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.

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.

The fine art of farniente

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

SerenissimaLet’s get this straight out there: Assassin’s Creed II is, quite simply, a better game than its predecessor. Great care has obviously been paid to varying the gameplay, streamlining old and new features, and enhancing the storyline. The plot is set in a more famous, and therefore more recognisable, environment (Renaissance Italy, rather than Medieval Syria and Palestine), and introduces a flashier protagonist, with the end result that it tends to overshadow its predecessor. And yet, in spite of the first game’s flaws, I could never shake the feeling that the second opus had lost part of its soul under all that bling. Don’t get me wrong: ACII is a lot of fun. But there were moments when I found myself missing the leaner, sterner world of its older brother.

The game starts exactly where AC left off. Desmond–he of the infinite charisma (not)–is rescued from the Abstergo lab where he was being held by Lucy, the assistant in his previous memory-delving adventures who actually turns out to be an Assassin, and two of her comrades. They take him to a secret location and hook him up to a better Animus You want me to do what?machine to send him into the memories of a more recent ancestor, the Florentine nobleman Ezio Auditore, in the hopes that it’ll help them find a Piece of Eden. The story is still split between Ezio’s sequences and Desmond’s, and the latter now at least has more partners in crime. Rebecca’s one of those hacker-types–short hair, funky clothes, headphones–with a perky, upbeat attitude, while Shaun is the prim, British-accented history geek with a degree in deadpan snark. Lucy’s also gotten an upgrade: from unremarkable lab mouse to…goggle-eyed and fish-lipped trendy babe in skinny jeans and a form-hugging top. Yeah…The modern-day sequences now also include a chance for Desmond to put all the moves he learned in his virtual escapades to the test. Although, seeing him perform those acrobatics in his baggy jeans, hoodie and sneakers was distinctly less glamourous than long white assassin robes and leather boots. Doesn’t help that he’s still completely unremarkable as a character. Just as Altaïr stole the show in AC, Ezio also steals the show this time around.

As has already been mentioned, the three operative words are variety, streamlining and enhancement.  And boy, is there a LOT of the former. The new and upgraded Animus features a historical database, which provides bite-sized info about notorious landmarks and characters. Ezio has access to more weapons (a second hidden blade, maces, smoke bombs…even a prototype gun) and armour, all of which he can upgrade, or, in the case of armour, repair, as it gets damaged in combat (which is a distinctly annoying feature). He also has more acrobatics at his command, such as assassinating targets When all else fails, use waterwhile hiding in bales of hay. He can disarm enemies in combat, poison them, toss sand in their faces to disorient them; he can also ride gondolas, and, most satisfyingly, swim. Which is handy, since one of the cities he visits is Venice. The conveniently placed groups of monks which allowed Altaïr to inconspicuously enter guarded areas have been replaced with various factions that Ezio can hire for the same purpose: courtesans, who can distract guards by shaking booty, thieves, who can steal their stuff to have them give chase, or mercenaries, who will simply go in and bash some heads. There is a day and night cycle, which, apart from varying the atmosphere, also comes into play in certain missions. Ezio now also has a homebase in the small Tuscan town of Monteriggioni, which he can renovate and upgrade (notably by buying famous Renaissance paintings) to earn regular income, as the game now features an economic They never said I'd have to do thiiiiiiiis!system, complete with merchants and even street doctors. There are a lot more sidequests, in particular the Templar Lairs and Assassin Tombs, which consist of some advanced platforming and reward Ezio with money and, in the case of the latter, special seals which eventually grant access to Altaïr’s black Master Assassin outfit (yum). There are also some strange blips in the Animus interface, which appear as shining glyphs on buildings and allow Desmond to solve some puzzles left behind by Subject 16, his defunct predecessor at Abstergo.

Adorkable geniusMuch like Desmond, Ezio is also surrounded by a more varied and more interesting cast of secondary characters. Among those, the biggest highlight is, undoubtedly, a young Leonardo da Vinci, with whom Ezio becomes good friends, and who helps him decipher some of Altaïr’s documents which he fortuitously finds. Leo is fun, chatty, endlessly enthusiastic, scatterbrained and just eminently huggable. And, thanks to the new system of cutscene interaction (an upgrade of AC’s camera angle changes), whereby you can be prompted to press some buttons to affect Ezio’s actions during some cutscenes, you can do just that. And beware Leo’s kicked-puppy eyes if you miss that hug! Other memorable additions include Caterina Sforza, the willful, intelligent and crafty ruler of Forli, or Rosa, a gutsy, very pretty and very foul-mouthed thief whom Ezio encounters in Venice. On a less serious note, there’s also Uncle Mario, whose claim to fame is the infamous “it’s-a me, Mario!” shout-out.

Noooo, there's THREE of them!As far as streamlining is concerned, the controls are more fluid, and there seem to be fewer bugs. The horrible beggar women have been replaced by the no less persistent, but much more amusing minstrels. Those will run up to Ezio and sing utter nonsense (“here comes a brave signoooreeee”), both hampering his movements and drawing attention to him until he either outruns them, knocks their lutes out of their hands or throws some money on the ground to send his immediate entourage, both rich and poor, frantically scrabbling for it. Flag collection still exists, but has been pared down to reduce tedium. Ezio now also has a notoriety meter, which rises when he performs risky or illegal acts in front of guards, and gradually makes him easier to detect. It can be reduced either by ripping off wanted posters, bribing town criers or assassinating corrupt officials. Oh, and a small detail which nevertheless makes me happy: Ezio has an accent. I missed that with Altaïr.

Horseback chopFinally, we come to storyline enhancement. Where Altaïr’s plotline basically boiled down to “here’s a hit list, do your worst”, Ezio’s tale is more linear, but also more personal, growing from revenge into commitment to a greater cause. Paradoxically though, this kind of presentation makes Ezio’s targets less memorable. Sure, there’s his first victim and the big bad at the end, but the people he kills in between? I couldn’t name them to save my life, and this despite the fact that their portraits are displayed in Monteriggioni after the fact. By contrast, I can still remember every one of Altaïr’s targets, and the unique settings for their assassinations. The other problem of the storyline is that it spans about twenty years, rather than just a couple of You call this old?!months. I’m sure the idea was to give it more scope, but it just doesn’t work very well. The only character who shows any signs of aging is Ezio, and even that is limited to…growing a beard. The only other indication that time has passed is the date which appears onscreen between chapters. Sometimes, the temporal gaps are downright baffling. Surely, someone with such a burning desire for revenge wouldn’t spend so much time doing…what exactly?

This brings us to the inevitable Altaïr vs Ezio showdown. The general opinion appears to be largely in favour of the latter, and this is easily understood: he’s depicted as far more human. He’s fiery, cocky, has a sense of humour and, upholding the most typical cliché about Italian men, is a total playboy. In short, the dashing rogue type. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that this kind of personality didn’t quite befit an assassin. Altaïr may have been an arrogant jerk, but he was efficient, focussed, shady, and, to me, a lot more believable in his role. Ezio…just spends a whole lot of time faffing about. Defending a Hey, Lorenzo, d'you think I could maybe do my own stuff now?lady from an importunate suitor? Ezio to the rescue! A thief wants some racing practice? Ezio’s happy to oblige! And, what’s most detrimental to his integrity: his involvement with Lorenzo de Medici, whom he saves from an attempt on his life, only to become…his lackey. Lorenzo wants anything done? Ezio’s on it! No wonder the game has to span twenty years.

This, in turn, showcases the flipside of the lavish amounts of variety in the game. Weapons? All you ever really need are the hidden blades. Upgrading the villa? Ezio ends up sitting on a mountain of money he doesn’t know what to do with. Helper factions? They all amount to the same thing. Random sidequests? After a while, you He has his own way of walking off into the sunsetstart forgetting what your main goal in the storyline was. And much as I enjoyed running around familiar cities and scaling monuments I’d visited in real life, sightseeing isn’t all the Assassin’s Creed series is about. Still, don’t let this deter you: the game is definitely a terrific romp.

Leaky evidence

The culprit: Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)

I remember the hype surrounding the release of Heavy Rain. There was even an interview with the developers on the news. Despite the fact that Quantic Dream had already made a similar game before (Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy in the US), it was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement. I agree that it’s a riveting first-time experience. Apart from a sluggish prologue which partly serves as a tutorial sequence, Make up your mind!the plot is well-paced and does a good job of keeping the player involved. There’s quite a lot of action, demanding quick reflexes, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a requirement of the scenario. The music is appropriately dramatic or melancholy, as the scene requires. The main protagonists pull their weight very honourably, enhanced by the realistic modelling that went into them (they’re all based on actual actors, who, with one exception, also voiced them), and, all in all, it’s great fun. Until you start scrutinising the details. And that’s when things start to fall apart.

First things first: if quicktime events drive you up the wall…you might reconsider playing altogether, since the entire game is based on them. It unfolds like a semi-interactive film with several possible outcomes depending on the player’s choices. There are no menus, no stats, no save points (the game saves automatically at key points and between chapters) and very little in the way of fixed controls: R2 makes your character walk, and you then direct them with the left joystick, while L2 lets you listen in on their thoughts. Everything else is controlled by variable on-screen prompts: you could be asked to spin the right joystick to put on a Shake for your life!bandage, sloooowly move it from side to side to rock a baby to sleep, shake the entire controller to escape strangulation, or hold down an improbable combination of buttons to wiggle through some live electric wires. Since some of these prompts mimic real movements, it certainly feels immersive. It also keeps the player on their toes. On your first time through, there’s no telling what exactly the game can ask you to do, especially in a time-sensitive context, and some of the combinations can be difficult to pull off. From this perspective, replaying the game can either be a good thing, since you know what to expect and are therefore less likely to mess up, or a bad thing, because it kills the suspense. But then, the nature of the plot inevitably kills the suspense anyway.

IconicThere is a serial killer on the loose, who likes to kidnap young boys and drown them in rainwater by locking them in an open-air tank. Once they’re dead, he dumps their bodies on a wasteland, leaving an orchid on their chests and an origami figure in their hands (and the game itself comes with a square of paper and instructions on how to reproduce the origami figure depicted on the case). Four characters find themselves involved, and the scenario is split more or less evenly between them, alternately putting you in control of each one. Each of them can die, by mistake or by choice, and two of them can end up in a relationship, for a total of 16 different epilogues across all characters. Before you ask, yes, there’s a trophy for seeing them all.

Heroic staaaare...The first protagonist is a divorced father of two, Ethan Mars. He’s lost one son to a car accident, and now, his second son gets kidnapped by the killer. To all intents and purposes, he’s the hero of the story: he gets the most screen time and the most emotional investment. He’s a caring dad, if a tad passive at first, and you have to at least give him credit for perseverance. The killer decides to test his resolve with some Saw-like trials, rewarding him with clues as to his son’s whereabouts if he manages to complete them. Success or failure is up to you, but poor Ethan gets to go through hell (and maybe back), physically and psychologically, whatever you do: the game just goes balls to the wall on the melodrama with him, tugging at every possible heartstring it can get its grubby little mitts on. On a less serious note, he’s also infamous for his overly emphatic delivery when calling out for his sons (“JAAAASOOON!” and “SHAAUUUUNNN!!”). Also, a fair warning for sensitive eyes: he has a scripted shower scene at the beginning of the game. There is man bum.

I don't think a refund's gonna cut itSecond is Scott Shelby, a middle-aged, portly private eye who has been hired by the families of the previous victims to investigate the murders. This guy remains fairly low-key at the outset and somewhat tangential to the others, since he has his own plot arc, involving an unlikely sidekick in the form of the mother of one of the victims, a rich CEO and his depraved son. All this leaves him very little opportunity to interact with the rest of the cast, to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s in a different story altogether. Couple that with the fact that his chapters don’t really gather steam until the end of the game, and the fact that he doesn’t exactly have the flashiest personality, and you get a character that’s easy to overlook. So easy that I was actually surprised to realise that he gets the most fight scenes of the entire cast. Bit of a shame. Thankfully, though, no shower scene for him.

Babyface is on the caseThird is Norman Jayden–or Nahman, as fans have affectionately dubbed him, due to his voice actor’s decidedly odd choice of accent–a young, shrewd (and cute) smartass of an FBI agent with a drug problem, who has been sent to help the local police investigate the murders. He is, hands down, my favourite of the four and the overall fan favourite as well. Not only could he be Fox Mulder’s cousin (loner agent with unorthodox methods), but his chapters deal hands-on with the murder investigation. He’s the proud owner of an ARI (Augmented Reality Interface): a pair of sunglasses and a glove, which create an interactive interface for scanning crime scenes and analysing clues. Think of a mix between Minority Report and CSI. And not only do you get to play super-Evidence ahoy!sleuth with that snazzy toy, but you’re also confronted with Jayden’s addiction issues (to take or not to take), his antagonistic relationship with his cop colleagues and the decidedly spectacular fights he gets himself into. “I seem to spend most of my time getting the shit kicked out of me”, as he says himself. Poor Norm. And no shower scene for him either (alas!). But his chapters include a very clear reference to The Shining, for any Kubrick fans.

You know what they say about curiosity and cats?Fourth is Madison Paige, a young journalist with an insomnia problem. She encounters a battered Ethan in a motel, where she has checked in because the impersonal environment helps her sleep. She then decides to ferret out his secrets. Depending on your decisions, she can also ferret her way into his pants. I raised an eyebrow when the semi-interactive hanky-panky popped up. Three years earlier, Mass Effect got all but burned at the stake for including a glimpse of a bare bum during a minute-long cutscene, and this got through without making any waves? It’s not that I’m shocked at the content, which is pretty tame, but I didn’t expect this much tolerance after only three years. Anyways. Madison is plucky and gutsy. Problem is, not only does she have a killer hip-swing when she walks, but she features in a fight scene Somehow, I don't think any of that's gonna helpin underwear, a shower scene, a booty-shaking dancing scene followed by a striptease, a sex scene and an escape from a drill-wielding maniac which looks like something straight out of Hostel. All of this is optional (except the fight scene in underwear), and there’s even a trophy for avoiding the striptease, but I still felt that her status as the only female protagonist was just a tad overexploited. Sure, she’s a looker, but was that really her only contribution to the story? Especially since her role is otherwise somewhat redundant.

As the vehicles for the plot, the characters are the game’s best asset. They do have some stereotypical features, Scott feels a bit left out, and the romance between Ethan and Madison is both rushed and awkwardly timed, but on the whole, they are well-written, and you ultimately feel involved in their fates. It’s the storyline structure that doesn’t hold water (pun Dude be trippin' hardfully intended). First of all, an additional supernatural plotline was originally intended but dropped along the way. Significant traces of it still remain (Ethan’s blackouts), and not only do they feel distinctly out of place, but they never lead to anything. Secondly, there’s the identity of the killer. It’s always the same, so obviously, once you finish the game, the element of surprise is lost, although you can go for the “Perfect Crime” trophy (which, as you can guess, involves letting the killer get away) to mix things up. However, once you do know whodunit, it feels forced. In one episode, at least, there’s an evident struggle to make the killer’s identity fit with the events as depicted. As if the writers were trying too hard to be clever. Thirdly, some of the epilogues were clearly written with a precise continuity of events in mind, but you can still obtain them by doing things differently. The resulting ending sequences feel a bit sloppy (eg. awkwardly fitting dialogue lines, or Ethan appearing cleanly shaved in one scene and bearded in the next one). Fourthly, there are plenty of minute inconsistencies riddling the game (eg. Madison acting surprised upon hearing the killer’s name, when she has no reason to be), but going into more detail would mean spoilers, so I shall refrain. Finally, the ball was dropped in the DLC department. There was a whole string of additional episodes planned under the title of Heavy Rain Chronicles to explore each character’s past. However, only one episode was made, featuring Madison in yet another escape-from-maniac situation, which is both underwhelming and disappointing (can you tell I wanted more Jayden?).

Say it with flowersBottom line? Heavy Rain is a heck of a first time experience, if you’re not intrinsically predisposed against its cinematic presentation and its hybrid nature. But there’s a strong likelihood that it’ll lose a large chunk of its charm once the credits roll, and you start chipping away at the shiny surface paint to uncover cracks in the walls. Ultimately, it’s how willing and/or able you are to deal with those that will determine the game’s staying power for you.

Shadows and tall trees

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

Dismal shoresLadies and gentlemen, we have a UFO. If you remember Braid, another download-only indie game which (justifiably) generated rave reviews, Limbo, first release of the Danish developer Playdead, is more in the same vein: artistic, stylish, deceptively simple and intriguing. It shares gameplay similarities with Braid, namely the lone protagonist in a sidescrolling environment and the cryptic storyline. Where it differs sharply, however, is the atmosphere. Yes, Braid had a disquieting undercurrent to it that gradually came to the fore as you neared the end, but the soothing music and beautifully lush environments compensated for it. By contrast, Limbo is unrelentingly bleak, gloomy, lonely and frequently unsettling, especially when you stop to think about some of the situations it puts both you, the player, and its protagonist in. Think of a cross between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and something like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and you’ll be quite close to the mark.

Industrial soloThe entire game is in black and white, reducing everything to silhouettes and making the already far from reassuring environments that give the game its title–a dark forest, some sort of industrial complex, a rainy cityscape, and finally, a nightmarish mix of all of them–even more menacing. There is very little music beyond ambient sounds and discreet aural backdrops, with the occasional swell for dramatic effect. And to top it off, the plot could not be more minimalistic: a nameless, featureless–except for his pin-like white eyes–boyAnonymous hero awakens in a forest and tries to find a way out, while avoiding various natural and not-so-natural hazards, and using the environment to his advantage to make progress. Along the way, you also realise that he’s looking for his sister, although how they became separated and why (and also where exactly they are) remains a mystery. And chances are that the ending will produce more questions than answers.

Apart from the boy and his sister, there are very few other living creatures in the game, and most of them are malevolent. The ones likely to cause most trouble are the very persistent giant spider, It's in my head!!!which features prominently at the beginning of the game (arachnophobes, beware) and the brain worms. These are phosphorescent…blobs, for lack of better word, which will suddenly drop on the unsuspecting boy’s head, burrow in with a rather sickeningly squelchy sound and force him to walk in one direction, disregarding any obstacles along the way. Until he encounters a beam of light, that is, which the worms seem to abhor. This will cause the boy to go the other way. And the only means of removing said worms is to bring them within reach of strange carnivorous plants that sometimes grow on ceilings.

If all this talk of giant spiders, worms and squelchy noises sounds rather morbid…well, it’s because it is. Unlike most videogame heroes, the boy is very vulnerable: he can’t swim, he has no weapons, he’s neither agile nor strong. Just drop from a little too high, and he’s toast. All he can do is run, jump and grab/push/pull things. Not only does it make you feel very small and helpless, but just about any element of the environment becomes potentially lethal. Combine vicious wildlife, bear traps, wood saws, electrified Ow...surfaces, and precariously balanced rusty machinery, and you end up with some rather graphic deaths. There’s no visible blood, but land the boy on a wood saw, and you will see limbs and assorted chunks flying (limb-o, eh? *dodges bricks and tomatoes*). This was meant to encourage players to pay more attention to what they were doing in order to avoid these gruesome fates. In fact, one of the game’s achievements/trophies is finishing it in one sitting with five or less deaths, aptly named “No Point in Dying”. Not an easy task, by any means. Other than that, however, there are no penalties for repeated deaths, besides having to redo the puzzle at hand, as the game helpfully replaces the boy at the start of it should he meet an untimely end during its execution.

Puzzles come in all flavours in this game, frequently challenging your instincts and intuition. They’re usually not too complicated to figure out, but the execution is quite a I told you it was persistentdifferent matter, as some are thoroughly on the acrobatic side, namely the entire final sequence of the game. Many are also timed, involving a room filling up with water, for example, or running away from the aforementioned spider. In short, be ready to experience a wide range of lethal outcomes on your first time through.

MinimalismAlthough there are no save points, the game is subdivided into 24 ‘hidden’ chapters. While you play, there are no interruptions, and the game flows seamlessly from one chapter to the other. But if you want to stop playing midway or to practice a particular puzzle, you can access these chapters through the menu.

I did mention that “No Point in Dying” must be achieved in one sitting, and this is realistically doable: the game is very short. In fact, once you get to the stage where you are trying to minimise deaths, you start learning how each puzzle functions, as well as their order, further shortening the experience. This is probably one of the game’s main flaws, and it has received criticism for not justifying its cost. On the other hand, had it been any longer, it may have run the risk of becoming tedious.

Its other flaw is that, Where did this come from?apart from soldiering on towards the boy’s goal, there’s not much else to do. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t want to stay in some of the environments he traverses more than absolutely necessary, but it does impair the game’s replay value. The only extracurricular activity available is collecting a bunch of eggs from improbable locations, some of which you get achievements/trophies for.

Is there anybody out there?Still, despite these drawbacks, the game is a success, if only for the novelty of the experience. If you enjoyed the likes of Shadow of the Colossus or Braid, then it’s very likely you’ll enjoy this one as well. A prime example of a good ‘art game’. But don’t be surprised if you feel like you need a hug or some chocolate afterwards.

We don’t need another hero

The culprit: Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360)

Merry bunchThe Tales series is a notorious victim of patchy videogame export. I’m not sure why yet, as I’ve only played two of them so far, but my guess would be that 1) it’s not Final Fantasy, and therefore, export tends to just forget about it, 2) it’s a bit too anime-y for the general public. I can’t argue with that last one: both Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Vesperia suffer from several annoying anime clichés. But the Final Fantasy series, the big favourite of the JRPG world, isn’t exempt from those either, and yet, it’s the Tales series that usually gets the blame. Which is a shame, because it also has undeniable qualities.

Symphonia was a big hit, both in the US and Europe, and I was hoping for a similar experience when I bought Vesperia. ‘Similar’ is right, as Symphonia veterans will definitely get a ladleful of déjà-vu: Estelle, the heroine, is almost a carbon copy of Colette (even down to the French names), Karol is extremely reminiscent of Genis, DudsJudith is a calmer version of Sheena, and Raven, a kinder Zelos. Many of the sidequests return (Fell Arms, waitressing, quiz, hot springs), the characters can still obtain titles and costumes as rewards for performing some of these sidequests (even though the titles don’t give them stat bonuses this time around), and some plot points are blatantly reused. But while this may not bode very well for the developers’ inventiveness, and while Symphonia still comes out on top by comparison–if only because it came first, and because it featured Kratos–, Vesperia is, nevertheless, lots of fun.

The most positive aspects of the game are the battle system and (some of) the characterisation. The former is the usual Tales fare: a party of four, of which you control one, the others being all up for grabs in multiplayer mode; otherwise, the game’s AI takes care of them, and does a pretty good job of it too (except for Estelle). You can give the AI suggestions with various Strategy settings, telling it to prioritise attack, healing, etc. Battles take place on a circular 3D field, where you can move the Colourful smackdowncharacters freely. Each character has their own weapon type, as well as oodles of special attacks, which are activated by controller shortcuts (A + a direction on the left stick for the controlled character’s moves, for example), and which they learn either by levelling up, from storyline events, or by using previously learned attacks a certain number of times. Each attack is associated with a colour: if a character uses that colour enough times, they’ll be given a chance to perform a Fatal Strike, which will instantly kill any non-boss enemy and grant the party bonuses at the end of the fight. Each fight is graded according to the characters’ performance, and the accumulated points can then be used at the end of the game to purchase stuff for subsequent replays. Characters also learn various skills from their equipment (think Final Fantasy IX). All in all, everything related to battle is a real pleasure: fluid, customisable, fast-paced and fun.

Too cool for a haircutAs for the characters, Yuri is a genuine breath of fresh air among JRPG heroes. While his appearance (dressed entirely in black with long black hair) may lead you to expect the worst, he’s actually not a brooding emo. Cynical, confident and level-headed, he never misses an occasion to dispense a smartass comment. He also has his own idea of right and wrong, and you might be a tad shocked when you see this in action; I know I was. The developers have undoubtedly made a bold choice by depicting him the way he is, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, and his voice actor is a very good fit.

How you doin'?The other big highlight is Raven. I thoroughly enjoy my comic relief when it’s well-handled, and he definitely delivers in spades. He’s no Jansen (of Lost Odyssey fame; the closest available comparison and the best comic relief I’ve ever seen in a video game), but dammit, does he try. Among his most noteworthy achievements is his take on the classic “our weapons are…” end of battle quote, which Symphonia players will most likely remember. And if the humour wasn’t enough, My eyes are up hereRaven also gets the best backstory of the lot, hands down. His only downside is the learning curve required to effectively use him in battle, if you’re ever inclined to control him yourself, as his fighting style is decidedly odd. This is a trait he shares with Judith, who, while nowhere near his level of awesomeness, or Yuri’s, is my third favourite among the cast, and is part of the rare breed of sensible, intelligent and independent female video game characters.

I completely forgot what we were doing!Now on to the less positive points. First of all, the storyline is rather uninspiring, stock JRPG fare. In its early stages, it also suffers from the characters’ indecisiveness: they keep trying to go their own ways, only to reunite, often instants later. They then decide on a goal and proceed to do scores of completely unrelated things before they remember what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. Fortunately, this improves somewhat by the end of the game.

Boys are for yelling atSecondly, we have the rest of the cast. I frequently found myself wanting to smash Rita’s and Estelle’s heads together. Rita is a scolding hag, even though she’s only 15: she’s unbearably arrogant, her voice is annoying, and she gets angry on a regular basis, which is expressed by a healthy dose of yelling and smacking Karol around. I don’t like children in video games, but I kinda felt sorry for the poor kid as the story wore on. As for Estelle, it’s the same deal as with Colette: ENOUGH with the sickeningly naïve goody-two-shoes with whiny voices who constantly need rescuing, protecting and reassuring, I beg you!! Other than that, well, Repede’s a dog. A cool dog who fights with a katana, but still a dog.

Pirate girl not includedAnd last, but not least, the terrible marketing strategy displayed by Namco Bandai (or Bamco). The game originally came out for Xbox 360…only to get a port to the PS3, which apparently includes not only two more playable characters, but also significant additions to both the storyline and the sidequests. Heck, from what I’ve seen, it’s almost a completely new game. And not only was this announced very shortly after the game was released, but the PS3 port is apparently never due to make its way out of Japan. I’m not particularly interested in the new characters, but a more fleshed out storyline could’ve been nice. Bad move there, Bamco, bad move.

How *not* to high-fiveAll in all, though, I’m pretty happy with Tales of Vesperia. Despite its flaws (which include bland music), it’s entertaining enough to warrant seeing it through to the end and has replay value. If you’re looking for a good RPG for your Xbox 360 and have either already played Lost Odyssey or aren’t a fan of turn-based combat, look no further.

Fly like an eagle

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

I’ve always been wary of action games, because I tend to think too much before acting, and was concerned that my reflexes wouldn’t be up to the task. However, as time went by, the ‘you won’t know until you try’ credo grew on me, and I decided to expand my game collection with new genres. One of my friends pointed out that I couldn’t own an Xbox 360 and not try out Assassin’s Creed, and since the premise of the game already intrigued me, that finalised my decision.

The overall verdict is a favourable one. But I must say that both the storyline and characters left me with dual impressions. Incarnating a skilled Assassin is great fun, and Altaïr is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the game: the sleek moves, the sneakiness, the arrogance, the taciturnity, the beauty and symbolism of the name. Even the missing finger. There’s just one problem: why can’t he swim? I know the sequel cooked up a dubious retroactive explanation, but it still seems a bit absurd. I’ve run into enough mishaps trying to make him cross bodies of water to make this a particularly annoying trait. But that’s just about his only drawback.

However, since Altaïr isn’t the ‘real’ hero of the game (pfff, as if!), that leaves us with Desmond, Altaïr’s descendent in modern times, as the main protagonist. And he has the charisma of a wet sock. Apart from the odd sarcastic quip, there isn’t a single interesting thing about him. Sure, he looks identical to Altaïr, but looks alone do not a compelling character make. Sorry, Des, you should have gotten yourself a personality instead.

The storyline suffers from the same duality. The gist is that there are two opposing factions, Assassins and Templars, who have faced each other throughout history. In the near future, Desmond, who is an Assassin by training, gets captured by a Templar-led company named Abstergo. They have a machine, called the Animus, which allows Desmond to relive the memories of his ancestors (which are somehow hardcoded within his DNA), a process Abstergo needs to locate something. So off goes Desmond into the skin of Altaïr, a Syrian Assassin from the XIIth century. This Medieval part of the game works very well, and some of Altaïr’s assassinations are truly memorable. Garnier de Naplouse, the Hospitalier leader, springs to mind: very convincingly unsettling, and the setting for his episode was well-nigh perfect. On top of that, I like the sonorities of his name, for some reason. Anyway, I’m sure all this would’ve constituted enough material for a game on its own. The modern-day part just feels tacked on and uninteresting. Perhaps because it features Desmond. Perhaps because it’s simply innately boring.

Since this was my first real action game, I apprehended the combat. The stealthy stuff, such as making Altaïr creep up on an unsuspecting victim and swiftly stick a knife in their back, came naturally enough (take that as you will…). But open combat took some work. It was simply a matter of getting used to it, and it won’t pose any particular challenge to action game veterans, but I did have to give my reflexes a bit of a shake to get used to blocking and countering, which is, by far, the most efficient way of fighting in this game. Still, once I’d come to grips with the technique, it became a treat to watch Altaïr stabbing his way through hapless soldiers who had no idea what hit them. I must really commend the combat choreography, by the way. In the hands of a skilled player, it looks like some sort of deadly dance.

The sandbox aspect of the game does its job well, and if you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia games, you’ll be right at home with Altaïr’s acrobatics, even though he’s less of a gymnast than the Prince. Playing Spiderman among the rooftops is thoroughly entertaining. Scaling minarets and belfries to get an overview of the area and then swallow-diving off them (into haystacks…which should be lethal, but who needs realism, right?) is a novel way to fill in the area map, and the views themselves are impressive, especially for someone who’s afraid of heights, like me. The leap from the cross of the cathedral of Acre–the tallest building in the game–was a particularly intense moment.

Other positive aspects include graphics and…language. Despite some of the textures seeming overly sharp (I’m not sure how else to describe it), the game looks good. An added peculiarity is that each of the three big cities Altaïr visits has its own unobtrusive, but present colour palette: Acre has a bluish hue, Damascus red and Jerusalem green. As for the linguistic aspect, it’s noteworthy for its accuracy. Historical facts may have been doctored to make for a more exciting experience–most of Altaïr’s targets were real historical figures, but they weren’t quite as…colourful as in the game–, but the language is spot-on. Ubisoft is a French company, so it stands to reason that they’d know their stuff, but hearing a proper French accent in an Anglo-Saxon game is a rare enough occurrence to be noteworthy. Even random soldiers who spoke entirely in French (“Je vais t’étriper!”) were perfectly fluent. Same for the German, as far as I could tell. Details, I know, but they help the immersion. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been if Altaïr himself had an accent.

The bane of Altaïr's existenceHowever, there are also negative elements. To start with the anecdotic, the beggar women who plague every city are the devil incarnate (“I’m poor and sick and hungry!”); if you don’t know what I mean, play the game, and you soon will. Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of people complain about the game’s repetitiveness, and while I found the context of each assassination episode to be interesting enough to make up for the fact that you essentially had to do the same thing every time, I can certainly concur. You’ll definitely get a sense of déjà vu after a while. And it will onlyFlagged get worse if you decide to go flag hunting: I’m really wondering why the developers felt the need to put so many of them in the game. There are also quite a few glitches (think random non-playable characters in gravity-defying positions on rooftops), which give the game a bit of an unpolished feel. The music is adequate, but nothing more. And, last but certainly not least, the ending is terrible. I understand that the developers likely wanted a tie-in with the sequel, but they probably got a tad overzealous. It’s as if the game didn’t end at all.

Nevertheless, I still had a great time. The initial concept is original enough to outweigh the kinks in execution, at least for me, and if the rest of the series is anything to go by, the developers do take account of the criticism they receive. Subsequent games have made a genuine effort to streamline the gameplay. I still far prefer Altaïr to his successor, Ezio, though. So here’s to the original four-fingered stabbing wonder.