What does the counter say about his emo level?

The culprit: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 (as part of the Prince of Persia Trilogy), PlayStation Portable, PC via Steam)

You know how superhero film reboots sometimes think that grittier is better (e.g. Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman)? Well, video games sometimes fall prey to the same misconception. Case in point: Warrior Within, the second game in the Prince of Persia trilogy. It’s like Ubisoft looked at The Sands of Time and went “You know what this charming Middle Eastern fairytale is missing? Heavy metal, blood and boobs, YEAH!”. Excuse me while I roll my eyes. Even the introductory logo forms from a trickle of blood.

The game is set seven years after the end of The Sands of Time. The Prince is now being pursued by a large demon called the Dahaka and is told by an old man that this is because whoever unleashes the Sands of Time must die. As the Prince conspicuously failed to do so, it’s now the Dahaka’s job as guardian of the timeline to rectify that and erase him from existence. The old man also tells the Prince about the Island of Time, where the Empress of Time created the Sands (of Time), and where it is said that it’s possible to travel back through…time. So the Prince decides to go there to prevent the Sands from ever being created. Along the way, his ship is caught in a storm and attacked by what can only be described as a dominatrix in a metal harness with giant knives (Shahdee, although no one ever calls her by name in the game) and her crew of sand monsters, hellbent on preventing the Prince from reaching his destination. He tries to fend her off, but she kicks him into the sea and sinks the ship, leaving him stranded…on the Island of Time. Talk about being counterproductive.

The Island of Time is home to a Fortress, which features a locked central chamber, where the Empress presumably resides. The Prince’s goal is to unlock said chamber, but that’s much easier said than done. You see, the locking mechanism is controlled from two large towers situated at opposite ends of the Fortress. To make matters worse, the Fortress is currently in a rather dilapidated state, meaning that parts of the mechanism are broken or otherwise inaccessible. Fortunately, the Fortress also contains several Time Portals, which allow the Prince to travel back in time to the period where the Sands were created (again, how convenient!). Unfortunately, the Dahaka has followed him and will chase him several times over the course of the story. These sequences are easily the most exciting part of the game. They only stop because the Dahaka is apparently afraid of water, and the Fortress conveniently (…) features curtains of water falling over several doorways…Which begs the question of how the Dahaka ever made it to the Island, given that it is, y’know, an island. Is it only afraid of fresh water? Did any of the writers think this through?

Anyway, let’s try to find something positive here. The combat has been spruced up and is often considered to be the best out of all Prince of Persia games. Some things have been kept from The Sands of Time, such as the Prince drinking water to replenish his health, water fountains as save points or health upgrades in hidden locations. Although the latter are now obtained from wall panels, rather than a fountain, and are guarded by a plethora of traps. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat, and he now has two new moves: sliding down walls by planting his sword into a tapestry (and he can do this repeatedly, even when the tapestry is already shredded…) and using ropes hanging from walls to gain momentum. He no longer has the Dagger of Time, but is wearing Farah’s Medallion, which has similar sand-related properties. Thus, he can still use time-manipulating powers, such as the ever-useful Rewind ability, or Eye of the Storm, which slows down time around him. These abilities are learned by opening Time Portals and require full sand tanks to use. The Prince starts out with three and will eventually unlock three more, also by opening the aforementioned Time Portals. He also no longer needs to absorb sand from fallen enemies: the Medallion will automatically do that for him, which helps to streamline combat.

Speaking of streamlining, the Prince now has flashier, more fluid moves and more creative ways of killing stuff, such as spinning around pillars or launching himself from walls. His main weapon is a sword, but he can also use various other types of weapons in his off hand by picking them up from slain enemies or weapon racks. These weapons will deteriorate quite quickly, however, so he will constantly need to find replacements, which is rather annoying. A good way of getting rid of a badly damaged secondary weapon is to throw it at an enemy. The prince can also block attacks and vault over enemies while attacking them, which results in shiny acrobatic combos, the game sometimes going into slow motion of its own accord to showcase them. This is probably the developers addressing the criticism that the combat in The Sands of Time was boring. Apparently, they also decided that “less boring” meant “more blood”, so enemies will now bleed when struck. Despite the fact that most, if not all, of them are supposed to be made of sand. You’ll also get to see decapitations and the Prince literally slicing creatures in half, either vertically or horizontally. Can you feel the grittiness yet?

In case your answer was no, the game’s soundtrack has also undergone a radical change. Gone are the Arabic-inspired melodies of The Sands of Time, replaced by thumping heavy metal. Enemies yell and screech like hyenas (Shahdee is a particularly notorious offender in this category), and some of the Prince’s battle cries are really annoying as well. The game’s overall look is darker too, and there are semi-hidden breakable chests containing official artwork strewn about the Fortress, just to hammer that in. Talk about a lame, self-congratulatory collectible. Mind you, this probably fits the fact that the Prince has devolved from a jerk with a heart of gold into an angry, floppy-haired emo loner, out to save his own skin. Instead of having a partner to interact and grow with, like in The Sands of Time, he is now on his own and stewing in his misery (and probably hitting the comfort food, given that he looks distinctly…pudgier than before in cutscenes). Granted, the Dahaka has, presumably, been chasing him for several years (inexplicably, but conveniently waiting until The Forgotten Sands happened), which would make anyone a little grumpy. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s now a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, and the game makes a big deal of him using the word “bitch”. Oooh, the grittiness!

Let me qualify my statement about the Prince having no partner: he does get some assistance from a mysterious woman wearing strips of cloth meant to resemble a dress named Kaileena (modelled after Monica Bellucci), whom he saves from a stomping by Shahdee (but only after she asks him to). However, her aid is perfunctory at best, she never actually accompanies the Prince and has no personality or character development to speak of either. Come to think of it, neither does Shahdee, who gets dispatched very early on. What they do have are massive, gravity-defying racks and minimal clothing. Because that’s gritty and grown-up too, right? This lack of character development really becomes jarring come the true ending of the game. Because yes, there are two different endings. One where the Prince defeats the Empress of Time, and one where he defeats the Dahaka. Only the latter is canon, and you need to obtain the Prince’s best sword (after getting all health upgrades) to trigger it, but what happens after the battle felt really forced and awkward, bordering on the uncomfortable. Not to mention that the developers either have some very weird notions about biology, or the Prince has some…interesting tastes. Or Kaileena is not what she seems.

The game is also plagued by sloppiness. The graphics are less cartoonish than in The Sands of Time, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s a lot of clipping, whether it be hair through faces or clothing through limbs. Kaileena is a big offender in this department, her dress often going straight through her legs. Some of the facial textures are also bad: the Prince sometimes gets a black patch at the corner of his mouth, while Kaileena’s green irises bleed over her eyelids. The controls are also sometimes sloppy, especially when the camera decides to change angles mid-jump, and I had several instances where the Prince launched off a wall to his death into a bottomless pit because the game’s engine misinterpreted my commands. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a lot of backtracking, which just smacks of sloppy level design. What’s more, the game features several major, game-breaking glitches. The cherry on the cake? One of them can happen if the Prince has to reuse a Time Portal that he’s already used before…and the game forces you to do this to escape the Dahaka for the first time.

Ultimately, there’s little more I can say about this debacle. The impression I get is that the developers completely misunderstood what made The Sands of Time successful and focussed excessively on the one major point of criticism it received. Yes, the combat is better. But when everything else is worse, you’ve kinda shot yourself in the foot. Or even both feet. And the kneecaps too, while we’re at it. The pain, so gritty!

A-faffin’s Creed

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC and Mac via Steam)

*sigh* Here we go again…As I don’t particularly like Ezio, I already felt that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was one Ezio game too many in the series. So why did I decide to play Revelations, you may ask? It was advertised as featuring sequences with Altaïr. I also wanted to put this part of the saga to rest once and for all.

The story picks up right where Brotherhood left off. Having dispatched Cesare Borgia, Ezio discovers a letter from his late father informing him that Altaïr had a secret library in Masyaf housing all of his accumulated knowledge. So off to Masyaf Ezio goes, gets into some trouble with the Templars, but escapes and learns that he needs five seals to be able to access the library. The seals are located in Constantinople, so Ezio’s next jaunt is to Turkey. There he meets up with the local Assassin branch, stumbles into a war of succession for the throne…and finds love with a business-savvy Venetian bookseller called Sophia.

If that sounds like a flimsy excuse for a story, it’s because it is. Brotherhood already felt like filler, but at least it was a direct consequence of the second game’s plot and stuff, y’know, happened in it, mostly courtesy of Cesare. Revelations, however, is completely tangential. Sure, the Templars just so happen to also be involved in the war of succession in Constantinople, but it’s not like Ezio knew about it beforehand or specifically went there to prevent it. It sort of just happens in the background while he, once again, does what he does best: faffing about. Heck, even the love story is dull, as Ezio and Sophia have zero chemistry between them. Fortunately, however, I’m happy to report that the series continues its trend of great supporting characters by introducing us to Yusuf, the charismatic, roguish (and very easy on the eyes) leader of the Turkish Assassins. From his infamous first greeting to Ezio, he stole the show and was the game’s main highlight to me. I was more interested in what happened to him than in anything Ezio got involved in, with the notable exception of the episode where they had to pose as minstrels to infiltrate Topkapi Palace, and Ezio hilariously imitated the nonsense-singing minstrels from Assassin’s Creed II (e.g. “I sing in Italiano,/You understand no word,/But my Greek is non-existent,/And my Turkish is absurd.”). Unfortunately, Ezio’s proclivity for colossal cockups had also not diminished between games and made me very angry at him by the end of the story.

Every time Ezio finds a seal for the Masyaf library, he experiences a vision of Altaïr’s life, as the seals somehow have his memories imprinted on them. Unfortunately, those sequences turned out to be pitifully short and far between, a far cry from what I was expecting, even given the fact that Ezio is the main protagonist. Perhaps the developers didn’t like Altaïr very much? But then why make the “dual storyline” your main advertising hook? Heck, I’m pretty sure you spend more time with Desmond than you do with Altaïr in this game.

Because yes, Desmond’s story continues, thanks to the shocker ending that they gave him in Brotherhood. He is now comatose and stuck inside the Animus. There, he meets the consciousness of Clay, Subject 16, who tells him that he has to put his mind back together to be able to wake up. That’s achieved through weird first-person puzzle platforming sections in featureless minimalistic environments, which can be thoroughly frustrating and felt decidedly odd by comparison with the main storyline. It’s like you’re in a different game altogether, and a boring one at that.

In terms of gameplay, the series continues its trend of building on existing bases. Many things are retained from Brotherhood, such as the kill streaks, which enable Ezio to plough through his opposition with ease. The full synchronisation requirements for missions are also still here: achieving Ezio’s goal is not enough on its own, you have to perform an additional requirement, such as not being seen, or not falling into water, for example. As the game takes place outside Europe, the Courtesans have been replaced by Romanies, but they serve the same purpose of distracting potential targets. Other than that, each helper guild (Romanies, Thieves and Mercenaries) still has its own set of (pointless) challenges that Ezio can perform for additional rewards. Parachutes are still around as well. You also (unfortunately) spend most of the game in Constantinople, just as you spent most of Brotherhood in Rome. Not that I dislike Constantinople, but I was starting to miss the variety of the first two games by this point. Multiplayer is also still a thing, but I was still completely uninterested in it.

Then there are things that have been expanded upon. For some reason, bombs seem to be this game’s favourite weapon, as there are loads of different varieties on offer. The in-game explanation is that the Turkish Assassins have just discovered gunpowder. Yusuf also upgrades one of Ezio’s hidden blades into a hook. Thus, the hookblade. With which he can travel along ziplines to get around faster. Or hook onto targets and flip over them. Or use it to destroy merchants’ stalls to create obstructions for pursuers. Nevermind the fact that having a hook instead of a blade is completely inconvenient for an Assassin’s main activity: stabbing.

Assassin recruitment is also still a major feature and has been expanded upon in several ways. First of all, there are six unique recruits with their own short backstories, on top of the more generic ones. You can now also participate in Mediterranean Defence, which involves sending recruits to different cities around the Mediterranean to establish bases there, rather than simply perform missions, although each city requires an Assassin proficient in a specific weapon type as its branch’s founding member. Then you have the Templar Dens. Much like in Brotherhood, once Ezio arrives in Constantinople, he takes it upon himself to liberate it from Templar influence, which requires clearing out Templar strongholds. These then become Assassin Dens, but until the recruits you put in charge of these become Master Assassins, they’re vulnerable to Templar attacks if Ezio’s notoriety rises too high. You must then participate in a tower defence minigame to protect them. As someone who takes great care with notoriety, my experience of Den Defence was very limited, because I only ever did four, and of those the first one was compulsory, and the three others were required to fulfil a guild challenge.

Ultimately, I can only describe this as “Ezio’s Big Faffabout: The Game”. The war of succession storyline is dull, Ezio’s main objective is pointless (especially given the ending), Desmond’s sequences are jarringly out of place, and there’s not even a memorable villain to salvage proceedings. If what you enjoy the most about the AC series is the gameplay and combat, you probably won’t mind all that much, but it’s not all that different from Brotherhood, which is the better game of the two. As for me, I came for Altaïr and stayed for Yusuf, so to speak. Other than that, utterly forgettable. Unless you’re a big Ezio fan or a completionist, don’t throw your money away.

Can I skip to the dessert?

The culprit: Neverwinter Nights (PC, Mac)

Boob attack!Neverwinter Nights, released in 2002, was BioWare’s follow-up to the hugely popular Baldur’s Gate series, and the question was whether they could replicate their success. While the game is also based on Dungeons & Dragons rules – 3rd Edition this time – the focus is very different, emphasising the multiplayer aspect, as well as encouraging players to create their own content via the Aurora toolset (shipped with the game). The latter was probably a result of all the mods that flourished for BG, ensuring a robust following for the game over the years and a lot of fan-made content, but also diverting time and resources from the single-player campaign. Three official expansion packs were released, of which only the first two – Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark (2003) – constitute a whole with the original game. The third one, Kingmaker (2004), consists of three standalone stories, or premium modules, that BioWare released as a way to milk more cash get more mileage out of the game.

So what’s the verdict? Well, despite its popularity, NWN was a disappointment for me, partly because I’m not interested in multiplayer, but mostly because I just found it boring. It was the first WRPG I tried, but it didn’t spark my interest in the genre. Good thing I gave Mass Effect and Dragon Age a try a few years later, or I might have missed out on WRPGs completely. NWN is unique in two ways in my eyes: it’s the only game I know where the original campaign (OC) and the expansions deliberately star two distinct protagonists, and the only one where the expansions are more interesting than the OC. In fact, I have a hard time remembering the OC’s storyline or characters, who cut a poor figure by comparison with BG (with a small handful of exceptions).

There are several other significant steps back from BG, such as a dramatically reduced party size, minimal control over companions or a clunky inventory system. Moreover, She really likes swordsdespite the effort to up the ante on graphics, I would much rather have kept the tiny character models from BG than the deformed bunches of polygons on display here. Voice acting is generally poor, and both protagonists are even more of a blank slate than in BG. And then there’s Aribeth, who, while not being a step back per se, is just incredibly annoying. Clearly a pet character designed by one of the developers – complete with over-sexualised armour and lascivious poses –, she’s presented as such a big deal that it becomes aggravating. Everybody loves her and pities her when trouble comes calling. She even monopolises the game’s promotional artwork.

So why should you play NWN? Well, perhaps you value combat or multiplayer above storyline and character development, in which case you will likely enjoy it a lot more than I did. Or maybe you’re curious about player-created content. Or perhaps you’ll genuinely like Aribeth and sympathise with her issues. More importantly, the game just gets better in the expansions: while SoU is a bit pedestrian, it does introduce chattier companions, including the lovable dork known as Deekin. HotU finishes things off with a bang, as you finally get the ability to form an actual party and proper interaction with interesting characters (Valen and Nathyrra), including romances that amount to more than just “I like you, but we’ve got more important stuff to sort out right now”. You also get interesting options for dealing with the final boss. All in all, think of it as a dinner with a lacklustre main course, a tolerable cheese platter and a tasty dessert. This isn’t BioWare’s strongest effort, and it shows, but it does have some redeeming qualities.

A remake entitled Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition was released by Beamdog in 2018. It includes both expansions, as well as all of the premium modules released over the years, as well as the usual bug fixes and graphical improvements. It also makes multiplayer easier, as the old servers have now been shut down. So if you’re interested in the multiplayer aspects of the game and want as much content as possible, this is the version to go for.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

How to make friends and stop alienating people

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

Flamin' swordIt’s difficult to follow up on the heels of a massive hit, even if you’re not producing a direct sequel. Disregarding Final Fantasy Tactics, which was set in a very different environment and wasn’t part of the numbered series, Final Fantasy VIII had the difficult task of being the de facto successor to FFVII. Therefore, it was bound to draw three things: close scrutiny, inevitable comparison and (unreasonably?) high expectations. And when the latter were not met – or, rather, when the developers tried to do something different – polarisation ensued. It’s difficult to find a middle ground in terms of opinions concerning FFVIII: fans of the series tend to either love it or hate it.

Most of the criticism focuses on the two main protagonists and the overemphasis on their relationship, the lack of development of the main villain(s) and the combat system. I will readily concede the two latter points: combat can get tedious, and both Edea and Ultimecia were criminally underused. But I don’t fully agree with the former point. Yes, the central relationship takes on a life of its own to the detriment of other stuff towards the end of the game, and that’s unfortunate, but I can’t agree with all the vitriol that both Squall and Rinoa receive, especially by comparison with their counterparts from FFVII. Case in point: Squall manages to grow and mature over the course of one game, whereas Cloud is still wallowing in misery two years after the end of his (c.f. Advent Children); Rinoa feels like a realistic character, flaws, pettiness and all, while Aeris/Aerith gradually becomes some kind of motherly archetype who can do no wrong.

FFVIII isn’t perfect; so much more could’ve been done with it given more time or perhaps fewer plot points. Other character relationships could’ve been fleshed out more, motivations explained, chocobos not rendered useless. And yet it still ranks among my top five games in the FF series. The main reason is characterisation: the game has a very believable teenage protagonist in Squall, whose deep-seated fears I used to relate to, back in my teenage days, and whose evolution over the course of the game is heart-warming. What’s more, he’s backed up by an almost shockingly likeable cast (coming as it does after FFVII, where I had severe issues with most of the cast), among whom Laguna shines bright as one of the most endearing goofs with a heart of gold I’ve ever encountered in a game.

Dance with meThe second reason is world building. The game does a great job at integrating its more esoteric elements (notably Guardian Forces, who are given an unprecedented amount of attention) within a more realistic world, including such seemingly mundane details as educational systems or salaries. The third reason would be the ending, which invariably makes me tear up every time I see it. There’s also the quality of the cinematics, which have dramatically improved since FFVII, especially as far as facial expressions – and thus, emotional depth – are concerned. The now-famous ballroom scene and the ending both illustrate this perfectly, but the opening scene is also a stunner.

Bottom line: if you’ve never played this game before, but are aware of its negative reputation, don’t let it deter you. You might actually surprise yourself and enjoy it, much as I did.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Trailblazer lost

The culprit: Uru: Ages beyond Myst (PC, Mac)

Hut in the skyI don’t think I will ever understand what possessed the makers of Myst to think that a multiplayer entry in the series was a good idea. Maybe this is just my inherent dislike of multiplayer speaking, but I’ve always considered the Myst series as the epitome of a personal gaming experience. Most of your time is spent exploring, gawking at scenery and thinking, and a great part of the appeal, at least to me, is being alone in a strange, otherworldly place, with just your wits to help you. There’s no combat and nothing that would be facilitated by the presence of another player. I guess you could bounce ideas off another person to solve puzzles, but the chances of you meeting a random player who hasn’t figured the puzzles out yet and is willing to team up to do so are slim at best. So what’s left? Sightseeing together? Surely you don’t need to create a whole game for that.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so, as Uru: Ages beyond Myst, the fourth entry in the Myst series released in 2003, also proved to be its eventual death toll. The sales were so poor that they started Cyan Worlds, the developer, on a downward slope: the company almost closed in 2005, upon release of the final game in the series, Myst V, appropriately subtitled End of Ages. One of the main criticisms was that the online part of Uru…didn’t actually ship with the single-player version. The multiplayer content got delayed and eventually cancelled in 2004 due to a lack of subscribers, with the result that only the beta testers were ever allowed to try it out and sample what additional storyline there was. This was a massive failure of judgement on the developers’ part, which the release of the available online content as expansion packs barely mitigated. Some of the beta testers kept up their unofficial servers going, but they were unstable and didn’t feature any new content. Cyan got back on its feet somewhat in 2006, at which point content was gradually added until 2008, when more financial problems forced the game to go offline yet again, leaving the storyline in limbo. Finally, in 2010, Cyan released the source files free of charge, so that fans would be able to create their own content, and is now relying on donations to maintain the servers. The previously online-exclusive ages can now be played offline as well, with some help from a fan-made program called Drizzle.

Pink and blueParadoxically enough, fan support is the only thing that has kept Uru afloat throughout this snafu; they may not have been numerous, but they certainly were dedicated. All I really wanted was access to the online-only ages, and, with the latest resurrection of the online version, my wishes were finally granted. But was it worth it? I’m not sure. The ages are fun to experience, some are beautifully designed and some feature genuine brain-teasers as puzzles, but, overall, Uru distinctly feels like a lame duck. It suffers greatly by comparison with the previous entries in the series, as well as with its immediate successor, Myst IV. First of all, pre-rendered environments are gone, which dramatically affects the quality of the graphics. It’s not that it’s bad, but when you’re used to photorealistic detail, things in Uru feel a bit…plasticky, for lack of a better word. Secondly, the fact that you get to design an avatar for yourself also changes the game’s perspective. You can play in first-person view, but some puzzles are much easier in third-person. Besides, what’s the point of spending time and effort designing an avatar if you don’t see it in action? Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline that Uru introduces – to be continued in Myst V – is heavy on bizarre mysticism and only very tangentially related to Atrus’ history, another pillar of the Myst series, even though it features his daughter, Yeesha. So even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to experience a semblance of a coherent story and gaming experience, you might be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate II (PC, Mac)

Empty heartReleased in 2000, two years after its predecessor wowed the gaming community, Baldur’s Gate II faced the difficult task of being a direct sequel to a massive hit. And while some of the choices it makes are questionable (notably in terms of reducing exploration and a weaker villain), the end result is still largely successful, and the game has, nowadays, become more popular than Baldur’s Gate. The basics still apply: the setting is the same, the mechanics are the same, and the storyline picks up right where the first game ended, albeit on a significantly darker note. The game is still vast and involved, and contains extensive dialogue that may make modern-day players hesitate. However, the interface has been updated and the class system refined, with three new additions and kits for every other existing class. Combat has been made more strategic and more difficult. Moreover, the cast has been streamlined, even though some characters make a comeback from the first game. This is, however, a case of favouring quality over quantity, as the existing characters have a lot more interaction with each other and are more fleshed out. What’s more, this is the first BioWare game to introduce romances, which add more depth to interaction and have become one of the company’s trademarks. Although, I’d say that the most charismatic members of the cast are still returning characters from BG.

Other than that, the game has both a grander scope and a tighter focus: instead of roaming about countless outdoor areas with little to differentiate them and next to no motivation to do so besides curiosity–although this may be the very definition of adventure for some–, the action is now set in several large locations and seldom wanders outside of them. The plot also involves greater stakes, since the protagonist has been revealed as none other than an offspring of the defunct God of Murder, Bhaal, and must now deal with said heritage and those who would prey on it. An expansion titled Throne of Bhaal was released a year later, in 2001, in order to conclusively address the question of the protagonist’s divine ambitions or lack thereof.

Due to its greater overall popularity, the game has also spawned a LOT of mods–in other words, player-created content–thus allowing you to customise your gaming experience even more. Just as with the first game, some of the available stuff is either indispensable from a technical point of view (bug fixing, ease-of-use) or, when it’s additional content, extremely well written, to the extent that I couldn’t imagine playing without it. All this content is still actively supported by an enthusiastic and committed player community, which, for a 15-year old game, is damn impressive and a testimony to its quality. Of course, it’s not perfect and has its share of annoyances and aggravations, even after being modded, and, to a modern-day player, it may feel dated and somewhat clunky. But don’t let superficial concerns keep you from one the best WRPGs ever created, especially if you enjoyed the first one. This is BioWare in top form, and it shows.

"Hey, y'all, this is a great game!"

A remake called Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition was released in 2013 by Beamdog studios, incorporating both Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal. It includes many of the fixes and tweaks that previously required mods, but also brings back the three new characters that were added by the Enhanced Edition of BG, as well as adding three more. The main problem is that not all the mods it hasn’t rendered obsolete are compatible with it. However, the modding community has been hard at work, and that problem has been almost entirely addressed. Emphasis on the “almost”, but it’s only a matter of time.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.

Out of this world

The culprit: Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)

Ah, Mass Effect: the game that began the series that is arguably BioWare’s biggest success to date. PC veterans may prefer Baldur’s Gate, and more recent PC players may favour Dragon Age, but ME is what really brought the Canadian studio into the mainstream limelight. Some may argue that this is also what eventually caused its downfall, but that is a debate for another time and place. You may (unfortunately) also remember ME as the game that got Fox News’ panties in a twist in what was ultimately revealed to be a completely unfounded accusation of full-on nudity and graphic sex by people who hadn’t even played it. Nice one, guys.

Beginning of a long journeyBut controversy and fame aside, what are we really looking at here? ME is a futuristic space opera, and, unlike BW’s previous work, it’s a mix between an RPG and a TPS, which is probably one of the reasons for its success: the combination between immersive dialogue and storytelling on the one hand, and dynamic combat on the other. This isn’t BW’s first foray into sci-fi–they had already released a Star Wars game for PC by that time, followed by a sequel reprised by Obsidian–, but it is a completely original story, and, in my opinion, it’s far superior to the two Knights of the Old Republic games. It always felt a little odd to me to be playing games set in a preexisting universe created by someone else. Like wearing borrowed clothes, if you will. Not so with ME, which builds its own universe on its own premises and peoples it with original species, each with its own distinct culture and society, and not all of them anthropomorphic, which is a breath of fresh air. This is the main draw of the series for me, along with its characterisation, which, I think, is some of the best that BW has ever produced. Up until 2012, the series was in danger of dethroning Myst as my all-time favourite. ME3 made sure that didn’t happen, but, that massive fiasco aside, the first ME is still a great game. To give you an idea, after I finished my first playthrough, I immediately started another one, something which had never happened to me before. Granted, it was my first serious encounter with a WRPG and, coming after years of JRPGs, the freedom that characterises the genre may have boosted my enthusiasm. But even now, several years and WRPGs later, I still think it’s a great game, so it must have gotten something right.

At its core, the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill: save the world from destruction by murderous villains. The nature of the villains, however, and some of the tangential questions the game raises are genuinely interesting. Of course, there are also gameplay and design flaws, such as reused environments, excessively tedious exploration sequences or a non-sortable inventory; but none of this is a major issue. Bottom line: if you like RPGs and sci-fi, you may just have struck gold.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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?”