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!

Crisis Bore

The culprit: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation Portable)

I’ve always viewed the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII with some suspicion, as it mostly seemed like a string of games (and a film) entirely aimed at milking fans of Final Fantasy VII for cash. Maybe I’m just cynical about sequels and prequels in general, maybe it’s because the Compilation came out several years after the original game, or maybe it’s because I was never a die-hard FFVII fan. Either way, I purchased Crisis Core with a dose of wariness, which, unfortunately, proved to be well-founded.

The game was a commercial success, and I’ve seen a lot of FFVII fans gushing about how great it is and how the ending made them cry, but that was not my experience at all. If you’ve played FFVII before, you’ll know exactly why the game is meant to make you cry, but knowing the outcome beforehand greatly reduced its impact in my eyes. I also felt that the game was trying too hard to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, rather than simply trusting the inherent tragedy of the moment. It’s like the developers decided to throw every emotional gimmick they could think of at the player, figuring that at least some of it might stick. None of it did, at least for me. It felt cheesy and overblown (angels! feathers! premonitions! rain!), and not even in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way, when it could have been truly impactful if they’d just kept it simple.

I also fully understand the game’s desire to pay homage to FFVII, given its popularity among the fanbase. But homage alone does not a good game make: it has to be able to stand on its own two feet and have its own basis for appeal. And that just isn’t the case with Crisis Core. The storyline felt like an odd rehash of the original game, with people being injected with extraneous cells and sprouting wings left, right and centre, to the extent that I started wondering whether everyone would end up with wings by the end. The single wing was Sephiroth’s trademark and made him unique. Reusing that on lesser villains does not automatically make them better, it just trivialises the attraction of the original villain.

Plot points were recycled and then developed in a confusing, disjointed and sometimes very bizarre way (c.f. a moment late in the game where an enemy mook decides to eat some of Zack’s hair because he thinks it will cure him). Aside from Zack, who came across as an upstanding, friendly guy, and the fact that we were able to see Cloud’s true persona and some of Sephiroth’s more humane traits before he went insane, most of the new characters were either forgettable, one-dimensional or downright annoying. The latter category includes the main villain, Genesis, which is a significant flaw. His name sounds pretentious, and he spends his time desperately trying to be as cool as Sephiroth. This is an actual plot point and comes across as painfully ironic. There’s also the fact that his design is based on a Japanese rock star (one of the developers is a fan), which just smacked of cheap fanboyism to me.

It also felt strange that events and people presented as significant in this game would then receive no mention at all in future instalments. It’s understandable for FFVII, since it’s an older game, but you’d think that there would be more references than a brief secret ending in Dirge of Cerberus. It also shows that Crisis Core was not part of a coherent narrative to begin with. Unlike, say, FFX-2 or the FFXIII saga: whatever you might think of their overall quality, they were at least designed with continuity in mind.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the gameplay or the music either. The latter was utterly forgettable, with one or two exceptions, and while the former included some interesting ideas on paper, I felt that the execution was lacking. There was notably too much randomness involved both in the DMW system and the materia fusion mechanics.

To sum it up, my overall impression of Crisis Core was ‘bland and messy’. However, I realise that this is probably a minority opinion, and if you love FFVII, you might well love this too. It depends on whether you see it as a worthy homage or a lame ripoff. If you’re not particularly keen on FFVII, I would give this a miss. And if you’ve never played FFVII before, I would encourage you to do that instead. It’s a better game.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.

The best laid plans of gods and skeletons

The culprit: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Gamecube)

Doorway to hellLovecraftian horror has been a long-lasting trend in horror games, as witnessed by the recent Sinking City. That said, you may not have heard of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, released back in 2002 by Nintendo and the now defunct Silicon Knights. It didn’t sell particularly well, but critics loved it, and it has influenced a number of subsequent games, such as Amnesia or Metal Gear Solid.

To be or not to beThe game’s main claim to fame are ‘sanity effects’, which usually trigger when your character’s sanity metre is low. The effects range from hallucinations, such as the character’s head falling off and starting to recite Hamlet, walls bleeding or bugs crawling over the screen, to ‘technical glitches’, such as the game pretending to delete all of your saves, lowering the sound on its own or bringing up a BSoD. It’s quite startling when it happens, and it was definitely groundbreaking at the time. Whether it’s actually scary is a different matter.

On the caseThe main character is Alex Roivas (read her last name backwards), and the game starts with her grandfather, Edward, being murdered. While investigating his manor, she finds the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Inside are stories detailing the fates of 11 different people throughout history, and you proceed to play out each chapter as its protagonist, with interludes where you play as Alex.

The first chapter serves as an introduction: while on a mission in Persia in 26B.C., a Roman centurion called Pius (the game spells it as “Pious”, but “Pius” is the proper Latin spelling) stumbles on an underground temple containing three artefacts, each representing a malevolent deity. Once Pius chooses an artefact, the associated deity turns him into a lichSay cheese! to do its bidding and summon it into the world. The red artefact represents Chattur’gha, the God of Matter, who looks like a mix between a lobster and a Langolier; the blue one represents Ulyaoth, the God of Magic, who looks like a jellyfish; and the green one represents Xel’lotath, the Goddess of Insanity, who looks like…uhh…an eel? With four arms? And a single eye?

CrustaceanThe choice of a deity essentially serves as a difficulty selector, as it determines the main type of enemies you face throughout the game. Chattur’gha enemies are red and deal twice the damage. Ulyaoth enemies are blue and deal damage to both health and magic, and some can also explode if you don’t promptly chop their heads off. Xel’lotath enemies are green and deal damage to both health and sanity, although your character will gradually lose sanity simply from seeing any type of enemies anyway. Subsequent playthroughs force you to pick a different deity, and once The Blobyou’ve picked all three, a final stretch of storyline will play out. A fourth deity called Mantorok, the Corpse God, which looks like a Lovecraftian shoggoth (a blob with lots of eyes and mouths) and is associated with the colour purple, is also featured in the game, but it’s more or less a neutral party and won’t actively try to harm the characters.

The three main deities have different personalities and a different relationship with Pius, which is a refreshing detail and helps to make replays less tedious. Chattur’gha is not very bright, so Pius does all the planning for him. Ulyaoth, on the other hand, has some major smarts, so Pius serves as his obedient lackey. With Xel’lotath, they have more of a ‘partners in crime’ vibe, even though she doesn’t fully trust him. All three deities are also voiced by Metal Gear Solid actors: Chattur’gha shares his VA with the original Grey Fox, Split personalityUlyaoth shares his VA with The Fury from MGS3 and Big Boss from MGS4. As befits the Goddess of Insanity, Xel’lotath speaks with two voices, which often say different things, making her the most entertaining of the three. Both VAs are superstars: one is Jennifer Hale (MGS’ Naomi, among others), who also voices Alex; the other is Kim Mai Guest (MGS’ Mei Ling, among others).

The three main deities also have a rock-paper-scissors relationship: Chattur’gha is vulnerable to Ulyaoth, who is vulnerable to Xel’lotath, who is vulnerable to Chattur’gha. Their minions share this vulnerability, and it also affects the story. Alex’s goal is to summon the deity which Pius’ one is vulnerable to, so that they can fight it out, then banish the one she summoned, but she needs its artefact to be able to do that, and the other two for safekeeping. The book describes them being passed down through history by three different groups of characters, to eventually end up in Alex’s possession. The weaker Cannot. Unsee.artefact passes through the hands of Karim, a Persian swordsman; Roberto, a Venetian architect; and Michael, a Canadian fireman. The stronger one passes from Anthony, a Frankish messenger; to Paul, a Franciscan monk; to Peter, a British WWI soldier. Mantorok’s artefact is dealt with by Ellia, a Cambodian slave; and Edwin, an American explorer. The final two characters – Alex’s ancestors, Max and Edward – explore the secrets of the Roivas manor.

The problem with having so many characters in a horror game is that they end up being very one-dimensional. The only ones that stood out to me were those who actually achieved important stuff in their chapters: Max and Peter. The rest? Carboard cutouts. I could mention Ellia though, who drew my attention for all the wrong reasons. First of all, she’s shown reading a book at the beginning of her chapter, despite being a slave in medieval Cambodia. Secondly, her name doesn’t sound Cambodian. And thirdly, she’s basically a scantily-clad token female character, as everyone else besides Alex is male.

RGBThe gameplay is simple: explore, solve puzzles, fight enemies. The game makes your life a bit easier by allowing you to save anywhere, as long as there are no enemies nearby. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as three metres, indicating health (red), magic (blue) and sanity (green). Ellia is the weakest, but fast. Conversely, Roberto and Max are both slow. Anthony becomes de facto immortal. Karim has the best health and is also fast, and Edwin has the best sanity, while Paul, Peter, Edward and Alex share the best magic. Each Chop-chop!character also has access to different weapons. You can target different enemy body parts to make things easier (e.g. removing their head will blind them). Once an enemy is downed, you get a prompt to perform a finishing blow. This will also replenish a bit of your character’s sanity metre, while their magic metre will slowly replenish on its own. No such luck for health though: your only options are some very rare healing items or a spell.

Arcane knowledgeMagic in this game is based on runes. One set of runes represents a spell’s effect (e.g. “protect” or “absorb”), another its target (e.g. “self” or “area”), and a third its alignment to a deity, and you need one of each to cast a spell. All runes need to be found; as do codices, which identify the rune; spell scrolls, which describe spells; and circles of power, which determine the spell’s power (three, five or seven runes). You can discover a spell on your own by experimenting with runes, but it won’t have a name until you find the corresponding scroll. For five- and seven-rune spells, you simply add two to four “power” runes to make the spell more powerful. 

IncantationThe alignment runes change the effects of some spells. For example, with the Chattur’gha rune, the Recover spell replenishes health, with Ulyaoth magic, with Xel’lotath sanity, and both health and sanity with Mantorok. The Shield spell protects your character against the alignment you use, and the Enchant Item spell, when used on their weapon, can be aligned to target the enemy’s weakness. Spells can also be assigned to a controller button for speedy casting.

Batting for the home teamThe music, by Steve Henifin, is mostly of the ‘occult chanting’ persuasion. Some tracks stand out: “The Gift of Eternity” and “Ram Dao”, from Karim’s chapter, which both have a dark Oriental groove to them. There’s also “Black Rose”, from Max’ chapter, with its eerie flute and tolling bells, the heavily percussive “A War to End All Wars” from Peter’s chapter, and the thwomping synth of the final boss theme, “Gateway to Destiny”.

The MastermindTo sum things up, the gameplay is quite fun, some of the music is good, and the whole concept behind the game is interesting. But I didn’t actually feel scared at any point, due to easily being able to defend myself, which is a bit of a letdown for a horror game. I also found some of the ‘technical’ sanity effects a bit gimmicky. Couple that with the lack of interesting characters, and I felt that the game was functionally accomplished, but rather hollow. Then again, YMMV, and I would still recommend you give it a go: it’s a landmark of the horror genre for a reason.

“Who wants to live forever?”

The culprit: Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360)

Ah, Lost Odyssey. The game that made me buy an Xbox 360. It just so happened that I once saw someone playing a part of the game that included Jansen. The next thing I did was to go hunt for a used console and a copy of the game. And the rest, as they say, is history. The game was one of the first major titles to be available for the Xbox 360, which is the main reason why it caught the limelight; had that not been the case, I’m not sure it would have made a massive splash. I’m also pretty sure that not many people remember it nowadays, so it hasn’t really developed a lasting legacy. Nevertheless, I don’t regret my decision one bit and would heartily recommend the game to any oldschool JRPG aficionado.

DeathlessPart of Lost Odyssey’s appeal is its association with the Final Fantasy series. It was written in part by Hironobu Sakaguchi, who directed Final Fantasies I to V and produced the rest up until FFX-2, and the music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu, who worked on every game in the series apart from Tactics, FFXIII and its sequels, and FFXV. This should spark curiosity, at the very least, in most FF fans. There’s also the fact that combat is of the traditional turn-based kind, and that one of the characters is an airship pilot whose name sounds suspiciously like Cid.

Yet the traditional turn-based combat is probably also one of the game’s main drawbacks and has definitely proved more trouble than it was worth for more than one player. It can be very frustrating to be forced to select your entire party’s actions before you see what the enemies do, then sometimes having to cancel their actions partway through and queue up something completely different. Especially after years and years of active turn-based RPGs where you had a lot more flexibility in that department. The game does try to make proceedings more dynamic with the addition of the ring system, but combat was definitely the game’s big minus for me.

Another issue is the game’s storyline. It starts out on an original note, notwithstanding the painfully clichéd main villain. However, towards the very end, I got the feeling that the screenwriters either lost their script and had to hurriedly scribble down bullet points from memory, or just never bothered writing out the final stretches in detail to begin with. Either way, plot elements came out of nowhere and left me scratching my head in confusion.

Back to the positives, though. The game features some very strong characterisation, considering its unusual premise. Most JRPGs feature a band of idealistic youngsters with one or two kids and an older and/or wiser guy thrown in the mix. In terms of appearances, the Lost Odyssey team is no different. However, it’s a twist on the trope, as four of the ‘youngsters’ have been alive for a thousand years, and have the perspective and mentality to match. Despite not being the most personable guy around, Kaim is given painstaking development through his dream sequences, which sometimes strike deep emotional chords. Jansen is a treasure of comic relief, and I cannot praise his English voice actor enough for his work. Sed is a crusty sea-dog and a mama’s boy rolled into one, and Seth is an inexhaustible source of optimism and energy. The game’s aesthetic also has an engaging steampunk-y edge to it, which does a good job of integrating magic into an otherwise heavily industrial environment. The character design emphasises chiselled, elongated features reminiscent of Gothic statues, which has its own charm and elegance.

All in all, I had a great time with this game, despite its flaws, and would encourage curious players to give it a go. Even though it never was an unmitigated success, it deserves to be revisited for the things it does get right.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

A farewell to arms

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PlayStation 3)

OldboyMuch of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has an air of finality about it, as far as I’m concerned. Not only because it marks the chronological endpoint of Snake’s story, but also because it turned out to be the last MGS game I ever played. On a technical and gameplay level, it’s functional: nothing spectacular, but also nothing abysmally wrong (apart from long loading times), and if combat is what interests you, then you probably won’t find much to complain about here. The graphics still look good today, the soundtrack is decent, and there are some interesting narrative choices. But I’ve also never really felt the urge to pick up another MGS game after this one, nor the urge to actually replay it, which may sound surprising, considering the hyperbolic praise this game received upon release. Maybe I just got tired of the nonsense, which stopped being epic and just became nonsense. Maybe because all they can do now is prequels, unless they want to continue with Raiden. Maybe because I don’t actually like what they’ve decided to do with Raiden’s story in Metal Gear Rising. Maybe because I hit my cutscene saturation point. Maybe because the game finally went overboard from ‘puerile’ to ‘offensive’ in some of its characterisations. Or maybe all of this at once.

KnockoutLet’s start with some positives though. Combat now takes place with an over-the-shoulder camera, which you can actually switch sides for an easier time looking around corners, as well as switching to first-person mode. Camouflage makes a return from MGS3, as Snake wears an enhanced bodysuit with camouflage properties, which he can further supplement with face camo after a specific boss fight. He’s also equipped with a “Solid Eye”, which looks like an eyepatch (to further enhance the similarities with Big Boss) and functions as binoculars or night-vision goggles, as well as informing Snake of things like what weapons the soldiers use or footprints that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, and providing a mini-map. As MGS4 was one of the first games developed for the PlayStation 3, the rumble feature was only implemented late into the game’s development cycle, meaning that it uses a system called the Threat Ring, which appears around Snake and becomes visibly distorted when an enemy is detected nearby, indicating which direction they’re coming from.

Butt zap!Two other additions are the Psyche Gauge and the Metal Gear Mk. II.  The former indicates Snake’s stress level, which affects things like aim or the likelihood of passing out after being wounded, and serves to humanise him a bit and make him more relatable. He can stress out from stuff like extreme temperatures or bad smells, while having a smoke, eating something or looking at a naughty magazine will help him relax. The Metal Gear Mk. II is a small robot on wheels designed by Otacon to serve as a mini-reconnaissance unit. It functions as a mobile codec to communicate with other characters, can scout for Snake, but also deliver electric shocks to enemies to temporarily stun them. All in all, the fact that I can’t really remember much about the combat is probably a positive point, since it means that it flowed seamlessly enough for me not to notice it.

If only saluting would end this gameThe problem is that the game often prevents you from actually playing. The series’ trademark cutscene bloat reached an all-time high in this particular opus. Hideo Kojima’s career has been one long, arduous battle against his hardwired desire to make films rather than games. By all accounts, he has managed to get it under control for MGS5, but this is probably as a direct result of what happened with MGS4. As of 2015 (I don’t know if this is still true today, but it very well might be), it held Guinness World Records for the longest single cutscene (27 mins) and longest cutscene sequence (71 mins…) in a videogame, the former being included within the latter as part of the game’s ending. Someone did some number crunching on this and came up with a staggering 44% cutscene-to-gameplay proportion. By comparison, MGS2, in second place, had a 41% ratio, but its longest cutscene was only 20 mins long.  

Could've saved you a lot of troubleCombine this with what is possibly the most convoluted and poorly-written storyline in the series and, by the end of it, I was basically in a cutscene-induced stupor. There are just too many twists-that-aren’t-really-twists, red herrings and overly-convenient (or nonsensical) explanations, and once the game is done, and you think back on what’s happened, you may well be forgiven for wondering whether all of that was really necessary. The key facts, though, are that it’s 2014 and that “war…has changed”, as Snake’s voiceover takes pains to remind you over and over again in the intro sequence. The world economy is now somehow fully dependent on war, resulting in a constant global conflict where private military companies fight each other for…reasons. As a result of the events of MGS2, Liquid Snake’s consciousness has taken over Revolver Ocelot’s body (well…it’s complicated) and basically established a single mega-mercenary company, fuelling the chaos. Colonel Campbell has asked Solid Snake to off him, and that’s where the game begins.

For old times' sakeSnake has been ageing rapidly, due to being a clone, and is now an old man, which makes for an interesting take on the traditional hero persona. Instead of your usual battle-hardened muscle-head, you have to deal with an elderly, disillusioned, often bitter man whose only real prospect in life is impending decrepitude and death. This only has minimal impact on the gameplay, as Snake’s bodysuit also compensates for his physical deterioration (he still gets back pains though), but it does impact the storyline, especially when he inevitably bumps into Meryl again (and I still can’t quite believe that they decided to end her character arc as they did). EVA also resurfaces, and it’s disconcerting to see her son looking the same age as her. Although I have to take exception to the fact that, at 78, she’s still rockin’ that damn cleavage…Was there really no way to tastefully depict a woman of her age? Also, her introduction, verbatim: “Call me Mama…*dramatic pause* Big Mama”. I’m sorry, I just can’t. A perfect example of a typical MGS tonal shift falling flat on its face. 

Dat smirkAnyway, Snake now lives with Otacon (platonically, although, by the end of the game, you gotta start wondering, because poor Hal’s disastrous track record with women unfortunately holds), and they have essentially adopted Olga Gurlukovich’s daughter, Sunny, whom Raiden managed to rescue from the Patriots with EVA’s help. However, he was later captured by them and, in a rather shocking development, turned into a cyborg. The only remaining organic parts of him are his spine and head, minus the lower jaw (and yet, he’s somehow still sexy). His relationship with Rose has also broken down, and all of this basically turned him into a brooding badass – so much so that he fights an entire battle with his sword held between his teeth at one point, due to being unable to use his hands –, much to the surprise of those who complained about his whining in MGS2. His feud with Vamp is also alive and well, and practically drowning in fluid-drenched innuendo, especially since Raiden’s ‘blood’ is now white. Be that as it may, it results in two eye-catching duels. All in all, he was probably my favourite part of the game, and I appreciated the way his story ended. And then MGR happened. But I digress.

IncandescentAn MGS game wouldn’t be complete without a Foxhound-like villain squad, and, sure enough, there is one here, called the Beauty and the Beast unit. They push the similarities to imitating the original Foxhound codenames mixed with emotion-based epithets, à la MGS3’s Cobra Unit, which doesn’t bode well for their originality. There’s a Laughing Octopus, a Raging Raven, a Crying Wolf and a Screaming Mantis. However, I have a real problem with their portrayal. You see, they’re all female and based on fashion models. Now, in itself, an all-female villain squad might’ve been a welcome novelty, and I can’t deny that they’re all beautiful, especially Raging Raven, who is nuclear levels of hot. But any characterisation they get comes after they’re dead, which never gives them the chance to establish themselves as anything but pretty faces. On top of that, they all suffer from extreme PTSD, to the extent that they can’t function normally when outside their robotic armour. Cue them writhing around in agony in skintight, glistening wet (for some reason) bodysuits when Snake inevitably destroys said armour, while the camera frantically shows off butts, boobs and cameltoes, like it’s being handled by an overeager horny teenager. Apparently, the original idea was for them to be naked during these sequences, but it proved unworkable for obvious reasons. However, if Snake doesn’t damage them for a long enough time after they’re out of their armour, they’ll both be transported to a white room where he can take pictures of them while they strike sexy poses. I mean, yes, MGS is known for its fanservice, but, in previous games, it was limited to psychologically functional ladies showing off cleavage or underwear (and balanced by the presence of shirtless gentlemen). This feels uncomfortably like exploitation, and the fact that the trend continued in MGS5 with Quiet is not a good sign at all. Raiden was completely naked in MGS2, you say? Yes, but the camera wasn’t staring up his bum as he was having a full-on nervous breakdown while crying, moaning and panting suggestively. Nor did it fetishise his torture sequence. And while he admittedly also has PTSD, it was never portrayed as anywhere near that level of debilitating.

I'm bustin' outta hereTo sum things up, my main feeling throughout this game was just that it had to end. And once it did, I felt that there was sufficient closure for all involved – for better or for worse –, so the decision to continue the franchise could only appear misguided to me, and nothing I have seen, heard or read about the topic has suggested otherwise. If you’re a full-fledged MGS fan, chances are you’ll disagree, and perhaps you think that MGS5 and/or MGR were brilliant. I, however, remain of the opinion that MGS3 was the best in the series and that it all should just have ended with MGS4. It’s been fun, guys. Wish you’d managed to not slip up until the end.

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.

Pokédemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.