope and despair. And all this is achieved exclusively through exquisite visuals and sound. Austin Wintory’s music meshes in seamlessly with the environment and events, the prevalence of strings creating a poignant general atmosphere. Graphically, colours are vibrant, movement is fluid, and the omnipresent sand ends up becoming an entity of its own, more akin to water. You may notice that your character ‘surfs’ down steep dunes, and there is an absolutely breathtaking episode involving what can only be described as Stream of golda rushing river of sand, turning to liquid gold in the sunlight. This is immediately followed by a trek through some menacing, dark tunnels with a decidedly aquatic atmosphere, even though there isn’t a drop of water involved, culminating in a luminous swim through the air. And the final sequence…well, I’ll just leave you with the word ‘transcendental’.

Once you’ve finished the game, the first level becomes a hub: you can access any stage from the circular arena right before the first vision statue. Moreover, a group of stones on the lower right of this arena keeps track of all the white symbols Ghostlyyou’ve found across all playthroughs. Should you find all 21, a clump of seaweed-like cloth will appear nearby, enabling you to turn your character’s cloak white (like the figures in the end-of-stage visions). This white cloak has a longer default scarf, which also regenerates automatically, thus making your character more autonomous and more mobile. What’s more, every time you finish the game (up to three), more embroidery is added to the regular red cloak.

Journey has another peculiarity: you can play it offline or online, and depending on which you choose, it will be a vastly different experience. If you play offline, you’ll obviously be on your own. If you play online, you will run across other characters during your explorations. Outwardly, they look exactly like your own, give or take some embroidery or a white cloak. Other than that, you have no clue of who they are and no Travelling companionsmeans to interact with them except by ‘singing’. While this may appear awkward and restrictive at first, you’ll quickly find that a wordless camaraderie tends to develop on its own, based on that most primal of sensations: the feeling of another living creature keeping you company. There’s even a physical manifestation of this, as walking close together will enable your characters to recharge each other’s scarves. If you manage to make it all the way through the game with one person, that companionship will definitely be both valuable and welcome in the final stages. I was even surprised at how distressed I was to lose my first companion at that point, although this may have also been due to the circumstances in which it happened. A list of the usernames of every person you bumped into during your journey is displayed after the credits roll, but there’s no indication of who was which. Overall, this upholds the impression that you’ve just shared something universally human with a stranger. That is, of course, provided the people you encounter do travel with you; some will just run by on their own merry way. As a side-note, if you are with a companion for the final end-of-stage vision, it will reflect that fact, which I found to be a thoughtful little detail.

GloryAll in all, I have no real criticism about Journey. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may find it too short, too cryptic, too contemplative, too simple, too restrictive in terms of online options or even lacking long-term replay value. I, however, was left with nothing but a warm, bemused melancholy after the credits finished rolling…and after the wave of goosebumps I got from the song which accompanied them (“I Was Born for This”) subsided. And if only for that, I’m happy to have had this experience. A truly unforgettable game.