Showing posts with label Video Games. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Video Games. Show all posts

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Spotlight On... Constructor

It was the late-nineties and tactical construction simulators were all the rage. Iconic titles such as Sim City, Age of Empires, Theme Park and Civilisation II had shaped the genre for PC gamers, ensuring that there was no shortage in “god sims” on the shelves. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that Constructor came onto the scene and offered something that those other games didn’t – a very British sense of humour. Straight out of the warped minds of video game developer System 3, the game’s dark sense of humour was visible from the very start as the opening full-motion-video credits depicted a hapless builder being drowned in liquid cement by a ruthless gangster, all the while set to the game’s jaunty theme song. Constructor wasn’t like any building-sim that had come before – there was a gleefully malicious heart beating behind the isometric view that subverted the genre in a similar manner to fellow god-sim, Dungeon Keeper. Sticking two fingers up at political correctness, the game poked fun at working-class stereotypes and actively encouraged the player to be corrupt in their business handlings.

The game adopted a similar format to other construction-simulation games seen before and since, requiring the player to stockpile various resources, in this instance; timber cement and bricks, before building their properties. Rather than having access to build shiny, modern-looking homes from the outset, the player’s initial choice of buildings are grimmer than a Grimm Brother’s fairy tale. Not only are the houses low-rent, but the occupants are the type of people you’d find on “Neighbours from Hell” and are either boozy louts or creepy scumbags. This introduces the second core element of Constructor – the people. In order to increase your standards, you have to educate the children of your tenants and cultivate a better class of resident. Installing computers and building schools allows you to rent homes out to more sophisticated occupants and will soon have you climbing the property rental ladder with ease.

While you could choose to play a single-player game, the biggest fun came from Constructor’s multiplayer mode. Pitted against a computer AI or enemy players, you had the ability to sabotage each other’s communities, and the options were endless. You could build a flat full of football hooligans to cause chaos, send gangsters to collect protection money, and even send hippies into empty properties to become squatters. It’s gloriously chaotic and System 3’s cast of undesirables were absolutely hilarious and perfectly realised on-screen. The short animated sequences that appeared when you click on a character were brilliant, and after hours playing the game you would find yourself replicating the voices, such as the Foreman’s long drawn-out “helllooooo” down the phone, or the "do be do" tune that the builders hum whilst redecorating rooms.

The distinctive sound and graphic visuals go a long way towards cultivating Constructor’s unique sense of humour. Each character is voiced by some of the most exaggerated accents ever seen in a video game, which adds to the charm. While the early stages of the game mock the working class quite mercilessly, once the player reaches a level of professionalism, the middle and upper class soon become fodder for ridicule. As a fourteen year-old playing this game, I remember having great fun with the game’s mechanics and the funny voices but returning to it almost twenty years later, I can appreciate it on a whole different level. Despite the over-populated genre, the game remained one of the most original examples of the constructor-sim and it represents that anarchic, spirit of rebellion that was present in the late nineties as smaller developers took chances and brought passion projects to life, rather than releasing sequel after sequel.

While the learning curve was a bit tough, especially against any of the computer AI difficulties, this game was pure FUN from start to finish. Sure, there’s some nostalgia bias at play here as this game did come out at the height of my MS-DOS gaming obsession and sits proudly alongside my love for classic point-and-click adventures, but its sense of humour and willingness to poke fun at council estate stereotypes is what set this game apart from the crowd and still makes me remember it fondly over twenty years after its release. If you’ve never played Constructor before, you should do yourself a favour and take a look at this hidden gem – even twenty years later, the game holds up well.

The classic 1997 version of Constructor is available as a PSone classic download on the PlayStation Store or available digitally on PC through A HD-remake of the original is due for release on 28th April for Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and PC DVD-Rom.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Top Ten Recurring Characters from the Final Fantasy series

With fifteen core entries and dozens of spin-off titles, the Final Fantasy series is one of video-gaming's largest franchises ever. Even though most instalments are designed to be stand-alone stories with wildly different settings and main characters, there are many recurring elements that offer a degree of continuity between the titles. For example, there are some thematic similarities seen across games, often involving elemental crystals that power the various planets or guardian forces that protect the world, but the most consistent element is the shared usage of creatures and summonable deities that span the series. With frequent reappearances across all of the titles, it can be hard to imagine a Final Fantasy game without some of these familiar faces. Here at Pop Culture Bandit, we’ve decided to take a look at the Top Ten Recurring Characters from Final Fantasy Games and how they’ve evolved and changed throughout the past twenty years.

10) Malboro
First appearance: "Final Fantasy II"

A recurring enemy throughout the franchise since its first appearance in Final Fantasy II, this fearsome-looking beast is often positioned as a mini-boss, making use of its iconic ‘Bad Breath’ special move to inflict status-ailments on unlucky fighters. Looking like a distant cousin of Audrey II from The Little Shop of Horrors, this tentacled plant with razor-sharp teeth is the stuff of nightmares and is often seen as a tough battle due to its propensity for inducing poison, sleep and confusion on its foes. With a wonderful visual design that seldom changes from game-to-game, the Malboro is a key element of the Final Fantasy series, inspiring nostalgia with every appearance, no matter how frustratingly awkward their battles can be!

9) Bomb
First appearance: "Final Fantasy II"

Bombs are another common adversary in the Final Fantasy games, appearing in every title since their debut in Final Fantasy II. Shaped like a fireball with a face, Bombs tend to increase in size upon receiving physical attacks until they inevitably explode with a ‘Self Destruct’ attack, dealing high amounts of damage to one unlucky foe. Unsurprisingly, they are resilient to fire damage and weak towards ice attacks. To counter this, most games introduce variant versions of these creatives themed on different elements such as blue-coloured Ice Bombs, or grey Thunder Bombs. These largely look and behave the same, apart from the switch in elemental strengths and weaknesses. With a simplistic fireball shape, the Bombs are relatively consistent throughout the main series, gaining added detail and texture as the graphics of the games increased over time.

8) Tonberry
First appearance: "Final Fantasy V"

A relatively late addition to the Final Fantasy mythology, the Tonberry made its debut in Final Fantasy V and has since become a series mainstay, appearing as both enemy and ally across multiple titles. Tonberries are small, hooded creatures with green skin and beady yellow eyes that gives them a mole-like appearance. Often found in caves, they carry an old-fashioned gas lantern and a small butcher knife that simply adds to their sinister nature. Often slow-paced and very measured in their attacks, the Tonberry many shares characteristics with the Grim Reaper or Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise of movies. Unlike most characters on this list, there is barely any change to the Tonberry design from game-to-game, making it one of the most consistent designs seen in the Final Fantasy universe and ripe for merchandise opportunities.

7) Shiva
First appearance: "Final Fantasy III"

Since her introduction in Final Fantasy III, Shiva has been one of the most frequently recurring summonable deities. Along with Ifrit and Ramuh, she forms part of the trinity of elemental summons – fire, ice and thunder – and as such, features in almost every title. Once summoned in battles, this self-styled ‘goddess of ice’ makes use of her signature move “Diamond Dust” to cause ice damage to all foes. Often portrayed in a semi-nude state, Shiva’s summon sequences are often titillating affairs as the blue-skinned beauty writhes about before causing blizzards to form around her enemies. A permanent fixture of the games, Shiva is often one of the earlier summons acquired in each title, helping players get through some of those tougher battles.

6) Odin
First appearance: "Final Fantasy III"

A recurring summon in the Final Fantasy series, Odin made his initial debut in Final Fantasy III and has appeared regularly ever since, although he is notably absent from Final Fantasy X. While this version of Odin is often seen riding Sleipnir – the eight-legged horse from Norse mythology – he doesn’t share too many visual qualities with his mythic counterpart, instead resembling a demonic knight. One of the more powerful summons available, Odin can perform the “Zantetsuken” move, which causes instant death in the majority of cases as he cuts foes in two, literally. This has been a life-saver in many occasion, cutting short time-consuming battles with a single move.

Interestingly, Odin can actually be defeated during his summon state in Final Fantasy VIII. If a player has acquired Odin before the end of Disc 3, he will appear to assist you against Seifer, only to be killed by the poser SeeD and replaced by Gilgamesh, who retrieves his Zantetsuken sword to add to his collection. This is a nice little Easter egg and a fun twist on the character’s legendary status. Despite this ‘death’ sequence, Odin has reappeared in subsequent games in different guises.

5) Ifrit
First appearance: "Final Fantasy III"

Since his introduction in Final Fantasy III, Ifrit has been positioned as the series’ default fire-based elemental summon, rivalling both Shiva (Ice) and Ramuh (Thunder). Bestial in nature, this horned demon makes use of his signature attack “Hellfire” to deal fire-damage to all opponents. Initially possessing a genie inspired design, Ifrit has grown more feral and beast-like with every subsequent appearance – although his core design of brown-skin and large horns remains unchanged. Personally, his appearance in Final Fantasy VIII might be his definitive design (pictured above) – blending a fiery Minotaur look with a 'jinn' or 'genie' styling. As expected from fire and ice elementals, there is a fierce rivalry between Ifrit and Shiva, and the juxtaposing design of the pair is somewhat reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Often an early acquired summon, Ifrit can be a firm companion during the initial stages of each game before becoming replaced by more powerful summonable creatures.

4) Bahamut
First appearance: "Final Fantasy"

Bahamut is the archetypal dragon in the Final Fantasy series, first making his appearance in the original Final Fantasy game and appearing in most titles in some form since then. The character also proved popular enough to spin-off into his own game Bahamut Lagoon, and in Final Fantasy VII, there were three versions of the summon: Bahamut, Neo Bahamut and Bahamut ZERO – each with increasingly more powerful moves. While he is always depicted as a huge dragon, his specific design varies from game-to-game as with many of the recurring summons. When summoned from the skies, Bahamut performs his signature move, “Mega Flare” which deals non-elemental magic damage that ignores defence and evasion. Bahamut is typically considered to be the strongest summon in the games he appears in and is often only obtainable after defeating a boss battle – either against the dragon himself or another boss.

3) Cactuar
First appearance: "Final Fantasy VI"

The latest addition to Final Fantasy mythology to appear on this list, the Cactuar made its in-game debut in Final Fantasy VI as an enemy. Since then, the character has been seen as both an enemy and an ally – even appearing as a Guardian Force summon in Final Fantasy VIII. Fast and tough to hit, Cactuars are tricky to defeat before they unleash their trademark “1000 Needles” attack and run from battle, but if players can defeat one, they are usually rewarded with large amounts of Gil and EXP.

For the majority of its appearances, the Cactuar retains its cute and loveable design with stiff arms and legs and three black holes for their faces, but Final Fantasy XI and XII introduced more sinister looking designs that lacked the same charm as the original. Needless to say, the game has reverted back to its iconic design for subsequent instalments and is expected to appear in Final Fantasy XV in its usual style. One of the cuter monsters from the Final Fantasy bestiary, the Cactuar has had several pieces of merchandises made of it, including a plush cuddly toy.

2) Chocobo
First appearance - "Final Fantasy II"

A prominent part of the series since their debut in Final Fantasy II, the Chocobo could easily be considered the series’ mascot. These huge chicken creatures act as the Final Fantasy equivalent of Horses and appear as a ride-able transport option in almost every game. Notably, there is a breeding sub-quest in Final Fantasy VII where players can play cupid with the Chocobos to breed coloured variants that help traverse the various areas of the map. Further to that, players can also use their customised Chocobos in the Gold Saucer races, creating a surprisingly in-depth side quest that is equally as enthralling as the main game itself.

Often seen in its common yellow plumage, Chocobos can be found in Black, White, Green, Blue and the highly-sought after Gold variant. Aside from acting as the main form of transport for the series, Chocobos also appear as a summonable creature - such as the Fat Chocobo, who lands on foes dealing non-elemental damage. The design of the Chocobo has been relatively consistent across all titles, becoming more and more realistic looking as the graphics improve. As with Bahamut, the characters have proved so popular, they have spun off into their series of Chocobo games, most of which are available only in Japan.

The Chocobo is such an essential part of the Final Fantasy mythology that quite simply, it doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game without them in attendance.

1) Moogle
First appearance - "Final Fantasy III"

Somewhat controversially, I am going to pick the Moogle over the Chocobo to be my pick for the Top Recurring Character from the Final Fantasy series. While the Chocobo is cute and popular enough to spawn its own series of games, I love the innocence mouse-like design of the Moogle. Obsessed with Kupo Nuts, the Moogle first made its appearance in Final Fantasy III and has appeared in every title since, with the exception of Final Fantasy IV.

Unlike the Chocobo, the Moogle has been subject to a great deal of redesign over the years, although they often maintain their small bat-like wings and pom-pom hanging from their heads. The most drastic change occurred in Final Fantasy XII were the Moogles moved away from their traditional mouse-themed design to a more rabbit-orientated look. Luckily this redesign only lasted for this one title and the Final Fantasy Tactics handheld spin-offs, and the traditional look was restored for subsequent games.

My favourite outing for the Moogle has to be Final Fantasy IX where the characters acted as the game's save-points, using a MogNet mailing system to tell a story about a travelling Mog called Stiltskin, whose travels mirrored that of the player. It was a nice idea, and subsequently the characters have been used in an advisory or tutorial capacity in games. While they aren’t as universally popular as the Chocobo, the fact they can talk and are cuddly, little white puffs of fur means that they hit the top of our list! Equally as essential to the franchise as the Chocobo, the Moogle is a vital part of each Final Fantasy game, injecting a light-hearted tone into even the most serious of Final Fantasy titles, kupo!

What do you think – is there a recurring creature from the Final Fantasy mythology missing from our list here? Or do you think Chocobos are far more important to the franchise than Moogles? Do you have a favourite moment from any of the creatures above that you wish to share? Feel free to drop a comment below with your thoughts on this list, or message us on our social media channels – Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Review - Catherine

Available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

[Please be aware, this review contains huge story SPOILERS!]

Clearly influenced by anime, Catherine is a very odd and unlikely video game – both in terms of its bizarre subject matter and its mish-mash of gaming styles, blending elements of a dating simulation with block-based puzzles. The player adopts the role of Vincent Brooks, a hapless layabout who is in a semi-committed relationship with his girlfriend Katherine. With most of his time spent at the bar with his friends, he ends up in trouble when he wakes up one morning to find a strange blonde girl in his bed, Catherine with a C. The bulk of the game revolves around Vincent attempting to keep his affair secret from his girlfriend and dealing with guilt-influenced nightmares that involve him climbing up a giant staircase of blocks, sometimes chased by creatures that represent his real-world fears.

The game is split into two play types – the daytime ‘dating sim’ sequences at the Stray Sheep bar and the nightmarish ‘block-puzzle’ sequences. The decisions made in the daytime sequences allow Vincent to favour either Katherine or Catherine, leading towards multiple endings at the game’s conclusion. There are some small sub-quests that Vincent can partake in, but these are mainly tied to achievements and make little impact on the overall story. While one would expect the block-puzzle elements to be the main focus of the game, it is somewhat overshadowed by the lengthy cut-scenes that build up the story and repetitive ‘dating sim’ moments. Those wanting to get to grips with the ‘block-puzzle’ part of the game have the option to play the unlockable Babel mode instead, which generates a random wall of blocks and allows players to practice or unwind, separate from the main story mode.

The brand revels in its unorthodox persona, throwing in some hideous end-level bosses that are truly shocking, such as an unborn baby holding a chainsaw and screaming “daddy!”, or a demonic zombie bride. It really adds to the nightmarish quality of these night-time scenes, playing upon the fears that most young unmarried males have. The game also emphasises the sexiness of its titular antagonist, Catherine, and may appeal to fans of T&A, although there is nothing explicit ever shown, plenty of side-boobs and bum cheeks though! There’s also a few F-bombs thrown into the mix, which earns the game its 18+ rating in the UK.

The story is interesting, but sometimes drags at a dismally slow pace with repetitive cut-scenes that sometimes fail to advance the story along. One interlude between sections lasted for forty minutes and could easily have been half the time! With so many cut-scenes between levels, the game suffers from long loading times that often frustrate as they feature a ticking clock – note to game developers, players do not want to hear a clock ticking while waiting for a game to load. It just emphasises the long wait! Despite the slow and meandering storyline, it does pick up in the final stages and delivers a worthwhile conclusion that makes sense of the barmier elements of the plot. With eight different endings, good or bad, players have a certain degree of customisation in the story, allowing them to reflect their own personality onto Vincent with their preference of love interest. On my first playthrough, I ended up with neither girl and ended the game with the first night’s sleep in over a week.

Graphics - The anime-style cel-shaded graphics really helps distinguish the game and make it feel like an anime cartoon brought to life. In some ways, it becomes a slight distraction when the game switches to the 2D animated sequences as the in-game graphics are strong enough to carry the cut-scenes themselves. Given the number of cut-scenes in this game, it is a good thing that the graphics are beautiful to look at, because you’ll spend a lot of time watching the characters talking!

Gameplay - While the interstitial scenes at the Stray Sheep bar might be very limited and repetitive, the game’s core gameplay mechanic is very enjoyable and evokes memories of the arcade classic Q*Bert to an extent. The learning curve can be quite steep at times and with each new stage, new rules are introduced to the game that require practice to master, but there is a rewarding thrill to completing a stage. After a while the game does become intuitive and the various techniques to climb specific obstacles become almost second-nature, which is handy given the difficulty of some of the later levels.

Achievements / Trophies - Most of the game’s achievements stem from normal progression through the story mode, however there are some trickier awards available for those willing to play the harder game modes like Babel and Coliseum. There’s also plenty of alternate endings (each with their own corresponding achievement) and some miss-able side-quests that may require multiple playthroughs to earn them all. There’s nothing impossible here, but some achievements may be more time-consuming than you’d first expect.

Longevity - With eight different endings, the game encourages multiple playthroughs through the story mode. There are also unlockable game modes – Babel, in which the story itself is removed and players must beat a randomly generated wall of blocks or Coliseum, which introduces a two-player competitive element to the game. This, coupled alongside the hidden 'Rapunzel' mini-game (with 128 levels!) extends the lifespan of the game considerably.

It’s not an overstatement at all to say that Catherine is quite unlike any other game out there, offering up an unusual mish-mash of game genres that shouldn't go together but somehow manage to complement each other well. It’s the very definition of an “oddball Japanese game”, but luckily enough it made its way to US and European shores. While it isn't perfect, it is certainly a worthwhile experience in the long run, offering a breath of fresh air to the repetitiveness of the mainstream gaming market. Unsurprisingly, the game earned plenty of awards such as “Most Daring Game” from and “Best Puzzle Game” from GameZone – accreditations that the game certainly deserves, but a number of missteps stop it from becoming an instant classic. If you’re a fan of anime or games off the beaten track, then you should definitely check out Catherine and experience one of gaming’s modern-day curios.

Score - 7.9 out of 10

Friday, 18 September 2015

Review - Until Dawn

Until Dawn
Available only on Sony PlayStation 4

[Please be aware, this review contains huge story SPOILERS!]

I’ve been a massive fan of the “point and click” genre since I first laid eyes on Broken Sword and over time, my appreciation for the genre has grown and grown alongside the technology enhancements that led to 3D environments and more cinematic storylines. For me, the pinnacle of these is Quantic Dream’s absolutely superb Heavy Rain, which blended third person exploration, interactive conversations and Quick Time Events (QTEs) into a wonderful branching narrative, in which the player could weave multiple plot threads together to create their own tapestry of a story, even killing off the main protagonists and shifting the story in a different way. Tackling the film noir genre, Heavy Rain was a cracking detective story that gripped the player from the beginning and took them on a grim hunt for a child serial killer, echoing films like Seven and 8mm.

I absolutely loved Heavy Rain, especially the bonus DLC content which acted as a prequel and had the female protagonist, Madison, trapped in a serial killer’s home and attempting to escape the danger. It offered a completely different twist on the detective noir tone of the main game, evoking memories of films like The Silence of the Lambs and Halloween. So when I came across Until Dawn and saw that it took the same Heavy Rain formula and adapted it into a “Cabin in the Woods” horror movie storyline, my interest was immediately piqued. The trailer showcased a scene from midway in the game where Hayden Panettiere’s character, Sam, is being chased by a masked serial killer and the player must navigate her to safety through a blend of QTEs, split-second choices and motion-sensitive controls. It looked absolutely fantastic – just like being in a schlocky horror movie – and with just one trailer, I was determined to buy the game on release day.

From here on, I am going to discuss the game’s plot in detail, as there is a major plot development that occurs midway through the game that directly influences my feelings on the title and also some of the gameplay elements. Until Dawn is a game of two halves – the initial chapters follow the traditional horror tropes to the letter – horny teenagers, mysterious masked murderer and even a smidgen of “torture porn” popularised by films like Saw and Hostel. However, there is a twist that renders the peril and danger that the characters face in the entire first half of the game to be completely moot. Those decisions and QTEs that you thought mattered, well, they didn't – your characters were never really in any danger.

Ultimately, some of the more minor choices do carry through to the final act, but when it came to replaying the game to kill off all of the characters (one of the hidden trophies), it turned out that I could start the game from Chapter 6 (out of 10) to do so. Whatever decisions I’d made in the previous five chapters had been purely cosmetic and only gave the illusion of free choice. The characters are only in danger when the game wants them to be and that is surprisingly few times. There are only a handful of actual moments where the player can kill off the characters, which dramatically lessens the tension of the game. For example, it is impossible to kill Sam (Hayden Panettiere) until the final scene of the game, no matter how many QTEs and bad decisions you make. I’m guessing this was due to the game developers not wanting players to experience an incomplete play through – although personally, I think the game would be MUCH stronger if the characters were always at risk and it was possible to cut short the story and eliminate all the teens early on.

Despite this fundamental flaw, Until Dawn is still a strong game, albeit consigned to second place against the superior Heavy Rain. The script balances a love for the “Cabin in the Woods” sub-genre of horror and the more self-aware, subversive humour of post-modern horrors like Scream. Despite a sizeable cast of ten core characters (two of which are doomed from the start), the game manages to develop each one sufficiently, building stereotypical horror personalities (the jock, the nerd, the bitch) into something more. The eventual reveal of the true threat is also well done, seeded throughout the narrative by the optional collectibles before being revealed in gory fashion. I really enjoyed the animation of the Wendigo creatures, whose unpredictable skittish movements induced a genuine sense of fear into the QTE confrontations, making those split-second decisions even more urgent.

Graphics - Graphically, this game is absolutely gorgeous with some of the most realistic facial effects I’ve seen in a game. There are some moments, however, when the characters suffer from ‘glassy eye syndrome’, which seems to be pandemic of this current generation’s graphics. As a fan of both Brett Dalton and Hayden Panettiere, it’s quite impressive to see both their likenesses and facial tics perfectly recreated on these animated characters. It’s also worth noting the truly fantastic snow effects that help capture the isolated feeling of the Canadian woods.

Gameplay - The game has been described as an “interactive movie” and I agree to that definition to an extent. Most of the player-controlled action is through third person exploration of Blackwood Pines Lodge and the surrounding woodland. While these moments did evoke memories of classic survival horror games, there is never any danger or peril during these sequences as it is impossible for characters to die unless they fail a QTE or make the wrong decision when faced with a choice. This makes it an ideal game for novice players as there is no controller skill required to progress through the game – it’s purely based on button pushes or motion control.

Achievements / Trophies - Until Dawn’s trophy list is a blank slate of “secret trophies” which are linked to major plot points throughout the game, often awarding trophies for contradicting choices meaning that multiple playthroughs are needed to get the full roster. Unfortunately, basing these trophies around the game’s branching moments just draws attention to the mechanics behind the game’s narrative. 

Longevity - As with other games of its kind, Until Dawn is best played with a single play through, allowing the player’s choices to form the definitive narrative to the game without seeing the other versions of events. Upon replaying the game, it becomes clear where the various divergent moments are and how little difference some of the QTEs make the overall storyline. Unfortunately the trophy list and collectibles encourage repeat playthroughs for full completion, ruining some of the cinematic magic of the game.

While Until Dawn falters in providing the ultimate horror movie simulator, it does deliver a strong, cinematic narrative experience. Straddling the line between game and interactive movie, this sub-genre still has a lot of potential that has yet to be explored and I really hope other game studios see what Supermassive Games and Quantic Dream have done with their titles and push the boundaries even further, providing players with even more control over the narrative. Part of Until Dawn’s problem was its grandiose statements regarding its “butterfly effect” system and its claims of “hundreds of different endings” – every other element of the game is near-flawless; graphics, sound, voice acting and atmosphere. I do feel that I’ve been slightly harsh in my criticism of the title, as up until two-thirds of the way through, I was really enjoying the title – it was upon completion and getting a glimpse “behind the curtain” that soured the experience for me. I still recommend this title for “point and click” enthusiasts and even horror buffs, as it is a really enjoyable tale – it just fails to capitalise on the same potential that I glimpsed in that Heavy Rain DLC, “The Taxidermist”.

Score - 8.1 out of 10

Friday, 4 September 2015

Review - Mortal Kombat X

Mortal Kombat X
Available on: PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

As a keen fan of the Mortal Kombat series, I was somewhat anxious about the release of Mortal Kombat X, the tenth game in the franchise’s history. The previous installment, simply named Mortal Kombat, had breathed new life into the series after the somewhat disappointing Mortal Kombat: Armageddon and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Not only did Mortal Kombat reboot the mythology of the series through its retelling of the events of the original game trilogy, but it also introduced a number of key features, such as X-Rays, that revitalised the fighting system. So, when I heard that Mortal Kombat X was going to jump twenty years forward and introduce a whole new generation of Kombatants, I was a little apprehensive – the main appeal of the Mortal Kombat series for me was its recognisable cast of characters.

I needn’t have worried as NetherRealm Studios have crafted a simply fantastic game that builds upon the greatness that was Mortal Kombat 9 and develops it further without retelling the same old stories. The new generation of fighters, who are descendants of Mortal Kombat legends such as Jackson Briggs, Kenshi, Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage, are all really well-written and given distinctive personalities that set them apart from their parents. There are also some brand-new Outworld inhabitants to fight against, with familiar villains Shao Kahn and Shang Tsung taken off the playing field in favour of Shinnok, Kotal Kahn and Quan Chi. I particularly liked the design of new characters such as Erron Black, D’Vorah and Ferra/Torr. However, fans of the old guard needn’t be disappointed as many of the old favourites return, including Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Liu Kang and Kung Lao. There are also some interesting DLC additions on the horizon with cinematic “monsters”, Jason Voorhees and the Predator joining the fray.

Fans of Mortal Kombat 4 will recognise some of the story beats here, with a prologue sequence that retells the events from that game, establishing Shinnok and Quan Chi as the new “big bads”. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of that particular game, I really enjoyed this retelling and the influx of new characters from that era of the series’ history. I also liked how the series explored the repercussions of Mortal Kombat 9’s revised history with characters like Liu Kang, Kung Lao and Kitana now working for the dark side under Quan Chi’s influence. While fighting games are traditionally known for a paper-thin plot and are more concerned with the fighting mechanics, NetherRealm Studios really place an emphasis on story here, developing a really engaging narrative that fleshes out these characters and gives the franchise a solid core. However, the traditional Arcade mode remains for fans wanting to forgo the story chapters and delve into some pure violence instead, complete with the series’ trademark post-credits endings.

Playing Mortal Kombat X, it’s clear to see how NetherRealm Studios have learned from their previous games, borrowing key elements from titles such as Injustice: Gods Among Us to deliver the ultimate beat ‘em up experience. Things like interactive environments, multiple character variants and the ever-shifting “living towers” really elevate this installment ahead of its predecessors, although it does sometimes feel like it’s missing the same manic sense of humour that elements such as Chess Kombat. Friendships and Puzzle Kombat provided in earlier titles.

The other defining element of Mortal Kombat, aside from its characters, is its Fatality death scenes. Of course, these return for this tenth iteration, with each character possessing two fatalities and five brutalities. The fatalities are as brutal as ever, taking the skin-crawling gore from Mortal Kombat 9 and pouring next generation graphics all over them – while there are a few silly ones that raise a smile (Raiden’s “Bug Eyes” move is one), the majority of these moves are frighteningly realistic and rather uncomfortable to watch. Looking at these sequences compared to the 16-bit graphics of the original Mortal Kombat, it seems ridiculous that anyone ever complained about the level of violence in Sub-Zero’s spine removal fatality back then! The other finishing move, the brutalities, are merely exaggerated versions of a character’s special moves, which if entered correctly result in an untimely death. They don’t quite have the same cinematic feel as the fatalities, but are much harder to pull off mid-combat.

There is a massive amount of online competitive modes for players to explore, ranging from the Faction Wars which allow players to pledge allegiance to one of the organisations seen in the game, earning War Points with every win and completed challenge. Faction Wars conclude every week, rewarding players with Koins, Kombat Kard info and a bonus death move. Players can also fight in King of the Hill matches, which is effectively “winner stays on” and can prove very satisfying when you knock a cocky champion off his perch!

Graphics - Graphically, the game is a “flawless victory” – each of the characters looks absolutely gorgeous rendered in next-generation graphics. It’s great to see the level of detail in the costumes, even the “Klassic” outfits which add nostalgia to a game that pushes the series into the future. The location backgrounds are also wonderfully detailed, often with animations occurring as the characters fight in the foreground. In fact, with such a high level of detail – the series’ trademark fatalities have never looked so realistically gory and may unsettle even the most hardcore of fans.

Gameplay - Following in the footsteps of previous NetherRealm Studios releases, Mortal Kombat 9 and Injustice: Gods Among Us, Mortal Kombat X offers players an in-depth story mode of battles and QTEs interspersed with cinematic cut-scenes. The actual fights follow the traditional Mortal Kombat formula, honed over the years to include the popular X-Ray moves and the iconic Fatality death scenes to punish your opponents for daring to challenge you. The addition of different play styles provides a fresh challenge to the series, ensuring greater variation within the character roster and allowing two players to fight as the same character but with different moves/combos. The game remains easy to pick up, but filled with depth for hard-core gamers to master.

Achievements / Trophies - There is a fairly balanced mix of offline and online achievements, mostly designed to encourage players to make the use of all the features in the game. There’s a few grinding achievements such as “reach level 50 in all factions” and “complete 50 living towers”, but most players will be able to achieve the majority of these achievements through normal playthroughs, with some of the trophies reserved for the more dedicated of players.

Longevity - This game is bursting at the seams with content with plenty of characters (including DLC ones) for players to experiment with. There’s even more variation for players, thanks to each character featuring three distinct “play styles” that allows for different move combinations and subtle costume changes. There’s also an expansive story-mode that offers several hours of cinematic gameplay, alongside the standard arcade “tower battles” and an absolutely enormous Krypt, packed full of unlockables.  As with any beat ‘em up, the game’s longevity is purely dependent on its multiplayer game-play, but with frequent DLC updates and regularly updated “Living Towers”, there is plenty of reasons to come back to this title for another round.

While Mortal Kombat X is the best installment of the video game franchise yet, it doesn’t quite manage a “flawless victory” with a number of minor faults, such as unnecessary DLC content (easy fatalities, really?!) and an earnest attitude that removes some of the mischievous fun from its earlier releases. Regardless, this is a fantastic addition to the Mortal Kombat canon, chocked full of characters, fatalities, game-types and unlockables to keep even the most rabid beat-em-up fan engaged. With four more DLC characters on the horizon for 2016, it seems NetherRealm Studios aren't finished with the title just yet, so a “Game of the Year” edition might be a while off still. I wholeheartedly recommend fans of both Mortal Kombat and the beat ‘em up genre to give this game a whirl - it’s easily become the new benchmark for the franchise to be measured against.

Score - 9.8 out of 10

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Review - The Evil Within

The Evil Within
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4 and Xbox One

The Evil Within (also known as Psycho Break in Japan) is a third-person Survival Horror game, directed by the creator of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami. Produced by Bethesda Softworks, known primarily for RPG franchises such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, the game focuses on protagonist Sebastian Castellanos as he finds himself pulled through a world filled with nightmarish locations and horrific creatures, as he struggles to unlock the secret behind the mysterious hooded figure known as Ruvik.

Immediately, it is evident that this game is heavily influenced by the two Survival Horror heavyweights, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, in both tone and gameplay elements. The sequences set within the European village recalls elements of Mikami’s own work on Resident Evil 4, with the possessed villagers resembling the zombie-like Ganados, even going as far to include a chainsaw wielding boss character. Aside from the more action-packed elements borrowing from the later Resident Evil games, Mikami also includes a more psychological horror element with the inclusion of the unstoppable multi-limbed Laura who crawls after the player, ready to land a one hit kill; or The Keeper, whose ‘safe for a head’ design recalls memories of Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head.

The comparisons to Silent Hill continue with the game’s dream-like quality and constant shifting of locations from a remote village in the woods, to a ruined urban environment and the sterile environment of an abandoned mental hospital, which is also used as a “checkpoint hub” for players to save their progress and upgrade their skills. Gameplay-wise, the game owes much of its style to Resident Evil 4, to the point where specific chapters feel like ‘deleted scenes’ from the previous games. Obviously, being one of the biggest-selling survival horror games, this isn't a true detriment to The Evil Within, but it does leave it feeling somewhat derivative of its survival horror ‘parents’.

As with all survival horror games, initially the player is made to feel powerless and the game implements a heavy ‘stealth’ strategy in early chapters to increase the tension and give the players the sense that every battle counts, but eventually the game leans towards a more action-focused stance towards the end with bigger boss battles and more powerful weapons. The game also allows players to upgrade skills such as, weapon efficiency and ammo stock, enabling players to tailor their character to their strengths and increase power to specific weapon load-outs. Also, hidden keys littered about the levels allows the player to unlock safety deposit boxes and earn bonus “brain juice” (the currency of the game) or ammunition.

Story-wise, the game has a distinct tone and flavour that briefly allows it to step out from the shadow of its more-established predecessors, constantly challenging the player’s perception of what is real and what isn't. The plot is clearly influenced by both Japanese and American horror movies, blending the two genres together to bring something interesting and fresh to gamers. As Sebastian unravels more of the mystery behind events, the seemingly disparate threads established at the start of the game begin to become clear and it manages to tie together in a fairly satisfying manner. While the developers manage to craft a strong and engaging antagonist in the mysterious Ruvik, they do falter somewhat in creating an equally engaging hero with Sebastian.

I don't suspect this is the start of a new franchise, but as a stand-alone oddity, The Evil Within is a nice excursion away from the worlds of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, whilst remaining comfortably familiar. With both of those franchises yet to release a “next-gen” outing for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it seems The Evil Within is free to bask alone in the survival horror pool until a more established game comes along. Interestingly, DLC has been released for the title, expanding its story to focus on one of the supporting characters (Juli Kidman) and even allowing players to play as recurring enemy, The Keeper. This single-player DLC is a great touch and suits the game better than a tacked on multi-player, such as Resident Evil's “Mercenaries” mode.

Graphics - As expected, having played this game on the PlayStation 4, the graphics are fantastic and offer some really crisp visuals, particularly the vast ruined city-scape on the urban levels. Once again, comparisons can be made with its survival-horror “parents” of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, with the graphics imbuing the game with a gritty and grimy feel, perhaps not to the same extent as Silent Hill’s rust-filled other-world. It’s truly a great looking game, managing to bring each of its varied locales to life in a realistic manner.

Gameplay - As discussed above, The Evil Within owes a lot of its gameplay style to Resident Evil 4, using the familiar over-the-shoulder view implemented in all of the Resident Evil games since that release. The game blends elements of stealth into proceedings, particularly in the opening chapters, but this is largely optional and those wishing to go in with guns-blazing can do so with little consequence.

Achievements / Trophies - Most of the trophies are focused on standard chapter progression throughout the game with a handful of “secret” trophies awarded to those who complete certain criteria within the chapters, such as avoiding being seen during Chapter 2, or not using firearms during Chapter 8. There’s also the obligatory ultra-hard mode achievement, inviting gamers to complete the game in “Akuma mode”, which weakens your character so one hit from anything will kill him. Good luck with that!

Longevity - With its episodic nature, the game feels more apt for replay value than other survival horror games which have a more traditional long-form narrative. Upon completion, New Game+ is unlocked; allowing gamers to replay any chapter with existing weaponry earned in the previous play through including bonus weapons such as the Rocket Launcher and Sub-Machine Gun. The only gripe is that the difficulties are fixed, meaning that you can’t use this experience and more powerful weaponry to tackle the game on a harder difficulty.

As one would expect with the frequent comparisons made to Resident Evil and Silent Hill, The Evil Within doesn't bring innovation to the genre of Survival Horror, but that isn't necessarily a negative trait. Fans of the genre will find plenty to enjoy here, picking up on the riffs and homages to its predecessors, but anyone picking up this game for a fresh take on the Survival Horror genre will be disappointed. The only advances made here are graphically, and the game is beautiful. Personally, I was on the fence during the initial levels, unsure of the stealth elements but mid-way through the game, I found myself hooked and eagerly working through the chapters to get to the conclusion.

Score - 9.4 out of 10

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review - Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4 and Xbox One

My first experience with video-games based on the Alien franchise reaches as far back as Alien Trilogy, which was released on Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and PC in 1996. This Doom-esque first-person shooter loosely adapted the first three films of the Alien series, placing the player in the role of Ellen Ripley as she encountered various creatures from the films across thirty levels. The most notable element of the game was the inclusion of the infamous motion-tracker from the movies, which added the same sense of impending dread as the beeping dots came ever closer to your marker.

Subsequent games featured the Aliens vs. Predator match-up and moved the franchise out of its traditional horror atmosphere into a more generic first-person shooter approach with players able to play as both the Alien and Predator characters in-game. It wasn't until 2013 with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 that the deadly xenomorph’s regained their position as the solo enemies. Unfortunately, Colonial Marines was met with largely negative reviews and despite the removal of the Predator and focus on playing as a human; it retained an arcade action feel. To make matters worse, Electronic Arts had struck gold with the Dead Space series, which had managed to completely encapsulate that isolated horror feeling that the original Alien films had achieved. It was clear that a new strategy was needed if Twentieth Century Fox wanted to create the definitive Alien experience for fans of the films.

It was 2014’s Alien: Isolation that finally provided with an authentic journey into the world of the Alien franchise. Billed as a survival horror, rather than a first-person shooter, the game fits seamlessly into the established canon of the Alien universe by featuring Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, who was referenced on-screen during the beginning of Aliens and chronicles her untold search for her mother’s whereabouts. The first thing that struck me as I played through the game was the attention to detail in the design of the ships. As Amanda emerges from cryo-sleep at the start of the game, players are instantly struck with a sense of déjà vu as the opening sequence mirrors the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Alien, expertly setting up the atmosphere of deep space travel, using the same ‘retro’ technology seen in the 1979 movie to achieve consistency and evoke nostalgia.

It's Game Over, man...It's Game Over

Picking out the best ingredients from the movies like a fussy eater at a buffet, the game wisely decides to feature just one xenomorph as the primary antagonist, peppering the levels with desperate survivors and malfunctioning androids to add variety to the central battle of survival against the galaxy’s most deadly killing machine. The plot borrows familiar storyline elements from the films with the dastardly Weyland-Yutani corporation referenced in the many audio diaries littered about the Sevastopol space station, and a rather unhelpful central AI that turns the 'Working Joe' robots against anyone trying to destroy the xenomorph. As usual, it is humanity's greed and desire to turn the xenomorphs into profitable and controllable weapons that results in the horrific carnage and bloodshed that follows.

The motion-tracker which Ripley Jr is saddled with is something of a double-edged sword, because while it does allow the player to work out where the enemies are and in what quantity, it also serves to increase the tension as you sneak through the deserted corridors. The game encourages players to be smart and work out the least disruptive way to get past areas, because the Alien is quick and brutally unforgiving once it drops down out of the ventilation system and begins chasing any living thing in its path. Sometimes, when faced with overwhelming odds, the player must balance up the potential danger of 'summoning' the xenomorph out of its hiding place to take down some scavengers against the difficulty of a more stealthy approach.

Players are able to craft various tools out of materials to assist them in avoiding human/android threats, but I found myself using these sparingly, choosing to just hide in cupboards and under tables instead, often with limited success! As the game progresses, Ripley does acquire more powerful weapons into her armoury and the game begins to lose some of its stealthier qualities as players can scare off the Alien with a well-timed flame-thrower burst, but ammo is scarce and there is always danger around every corner.

Graphics - With the game relying on a first-person perspective throughout, it was vitally important that the environment of the Sevastopol spaceship held up to scrutiny – playing it on a PS4 system, I can safely say that the graphics were truly amazing and utilised the extra graphical power that came with the next-generation machine. Most notably, the lighting was superb, helping to cultivate a sense of fear throughout the game, especially when attempting to hide from the xenomorph. With very few enemies on-screen and an emphasis on stealth, there isn't much opportunity to admire the character models, but the game manages to excel at capturing the mood of the original Alien movie through the architectural design of the space station.

Gameplay - Gamers expecting a first-person shooter in the same vein as previous Alien games will be disappointed, as will people expecting an action-heavy survival horror akin to Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space. The game is more tonally similar to Metal Gear Solid, requiring stealth and tactics to overcome adversary. The xenomorph’s advanced AI ensures that it remains a constant presence in the gamer’s mind – whether it is on-screen or rattling about the ventilation shafts. 

Achievements / Trophies - The majority of the trophies are linked with progression of the story, with chapter completion achievements. There are some trophies that reward players for completing levels with distinction such as: “Complete the fifth mission without being killed by the Alien”. There are also trophies tied into the game’s collectibles, which take the form of ID tags and Audio Logs, which are relatively easy to find if you’re willing to brave the Sevastopol corridors to do so.

Longevity - The main campaign is fairly lengthy with eighteen chapters of varying lengths making up the story. Upon completion, players can also attempt the Survivor Mode levels, which create short scenarios for players to complete. With the additional of bonus DLC, players can expand this element of the game to include characters and locations from the movie franchise, such as Ellen Ripley and the Nostromo.

With very little competition, it is easy to proclaim this as the best video-game based on the Alien franchise, but digging deeper, this truly is a fantastic example of a licensed game done right. The guys over at Creative Assembly have done an amazing job at creating a truly immersive experience that recreates the same feeling of heart-wrenching terror that Ridley Scott set in place over thirty years ago. Judging by the success of this game, I'd imagine that this survival-horror model will be used in future installments, although it would likely need to move away from the Ripley family and possibly tell a story separate from the canon of the movies. Oddly enough, while Dead Space was a heavy influence on the Alien video-games getting retooled, this game doesn't quite feel the same as Electronic Arts' game, adopting a more measured and cinematic pace compared to Dead Space's frenzied terror. Fans of the survival-horror genre, particularly games where the protagonist has to rely on stealth over weaponry, such as the Clock Tower and Fatal Frame series, will find a lot here to enjoy but more action-orientated gamers may find themselves having to adjust to the different strategies required to survive Sevastopol.

Score - 9.2 out of 10

Monday, 5 May 2014

Review - Batman: Arkham Origins

Batman: Arkham Origins
Available on: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

This third installment of the popular ‘Arkham’ trilogy of Batman games was handled by a different studio from the previous two games, but uses the same familiar template of a vast open-world environment and its brutal, combat-based fighting system. Despite being the final part of the trilogy, the game actually takes place five years before the events of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, acting as a prequel and origin story.

As with the earlier games, there is a strict reverence for the original source material with an abundance of characters, major and minor, adapted from the comic books. This particular storyline makes use of a range of third-tier Batman villains, such as Firefly, Shiva, Bird and Black Mask. However, old favourites such as Bane, The Riddler and The Penguin also return, looking remarkably younger and inexperienced.

Fans of the original comics will recognise subtle references to iconic Batman stories, such as Frank Miller’s Year One and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween. With its Christmas setting, there’s even an element of Batman Returns to the atmosphere of the game. As well as remaining true to the comics, the game also helps build up the ‘Arkham’ video-game universe, by depicting the introduction of the Joker into Batman’s world.

The first time we meet the Joker, there’s a Heath Ledger-esque edge to him as we see a more youthful and rebellious side to his character, although he seems more focused and efficient than his later incarnations which appears throughout Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, respectively, but this could be due to his overpowering obsession with the Batman. The game manages to continue to build upon its brilliant and complex depiction of the Batman/Joker relationship, even if Mark Hamill himself isn't present as the clown prince of crime.

While the game doesn't make the same advances in its single-player campaign that were made between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, it does offer an interesting experiment in the form of a multiplayer mode, which allows players to assume the role of either Bane or the Joker’s henchmen whilst being hunted by Batman or Robin. This is a really interesting blend of a standard death-match game, as well as the Invisible Predator challenges from the single-player game, and helps create a ‘hide and seek’ atmosphere akin to Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell’s multiplayer modes.

Other minor upgrades to the game’s format include more expansive challenges and collectibles, as well as a flexible 'leveling up' tree, allowing players to exert a greater degree of strategy over what they upgrade, allowing them to improve the odds on either combat or predator encounters by unlocking new gadgets and techniques. One improvement which made the game easier for me was the electric shock glove upgrade midway through the game, which makes the tricky job of attaining high combo counts much easier than before.

Graphics - The games remain on par with the previous games in the series, with many of the same characters and locations reappearing, although the Christmas setting allows for better weather effects and snow-covered rooftops amidst the luminous glare of Gotham’s neon lights.

Gameplay - The core gameplay mechanics remain unchanged, although there’s still a focus on maintaining high combo counts with achievements and unlockables favoured to those dexterous button-bashers who can achieve 50x combos. While the introduction of the electric shock gloves helps to alleviate the difficulty of this particular area, it can still be tricky to engineer the desired ‘free flow’ attacks required to unlock certain challenges.

Achievements / Trophies - The game features a mix of campaign and multiplayer achievements, but the list seems to reward those who are able to achieve high combos or unlock multiple medals through the game’s challenge maps, whereas online achievements seem to reward experience rather than skill.

Longevity - There is plenty here for gamers to enjoy with a huge variety of content ranging from unlockables in the campaign, challenge maps (combat and predator) and a whole multiplayer section. There are also unlockables in the single-player mode which transfer over to the online multiplayer, which is a nice incentive to play through both modes.

Overall, this installment in the Batman: Arkham franchise manages to keep the same razor-sharp blend of exploration, combat and adventure from the previous games in the series, with a few new tricks that accentuate the existing format. It does feel a tad short in terms of the actual core plot, but this brevity is balanced out by the hundreds of unlockables and hefty multiplayer mode. Fans of the previous games will love this, and if you've never played a Batman: Arkham game before, be prepared for a fantastic narrative experience that feels just as cinematic as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Score - 9.4 out of 10

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Review - South Park: The Stick of Truth

South Park: The Stick of Truth
Available on Sony PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

South Park has had numerous video-game adaptations throughout the lifetime of the show, such as its initial 'First Person Shooter' game on the Nintendo 64, or the lesser-known PSone game Chef's Luv Shack which blended a quiz show format with the game's iconic characters. There was also a South Park Rally game which attempted to replicate the success of Mario Kart, but was met with minimal success. It wasn't until 2009 that the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, came up with the idea of a South Park RPG that would be set in a living, breathing South Park and look exactly like the TV series itself. However, the development was fraught with issues, and while there were other South Park games (Let's Go Tower Defence Play, and Tenorman's Revenge) released in the interim, it wouldn't be until 2014 that the long-awaited RPG, The Stick of Truth, made it into stores.

The game allows you to create your own 'new kid' visiting South Park, who gets quickly embroiled in the town-wide live-action role playing that the boys of the school are involved in, becoming 'Douche-bag', one of Cartman's loyal assistants against Kyle's army of elves. However, things begin to escalate when aliens begin abducting town-members, underpants gnomes begin abducting underpants, and that a crab-person? There's a fun blend between the fictional game that the town's kids are involved in and the very real extraterrestrial threat that is engulfing the small Colorado town, as the two plot threads intertwine towards a dramatic conclusion.

As with the TV show itself, the game offers a witty satirical look at the videogame industry, most notably the overuse of Nazi Zombies in games such as Call of Duty by including the enemy type in this game for no discernible reason. There is also reference to the over-exploration featured in traditional Japanese RPG’s with certain houses having ‘surprises’ in store for unexpected visitor. Alongside this commentary on the industry, the game feels like a love-letter to the RPG industry with the whole of Canada designed to look like an old-school 8-bit RPG, reminiscent of the early Final Fantasy games on the NES, with pixelated backgrounds and a ‘world map’ to explore.

As well as references to videogames, the game is packed full of in-jokes related to the TV show’s seventeen year history with hundreds of ‘junk’ items that can be collected and sold on for cash that represent some of the most obscure moments from the programme’s past, such as Cherokee Hair Tampons or the Okama Gamesphere. Long-term South Park fans will get a massive kick out of collecting some of these random items – personally, I ended up carrying ‘Honey Boo Boo’s Pig Heart’ around with me for the majority of the game, despite it having no discernible use.

Vocally, the game is pitch-perfect with all of the characters voiced to the same quality as the TV show, even obscure characters that only appeared in one episode. This attention to detail really helps create an immersive feel, leading you to really feel like the new kid in the town of South Park. Even the storyline feels like a typical South Park episode, blending common themes seen in the show, such as gross-out gags, wild conspiracy theories, alien invasions and a sinister government agency acting in an increasingly irresponsible manner, whilst the kids are unaware of the true global (and universal) implications of events around them.

One of the boss battles - the dreaded Penis Mouse!

Gameplay – The game feels like a blend of Final Fantasy and Zelda, placing equal importance on the tactics used outside of the battlefield with the actual turn-based battles. Using a well-placed fart (don’t ask!) can give your characters a massive advantage when entering a tough battle. The turn-based battles have a reasonably detailed list of moves (although it doesn't quite match up with the same level of detail seen in some JRPGs) but there is a heavy emphasis on interactive quick time events, with button-bashing, timed button pushes and rotating thumbsticks required to optimise attack and defence strategies.

Graphics – It literally feels like you are controlling the events of an episode of South Park, with the character models represented just as accurately as in the HD broadcasts of the programme. While detractors of the show’s animated style might find ways to complain, this is the most authentic looking game based on an animated series that I've ever seen.

Achievements/Trophies – There’s nothing too tough here and it is entirely possible to get a complete set of achievements after a few playthroughs and siding with different factions. There are also some humour-based achievements that require you to dress your customisable character in a certain manner against enemies. I particularly liked the Breaking Bad themed achievement, where you must dress your character as Heisenberg before taking on some meth dealers.

Longevity – There are wealth of collectibles (Chinpokomon, friend requests and equipment) for the hardcore completists out there, with achievement rewards associated with each list. Unfortunately, there isn't much in the terms of side-quests and the actual main story quest can be completed in a relatively short time, if you ignore the other items and optional battles.

In conclusion, this is a perfect game for fans of the show, or JRPG fans looking for a hugely irreverent take on the genre. It feels like an attempt to bring the genre into the mainstream by focusing on the non-battle aspects moreso than experience grinding, item customisation and countless mini-quests. It also tries to distance itself from the stereotypical RPG by removing ‘random battles’ and adding an element of interaction to the turn-based battles, rather than letting it become selecting attacks from a series of menu screens. While it is a joy to play and one of the best games of the year, so far, those with a sensitive disposition and aversion to penis mice, the F-word and fart jokes should probably stick to the safety of Zelda or Final Fantasy.

Score - 9.5 out of 10

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