All posts by Jack Moulder

Born in England but currently living in Toronto, Canada, Jack's been gaming as long as he can remember, which just happens to coincide with his 6th birthday, where he received an original Gameboy and a copy of Tetris, which his parents immediately 'borrowed' and proceeded to rack up all the high scores that Jack's feeble 6-year-old fingers couldn't accomplish. A lover of sports games, RPGs and shooters, Jack's up for playing pretty much anything, so long as it doesn't kick his ass too frequently. He has a delicate temperament.

Heaven’s Vault Review – Switch

Learning a new language can be a wonderful experience, allowing for a broadening of horizons, a newfound appreciation for the intricacies of your own mother tongue, and the ability to view things from the perspective of someone who lives hundreds of miles away. However, it doesn’t jump out as the easiest experience to translate to an engrossing gaming experience, so credit must be given to UK developer Inkle for releasing Heaven’s Vault, the main focus of which is to decipher an ancient alien language in order to uncover the secrets of the galaxy. Heaven’s Vault has been available on PC and PlayStation 4 since mid-2019, but has recently found its way to Nintendo Switch, allowing fans of the hybrid console to try their hand at solving a mystery thousands of years in the making.

While the main gameplay focus of Heaven’s Vault is to decipher various fragments of text, there are larger themes of history and philosophy at play, which makes for some weighty subject matter and some difficult decisions. There’s a large focus on free will and determinism, which is both discussed as a central core of the narrative, but also plays into the game’s mechanics, as Heaven’s Vault is built around a largely nonlinear story structure. You travel from planet to planet, uncovering artifacts and speaking to non-player characters, but it is up to you to decide what to do with the information that you are given and how to proceed at any particular point. Deciding to travel to one planet instead of another can cause you to stumble upon a particularly critical piece of story-related information or could result in you missing a vital conversation that contained an important clue to a new site. However, it never feels like any of your decisions are entirely wrong, as you’re always moving forward towards a goal: it just might not be the goal that you had in mind when you first set out.

Heaven’s Vault allows the player to uncover its secrets in this way as both the narrative and the historical language is built in a set of layers, with much of the game being spent chipping away at small sections and uncovering tiny fragments of a larger whole. There aren’t many occasions where you stumble upon huge discoveries, and instead you’ll start to combine connected pieces of information to gain an idea of the larger overall picture. You start off with next to no knowledge of what the story is or how this strange new language works, but through trial and error you will start to learn, grow and understand your knowledge of what has happened in this galaxy and what is likely to come in the future.

At the start of Heaven’s Vault you are given artifacts with small pieces of text inscribed on them, such as a brooch with three words, or short sentences. Thankfully, the sentence structure of this alien language is remarkably similar to ours, meaning that your work really only focuses on deciphering the words themselves. Initially, you are given three different potential translations to work with for each word, and by using contextual clues or a degree of educated guesswork, you choose from these options to try to work out what the full phrase is. There’s no explicit ranking or punishment for guessing correctly or incorrectly, though you can often gain some useful advantages by paying attention and translating correctly, either through being able to confirm a word and being able to avoid guesswork at a later date, or by gleaning information that would help with historical context further down the line.

Once you have correctly identified a word a couple of times you are able to add it to your dictionary, meaning that you’re sure of the translation and won’t have to guess at it later on if it appears in another fragment of text. As I made my way through Heaven’s Vault I realized that there were certain patterns of symbols that I was able to recognize on my own, meaning that I could translate portions of the text even before the options appeared on screen, and it’s partially this logic that makes the game so successful: there aren’t often leaps of faith when it comes to deciphering pieces of text, and while there may be some sentences that are much longer than you’ve seen before, and some words that might be completely outside of your knowledge, if you take the time to build around the words that you do already know, then you can often develop a solid hypothesis about what the rest of the text is saying.

A lot of the text entries in Heaven’s Vault take on a religious theme, and the game’s topics of cycles of life, death and rebirth play a strong part in what you’re reading and deciphering. The protagonist, Aliya Elasra, is an archaeologist initially more interested in the potential profit associated with a site rather than its historical importance, but as the game progresses and both Aliya and the player begin to understand the importance of their quest, an emphasis is placed on the potential ramifications their findings could have on the galaxy, and how knowledge of the past can be both a blessing and a curse. Aliya is initially a brusque and short-answered conversationalist, more interested in things than people, but it soon becomes apparent through playing that being on good terms with a number of people can be beneficial, especially when trying to uncover the secrets of the game.

Mechanically, Heaven’s Vault does have a few hang-ups when running on the Nintendo Switch, some of which are noticeable but don’t have an impact on the game itself, and some of which can cause genuine frustration. There’s a lot of noticeable slowdown in certain segments of the game, with a juddering framerate that can make it more difficult than it should be to interact with objects and time button presses correctly. I also noticed several instances of characters clipping through scenery as well, but that could be partly down to Heaven’s Vault unique art style as much as technical issues, as characters are presented as flat images against a 3D background, which makes for an interesting visual experience. The one issue that most disappointed me, though, was one location where Aliya glitched through a locked door midway through a sequence, leaving me unable to return through and solve the mysteries that remained within. This was particularly immersion breaking and demoralizing, as I had felt like I was on the path to uncovering something valuable, and this glitch reminded me that what I was playing was an artificial construction.

I think that my response to this last issue speaks to how good of a job Heaven’s Vault does of creating a world that feels tangible and real, and how you soon start to feel like you’re just a small part of what has come before and what will continue after you’re gone. In a similar way to the game’s theme of rebirth, Heaven’s Vault, upon completion, offers up a New Game+ mode where you remain in possession of your dictionary of words but are now presented with longer, more difficult sentences and the opportunity to pursue leads that you might have passed up on previous playthroughs. When I finished the game for the first time I immediately booted up this option, and while it sometimes felt a little dry to go through some of the same mandatory sections, the greater sense of understanding of what was going on made this worthwhile, and I was happy to try my hand at deciphering longer sequences.

I greatly enjoyed my time with Heaven’s Vault in spite of a few technical issues, and while the pacing and mechanics of the game might be a little too serene for some players, there’s a lot to be admired about how this experience is built and how it offers something different from most other options currently available. It’s not a puzzle game per se, but more of a mystery which is solved by perseverance rather than immediate revelations. Even having finished the game it feels like there are more mysteries waiting for me in some uncovered corner of the galaxy, and with a smartly designed New Game+ option I’m more than happy to dive into the story once again.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

Space Invaders Forever Review – PlayStation 4

Space Invaders Is easily one of the most recognizable properties in videogames. Young or old, gamer or non-gamer, chances are that if you show someone one of the alien shapes, they will know the game that they belong to. It’s no surprise, then, that compilations of various Space Invaders releases continue to prove their popularity, with Space Invaders Forever being the most recent example. What is surprising, though, are the games chosen to make up this collection. Not only is the set limited to three titles, but the three that have been chosen are a strange collection that would almost feel more at home as bonus offerings to a larger, more complete selection.

Space Invaders Forever consists of Space Invaders Extreme, which was originally released in 2008 but here also contains a number of 2018 updates, Space Invaders Gigamax 4SE, which is a multiplayer twist on the usual Space Invaders formula, and Arkanoid vs Space Invaders, a mobile game from 2016 that attempts to mash-up elements from the two series. None of these games are especially memorable by themselves, and none of them mark a particularly strong point in the history of Space Invaders as a whole. There also doesn’t seem to be any thematic reason for bringing the three together like this, leaving Space Invaders Forever to feel a little like someone has picked up the dregs from the cutting room floor and decided to see what they could make out of them.

The meatiest entry in this collection is Space Invaders Extreme, which gives off a strong vibe of being released in the mid-1990s, despite actually releasing in 2008. The main reason for this is the aesthetics: while the gameplay visuals are largely similar to what you’ll have seen from Space Invaders before, the animated backgrounds look like the kind of psychedelic shapes and colors you would see in a music video on MTV in 1995. What happens in the foreground is interesting, however: the Extreme label seems to apply to the fact that your alien foes now come in a wide array of colors and shapes, each indicating different abilities and weapons that add extra levels of challenge.

In Space Invaders Extreme, your enemies can turn 90 degrees to make themselves flat, they can shield themselves, and they can move outside of the larger pack to create distractions or require you to analyze threats. There are rewards on offer for eliminating series of the same colors and shapes, and there are bonus levels available should you take out particular UFOs, which can grant the player special weapons such as laser beams or bombs. It’s worth pursuing these extra scores as well, as breaking through certain score ceilings allow the player to continue down different branching paths of the Arcade Mode, promising higher scores in return for an increased level of challenge.

Space Invaders Extreme strikes a good balance between sound and visuals, with a mechanic similar to the more recent Tetris Effect where your actions can impact and compliment the beat of the soundtrack. Combined with the trippy visuals happening behind the main action, this causes Space Invaders Extreme to quickly cause players to enter into the kind of flow state that can often be found in games of this ilk. It’s easy to move through one stage to the next, focusing only on the screen and ignoring everything else around you until you reach the final boss and suddenly realize that you’ve completed a run.

For all that Space Invaders Extreme creates and presents and interesting set of twists on the typical Space Invaders formula, it’s disappointing to then move onto Gigamax 4SE and Arkanoid vs Space Invaders to see how by-the-book both of those titles feel. Gigamax 4SE is the most disappointing and the segment of Space Invaders Forever that I spent the least amount of time with, as it just doesn’t offer up anything interesting. Designed as an opportunity to play Space Invaders with three other players, Gigamax 4SE doesn’t allow for online play, and instead requires you to have four players available in one location. This would be difficult to arrange at the best of times but considering the lack of creativity present in the title, I can’t see myself attempting to convince others that that this would be a worthwhile reason to gather round a single television.

Arkanoid vs Space Invaders is a better use of your time, but it wears its mobile genesis heavily on its sleeve. Levels are short and plentiful, but with a level select screen that looks like it’s been pulled almost directly from something like Candy Crush, you can’t help but feel like sooner or later you’re going to be asked to cough up real money for extra lives, or that you’re suddenly going to run into an artificially-increased difficulty spike designed to drain you of your energy. From my time with the game I didn’t notice this to any real extent, but the thick bars that populate the side of the game-screen and the frequent requirement of in-game currency to purchase power-ups remind you that this was supposed to be played on something other than your TV.

Thankfully, the gameplay itself makes for a strange but interesting mix of mechanics that works out surprisingly well. Controlling the paddle familiar to Arkanoid fans, your job is to reflect the Space Invaders aliens’ projectiles back at them in order to destroy them. Rather than having a health bar for your avatar, there is instead an energy bar that essentially serves as a time limit. These limits can feel tough at times but being able to quickly jump in and out of levels means that you’re never punished too harshly for failure. There’s a large number of stages within Arkanoid vs Space Invaders should you find yourself engrossed in the experience, but I found that once I had finished a couple of chapters I had seen almost all that I wanted to see and couldn’t picture myself returning to this title time and time again.

Space Invaders Forever is a strange collection in that it sits in a niche where the selection of games won’t be definitive enough for longtime fans of the series, but also is too peculiar to serve as a proper introduction for newcomers. It feels like a collection of B-Sides that no-one was really sure what else to do with, and it would be difficult to recommend this collection to anyone other than the most die-hard of fans. Space Invaders Extreme is easily the highlight of the package but isn’t enough to sell the collection on its own, and while Arkanoid vs Space Invaders is interesting for an hour or two, it soon loses its shine. Space Invaders Gigamax 4SE, though, is almost entirely forgettable and I can’t really see any players turning this collection on for the purpose of playing it. It’s difficult to think of a reason why this particular selection of games would have been compiled into a single release, and while there are some things to enjoy here, it is difficult think of many reasons to recommend Space Invaders Forever to potential players.

SYNTHETIK: Ultimate Review – Xbox Series X

When I think of roguelike games, the first thing that usually springs to mind is a pixelated side-scrolling platformer with a cutesy aesthetic that hides a punishing difficulty. I don’t often jump to an image of a cyberpunk world full of androids and drones, but that is the scenario that Synthetik: Ultimate presents. Originally released on PC, Synthetik is an isometric twin-stick shooter that asks the player to make their way through various floors of a corporate headquarters while gunning down foes and gaining an increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons and tools as they go.

When I first started playing Synthetik: Ultimate, I have to say that I was a little overwhelmed by everything that was happening on screen. You’re plunged right into the action from the get-go, and there isn’t much explanation as to what you’re supposed to be doing or how you’re supposed to be doing it. All you know is that there are enemies shooting at you and in true videogame fashion, you’re expected to shoot back. It isn’t until your character perishes for the first time that things start to be explained, but even then there are plenty of mysteries left for you to uncover as you play.

Dying for the first time takes you to the main hub screen, and while you’re able to select a character class when you first boot up Synthetik, it is here that you really start to learn the differences between the eight different options, from those that are focused on run-and-gun styles to others that are concentrated on using machines to do your dirty work for you. You’re able to switch up the weapons that you take into each run too, as well as the two accessory tools that can include health stims or stun guns to help you against enemies that might stray too close.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this menu screen, though, and of Synthetik as a whole, is the area where you have control over the experience itself. You are able to determine the difficulty of each run and in turn, this dictates the rewards that you are eligible for. You gain a certain amount of data depending on how well you do in the game, and this data is used to purchase additional weapons, equipment or bonuses to help you progress further, creating a risk and reward system of pushing yourself just hard enough to gain maximum rewards without creating an environment that is too difficult for you to succeed in.

These basic difficulty settings are enhanced by the inclusion of curses, which give you the option of hampering your character in exchange for increased chances at further rewards. These can range from simple nerfs to slower cooldowns for your abilities or causing your character to flinch when hit to increasing the chances of your guns jamming when they are being fired. This requires a rapid hammering of the reload button to clear the issue and can easily flip the chances of success or failure if it happens in the middle of a gunfight but can also allow for far greater rewards if you’re able to overcome it.

Having your jammed weapons require a form of manual correction is just one way in which Synthetik: Ultimate attempts to create a feeling of tactility that isn’t often seen in games of this type. There’s a Gears of War-like reload functionality, where you’re required to manually reload your weapon with button presses and the fact that switching a magazine while it still has rounds inside causes you to lose that potentially valuable ammunition. For a twin-stick shooter there’s a surprisingly high penalty for relying on mobility as well, as your accuracy drops dramatically if you try to fire while moving. This means that you’re often better off finding cover and hunkering down for a short while, firing off a few shots before moving somewhere else and repeating the process.

The more that I played Synthetik, the more I started to gain a handle on all of the information that was being presented to me, but I found that I was never fully able to relax while playing as there was a constant sense of frantic, edge of the seat action that requires your full attentions at all times. Whether it’s analyzing threats to determine if a group of enemies is a risk worth taking, exploring for resources that could grant you a better weapon or accessory, or even something as small as making sure that your weapon has just enough ammo to get you through your next encounter, Synthetik presents you with a lot of information that you need to stay on top of, and taking your eye off of the ball in one area could be the difference between life and death the next time you have a gun pointed at you by an enemy.

If I’m being entirely honest, my first impressions of Synthetik weren’t great, as it felt confusing, clumsy and bordering on badly designed. However, the more I played through the game and the more that I began to understand its mechanics, I started to realize that the clumsiness is almost intentional and that what I initially thought was bad design was in fact a series of decisions that led to Synthetik becoming more memorable than a number of similar games that I have played in recent years. The fact that you are required to take ownership of your weapons and ammo adds extra layers to the experience, and rather than focusing solely on which weapons have the highest damage stats, you’re looking at fire rates and ammo capacities to weigh up whether an improvement to damage is worth the risk that you’ll likely have to spend valuable seconds reloading mid-firefight.

When this is combined with systems that allow you to balance the difficulty of the game against how much of a reward you’re willing to risk, it starts to become apparent how each mechanic forms a part of an entire experience that feels quite different from other roguelike titles. You’re quickly fully invested and immersed in the experience, and the fact that there’s often a sense of being overwhelmed and overloaded adds to Synthetik’s attempts to make itself feel like the player is part of the experience. It’s not the kind of game to sit back and relax with at the end of a long day, but if you’re looking for something to feel invested in then, Synthetik: Ultimate is well worth a look.

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia Review – PlayStation 4

Board games are a lot of fun to play, but they do come with some limitations. They can take a long time to set up, they often require playing a full session in one sitting, and they can require a number of players to be in the same place at the same time, which isn’t always easy to arrange. Because of this, I’m always on the look out for adequate substitutes in the videogaming sphere, and Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia is one of the more recent releases to scratch that itch. While not especially designed as a board game replacement, there are a number of aspects to the game that make comparisons more than fair, especially when viewed next to strategy and war games.

The Legend of Runersia consists of two main sections: strategic recruiting and assigning of troops, and tile-based battling of your forces against an enemy. There’s a fairly comprehensive tutorial that goes through the basics of the game, and thankfully this tutorial is executed far better than those that I’ve seen in games of a similar ilk. You can either choose to play through the lessons one-by-one in isolation or you can have them interspersed with the early stages of a full game, but either way strikes a good balance of explaining mechanics and benefits while allowing the player to get hands-on with the areas of the game that it is trying to explain. It also doesn’t overload the player, giving enough information so that you can understand what to do and why you would want to do it, but still allowing enough freedom to experiment and discover winning combinations and setups for yourself.

Once you fully get into a game in The Legend of Runersia, it starts to move along at a fairly steady pace. Turns (known as seasons) can take a little while to get through depending on how many bases and armies you have under your control, but as you’re often zipping from one area of the map to another, you’re rarely sitting and waiting for things to do. Enemy factions take a similarly short amount of time to complete their turns, and you’re often moving from setting up your forces to putting them up against forces from another faction. With the ultimate goal of taking control of the entire continent, there isn’t really any focus in Brigandine for peaceful negotiations or alliances. Your nation is on its own from the start to the end of a game, and it’s up to you to ensure its ultimate domination.

While you won’t be communicating with other nations, you are still able to grow your forces by recruiting new generals and summoning monsters. Generals are the focal point of each army, and their abilities (which range through a usual variety of fantasy tropes) are useful in dictating which class of monsters are best to assign to their team. Monsters also belong to a variety of classes, and both they and your generals will gain experience from battles and are able to improve their statistics and abilities and eventually change their classes to unlock new skills. I found that while the monsters were ultimately largely disposable due to their weaker nature, I regularly grew attached to my generals, with a few in particular proving themselves to be especially reliable. Whether or not these were genuinely better than some of my other options I cannot say, but the sense of ownership over my forces definitely gave some battles a greater sense of importance.

Unfortunately, while I was usually fond of particular characters, I found their portraits oddly terrifying. This might seem like a strange point to make, but The Legend of Runersia has some of the most unsettling character designs that I can remember seeing in a game. While most of the game strikes a form of watercolor painted aesthetic, character models are jarring, full of weird points and angles and looking like the kind of thing you would find in a creepy carnival funhouse. This feeling spread across all six of the available nations in the game, meaning that it was a bit of a toss-up as to which faction I chose at the start of each game. Aside from the aesthetic of each nation, though, there isn’t much of a difference between one choice and another, so you’re able to choose whichever faction appeals the most.

I found this aspect of the game to be the most disappointing. One of the more interesting mechanics in strategy games is to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each individual faction, but each nation in The Legend of Runersia plays essentially the same as the others. Whether you’re playing as pirates or forest-dwellers, the same units and abilities are available to you, and though the introductory story and motivations for the factions varies, you’re able to play the bulk of the game in the same manner each time. Whether you’re playing on the strategic overworld map or the smaller tile-based battle screens, you don’t need to adapt your approach for your choice of faction, which can discourage chopping and changing from one game to the next.

I found that this lack of variety (alongside the uncomfortable feeling stemming from the character designs) led me to feel a little hesitant to keep playing The Legend of Runersia once I had played through a couple of games. This might be a little unfair as I did enjoy the time that I spent with the game, but without anything to keep the experience feeling fresh, it often felt like I was retreading old ground and repeating similar steps to actions that I had already taken. It would likely be a fine game to pick up from time to time, but with each playthrough lasting a fair amount of time it felt like too much of a commitment to repeat a similar experience over and over again.

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia is an interesting mix of strategy and RPG mechanics that is unfortunately let down by a lack of variety amongst its factions and some unnerving artistic decisions. There is a solid, competently made board game-like experience available here if you’re willing to overlook these issues, but for most players I get the feeling that this will be the kind of game where after one full playthrough they will have seen all that they will need to see. With a single playthrough taking a fair amount of time this might be enough for some, but it isn’t the kind of experience that encourages repeat playthroughs.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

Airplane Mode Review – PC

Out of all the things that I missed doing in 2020, I have to say that air travel isn’t on the list. Due to a mixture of my height, a mild case of claustrophobia and a short attention span, I’m not at my best when I’m on a plane. However, I do enjoy the chance to experience unique gaming experiences, so when given the chance to virtually re-enact the airborne experience through Airplane Mode, I jumped at the opportunity. Developed by Hosni Auji, Airplane Mode assigns you a seat on a plane and lets you live out the joys of long- and short- distance flights.

It would be more accurate to label Airplane Mode as an experience rather than a game, as there are a number of stipulations that require it to have a different description. Airplane Mode doesn’t really present a challenge or give you any way that you can win, aside from if you display the level of perseverance that will see you complete a flight. The player has a general lack of control over what happens within Airplane Mode as well: while you’re able to select from a variety of activities to take part in, these have no real outcome other than the immediate consumption of time and no matter what you do the flight will continue on until it reaches its destination.

The range of activities and the work that has gone into the creation of them is one of the most impressive aspects of the game, with in-flight magazines and entertainment services recreated to an almost perfect level of detail. The magazine contains articles and advertisements that seem pulled directly out of their real-world counterparts, and there are games such as sudoku and crosswords that can be filled in should you wish. The screen in the back of the seat in front of you has a selection of older films and your character’s cell phone has a smattering of podcasts to listen to, meaning that you have plenty on offer to distract you through the flight.

You’re able to select from two different flights at the main menu screen, one from New York City to Halifax that takes two hours and one from New York City to Iceland, which takes close to six hours. These flights play out in real time, from taxiing to takeoff through to landing at their destination, and you’re unable to pause or save mid-flight which means that once you’ve started the flight, you’re locked in until the end unless you’re willing to restart the whole experience. Airplane Mode is fully aware of what it is asking the player to commit to and is unapologetic about the banality of its experience. If you’re willing to sit through a six-hour recreation of a long-haul flight in economy, then you should be fully aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Airplane Mode as an experience almost evades the possibility of being reviewed, as it stands apart from a typical videogame in a number of different ways. If you’re evaluating Airplane Mode as a recreation of the commercial flight experience, then it reaches a level of authenticity that is impressive. The smallest of sounds have been captured accurately, from the seatbelt signs pinging on, to the constant low drone of the engines, to the background chatter of your fellow passengers. There’s no embellishment of the experience, either: the seat in front of you feels uncomfortably close, the bulkhead of the aircraft is imposing and sitting in the window seat, the aisle feels some distance away.

When looking at Airplane Mode as a game, though, it is almost as if the game is daring the player to suffer through the experience as a point of pride. Aside from the novelty factor of a game that is about the most mundane part of going on vacation, Airplane Mode is a miserable way to spend a few hours, be it two or six. There isn’t really any way that I could find to recommend that someone sits through an entire session with the game, and if I did find someone willing, I can’t imagine that we’d be on speaking terms afterwards. That kind of feels like the point, though: Airplane Mode is designed to test the player’s will, endurance and willingness to suffer for the sake of an experience that can’t otherwise be found outside of an actual plane.

If you’re reading this review with the hope of being persuaded to either buy Airplane Mode or steer clear, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed, as I’m genuinely unable to guide you either way. As an experience, Airplane Mode nails the feeling of taking a flight and should be commended for its accuracy but as a game, it’s one of the most painfully dull experiences that I’ve had in recent times. There’s a reason that most people sleep on planes, and that’s often because sleeping is preferable to thinking about how long you have left on your flight. I don’t tend to go into my gaming time with the intention of recreating a time when I was wishing that I was doing literally anything else, but Airplane Mode has nailed that feeling perfectly.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

Call of the Sea Review – Xbox X|S

The South Pacific is an inherently mysterious section of the world, even with all of our advances in geographical technologies. It’s been a common setting for mysterious and supernatural stories for decades, and so it fits perfectly with Call of the Sea, a recent release on the Xbox family from Spanish developer Out of the Blue Games. Set in 1934, Call of the Sea puts you in the shoes of Norah Everhart who is looking for her missing husband Harry. Harry Everhart set out on an expedition to the South Pacific in an attempt to find a cure for Norah’s mysterious illness and it’s up to Norah and the player to find out where he went and why.

It would be easy to label Call of the Sea as a walking simulator as it possesses a number of similarities what that particular type of game, but in truth it is a puzzle game at its core. The narrative is broken into six chapters, each of which is focused around a certain hub area of the island that Nora finds herself on and each of which revolves around a central puzzle. There are often smaller mysteries to solve in each chapter, some of which serve as clues to the larger task or as puzzle pieces themselves, but the most impressive fact is that each of these feels like they serve a purpose. There aren’t really any puzzles for the sake of puzzles: each task that you undertake feels like it either drives the story forward or gives background to either the island, its inhabitants or the party that Harry travelled with.

I don’t want to get too far into the details of the story as, with Call of the Sea being a relatively short game, the narrative pacing ramps up pretty quickly and revelations begin to come thick and fast as soon as the second or third chapter. With this chapter structure, though, and with the fact that each chapter takes place in a different area of the island, I found that Call of the Sea was a perfect example of a game that I could take my time with. I broke the game down into playing a chapter each night of the week, and while I’d say that the full experience probably lasted me between five and six hours, this artificial pacing helped with both the delivery of the story and with allowing my brain to approach the switching of puzzle types between each chapter.

Call of the Sea manages the difficulty of its puzzles with a deft touch, and while there were a couple of moments about halfway through where I wasn’t sure what I was being asked to do, for the most part the difficulty curve struck a fine balance between offering up a challenge and giving you time to get up to speed with what was being asked of you. In a similar way to how the puzzles tie in with the world, the world ties in with the puzzles. Whenever I was stuck I always reminded myself that the answer was in front of me somewhere and I likely needed to look at a potential solution from a different angle. There weren’t any major leaps of logic that needed to be taken and furthermore, there weren’t any solutions that felt alien to the world of the game. Any objects needed felt like they would be at home on the island and any solution, once discerned, felt like a natural climax to the puzzle that it belonged to.

The changes in scenery between each chapter allow Out of the Blue games to display the range of their artistic and design abilities, and this comes with a stunning use of color at times. For reference, I played Call of the Sea on an Xbox Series X and while it wasn’t the most impressive game that I’ve played in terms of visual fidelity, the colors on show popped out of the screen, especially in some of the areas in jungles or on beaches. As you progress through the game the palate starts to become a little more muted, but this is balanced by some impressive design work that allows for otherwise strange landscapes to feel authentic and visually interesting. Throughout, Call of the Sea feels like a tangible world and this adds a general sense of realism to proceedings.

There are a couple of negatives to the experience however, and while these weren’t enough to take away from my enjoyment of the game too much, they came up enough that they stuck with me once the credits rolled. While a lot of the game’s story is delivered either environmentally or through audio/text logs, there’s a good chunk that is delivered in the form of monologue from Norah herself. While there are some interesting revelations delivered through this medium, a lot of the speech doesn’t feel natural either in writing or delivery and this can ruin the sense of immersion that Call of the Sea otherwise does such a great job of establishing. Elsewhere, there is a lot of disparity between the words spoken by characters and the subtitles that appear on screen, both in terms of different words or phrases being used or entire sentences being structured differently. Again, this wasn’t enough to ruin the game for me, but it did feel a little bit like the pulling back of a curtain to reveal the artifice behind.

Despite these minor issues, I had a great time with Call of the Sea and each evening I was excited to get back to Norah’s journey and see what was in store for me in that session. The game is admittedly quite short and lacking in any real reason to replay through, unless you’re looking to hoover up any remaining story logs or earn further achievements, but in terms of narrative pacing I feel as though Out of the Blue Games balanced their narrative aspirations with the gameplay functionality pretty well. The strongest aspect of Call of the Sea, though, is the puzzle design by quite some distance. I’m happy to admit that I’m often too easily swayed to look up the solution to a tricky puzzle online, but Call of the Sea set out its stall with regards to this early and well enough that I had faith in the game to guide me to the solution as long as I was willing to work at it. It’s not so much that Call of the Sea is an easy experience (as it isn’t) but more the fact that Out of the Blue Games have enough confidence in both the player and the experience that they have designed to allow things to play themselves out naturally.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

60 Parsecs! Review – Xbox One

The middle of the twentieth century was a strange time for those looking to the future, with one angle seeing humanity wiped out in nuclear Armageddon but another positing the colonization of space. Developer Robot Gentleman have explored both options, first in 60 Seconds! which revolved around the former, but also in 60 Parsecs! which focuses on the extraterrestrial, more hopeful side of things. Both are based on the same structure, though: you have 60 seconds to gather as many belongings as you can before being forced to survive through a grueling series of scenarios, hoping for rescue on the other side.

While 60 Seconds! is focused on a suburban family and their attempts to survive in a bunker in their backyard, 60 Parsecs! is a little more otherworldly. You start as an astronaut on a space station, and it is here that you need to gather rations, resources and crewmembers as part of your escape. The following segment is divided into two parts: the search for a planet to land your escape craft on and the subsequent quest for survival on whichever plant you choose. Thankfully, 60 Parsecs! is a little more colorful and livelier than 60 Seconds!’s drab aesthetic, though the challenges facing you are no less severe.

The vast majority of your time in 60 Parsecs! is spent reading through updates on your crew with regards to both their activities and their health. As the captain, it is your job to dole out rations, assign duties and ensure that morale is kept at an acceptable level, which is just as difficult as it sounds. As you’re all living in a small spaceship, your food and water supplies are low, space is cramped, and emotions run high. While some crewmates will admire your approaches, others will start to question your orders or develop jealousy towards your position and as moods start to fluctuate, it’s your responsibility to ensure that as many people as possible survive until rescue arrives.

There’s more complexity to the systems in 60 Parsecs! than were on show in 60 Seconds!, with characters possessing various skill levels in certain areas such as intelligence and agility and being given the chance to improve these abilities with practice. There’s also the option to craft and improve items based around your stash of components, and you’re able to send survivors out on expeditions whenever you would like. Rather than feeling like a straight-up reading and reacting experience like 60 Seconds!, it feels like 60 Parsecs! is looking to give the player a little more agency and more of a feeling of control over their predicaments. However, it does still feel like a lot of days start to become a routine of reading through updates and crew statuses, waiting for the next big event to happen.

60 Parsecs! does contain a number of seemingly random events and encounters for the player to uncover, with some occurring as one-off events and some developing into fairly lengthy multi-level quests. The majority of them require certain pieces of equipment to activate or proceed in, or the sacrifice of a certain number of rations, so there’s always a gamble regarding the worthwhileness of pursuing a narrative when weighed against the potential harm it m    ight do to the survivability rates of your crew. There’s often a decent payoff waiting at the end of these arcs, but the question often needs to be asked about whether your team will live long enough to see it.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty details, it feels like 60 Parsecs! is overall a better designed experience than 60 Seconds!, even with the additions that 60 Seconds! gained with the Reatomized edition. The initial 60 seconds of collecting items is smoother and more responsive, and the UI setup for the survival portion feels like it was designed more with a controller in mind, rather than the direct porting of mouse navigation that was present in 60 Seconds!. It definitely feels like Robot Gentleman evolved their approach for this sequel, and there’s a level of confidence in the approach in 60 Parsecs! that elevates the experience over its predecessor.

That’s not to say that all of my issues with the first game have been resolved, however. At the core, the experience of both games is the same, and that leads to some reservations that spread through both titles. Firstly, 60 Parsecs! isn’t the kind of game that I can see myself playing over and over, instead picking it up now and then for a playthrough when the mood strikes. While there’s enough variety between the events that pop-up, the core experience is similar enough that it does start to feel like you’re playing through the same parts over and over again. This is partly added to by the fact that although some of the stories are entertaining while in the middle of their narratives, they’re not exciting enough to stick with you once the game is shut off, and so there isn’t enough to discern one playthrough from another once all is said and done. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough emergent gameplay to make the experience feel like your own, and rather you’re being told a similar story by the same person time and again, just with slightly different beats.

However, much like people return to their favorite stories time and again, it feels like 60 Parsecs! would be a decent option to have on your hard drive for when the mood strikes. Alongside 60 Seconds!, it’s an experience that is difficult to find elsewhere in gaming, and so I can see myself returning to it now and then to see if I can make it out the other side with an extra crewmate or with better relations with a planet’s native inhabitants. I don’t think that 60 Parsecs! is ever going to be a game that gets my heart racing, but it’s a decent way to spend an hour or two on the couch in an evening.

60 Seconds! Reatomized Review – Xbox One

I’ve always enjoyed choose-your-own-adventure stories due to the fact that while they have an established structure, you’re able to choose which branch you wish you take, giving you the sensation of having some control over where the story is going. In truth it’s all been predetermined, and the ending of each story has already been laid out long before you’ve even opened the cover for the first time. 60 Seconds! Reatomized goes a step further by allowing the player to set themselves up for success before starting the story by collecting supplies, extra characters and even weapons to give them the best chance of choosing optimal outcomes before plunging them into a bunker and asking them to outlive the apocalypse.

There are two main sides to 60 Seconds! Reatomized: the mad dash for supplies (which is where the 60 seconds comes from) and the long, slow struggle to survive that comes once the bombs have dropped. These two segments feel distinct as well, with the first coming as a 3D-modelled rampage around a house, picking up items and people and transporting them to a bunker, and the second playing out more like a storybook, with a 2D illustration of the survivors and their supplies and text-based updates on developments from the previous day’s activities and the choices available to you in the present. You’ll likely be spending a lot more time in the second section than the first, although there are options to solely play either part, with challenges based around each awarding new visual designs for items and characters if successfully completed.

Once you’re in the bunker, you’ll be responsible for managing the hunger, thirst and sanity of the occupants, as well as dictating if and when they’ll be venturing out to look for supplies. There’s also a relatively large pool of seemingly random events for the game to draw from as well, such as a cat showing up at the door of the bunker, a group of wanderers moving in down the road or youths hammering on the door in the middle of the night. These often add a dash of humor to proceedings as there are typically mild references to pop culture within the stories, and I was surprised by how long some of these side stories last and some of the twists and turns that their narratives take. Quite of a few of them require the use of availability of a particular item to either activate or proceed, which is why it can be important to grab items other than just food or water during those initial 60 seconds.

There’s an inherent risk/reward structure to 60 Seconds! Reatomized and it’s not always 100% clear just how dangerous a situation might be when it first arises. There are initial concerns such as whether to feed someone today or ask them to hold off until tomorrow, which can cause you to miss your chance should a story beat come up in the interim. There’s also the danger in letting someone leave the bunker for supplies: they might come back with food, water or a decent survival tool, but they also might not come back at all. This will save on food and water for the other survivors, but it also leaves you a person down when action needs to be taken. 60 Seconds! Reatomized is all about balancing priorities, and it can become surprisingly intense, especially if you start to take ownership over the family and begin to develop attachments.

A typical run-through of 60 Seconds! Reatomized will land around the 30-minute mark, depending on how long your family survives for and how long you take to agonize over some of the more challenging scenarios. There are certainly sections that you will breeze through as well, reading the updates and assigning food and water without needing to pay too much attention to what you’re being told. However, come the end of a session, you won’t necessarily be in a better position to succeed the next time through as you were before you started. Due to the randomized nature of both item placement and scenario selection, it’s not like subsequent playthroughs of 60 Seconds! Reatomized allow you to exercise skills that you learnt in prior attempts, as you might still be missing a particular item, or it may have already been required in a prior scenario.

60 Seconds! Reatomized isn’t the kind of game that you’ll sit down with for an entire evening playing over and over, as each run-through feels like its own distinct experience. This is the kind of game that you’ll keep installed on your console to play through every now and then, running into new events and new challenges and seeing how well you do before putting it down again. There’s enough content here to keep that pattern of play up for quite some time, with the number and difficulty of challenges giving even the most experienced players a reason to return. I’m not sure if 60 Seconds! Reatomized ever really does enough for it to truly stick with me, however, but it was an enjoyable, if stressful, distraction each time I booted it up for another attempt at surviving a nuclear holocaust.

FIFA 21 Review – Xbox Series X

One of the things that I miss most about living in England was the ability to frequently go to live football matches on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening. Ironically though, living in North America actually allows me to watch more football than ever before, thanks to streaming services and strange licensing laws surrounding football in the UK. Consuming so much football through the medium of television has given me a greater appreciation for what FIFA 21 is trying to do in terms of presentation, especially when it comes to the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 versions of the game.

While some cross-generational titles have released updates to already existing titles to improve visuals or framerates, FIFA 21 for the next generation of consoles has been released as a (free to existing owners) separate title to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 games. While this means that EA Sports has been able to tweak the FIFA match engine and overall back-end of the game to take advantage of the increased power of the newer consoles, it does also mean that the player base has been split, with the majority still playing on older machines. While for most game modes this doesn’t have too much of an effect, I did find that for a few of the lesser populated modes I was jumping back to previous gen in order to quickly find a game. This will certainly change as the number of owners of newer consoles grows, but it’s a worthwhile practice to perhaps include both versions installed on your hard drive, especially if you like to play some of the more niche modes in Ultimate Team, as this progress moves back and forth between generations.

As an overall package, though, next-gen is easily the best place to play FIFA 21 for a number of reasons. The most impactful, but perhaps least exciting, reason is the near-eradication of load times throughout the entire game. While you will still have to wait a number of seconds to find an opponent in online modes, getting into an actual game takes a couple of seconds at most. Funnily enough, when playing online in Ultimate Team this initially caused me a bit of a shock. In previous incarnations you were able to view your opponent’s team while waiting for the game to start, allowing you to identify any weaknesses in their team or any players that might prove particularly troublesome to play against. On Xbox Series X though, the game loads so quickly that this particular screen shows for a couple of seconds at most before you’re transported into the game. It’s a similar story in Career Mode, where either practices or full games are started almost as soon as you press the corresponding button. If you play a lot of FIFA 21, these small differences will soon add up to save you a lot of time, and I certainly had a lot less time to check my phone between games.

Career Mode is one area of the game that has had a number of changes made in FIFA 21 regardless of generation, and I wanted to take a couple of moments to comment on how much I feel the experience has improved. It feels a lot closer to a full management simulator now, albeit remaining on the lighter side when compared to something like Football Manager. While there’s still a lot of the DNA from previous Career Modes remaining, tweaks to systems such as training and the presentation of the calendar have gone a long way to making it feel like you have an actual itinerary as a manager. Players also suffer if they don’t play, as they start to develop a lack of match sharpness which negatively impacts their stats and similarly, if you train players too hard in an attempt to make them better it comes at a cost of their fitness. Match options have improved as well: instead of just having the option to play the entire match or leave the result to the lottery of simulating the result, you now have the ability to simulate the match but watch as it progresses, with the ability to jump in hands-on if things start to go awry. Career Mode feels like it has been neglected in recent years in favor of more lucrative modes such as Ultimate Team, but these changes make the entire experience feel like it has a little more meat on the bones, making for a more attractive proposition.

Speaking of Ultimate Team, a number of changes have been made to the overall functionality here as well. There seems to be more focus on delivering a longer through line to the experience, with an increased number of longer-term objectives and the ability to improve and customize your own personal stadium. From the music played when a goal is scored to the color of the seats in the stands, you’re able to make your stadium your own and create your own fortress if you feel so inclined. There also seems to have been an effort made on EA Sports’ part to try and reduce the number of instances in a game that allow one player to grief another. While celebrations are still unskippable by the opposition player, a number of other meaningless animations have been removed or made skippable by both parties, which not only reduces the ability for toxic players to artificially extend the length of a game, but also means that the whole experience flows a lot better than it did before. One strange addition to the next-gen versions, though, is the inclusion of an animation when a winning goal is scored towards the end of the game, which goes on for far longer than any other cutscene. It’s a neat thing to see the first time it happens, but after one or two views it becomes more of an inconvenience, especially as it also takes longer to skip.

Another reason why these cutscenes don’t quite have the intended impact is that despite the improvement made to player models, they still look quite lifeless once in motion. While it’s not quite as bad as the feeling from the identikit fans in the stands, there’s something about the expression on the players’ faces and their movements that betrays their digital nature. Despite this, some of the world’s greatest players look better than ever on the next generation of consoles and are instantly recognizable, be it in the new pre-game scenes or while playing a match. The improved lighting engine helps with this too, with evening games such as Champions League matches looking incredible with small details such as floodlight shadows adding an increased sense of realism to proceedings. When I was younger I remember uninitiated older family members enquiring whether the FIFA that I was playing was real football or not, and I have to say that in a number of instances, I think that I myself could be fooled by FIFA 21.

FIFA 21 on Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 reminds me a lot of the generational leap that was made with FIFA 14 when it released an updated version on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In terms of gameplay it feels like a generally similar beast, with crisper visuals, an overall improvement to player handling and tweaks to physics for both balls and players. On top of this, though, is the noticeable improvement to loading times that comes with this new generation, and that goes a long way to making FIFA 21 feel more seamless than ever. FIFA 21 was a worthy upgrade to FIFA 20 before the next generation update came along with the improvements that it made to gameplay and the overall experience, and the next-gen additions further enhance the value of the package.  FIFA 21 on next-gen is a small but worthwhile upgrade to the overall FIFA 21 experience and will certainly be my destination going forward for my virtual footballing needs.