Do you love running around the colourful wonder of a Super Mario game’s environs? Perhaps you pine after the legendary Monkey Island, and wish there were a similarly bright and hilarious world to explore today? Well, tough – this game gives you 14th century France at the height of The Black Death, and you’ll bloody well like it. No, really, you’ll like it. It’s good.
Many previews have arguably been misleading, although the net result is a win. As you may know, the concept revolves around the idea of thick waves of rats everywhere, numerous and aggressive enough to devour anybody who stumbles into their midst within just a few seconds. There’s certainly a lot of avoiding the Rolands involved, but it’s not true to say that this takes up all of your time. You don’t even come across your first rat until the third chapter.
The story concerns the young teen Amicia (although it seems the original French script is superior, her English language actress is excellent) and her little brother Hugo. Amicia barely knows her brother – a mysterious disease has seen him confined to his room for his whole life, with only his mother for company – but events conspire to send them on the run together. So begins an adventure that chiefly consists of sneaking around in basic but surprisingly non-annoying stealth, setting things on fire, and throwing rocks in people’s faces.
You can sometimes use rats against human enemies, but not if they’re carrying a lit torch or lantern…
Visually, the historical setting is very well used, and a wonderful change of pace from most of today’s games. It’s never exploited to its full potential for story or gameplay purposes though, which is a shame. Even the plague barely registers in proceedings. This isn’t a game that’s aiming for pinpoint historical accuracy, though. You only need to take a look at the immense throngs of terrifyingly organised rats to see that.
Amicia and Hugo are making their way through a world that’s relentlessly aggressive towards them. Your only protection from the army of rats is light, usually provided by fire. The Inquisition meanwhile, who are everywhere, are on the lookout for you. Initially, therefore, progress is made via throwing rocks to distract enemies, who will loudly and dramatically announce that they’re going to investigate, so you know to leg it while their back’s turned. Either that, or darting between pools of light keeping nearby rats at bay, sometimes lighting fires yourself with a compound you soon learn to craft. Lanterns and torches are very rare, which leads to a superb and arguably underused idea. Lighting a length of wood gives you a portable but – crucially – very much temporary light source. There’s genuine tension in slowly creeping across a floor carpeted with rats, praying that you can make it to the next light source before the lifeline in your hand burns out.
Although stealth is necessary almost up until the end of the game, Amicia is not completely helpless. The game gradually introduces different alchemical compounds for her to craft which can, in various ways, allow her to attack or (to a much lesser extent) protect herself from both human and rodent enemies. These compounds are sometimes used in the game’s puzzles (particularly in areas with both humans and rats), which all ultimately boil down to ‘how do I clear a path from X to Y?’. It’s clever, unique, and atmospheric stuff, supported by a story that demands you follow it to the end.
Wherever you go, there’s a grotty beauty to proceedings.
Things eventually start to go a bit early Assassin’s Creed, however, in that you can’t help but feel that leaning into the historical setting more heavily would have resulted in a better game. Don’t worry, there’s no Animus nonsense. At about the halfway point however, gameplay slowly starts to put more emphasis on combat, and the story speeds up the introduction of the supernatural elements (which eventually bleed into gameplay). Having to use Amicia’s sling on two or more enemies in quick succession brings into painful focus how unsuited the controls are for this, even with the wisely generous auto-aim enabled.
The supernatural twists and turns aren’t as ill-fitting or ridiculous as you might fear. Nonetheless, they do lead to an anticlimactic and entirely unnecessary boss fight, which is preceded by what is probably the worst section of the game. However, that is countered by a brief but perfectly judged epilogue that leaves the door open just wide enough for a sequel, which we would be more than happy to play.
It’s a very linear game, yet one that still asks you to think and act carefully on a regular basis. Indeed, an open-world experience here would quite likely have led to many players losing interest in a poorly curated experience. Gameplay may slowly degrade as it becomes less confident in its unique qualities toward the end, but it’s rarely frustrating, and never bad. There’s nothing quite like A Plague Tale: Innocence, and we say that as a huge compliment.
Antstream is a new gaming service which aims to bring a vast catalogue of retro games to PC, Mac, Xbox One and Android via streaming tech. It’s basically aiming to be a Netflix for retro gaming. They are currently seeking backers on Kickstarter, and have reached their goal of £60,000, which will enable them to bring the service to the PS4 by the end of the year, as well as the previously mentioned devices.
Antstream is the brainchild of CEO Steve Cottam, and is a project years in the making. He was inspired by his involvement in 3DO development in the mid-nineties, and he wants to bring back the joy of retro gaming to a wider modern audience. The aim of the Antstream platform is to eliminate the need to trawl dark corners of the web for emulators and illegal game copies, or the need to purchase expensive retro hardware to play retro games.
The Challenges add an extra dimension to the selection of retro titles.
The Antsream platform will launch with 400 games initially, with over 2000 fully licensed titles in the pipeline. The service will feature some classic games from platforms like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga and Mega Drive, as well as a selection of arcade cabinets. There’s plenty of nostalgia here to bring tears to an ageing old gamer’s eyes. The service will also feature a Challenges system which enables you to challenge friends to Score Attacks, Speed Runs and Boss Rushes amongst other things. The thought of playing Skool Daze or Sensible Soccer on an Xbox One or PS4 is quite bizarre, but most welcome. To become a backer, head over to their Kickstarter page here by the 10th May.
Full Antstream Trailer - including people's reactions to playing - YouTube
Making a game with zombies in it, appropriately enough, is an idea that just won’t die in this industry. Sure, there are plenty of titles out there that can make you feel that this is a bad thing, but World War Z isn’t one of them. It seems that few people held out much hope for it in the weeks and days leading up to release; but it’s reached out from the grave of indifference to grab the leg of your attention, and chow down on the ankle of your free time. Or, er, something.
The game doesn’t follow the film or, to the best of our knowledge, the book. There’s not even a digital Brad Pitt to slobber over, which does raise the question of why the licence has been used at all. The only similarities to the movie, really, are the behaviour and sheer volume of the zombies, something we’ll get on to shortly.
This is, like football, a game of two halves. There’s a four player co-op campaign (playable offline with bots), and several PvPvE modes. The campaign consists of eleven missions spread across four countries, each country telling a simple and self-contained tale. This mode is… fine. Doesn’t make any silly design mistakes. It can be fun to play for sure, but we could never shake the feeling that a lack of ambition held it back from greatness waiting just around the corner.
“You’ll catch your death out there!”
The scripts are simple and forgettable, but that’s hardly an uncommon complaint in the land of videogames. What it does it does well, but it also does predictably. It casually strums all the co-op chords you’ve hummed along to in other games. There are doors that won’t open until everybody’s standing together, there are enemies that will pin you down, rendering you helpless until a buddy helps you, there are regular sieges, there are escort sections and fetch quest sections. Nothing surprising, but all competent.
Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous to say that the campaign is entirely interchangeable with a dozen others. The much-pimped feature of enormous zombie hordes plays its part extremely well. The aforementioned sieges involve preposterously huge waves of fast, aggressive zombies in numbers that you won’t have seen outside of a Dead Rising game. They’ll also climb over one another in ‘pyramids’ to reach high ground, like they do in the movie. In truth, a half-decent team will never be overwhelmed on the lower difficulties, but it’s quite a sight. It also can’t be overstated how brilliant a decision it was to not include any boss characters of any kind. There are still a few ‘special’ zombie types (charging tank, screamer who attracts allies, etc), but they’re never overused. The ebb and flow of gameplay is never frustratingly interrupted.
As for the zombies themselves, their behaviour is – thankfully – great. Their AI isn’t brilliant, but then, it doesn’t need to be (and besides, zombies are famous for eating other people’s brains, not using their own). Each PvP mode takes place in a map littered with zombies, with periodic hordes swarming in from one area or another. Watching a tidal wave of the undead rush past a short distance in front of you can be quite tense. If you stay away and stay quiet, a few will probably break off to attack you, but you will (hopefully) otherwise be safe. Conversely, if you get caught at a swarm spawn point – defending a capture point in domination, for example – your chances of survival are virtually nil.
The way that PvP combat, zombie swarms, and the radar bounce off one another is wonderful, and bordering on genius. The radar, as is the case in many online games, functions based on sound. If you fire a weapon or run, your position is indicated to the enemy team on the radar in red, the clarity of the wedge dependent on how close you are to them. So far, so standard.
With zombies around – who will run with great speed to attack any nearby player they get a whiff of – there’ll be plenty of sprinting and shooting by players manically trying to defend themselves, too distracted to use caution or look for enemy humans. There’s many a gleeful zombie-assisted kill to be had. That’s still not quite the end of the murderous story, either, as zombie swarms add an extra layer to this. They create such a huge noise, the on-screen radar for the surrounding area is flooded with red, rendering it temporarily useless. The perfect time to make a run for an objective, or wildly empty a magazine in the general direction of a nearby enemy.
It makes for gripping online play, but there are still problems, not least of which is the fact that there are just four maps (one for each country in the story) for the competitive modes. While no two matches are identical, the lack of map variety soon begins to take the sheen off what is initially a unique and exciting experience. The unlock and upgrade system, too, was a decision made with questionable wisdom. The campaign and multiplayer both have separate groups of classes, separately and slowly upgraded through XP (for the campaign, each weapon has its own mini upgrade tree, too). In addition to that, the weapons and perks that you unlock must be ‘bought’ with in-game currency. There are no microtransactions at time of writing, but the rate at which ‘supplies’ are earned ensures that you can’t immediately gain access to everything as soon as you’ve unlocked it.
The game certainly needs a tidy on a technical level. Problems are rare, but annoying when they strike; once, we were locked into a menu, and another time the game crashed completely partway through a campaign mission (and while we’re at it, gunplay could do with a little tightening, and more efficient matchmaking would be nice). Despite all of this, World War Z manages to make zombies feel lemony fresh.
Remember when everybody got excited about last year’s remaster of the decade-old Burnout Paradise? It proved that people are hungry for a new entry in the series… and there still hasn’t been one (we don’t talk about disappointing 2011 spin-off Burnout Crash!). Well, now there is one! Sort of. Le Burnout est mort, vive le Burnout!
Dangerous Driving comes from Three Fields Entertainment, a developer that enjoys a boost from some ex-Criterion staff. These people know Burnout, because they are Burnout, and it shows. Within seconds of starting your first race, you’ll be thrown back into the days of playing the first few Burnout games, back when online racing was little more than a madman’s dream for console gamers. You won’t, you know, literally be thrown back in time. The cars don’t go that fast.
They don’t half shift, though, and that’s a huge part of the sweet, sweet nostalgia. Even the slowest cars can rapidly achieve speeds you’ll rarely see in big-budget racers, and the handling is pleasingly, unapologetically unrealistic (and therefore fun). As with Burnout, DD takes place on fictional roads with traffic to avoid as well as rivals to beat and/or smash into the scenery. The key to any victory is your boost bar, which can only be filled by – oh, look at that – dangerous driving. Reckless drifts, near misses, and especially hurtling along the wrong side of the road will give you some tasty tasty boost. Wreck a rival, and your boost bar is completely filled immediately. Familiar favourite Road Rage even makes an appearance, where your sole objective is to destroy as many rival racers as possible. So, it’s just a new Burnout game without the rights to the name? Not quite.
The Chase HQ-inspired Pursuit mode sees you repeatedly ram cars until they crash horrifically, just like a real policeman.
In terms of gameplay, there’s only really one change. It’s a simple one, but one that changes the way you think and act while playing. While you’re still gleefully encouraged to destroy the cars of your opponents during regular races, car wrecks don’t disappear. They stay on the road until the race is over. Therefore, while it’s tempting to start swinging your car into the others on the first corner possible, you may regret it on lap two when you smash into a previous victim, and find yourself at the back of the pack by the time you respawn. You can still enjoy aftertouch takedowns by slowing down time when you’re wrecked, but it’s very difficult to use this to negate the effects of a crash.
This is largely because, to be honest, Dangerous Driving seems to stack the odds against the player at a harsher angle than Burnout ever did. AI behaviour doesn’t seem entirely consistent, but crash recoveries much faster than yours and near-constant boost are not uncommon. Much more frustrating are the technical issues which, while not constant, are certainly regular. There’s absolutely no consistency when it comes to which collisions you can survive and which you cannot (although to be fair, the whole point is that you should be trying to avoid them anyway). On rare occasions you’ll crash for no apparent reason, or – even worse because of how long it takes to properly recover – taking a corner badly could suddenly, awkwardly, and illogically bring your car to a sudden halt… facing the wrong direction. These things are symptoms of the low budget, as are the complete lack of in-race music (unless you have a premium Spotify account to link) and the bare-bones menus.
It’s also arguably unfortunate that all the content is unlocked in a largely linear way. Get at least a bronze medal in race A to unlock races B and C, finish all races in car type 1 to unlock the first race of car type 2, etc. On top of that, the later Face Off 1v1 races can make the presence of your opponent almost seem superfluous, so perfectly do they race that it may as well be a time trial where success is only possible by finishing within a certain time. Dangerous Driving is not a difficult game to criticise. Yet it is an extremely difficult game to hate.
Despite the many pitfalls, and the complete absence of multiplayer (promised as upcoming “free DLC”), this game is absolutely crammed full of old school fun. Sure, if a technical issue suddenly causes you problems – or costs you a whole race – you’ll grit your teeth, and quite likely say a naughty word. Yet you’ll immediately start the race again from the beginning, and you’ll do so gladly.
The new “Heatwave” mode sums the game up quite well. Here, you have theoretically infinite boost, with a few caveats. You can only trigger boost once the bar is full, and you cannot take your finger off the boost button unless you’re happy to lose all that extra speed and work on building the bar back up again. These are demanding, unforgiving races that can take place on tracks several minutes long. Like the game as a whole, Heatwave demands a lot of dedication and patience from the player… but offers miles of speed, satisfaction, and enjoyment in return.
The Switch is, of course, primarily about the games. And what a darn impressive library it’s got now! But in the space year 2019, there seems to be some kind of unwritten law that consoles absolutely must offer other types of entertainment as well. With no disc drive, supporting CDs, DVDs, and blu rays is out. Incredibly there’s still no Netflix app, and even YouTube is a fairly new addition. No Spotify, either. There are now two comic reading apps however, the latest of which is Izneo.
The other comic app is Inkypen, which we haven’t tried. So far as we can tell there’s a similarity in libraries, but apart from that there are only two differences we’re sure of. Firstly, Izneo – unlike Inkypen – is an established comic app, also available for download from Google Play and Apple’s app store. Secondly, and most interestingly, Izneo makes everything in its library available for individual purchase. Both apps offer a Netflix-style subscription service. Inkypen’s offers everything that they have whereas Izneo’s is more limited (yet still includes a tempting “over 1,500” comics). Cancel your Inkypen subscription, and you lose access to everything; cancel (or, indeed, ignore) the Izneo subscription, and you still get to keep any comic you’ve purchased individually forever.
Arguably the most important question is: what comics does Izneo actually have on offer? Well, nothing from Marvel or DC but, as these companies have their own comic reading apps, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Image Comics also appears to be absent. Nonetheless, there’s a huge collection on offer, including some fantastic reads (though as a reminder, not everything is included in that subscription). Think they’ll all be titles you’ve never heard of? Think again. The wide variety on offer includes Sin City, Archie, Tank Girl, Umbrella Academy, Transformers, Aliens vs Predator, and Appleseed.
There’s very little manga on offer sadly but, with new titles being added regularly, hopefully this will change with time. If you’re after game licenses then there’s a lot on offer there, including the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Sonic, Sea of Thieves, Halo, and Turok. Now, we could spend ages simply talking about the comics, recommending hidden gems you might otherwise miss such as the excellent Death Sentence, but let’s look at the actual comic reader as it functions on Switch.
The app is a little clunky at time of writing – it can take a few seconds to load sections, downloads are oddly slow, and a recent update signed us out of the app when we booted it up again – but overall it does the job fine. A multi-tiered set of parental controls is welcome. All content is allowed by default but if, for example, you wanted to let a young son or daughter use the account to read comics, it’s easy enough to ensure they don’t accidentally end up in the middle of a gory sweary adventure.
The actual comic reader is very basic but, again, does what it needs to well enough. Flick either stick left or right to hide or display the instructional UI, and navigate up and down by moving it… er… up or down (yes, you’ll probably turn the UI on by accident now and then). If the comic is compatible with the “eazycomics” system, then you can flick from panel to perfectly fitted panel with speed and ease, as you may have experienced with other comic readers. A huge number of comics, sadly, don’t have this feature; but zooming in by tapping ‘A’ and simply scrolling down the pages usually works very well. Remember to zoom out to take in those double page spreads, though.
There’s no bookmark feature, but the app will always remember where you where when you quit, shut down, switch between comics, etc. You need to download a comic to read it and, as previously mentioned, this can take a while. However! This means that you can enjoy your comics on the lovely wide Switch screen wherever you like (no portrait orientation reading option, sadly). When you’re reading at home, the Switch dock gives you the interesting option of reading on your TV. And you know what? It’s great! Older comics inevitably don’t stand up to big screen scrutiny quite so well as newer ones, but it’s still cool, and likely an option you’ll take advantage of whenever you can.
With a decent selection, a subscription option sitting alongside individual comic purchases, regular new titles, and decent sales on decent comics, Izneo is an attractive proposition for any Switch-owning comic fan. Take a look – we don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
The industry has been desperately trying to convince consumers that they want exclusively online experiences for years. Despite EA’s much-publicised assertion that players don’t want single-player games anymore, this isn’t a new idea that publishers have been trying to force into ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ status. It’s not likely to go away, either. Why? Well, there are various reasons; but if I’m going to be cynical (and I am), one of the most important is the simple fact that it’s much easier to keep selling a game to somebody if they’re playing online.
Sure, you can sell fans of an offline game chunks of story DLC, but such additions require immense amounts of time, labour, and money to develop. Better (i.e. faster, cheaper, and more profitable) to continually spit new hats, guns, reticules, skins, and so on at your consumers throughout the year. And players are going to be far more invested in how their avatar looks if there’s a constant stream of other players to show it off to, so…
It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to assume that any publisher trying to say players aren’t interested in the single-player experience today are being disingenuous. Indeed, some of the highest profile online games of recent years look suspiciously like offline games that have been tweaked and hammered until there are enough dents and crevices to cram other players into them. Destiny, The Division, Anthem, Fallout 76… isn’t it telling that it’s entirely possible to play these games solo (excluding a minority of raid missions) should you so wish? People will always crave story-driven adventures, and publishers know it. It’s sad and frustrating to see these experiences fatally diluted by the drive to make money out of consumers long after they’ve bought their game. Maybe you love these titles, and if so – great! But there have always been proper MMORPGs, and online modes tacked on to offline adventures. The industry is losing an important part of its soul in slowly moving away from those who prefer, or at least want the option of, playing alone.
Now, I’m not under the impression that successful game publishers are run by comic book villains twiddling their moustaches and rolling around in money pits (although Activision makes me wonder sometimes). Top level game development is more expensive than it’s ever been, and it’s likely to only get even more expensive, especially with the nonsensical release of new consoles on the horizon. That has to be funded somehow; and the more expensive a game’s development, the more important the success and profitability of the final product. The truth is, I don’t usually mind microtransactions in my game, so long as they’re unobtrusive and don’t interfere with the experience for those of us who consider the initial game purchase to be the beginning and the end of our financial obligations. This proves to be an interesting jumping-off point when considering different tactics for player engagement.
While recent years have given us storylite Destiny experiences, there have of course also been games – usually shooters – that literally cannot be played alone unless you’re content with what boils down to training with bots. Overwatch is an exclusively online shooter that rapidly built up a huge devoted fanbase. Black Ops 4, notoriously, is the first Call Of Duty to ship without a campaign mode (yet still for the same asking price). Both games feature microtransactions; yet their approaches are stunningly different.
When it comes to Overwatch, the developer-player relationship is, fundamentally, based on trust. Crudely speaking, players trust the developer to continue providing free content and prevent microtransactions from encroaching onto gameplay, and the developer trusts the player base to continue spending money despite regularly providing extra content free of charge.
Since its original release in May 2016, Overwatch has added an extra eight maps and eight characters (nine including the imminent release of Baptiste), for everybody, for free. That’s to say nothing of the new game modes, both permanent and time limited, again completely free of charge and available to everybody. Loot boxes and their contents – skins, paints, icons, voice lines, victory poses – have absolutely zero impact on gameplay. Despite – or, arguably, because – of this, the loot boxes provide a healthy revenue stream for Blizzard. It’s worth mentioning that these loot boxes can be earned in-game for free, and specific items such as skins purchased with in-game currency (itself obtainable through the loot boxes). Blizzard’s generosity is perhaps reciprocated by a portion of its audience in their willingness to occasionally lay down money for the loot boxes.
If the Overwatch developer-player relationship is based on trust, then the Black Ops 4 developer-player relationship is based on fear. The developer (and/or publisher) fears that the game won’t make enough money, certainly, but that’s just the catalyst for everything else. There’s also a palpable fear that players will lose interest in the experience, although this is nothing new for the series when it comes to the online modes. It’s just been rudely kicked to the fore here.
Unlike previous online COD modes, for example, there is only one weapon that can be dual-wielded here. That weapon is the SAUG 9mm, which is not unlocked until player level 52. You then need to grind even more in order to unlock the “operator mod” of dual-wielding. Even the FPS mainstay of the frag grenade isn’t unlocked until player level 29. Unlocking all weapons and equipment takes so long, the developer and publisher can almost guarantee that there’s something you really want for your playstyle that you need to put at least a few dozen hours in for. Compare this to Overwatch’s approach to weapons and abilities. Regardless of whether you’ve been playing the game for ten minutes or two hundred hours, everybody has access to the same weapons and abilities. Blizzard shows confidence that its gameplay experience is good enough to keep players coming back on its own.
There is also, if not a fear, then at the very least an anxiousness instilled in players by design in Black Ops 4. This is partly down to the aforementioned grinding necessary in order to access the majority of game content, dangling military-flavoured carrots in front of players in order to keep them playing. It’s also, in a similar vein, down to the limited availability of items in “Operations”. When a new Operation event begins (the current one being Grand Heist), a clock immediately begins to slowly tick down until it ends. There are literally hundreds of items to unlock in each operation and, if you’re not prepared to shell out money for “COD points” or the newly introduced loot boxes, your only way to unlock them is by s l o w l y advancing through the tiers via play. Unsurprisingly, the more desirable items – interesting character skins, and even (especially controversially) weapons – lie at higher and higher tiers. Activision is happy for you to browse through the entire ‘catalogue’, naturally. That way, you can spot items that you really want. And you can have those items… if you spend hours and hours and hours and hours playing, or repeatedly buy loot boxes in the hopes of eventually striking virtual gold. Or you could buy enough points to simply purchase that skin or weapon you’ve got your eye on. Just bear in mind that if what you want is, say, at tier 50, you have to purchase every single tier along the way that you haven’t already unlocked. If you want whatever it is for free, and you don’t spend enough of your waking hours during the event playing to unlock it, your only hope is to get lucky in the loot boxes you earn slowly at a glacial pace.
Oh yeah, and also Black Ops 4 has a season pass that offers a few new maps for £39.99, which is more than many people have paid for the game itself.
While Overwatch’s approach to player engagement and reward is positively heroic next to BO4, the two games do share similarities when it comes to skins and their distribution. Despite Overwatch’s loot system being much (much, much) less egregious than BO4’s, don’t be fooled into thinking that a purely cosmetic item pool – the distribution of which is tucked away in its own menu – is devoid of potential for harm. While the majority of people will never spend money on these little extras, or at most throw a few quid in on rare occasions, a small but noteworthy number of people with gambling problems will spend more than they can truly afford. Limited time events exacerbate this problem. Not only are more desirable items thrown into the loot pool, a limited time batch of special boxes with slightly better odds are introduced. Such people will feel pressure to try and get hold of the desirable items during this limited time before it’s “too late”.
We’ve yet to see a perfect balance between business demands and player desires. Realistically, we probably never will. We’ve already seen several examples of business decisions eroding the player experience, however, and that’s something we can only hope will soon come to an end.
A game that casts you as an elderly goat farmer is going to be very, very silly, or very, very serious. The Stillness Of The Wind takes the latter approach. It’s essentially a sequel to the cult indie hit Where The Goats Are, but you don’t need to have played that in order to understand or appreciate this. You will, however, need an open mind.
The entire game takes place within the confines of a homestead so small, referring to it as a farm seems rather generous. There’s your single-room house, a single-room building for making and storing cheese, a tiny area that is to all intents and purposes a playpen for your goats, and – apart from the surrounding and almost-but-not-quite empty desert – that’s it. The only variety comes from a few brief dream sequences. It’s a brave way to present a game, and one that pays off.
Both for better and for worse, you’re given almost no direction. You discover through play that there are a handful of tasks to be done each day, all of them theoretically optional. You can milk the goats, and use the milk to make cheese. You can collect eggs from the henhouse. You can plant and maintain flowers and crops, for which you’ll need water from the nearby well. There are occasionally wild crops to harvest, should you venture away from the house. How you look after yourself and your animals is entirely up to you.
The day/night cycle proves to be an extremely important and clever (if, we suspect, also inconsistent) mechanic. Your character Talma is no spring chicken, hobbling along slowly. The longer your journey, the more of the day is lost to it. You’ll soon learn that it’s best to make goat milking one of your first tasks of the day, as they’ll take shelter in their little goat house once it starts to get dark. If you’ve planted crops, going to and from the well alone will swallow a huge chunk of the brief in-game day. If you want to wander further afield to investigate something in the distance, you’re welcome to do so – but be aware that you’re unlikely to have time left to do much else.
So it is that, quite naturally, you will begin to plan each day and make the best use you can of what little daylight is available to you. You may even develop a largely unbroken routine which, rather than dull, is oddly comforting. Yet this isn’t a simple rural life simulator, in part due to the comings and goings of the only other person you ever see.
Every few days, Talma is visited by a man who acts as both merchant and postman. He’ll usually have a letter for you from a friend or family member, telling you about life in the big city. Although their communications start off shining with optimism, it’s not too long before things start to descend into darker territory. Rather oddly, Talma never makes any attempt to reply, which taps a crack across the game’s illusion.
The visitor’s merchant function gives us cause for both praise and frustration. Brilliantly, there is no money in the game. It’s all about trading items, and each item that you can use to haggle has value to you in and of itself (so, amusingly, somewhat like bullets in the Metro games). Deciding what to cultivate on your little farm in the brief period before the merchant’s next visit, and what to buy from him, becomes a delicate balancing act. You need food, yet the goats need hay. The chickens, best we can tell, subsist on a diet of air and arthouse storytelling. There’s one more consumable, and this is probably our biggest irritation.
Shortly after beginning the game, you may notice that there’s a shotgun lying on the ground outside. You’re given no indication of why it’s there or why you might want it and so, not having experienced any sort of trouble or danger, we barely gave the shotgun shells that appeared in the merchant’s inventory a second glance. Then one in-game day, we woke up to discover that one of our goats had disappeared. It took us a while to work out that it had almost certainly been eaten by wolves (or maybe it ran away to join the goat circus, who knows).
This loss didn’t feel like our fault. Heck, we didn’t even know what had happened for a while. We did our best to stock up on shotgun shells, yet it wasn’t enough. Two wolf visits later, we ran out of ammo, and were completely goatless. Whether or not this was scripted, that first early loss still irked us. Later, our chickens disappeared, and we honestly have no idea whether or not this was wolf-related. Nonetheless, it’s a melancholy sort of wonderful that when we found ourselves with no animals, there was no game over screen. No being reset to a checkpoint. We were simply a goat farmer with no goats, and life carried on, a little darker and sadder than before.
There are a few minor technical quibbles. We played the game on Switch, and the night sequences are so dark as to be virtually unplayable in handheld mode (it’s occasionally a struggle on TV), which seems a bizarre oversight. There’s also some unfortunate unintentional hilarity. Closing gates can lead to brief amusement, Talma’s wizened frame being pushed along by the gate that she seemingly opens and closes telekinetically. Most unfortunate of all is the game’s final moment, where just a few frames of animation are enough to turn what should be a poignant conclusion into laugh-out-loud slapstick.
Still, it is on balance a game that is relaxing rather than boring, and thoughtful rather than pretentious (even if some of the letters veer dangerously close). It’s a brief experience of just a few hours that you’re unlikely to replay, but likely to remember.
The Stillness of the Wind Launch Trailer - YouTube
Vane may have turned out to be a crushing disappointment, but there’s another indie game just around the corner so full of promise, it just might pop. Originally announced as a PC-only game, The Stillness Of The Wind will also be available for iOS and that hero of indies, the Switch, when it launches next Thursday, 7th February.
Published by Fellow Traveller Games (formerly Surprise Attack Games), this is the work of just one man, Coyan Cardenas; or Memory of God to his friends. Or possibly his enemies.
If you know Memory of God’s previous work Where The Goats Are, then you may not be entirely surprised to learn that The Stillness Of The Wind casts you as an elderly goat farmer. An apparent sequel of sorts to WTGA, the new game will see you looking after your goats and your farm (and yourself) while the world crumbles around you. You’ll receive letters from your family, but don’t expect particularly cheery communications. With Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s glorious One Hundred Years Of Solitude named as an influence, we’re very interested to see how this turns out.
“Nostalgia, a sense of loss and home are the main themes running throughout the narrative of the game,” says Cardenas. A trailer won’t often tell you much; but the one at the top of this page, ironically perhaps, gives us hope.
HoPiKo sounds like it could be a breed of Pokemon, but in actual fact it is a speedrunner puzzle game from developer Laser Dog, where you control a pixelated super hero (HoPiKo), who has to save gaming by defeating the nasty Nanobyte virus. This has infected consoles leaving gamers distraught, and enslaving your fellow HoPiKo. It is your duty to rid the infected consoles of the virus and thereby save gaming itself, while also rescuing your community from Nanobyte enslavement.
Our HoPiKo hero launches into action.
The HoPiKo of the title are tiny pixelated characters who reside inside games consoles, and make sure games work and play correctly. An interactive documentary? Who knows. Unfortunately for the HoPiKo, the Nanobyte virus has infected consoles around the world and enslaved them all. The player takes control of the last remaining HoPiKo, who has to rescue his brethren. HoPiKo is a simple game to play, using only the right thumbstick and one button for play. However it is also a very tricky game to master, with great speed and sharp reflexes required to work your way through the hundreds of bite-sized levels. Each one takes mere seconds to get through, as you leap from platform to platform, avoiding all kinds of nasties before launching your HoPiKo into the virus corruption at the end of the stage. The problem is, you need to complete five levels in a row without dying in order to rescue some of your fellow HoPiKo and flush the virus from the infected games console. Trial and error is required to get you through the levels without dying, and believe us you will die a lot while playing this game. If you do die during any of the run of five levels, you return to the first level, so you can end up playing through the levels many times before you complete the stage. This might be too much for some people with little patience, but the fact that each of the levels takes seconds to complete does make it a bit less frustrating, although it can get pretty tense when you reach that fifth and final level.
There are various collectibles like this GameBoy that are dotted around levels, which unlock bonus runs.
The graphics are a nice homage to the 8-bit era, with simple sprites and a monochrome colour scheme which harks back to the ZX Spectrum age of gaming. The soundtrack is also worthy of a mention, as its catchy chiptunes were composed by the developer on a Nintendo Gameboy, and they really add an extra layer of retro love to the game. Controlling your HoPiKo is simply a case of pointing a cursor to where you want your character to go, and releasing the stick when you’re happy. Needless to say there are many traps and platforms to negotiate in each of the tiny levels, with moving platforms, lasers, platforms that explode after three seconds, and corrupted platforms that are infected by the virus that kill you on touch. Some parts of the virus will even chase you. While the controls work pretty well, there were a few times when we let go of the stick and our HoPiKo didn’t go the way we expected it to go, and launching our little hero ended in an instant death. This does get quite annoying after a while, especially when things get really frantic later on in the game, and the tiniest error can see you having to start the levels again.
The Switch gives you the option of playing with the touch screen in handheld mode, but using the touch screen does add its own niggles, with aiming feeling quite twitchy and taking too long to get right. There are also a few levels when you have virtually no time to move from the first platform as an enemy bears down on you, so you have no chance to scope out where you want to aim your HoPiKo, which feels mightily unfair.
That big mass of squares on the left is the Nanobyte virus that you need to launch your HoPiKo into to complete the level.
HoPiKo is a rock solid speedrun platformer with some well designed, devious levels to negotiate.You need quick reactions, as the game is very fast paced, and memorising what pitfalls are coming is crucial to succeed. While those with little patience may struggle to stay the course, HoPiKo is a crafty little beast that digs its claws into you and urges you to play one more level. While it’s simple in its execution, it’s really satisfying to play, with plenty of additional mechanisms and Nanobyte traps thrown at you as you progress through the game to keep you on your toes. It’s gorgeous to look at, with a catchy retro soundtrack; if you’re looking for a puzzle platformer with a challenge, then HoPiKo should definitely be on your radar.
It’s fair to say that at this stage of the game industry’s life, the prospect of an indie title with high art aspirations is an enticing one. After all, these games include classics such as Limbo, Braid, Inside, and What Remains Of Edith Finch. While Vane’s aesthetics can often impress, everything else about the game drags it firmly away from glory.
After a brief prologue you begin the game as a bird, flying through a desert with no explanation and no direction. Initially this is quite liberating. Working out the simple controls for yourself, you’ll glide and swoop around the environment looking for points of interest, enjoying the simple pleasure of flight. It’s not long, however, before problems start to seep into the experience.
Least problematic, but still noticeable, is the way in which you are initially led to the spots necessary for progress. A combination of an unusually powerful glint of sunshine from metal, a change in music, and a little lens glare is somewhat on the nose, but nothing if not effective.
Vane insists on presenting itself in letterbox format, which adds nothing to the experience.
The biggest problem to arise during the desert sequence is a terrible camera, an issue that not only remains for the entire game, but one that only gets worse. Here and elsewhere, your bird needs to perch on certain objects and interact with them. This involves approaching at the correct speed and height, something made more difficult when you have a clear view of neither yourself nor your target.
Soon, you discover that your bird transforms into a small boy when close to a strange glowing material. This means a lot of gameplay on the ground, and this is where the camera truly struggles to accommodate the player’s actions. Wrestling with the view via the right analogue stick, it’s not uncommon to see the scenery obscure the character completely. Combine this with a tendency for the character model to clip through certain corners of the environment, and the experience is anything but smooth.
There are puzzles, although the game’s greatest challenge tends to be working out where to go next.
All of this culminates in a game that smothers its aspirations under a blanket of frustration. A metaphor-filled narrative can be seen, but not heard. It is after all somewhat difficult to look for a deeper meaning to the experience when the character on the screen won’t do what you want it to. Even if everything worked perfectly on a technical level – something that it seems is highly unlikely to happen, even with extensive patching – the game would still struggle to tell a coherent story, and thereby feed the player a coherent experience. That it is clear inference is necessary for the ‘true’ meaning to come through is quite beside the point. One story must be present in order to tell another, yet Vane comes across as little more than a sequence of unexplained events tied together to make a game.
Vane is aesthetically pleasing and, at times, interesting. It is also a technical shambles, a story without any storytelling, and a game with poor player direction. It is also – remarkably – a game that saves only four times during the entire experience, with little indication of when these saves have taken place. Although it’s a very short game (less than two hours if you don’t get stuck), if you abandon it at the wrong moment through boredom or frustration, you could lose a significant chunk of your slow-paced progress. It’s clear that a lot of love has gone into this project but, sadly, the wind blew the wrong way for this one.