Snakes for breakfast, frogs for lunch

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Ahh, my favourite MGS game. Which may be odd, since it features several noteworthy differences from the rest of the series: a) it’s mostly set outdoors in a jungle, b) it doesn’t involve Metal Gear as a final opponent, and c) it includes some gameplay elements that are either new or haven’t been reused since. Heck, it doesn’t even feature Solid Snake.

"Badass" is his middle nameLet me qualify that last statement: it doesn’t feature Solid Snake in name only. The protagonist is Naked Snake (…no comment), who will later become known as Big Boss, arch-nemesis and biological ‘father’ of Solid (and Liquid and Solidus). If you’ve played the first two games, you’ll know that they’re not so much his children as his clones, so essentially, you’re controlling a character who looks and sounds exactly like Solid Snake, and behaves pretty much like him too. And everyone calls him Snake anyway.

The main opponent is not Metal Gear simply because it hadn’t been invented at the time. Its predecessor is involved, though, bearing the much more pedestrian name of The woman in chargeShagohod (literally “which moves by walking” in Russian). The game is set in Cold War USSR and involves Snake’s former mentor–known as The Boss–defecting to the Soviets, while he has to prevent a nuclear incident from escalating into outright war and rescue a Soviet scientist who had defected to the US but was subsequently used as a bargaining chip to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. This setting serves to increase the series’ similarity to a Bond film. This is further enhanced by the inclusion of a hammy, Bondesque theme song with hilariously preposterous lyrics like “someday you go through the rain, and someday you dine on a tree frog”.

This brings us to the main gameplay mechanic and the reason behind the game’s title. Since Snake gets dumped in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back and his gun, he has to rely on the local flora and fauna to survive. In addition to his Life Gourmet menumeter, he has a Stamina meter, which gradually depletes and affects his aim accuracy, among other things. The only way to recover Stamina is to find some grub. However, to complicate matters, not all foodstuffs have the same nutritional value. Some are downright poisonous (this, however, can be used against enemies), some Snake just doesn’t like the taste of and therefore won’t recover much Stamina from (but he can get used to the taste over time and even grow to like it), and some require skill to catch (cf. Gavials or the elusive LegendaryTsuchinoko). Other foodstuffs, like the False Mango, have medicinal properties, and the Russian Glow Cap mushroom can even recharge batteries…which makes you wonder whether those nukes in the Shagohod aren’t leaking or something. One thing to take into consideration, however, is the fact that, although Snake can catch up to three live animals, he has no way of actually preserving food, meaning that it will spoil after a while (signalled by flies appearing on its menu icon). Specifically, as the game has an internal clock, if you quit and come back to that save later, you’ll be guaranteed to find every non-industrial food item spoiled. And while I must applaud the game’s realism, it can become aggravating to constantly renew your food supplies.

Instant diagnosisI mentioned medicinal properties, and this is another feature specific to the game: Snake can get seriously wounded (eg. break a bone) or poisoned, which will affect his Life meter until treated. Each type of injury requires a specific treatment routine (eg. disinfecting or suturing). Again, bonus points for realism, but it does mean that you have to keep an eye on your medical supplies.

UnsuspectingOther than this, the controls are very similar to previous games, so you won’t have any difficulties if you’re a veteran of the series. One difference is the absence of a radar, due to the fact that the game is set in the ‘60s. Instead, you can use a motion detector system, which basically performs the same function. However, the stealth element has received a significant upgrade with the addition of camouflage. Snake can change his outfit and even his face paint to blend in with his surroundings. These are indicated atBricked the top right of the screen, alongside a camouflage percentage. Obviously, the higher the better, and crouching or lying down will increase the percentage further. You can find new outfits and face paints as you progress, and picking the right one in any given situation is a definite tactical plus. Although you do have to wonder where exactly he stows all those outfits (in particular, the crocodile cap…).

Femme fataleAs far as characters are concerned, the game fares a lot better than its immediate predecessor. For starters, you’ve got EVA, who acts as a competent sidekick for Snake, even though her status as the game’s official ‘femme fatale’ wouldn’t have been diminished if she’d zipped up her overalls at least a little bit more. The villain department can also stand proud. The Boss is a strong, charismatic presence throughout the game, miles ahead of anything Solidus Snake could ever hope to achieve. Unfortunately, the game ends up contriving a completely ludicrous reason (that is NOT how a caeserean works) for her to flash some cleavage as well during Snake’s inevitable confrontation with her. It’s a dent to her credibility, but as it occurs through no actual fault of her character, I just try to ignore it.

Moreover, not only does a young Revolver Ocelot make an appearance (although he’s rather annoying this time around), but the familiar group of sub-bosses is more memorable than the MGS2 ones. The Boss used to be part of a Soviet special forces squad, the Cobra Unit. Each member of the unit is named after a specific emotion which they associate with combat (eg. The Fury or The Pain) and has a characteristic way of fighting to go with it. Special mention Pretty sly for an old guygoes to The End, the extremely old sniper, whose boss battle involves Snake trying to sneak up on him over three separate areas. This is rendered more difficult by the fact that he’s an expert at camouflage, can recover stamina from sunlight, relocates every time Snake shoots him and has a parrot which acts as a spotter. However, the game’s internal clock can be used to humorous advantage here. If you save during the battle and come back to the game after a week, The End will have died of old age.

Each MGS game has its own theme: the first one revolved around genetics, the second around memetic engineering. Snake Eater deals with moral and cultural relativism. This is exemplified by the various defections throughout the game and drives home (with a baseball bat) the fact that different sides of a conflict result from different cultural backgrounds and circumstances, and that those circumstances can change. This is particularly relevant for Naked Snake himself, since he will be considered as a villain in later games. I found this to be a more compelling thematic than the two preceding ones, even though it’s unavoidably treated with the same overdramatic flair as anything in MGS. And, of course, silly humour still abounds. For instance, the Target practicecollectibles in this game no longer include the usual dog tags, but instead…toy frogs, named Kerotans, scattered in semi-hidden locations throughout the game. Shooting all of them (and there’s a handful of infuriatingly difficult ones towards the end) will grant you the Kerotan codename at the end of the game, as well as the Stealth camo (which makes Snake invisible) for subsequent replays.

I must, however, mention something which I found particularly grating. The game does a surprisingly good job with its Russian. Most of the place names are believable, and they’re even transcribed correctly on the loading screens 99% of the time. Even most of the character names are realistic. But then…the game throws the ludicrous “Adamska” at you during the final cutscene. And they were so close to getting it right…Oh, and one more thing: this game features the most incomprehensible caesarean ever. You’ll see what I mean.

No parleyBe that as it may, I must still commend Snake Eater. It delivers everything which makes MGS fun and does so in spades. It’s possible that the stronger Bond parallels made me enjoy it more, but whatever the reason, I had a blast playing this. Especially due to the fact that I’d seen the infamous “Crab Battle” video prior to starting.

In fact, if at all possible, try to get your hands on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, a remake released two years after the original and also the version included in the HD Collection. Not only does the game now include a free third person camera (invaluable), but also extra camo items. Additionally, a separate disc titled Persistence features various extras, such as a Boss Duel Mode, a Secret Theatre featuring Computers galorehumorous cutscenes, a silly minigame called Snake vs Monkey, but, more importantly, the first two games in the saga, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which were previously all but unavailable outside Japan. Honestly, they’re old games, and not really much to write home about, but if you’re interested in the origins of MGS, then this is for you. The disc also features Metal Gear Online, a multiplayer mode which has since become obsolete, so it can safely be disregarded. Finally, the European edition of Subsistence (and the limited US edition) includes a third disc titled Existence, which basically strings together all the game’s cutscenes, condensing it into something like a film format. For people who want an even more cinematic experience.

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.

Goth and cheese

The culprit: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2)

I’d never played a Castlevania game before, but I’d heard plenty about them, so I thought I’d see for myself what the fuss was about. Lament of Innocence being chronologically the first episode in the series, that’s where I decided to start. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it (mostly) chronicles a century-spanning feud between one family, the Belmonts, and none other than Dracula (it even integrates Bram Stoker’s novel into its chronology). The gist, then, is killing vampires. With whips. Go figure.

Full-on gothConsidering the subject matter, you may expect cheesiness. And you’d be right. As is fitting when dealing with vampires (*throws bricks at Twilight*), the games are steeped in gothic and baroque imagery, albeit with an anime twist. Expect looming castles filled with ominous statuary; rainy nights over dark forests; pale, virginal maidens who get abducted; demonic creatures and fiendish traps; hammy dialogue; long-limbed, sharp-featured virtuous heroes, and a (thankfully) non-sparkling Dracula waiting for them at the end. Although you have to wonder at the efficiency of it all…I mean, if Dracula keeps coming back, maybe they should take a hint and start using stakes instead of whips? Just saying.

Indy called, he wants his whip backBe that as it may, since Lament of Innocence deals with the origins of Dracula, he’s not actually the game’s main antagonist. That title goes to another vampire, rather ludicrously named Walter. Don’t know about you, but that says ‘dignified English butler’ rather than ‘bloodthirsty fiend’ to me. Anyway, the game takes place in 1094, and the hero is Leon Belmont, a blonde nobleman in a distinctly non-XIth century outfit, whose bride gets kidnapped by Jeeves. Obviously, he rushes to the rescue with help from an alchemist named Rinaldo who lives in a cabin near the vampire’s castle (read: he will be Leon’s go-to supplier throughout the game). It seems that Alfred gets a kick out of kidnapping brides and defeating the suitors who come to rescue them, and Rinaldo’s not exactly down with that.

Is that tomato juice?Leon is fairly reactive and easy to control, and the game guides you through a tutorial sequence at the beginning to get acquainted with his moves. He can run, jump, double-jump (i.e. gain an extra boost in midair) and latch onto things with the magical whip given to him by Rinaldo. The whip is also his main weapon, and he can upgrade it by facing three optional bosses. There are several combos he can perform with it, all of which are automatically learned and helpfully listed in the menu. He also has access to several sub-weapons, such as an axe or a vial of holy water, of which he can equip one at a time (you do have opportunities to swap them, however). Sub-weapons can be used to perform special attacks, but consume energy, measured in hearts. These are sometimes dropped by enemies, but can also be found by breaking Holy protection, bitchez!candle-stands. Sub-weapons can be further powered up by coloured orbs obtained after defeating the main storyline bosses, which lends a lot of variety to combat. Things tend to get a bit hairy when enemies attack in large groups, however, which isn’t helped by the fact that opening the menu in combat doesn’t pause the action and renders Leon unable to attack.

In terms of defence, Leon has a magical gauntlet, which can be used for guarding against attacks. Furthermore, if guarding against a special attack or performing a perfect guard (guarding at the last possible moment before an attack hits), Leon will recover MP. Unfortunately, this is the only way to do so, which can sometimes be aggravating. MP are used to power relics: various offensive or defensive magical objects (such as the Invincible Jar or the Crystal Skull) of which Leon can also only equip one at a time. A suit of armour and two accessories complete his outfit.

Apart from the engaging combat system, the game also does a good job in the setting department. Nestor’s castle is enormous. I mean, it’s the size of a town. The entrance lobby is a hub area, from which Leon can access various wings of the building. There Do vampires go to church?are seven in total, each with its own general thematic, atmosphere and overdramatically pompous name. For example, the House of Sacred Remains looks like a sprawling cathedral, the Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab is a fiery forge, and the Ghostly Theatre looks like you’ve stumbled backstage at the opera, while the Garden Forgotten by Time is an overgrown ruin and the Dark Palace of Waterfalls is just a poetic name for the sewers. These five areas are available from the beginning, and clearing each one will earn Leon one of the aforementioned coloured orbs, which will light up a corresponding globe in the lobby. Once all have been lit, he will gain access to the Pagoda of the Misty Moon, He could use a makeoverwhich looks nothing like a pagoda, but leads up to the final confrontation with Jenkins. The seventh area is the Prison of Eternal Torture, containing a very difficult optional boss, if you’re eager for a challenge and an extra coloured orb. Although it’s definitely not for the squeamish. There’s just one problem: the only indication as to the order in which to explore these areas is a hint on where to go first, but after that, you’re on your own. Which means that you could pick wisely…or wander into the Dark Palace of Waterfalls and tear your hair out. It doesn’t help that each area features a locked door which usually leads to a nifty item, but requires a key found in a different part of the castle. That means backtracking through respawning enemies, which can get distinctly tedious, due to the sheer size of the areas and the developers’ inordinate love for all things corridor-y. That being said, there are some ways to ease the pain. First of all, save points (situated in small rooms marked in red on the map) will always replenish Leon’s HP. Secondly, Magical Tickets will whisk him off to Rinaldo’s shop from anywhere within the castle, while Memorial Tickets will take him back to the latest save point he used. Thirdly, he can use coloured Marker Stones to signal points of interest on the map.

Floor websThe one indisputably successful aspect of this game is the music. Michiru Yamane’s score is simply fantastic, featuring beautiful, haunting melodies, such as the theme of the House of Sacred Remains (my personal favourite), with its slow buildup, the measured lilt of the Garden Forgotten by Time or the dramatic flair of the Ghostly Theatre. Even the more surprisingly rhythmical Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab works well with its environment. This is a great bonus for the game’s atmosphere, almost counterbalancing all the backtracking, and possibly what I enjoyed the most about it.

Girdle of smokeThe game also makes an effort in the replayability sector. Once Leon is done showing Poole who’s boss–notably lambasting him with a ham of epic proportions (“I’ll defeat you AND the night!”)–you have several new options. You can play in Crazy mode, which will significantly raise the difficulty level. You can also play the Boss Rush mode, which strings all the game’s bosses together back-to-back, provided you’ve beaten them in the course of the storyline (this includes all optional bosses). You can start a new game with all of Leon’s skills learned, or, more interestingly, with a different protagonist. The first one available is Joachim, a vampire whom you may remember as a boss. He has a longstanding feud with Winston, and the story changes accordingly. There are a few crucial differences between him an Leon, namely that he uses magical swords which circle Blade barrieraround him instead of a whip and can’t block enemy attacks. The lack of a whip also means that he can’t perform acrobatics, but the game accommodates him by introducing moving blocks instead. Joachim also can’t equip or carry any items (Rinaldo won’t deal with him, and anything he finds is consumed immediately), although he can collect stat upgrades. All in all, it makes the game distinctly more challenging, especially if you decide to take on the optional bosses.

Trick or treat?Once you’ve cleared the game with Joachim, you’ll unlock another protagonist: Pumpkin, an…adorable little munchkin with a pumpkin for a head and giant sweets for hands. He has puny HP and MP, and his only sub-weapon is *gasp* a pumpkin, but boy, does he pack a wallop. Especially since he starts with the strongest whip in the game. In all other respects, he handles exactly as Leon did, which, amusingly, makes him the most powerful character of the three. As an added bonus, leave him idle for a while, and he’ll start humming Joachim’s theme tune.

My name is WALTER, dammit!All in all, this is a decent bit of entertainment. The storyline is nothing to write home about, the characters are cardboard cutouts, the voice acting is mediocre at best, the dialogue is cheesy as all hell, and Wilkins is a terrible name for a vampire. On the other hand, the combat system is entertaining, and while exploration does get repetitive, the lavish, gloomy gothic castle and its various musical pleasures do have definite style. I’ve noticed that Castlevania fans tend to snub this particular entry in the series, but while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it’s not a complete disaster either, as some may lead you to believe.

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.

A wolf in hero’s clothing

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GameCube, Wii)

In the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time (or OoT) stands tall as a monument of greatness. It’s the most famous and the best-loved opus, and for those who have played it before Twilight Princess, it almost invariably wins by comparison. Well, not for me.

Of course, I recognise the older game’s merits and fully agree that it has earned its status. I’m aware how heavily it has influenced the series, Twilight Princess included. In fact, you’ll find many elements from OoT peppering the game: from Epona the Sharpshootinghorse, to the Gorons and Zoras, to the Temple of Time. Link also gets a female sidekick, although she’s a distinct step up from Navi. Even the controls are largely similar, involving quick-button mapping, lock-on targeting and so on. There’s also a musical element involved, although it’s significantly less prominent than in OoT (or in Majora’s Mask, or in The Wind Waker, for that matter). Still, even with all the borrowing going on, Twilight Princess is my favourite Zelda game to date.

The first reason, shallow as it may sound, would be the graphics. I’m sure that even the most diehard OoT fans will agree that N64 graphics weren’t exactly of the highest quality, and that they made numerous NPCs look really ugly. I mean nightmare-fuel ugly. Not so here: Twilight Princess is, first and foremost, lovely to look at. It couldn’t hold a candle to some of its contemporaries on beefier consoles, but that’s not really Dappled groundthe point. To me, the Zelda series has always had a fairytale-like quality to it, and this game does it ample justice. Whether it be the quaint Ordon village, where Link resides, the lush forest which surrounds it, the green fields of Hyrule, the sweeping expanse of Lake Hylia or the grandiose architecture of Hyrule Castle, every environment is bright, warm (well, except Snowpeak) and alive, striking what I find to be exactly the right note for this kind of game. All these locales are populated with quirky, colourful characters who no longer look like they’re auditioning for Playing the herothe latest Tim Burton film (well…mostly *edges slowly away from Fyer and Falbi*). Most importantly, the graphics greatly help in the expressiveness department, which is vital in making a silent protagonist relatable, and Link’s baby blues and sharp features have never looked so good. Especially since he spends the entire game as an adult, rather than switching between being 7 and 17, as he did in OoT.

The second reason is the gameplay. While the basics are essentially a direct copy of OoT, there is one major innovation. According to the storyline, the kingdom of Hyrule becomes parasitized by the Twilight Realm, a dimension which usually exists in parallel to the ‘normal’ world, but suddenly begins to manifest directly into it, shadowy black monsters included. It appears as a golden glow with dark particles rising up from the Lupine accessorisingground, and transforms Hyrule’s inhabitants into spirits. However, Link, who holds the Triforce of Courage, as he usually does in the series, reacts to it in quite a different way: he transforms into a large wolf. And while this feature unfortunately dwindles in importance as the game progresses, it nevertheless lends a welcome change of pace to several of the game’s sequences. Wolf Link may not be a genius swordsman or a master bowyer, but he’s fun and original to play as. Paradoxically enough, he is also instrumental in learning sword techniques: peppered around the world are stones with holes in them, which look like Gossip Wolf karaoke!Stones from OoT and produce a melody when the wind blows through them. By howling along with the melody (there’s your musical element), Wolf Link can trigger sequences which allow vanilla Link to perfect his swordplay. Some of these techniques are particularly handy, by the way, lending an extra layer of sophistication to combat.To continue in the gameplay department, one of the main features of any Zelda game are the various gadgets Link picks up during his travels, such as a boomerang or bombs. While the selection available in this game is fairly run-of-the-mill, it does feature three highlights. Bomb arrows–which, as their name implies, can be created by attaching a bomb to an arrow–allow for long-range destruction without the iffy aim of simply throwing a bomb (they can still detonate in Link’s face if not fired promptly, however). The double clawshot turns Link into a Spiderman-wannabe and allows him to perform aerial stunts. It is acquired and abundantly used in the infamous City in the Sky dungeon, which I must Spin it like you mean itpraise for its originality (especially the boss battle at the end), but also curse abundantly for its setting. I’m afraid of heights! Finally, you have the spinner, which is best described as a clockwork hoverboard. It can attach itself to grooves in walls, propelling Link along at high speeds, which makes the boss battle in the dungeon it’s acquired from a lot of fun.

The third reason is the supporting cast. I’m sure Navi was created with the best intentions in mind, but “hey listen!” got infuriating after a while. Tatl, her successor in Majora’s Mask, did little to improve the score with her rudeness. This time around, Link Giddy up!is (literally) saddled with Midna, a mischievous, imp-like inhabitant of the Twilight Realm who has a bone to pick with the game’s main antagonist, Zant. She finds him in his wolf form and proffers her help by riding on his back and using the decidedly strange properties of her hair (which can turn into a large hand…) to help him execute certain manoeuvres. When he is in Hylian form, she hides in his shadow and continues to supply guidance. Sounds like just another variation on the annoying-yet-lovable sidekick thus far, but Midna trumps her predecessors by dint of being a fully-fledged, sympathetic character and one of the main protagonists of the game, second Cuddlyonly to Link himself. Sure, Princess Zelda’s in there too, and she both offers and needs assistance as well, but she takes a definite backseat to the driving duo, the dynamics of which are one of the game’s main perks. Other than that, there’s also a handful of resistants to Zant’s rule who try their best to help Link, making him feel a bit more integrated than his ‘lone ranger’ persona in OoT. And I must also put a word in for the pair of yetis he runs into during his travels: the female one, aptly named Yeta, is all kinds of adorable. Even though she’s a crack snowboarder and may give you trouble in the minigame which involves challenging her and her husband Yeto for a piece of heart (hearts being the typical health-measuring unit in a Zelda game).

What IS this?With all this in mind, the game does have its flaws. For one thing, the Wii and GameCube versions are mirror images of each other: as Link is traditionally left-handed, but the Wiimote isn’t, the developers solved the problem by flipping the entire game over (so what’s east on the GameCube is west on the Wii). I’d classify it as a nitpick, but Link purists may disagree. Moving along, strange creatures called Oocca have been introduced, their main gameplay purpose being to serve as quicksave points within dungeons, allowing Link to exit and come back in where he left off. I suppose this could be handy, if you found you needed to leave a dungeon for whatever reason, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them, so I find it a supremely superfluous feature. Not to mention that they look downright disturbing. There are still minigames, as mentioned earlier, usually for winning heart pieces, but if you were looking for a challenge, you may be disappointed. None of them reach the punishing heights of the archery challenges in OoT or Majora’s Mask. I actually thought that was a good thing, but your mileage may vary. However, if Sinister escortyou were getting tired of the formulaic nature of the Zelda series, this won’t be the game to change your opinion, as it is not only the spiritual successor to OoT, but retains many traditional elements of the series as well. This notably applies to the villain department. While Zant is a successfully nefarious presence for the greater part of the game, his charisma takes a nosedive towards the end, and Ganondorf still turns out to be the big bad. That being said, you do get the satisfaction Horseback heroicsof a bona fide, one-on-one swordfight between him and Link. And you could put the repetitiveness in a different perspective. Twilight Princess could be perceived as the culminating point of the OoT formula in the series. That’s certainly what it felt like to me.

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.

Double, double toil and trouble

The culprit: Fatal Frame 2/Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly (PlayStation 2, Xbox, Wii)

Dark skiesA common trend with sequels is to go the ‘bigger, better, more’ route. And while the ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ parts are easy enough to achieve, they don’t always equate to ‘better’. This, however, is not the case with Fatal Frame 2, or Project Zero 2, as European markets stubbornly persist in naming the series. While the game is bigger than its predecessor in every respect and offers a lot more content, I also find it distinctly better. In fact, I think it’s the best entry in the series. And if you thought the first game delivered in the chills-and-scares department, you won’t be disappointed here either. It’s not actually necessary to have played the first game to understand this one, as it is, in fact, a prequel, but if you have, then you may spot a couple of familiar names.

Neon butterfliesThis time, you get two heroines for the price of one, as well as an entire village instead of just one haunted house. The story follows a pair of 15-year-old twins: Mio, the plucky one in the white skirt, whom you’ll control for most of the game, and Mayu, the shy, more spiritually-attuned one in the brown dress. Mayu had an accident as a child, which left her with a limp, and Mio is very protective of her. While out on a walk near the future site of a dam, Mayu spots a crimson butterfly and follows it through the forest. Mio chases her, only to find herself in an abandoned village. The sky has darkened, and the path back through the woods has mysteriously vanished. The sisters therefore have no choice but to figure out what’s wrong with the place. The problem is that Mayu’s spiritual sensitivity soon causes trouble.

It's my party, and I die if I want toThe Fatal Frame series is nothing if not formulaic, and many things make a comeback from the first opus. You explore a haunted locale with a female character whose only weapon is a camera which has the ability to see and harm spirits: an effective combination which compounds a feeling of vulnerability with the necessity to get a good close look at ghosts. Most of the important protagonists are female, including the villains, of which the main one successfully combines creepiness and insanity. A gruesome, failed ritual is, again, at the source of the haunting, although this one has an added layer of psychological torture which ranks it a step above its peersIs it Halloween already?. It’s also early enough in the series for suspension of disbelief to work: later games suffer from the fact that you start wondering just how many gruesome rituals there are in Japan. Once you finish the game, your playthrough is graded, and you can use the accumulated points from the pictures you’ve taken to purchase goodies for any subsequent playthroughs. These include camera upgrades and different costumes for the girls. The first playthrough also unlocks an additional difficulty, an additional ending and a mission mode in which Mio can battle various combinations of ghosts. Oh, and just like in the first opus, leaving the game paused for a while produces…interesting results *shudders*.

Are we receiving?In terms of exploration and storyline progression, the tried-and-true spiel of solving puzzles, and finding notes and recordings applies. However, the puzzles are more diverse than in the first game, and, instead of an old cassette player, Mio finds a portable spirit stone radio. The idea is that some ghosts’ thoughts are trapped within gems that she’ll find lying around, which, when used with the radio, play these thoughts out like recordings. Well, whatever works.

Hey, sister, MOVE!As with the majority of action games where partners are involved, Mayu tends to be a hassle, and this is probably the most annoying aspect of the game. She’s a slow walker (or hobbler) and will complain if left too far behind. Hostile ghosts may also attack her during combat, and while this may provide Mio with a handy decoy to land a shot, Mayu’s not invincible, and if she dies, it’s Game Over. You can’t use items to heal her either, unlike Mio. Fortunately–or is it unfortunately?–this is a sporadic problem at best, because Mio spends most of the game chasing after Mayu, who quickly falls under the village’s spell and wanders off on her own; you control her for short bursts, but all she can do is walk towards a predetermined destination. On the other hand, when she does follow Mio around, Mayu is handy for pointing out important clues, as she will stop and stare at them.

Mayu-related annoyances aside, atmosphere is just as successful as in the previous game, if not more, because of the scope of the locale. The music–or rather, the background ambience–is still as unnerving, with its eerie chimes, distorted noises and furtive whispers. Random ghost encounters can occur anywhere, especially if Mio idles for too long, even in rooms containing save points (red lanterns which will turn off if a ghost is present). The decrepit village is shrouded in thick darkness, there’s Keep that camera downan ominous-looking altar located right at the entrance, the largest house is situated beyond a bridge over a murky river, a path winds off into the forest towards a dilapidated shrine, and there is also a very gloomy cemetery, where ghosts enjoy popping up as soon as Mio raises her camera. There were four influential families in the village, and thus, there are four main houses to visit: Osaka, Kiryu, Tachibana and Kurosawa. I shall take this opportunity to warn you about the Kiryu house. The unsettling atmosphere is off the charts, and it contains two of the game’s scariest/most disturbing ghosts: the Kiryu twins, of “why did you kill?” fame, and Fallen Woman, who is simply painful to look at. Another highlight of the ghost cast worth mentioning is Woman in Box, who is a direct reference to Sadako, of Ring fame.

Hey, psst, turn around!One aspect of the game which has received a substantial upgrade is combat. There are noticeably more ghosts, which often appear in groups and still come in the hidden, vanishing and hostile variety: hidden ones are only detectable when the camera’s capture circle turns blue in a specific spot, while the vanishing ones, as their name implies, will only appear for a short time, some being particularly difficult to snap. Some of these cannot be captured on your first playthrough, since they appear before Mio has the camera or require a camera function which only becomes available upon clearing the game. But since Mio will start each subsequent playthrough with the camera already in hand, this maximises replayability.

The camera itself has more diverse functionalities than in the first game. Each photo Mio takes will still grant points which can then be used to upgrade the camera’s basic functions, but it can also be further spruced up with attachments (including one which enables Mio to evade attacks) and extra lenses. These require both points and Spirit Orbs to upgrade, and serve to either cripple ghosts or deal more damage. The camera also has Don't be fooled by the cute facean infinite supply of the weakest available film, meaning that Mio will never be strapped for ‘ammo’. You still receive extra points for specific kinds of photos (close-up, well-framed, multiple ghosts), in particular the ‘fatal frame’ shot which gives the series its name. This can be taken at a moment when a ghost is particularly vulnerable (usually right before or right after an attack), but is only detectable via the aforementioned attachments. More importantly, if you hit a fatal frame, you can now combo it with a second fatal frame and possibly even a third one, if your timing is good and provided the ghost hasn’t been knocked too far back, thus racking up the damage and the points.

Unsafe corridorsAll in all, I find that this game improves on every aspect that made its predecessor successful, thus making it a big hit in my book. If you’re a fan of psychological horror, this is for you, and if there’s only one Fatal Frame game you must play, make sure it’s this one. As a heads-up, it has been recently re-released in Europe on the Wii, with updated graphics and an additional ending from the Xbox version, but also a two-player mode and some of the less successful gameplay aspects from Fatal Frame 4, which leaves me feeling ambivalent about it.

Time and time again

The culprit: Braid (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

What if you had made a terrible mistake? And what if you could manipulate time to rectify it? No, this isn’t Prince of Persia, but Braid, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed download-exclusive indie games to date. Initially available on XBLA, it has since found its way onto other platforms, thus becoming available to a wider audience. As such things often go, at first glance, it appears to be a simple platformer with a Castles in the sandchildish design and storyline. But if the game’s cover art, depicting a broken hourglass and a crumbling castle made from the spilled sand wasn’t indication enough, playing the actual game quickly reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it display treasures of ingenuity, but its plot also wanders off into distinctly non-childish territory, both wistful and ponderous. All in all, this is still one of the cleverest, most interesting games I have played, and I heartily recommend it.

The"There are some who call me..." game’s protagonist is Tim, a little red-haired fellow in a suit and tie who is trying to rescue a princess. If you did a double-take at the “suit and tie” part, you’d be on to something. The narrative, which consists of Tim’s memories and is presented in the form of short introductory texts before each of the game’s levels, is ambiguous on what the exact relationship between them was, but Tim appears to have made some kind of mistake which resulted in the loss of the princess, and would now like nothing more than to rectify it. This is all very vague, and, on a certain level, remains that way, were it not for several small clues interspersed within the texts which hint at a different kind of story behind Tim’s apparently disjointed musings and his strange quest.

The gameplay revolves around manipulating time by various means to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, some of which are deliciously tricky and require the ability to think outside the box, as well as a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Tim first appears "Our house, in the middle of our street"against an ominous backdrop of a burning city to eventually reach a quiet, night-time street and a house, which serves as the game’s hub. It contains six rooms, each with an empty picture frame and a door which leads to one of the game’s six levels. Each one of those is subdivided into several sub-levels, which contain puzzle pieces that Tim must collect, to then complete each picture frame. The last level is located in the attic and can only be reached by a ladder which gradually gains new segments as Tim clears the other levels.

Each level features a different time-related mechanic, which is reflected in its name. The first (which is actually number 2; you’ll understand why later on), called “Time and Forgiveness”, introduces the concept of rewinding time if Tim makes a mistake or plummets to his death, although you can also fast forward it when required. The second level is named “Time and Mystery” and introduces objects, outlined in sparkly green, which are unaffected by temporal manipulation (e.g. if Tim activates a green lever, it will remain activated even if he rewinds). These objects also reappear in later levels. “Time and Place”, the third level, links time to Tim’s movements: if he moves to the right, time moves forward, if he moves to the left, it Go ahead, I'm right behind ya...moves backwards. The fourth level, “Time and Decision”, introduces objects outlined in purple: whenever Tim rewinds time, his shadow will proceed to repeat his actions prior to the rewind and will be able to interact with the aforementioned purple objects. This effectively allows him to perform multiple actions at the same time. The fifth level, “Hesitance”, introduces a ring which, when dropped, will create a time-slowing bubble around itself: objects nearer to the centre of the bubble will move slower than objects nearer its perimeter. Finally, in the last level, simply titled “1”, time continuously flows backwards (meaning that rewinding makes it flow normally).

Pastoral symphonyVisually and aurally, the game is enchanting. Each level has its own atmosphere and beautifully rendered, vibrantly coloured, environments and backgrounds, which are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings. Each also has its own lovely musical theme, but both look and sound take a distinctly more sombre turn once you reach the final levels. This is also the second major clue as to the game’s most widely accepted interpretation. From then on, it’s very much a ‘so that’s what it was’ process.

You don't say...The game also contains some humorous references, including numerous callbacks to Super Mario Bros.: not only do the most common enemies in the game resemble goombas and piranha plants (and the former can be defeated by stomping on them), but the final sub-level of each level contains a small fortress with a flag, which rises as Tim reaches it, as well as a small, Where's the Holy Hand Grenade when you need it?plushy-looking dinosaur which informs him that the princess is in another castle. Apart from that, another commonly-encountered enemy in the game is almost a dead ringer for the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether Tim’s name isn’t another reference to that film…

Somewhat uncommonly by download-exclusive game standards, Braid has also put some real effort into optional goals. Some of the game’s levels contain hidden areas, accessing which rewards Tim with a star (yet another Super Mario Bros. reference). There are eight stars in total; one of them can be missed if you complete the picture-frame puzzle for the corresponding level before obtaining it, and another one requires obtaining an alternate ending for the game (which isn’t as satisfying as the normal one). "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"Each new star is added to the Andromeda constellation, which hangs above the entrance to the house in the hub level. Tim can look up at it to check his progress, and once all stars have been collected, it will slightly change its appearance, all in coherence with the game’s themes. And if that wasn’t enough, when you’ve finished the game once, a speedrun mode becomes available, netting you an achievement if you manage to complete one in less than 45 minutes.

There are very few genuine gripes I have with Braid. The major one would probably be the fact the game autosaves your progress, but does so on a single save file. Meaning that, should you fail to obtain the aforementioned missable star, for example, you would have to restart a brand new game to do so. It also means that the speedrun must be achieved in a single sitting and that, should you make a major mistake somewhere, say, in level six, you’d have to restart all the way from the beginning as well. I don’t think I need to tell you how aggravating that can be. Another gripe would be that another one of the stars takes an unnecessarily long amount of time (almost two hours simply waiting!) to obtain. Some people have also complained that the game was too short. Obviously, when you’ve cleared it once and are practicing for a speedrun, it may, On fireindeed, seem like it whisks by in no time. Although, if it’s your first playthrough, and you’re racking your brain to figure out a puzzle, but also taking time to admire the artwork and music, chances are you won’t have that impression. Bottom line: do give this little gem a try, it’s well worth it.

He should’ve listened to his old man

The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)

That can't be good...It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.

Cursed legacyPenumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, Dude...BEHIND YOU!but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.

The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would I sure hope these beams are safefeel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully Where's the cleaning crew when you need it?executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.

Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes The bare necessitiessome getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.

The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile Now would be a good time to...RUN!creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.

Gives a whole new meaning to weight-liftingAnother part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.

Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I Do I really have to go this way...?shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.