I can often take months (or years…) to complete game campaigns, so finishing a campaign just 10 days after a game’s launch may actually be a speed record for me!
While I have played most of the Borderlands series, I’ve never played the Assault on Dragon’s Keep DLC for Borderlands 2 that inspired Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. So I had limited knowledge of what I was in for, beyond that the usual staples of humour, loot, and eccentric randomly-generated-guns would receive a tabletop twist.
This guess was correct, but I found that Wonderlands was a larger, denser, and even funnier game than I was expecting. Unfortuately, it was also a buggier game than I was expecting. But let’s talk about what Wonderlands is aiming for first, before going into specifics.
The context of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is that people inside the Borderlands universe play a tabletop game named ‘Bunkers & Badasses’. After travellers Valentine, Frette, and the Newbie crash their spaceship into a mountain, Tina lets the stragglers rest in her house until they’re rescued… but only if they play ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ with her.
The gameplay of Wonderlands takes place inside that round of ‘Bunkers & Badasses’. You play as the Newbie, who is controlling the main character of the ‘Bunkers & Badasses’ match, while Tina is the bunker master in control of the story, and Valentine and Frette act as the Newbie’s advisors. This structure gives the game chance to experiment with the usual Borderlands style and gameplay, while also leaving lots of room for messing with the fourth wall and packing the game with an even wider range of references and shout-outs than usual. So far I’ve found side-quests that reference media as far apart as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Smurfs, and Don Quixote.
Today I’m doing something a little bit different, and posting a group of mini-reviews rather than one more detailed review.
These games are linked by a common theme; they are all indie games with an accessible nature and a generally light-hearted and innocent tone. They are all what the internet generally calls ‘wholesome’.
So if you’re interested in skateboarding birds, fashionable dogs, or a bouncy Peggle-styled dungeon-crawler, please read on.
My first ever FPS was Call of Duty: Black Ops, and my favourite FPS is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. So as soon as I learned that Black Ops: Cold War was a direct sequel to Black Ops that returned to the tone and focus of the start of the series, I really hoped to enjoy it.
The majority of Cold War is business as usual for the “boots on the ground” type of COD games, and gameplay is mostly the familiar COD blend of corridor-shooter sections, setpiece spectacles, and vehicle segments. However, Cold War had more stealth elements than I remember previous games having, such as a mission where you must sneak into someone’s house to plant an item and so need to listen to the environment and family chatter to successfully avoid the target and his family. The stealth peaks with a mission that involves inflitrating KGB headquarters, which requires consistent caution – both in where you go and in how you talk to NPCs – for 90% of the mission, but then pays off with an explosive final 10%.
Where Cold War tries something new is in its campaign, which steps away from the linear A>B path of most COD games. The first and final missions are locked in place, but the rest can be done in any order, and can be replayed to complete side objectives that unlock once you’ve collected and decrypted evidence from other missions. (You can attempt the side missions without collecting enough evidence, or without solving the decryption puzzles, but this is very unlikely to succeed). Cold War is structured around using an evidence board to decide your team’s next moves and identify where the villain, near-mythical Soviet spy Perseus, is, and I found that this approach worked surprisingly well.
Much to my surprise, Rainbow Six Extraction has been my most-played game this week. Given my woeful track record with games that require stealth, including Rainbow Six: Siege, I wasn’t expecting to play Extraction far beyond an initial curiosity-check. However, after a rough first few attempts, I learned more about how to approach Extraction and then began to really enjoy it.
Although Extraction was released in January 2022, it actually started life in 2018, as a limited-time event inside Rainbow Six: Siege. “Operation Chimera”, as the event was known, replaced Siege‘s usual realism with a mysterious alien invasion; this experiment recieved enough positive attention that Ubisoft developed it into a standalone game. As a full game, Extraction is a co-op PvE experience that applies the methodical and tactical nature of the Rainbow Six series to a horde mode similar to Back 4 Blood or the Zombies modes in Call Of Duty games.
Because Extraction is a spin-off from Siege, most of its components are familiar. Its graphical style and quality, its movement and feel, and its operators (characters) and weapons, are all from its parent game. Its missions are where its differences become clear.
One obvious change is that the contents of each mission (incursion, in Rainbow-Six-speak) are semi-randomised. While the map layout is constant, everything else is variable; from the type and location of objectives, to the squad’s starting point, to the mutations that add new risks or hazards. (I think its semi-randomised rather than fully procedurally-generated, because the enemy and objective placements have never felt illogical or broken.)
It’s a Ubisoft style open-world icon-hunting game, but you’re an armoured mega-shark with lightning teeth. Maneater certainly has an appealing premise, but does it have the substance to match? In my opinion, yes – once you put a couple of hours into levelling up and letting the weirder and more comedic sides of the game come out.
The core of Maneater‘s story is its framing device, which presents everything you see as the contents of a reality show called Maneater. (If you’ve ever seen a “dangerous jobs” show, you know what to expect here). The game’s story takes place over an eight-episode season of the show, which follows shark hunters in Port Clovis, a city containing everything from resorts to bayous to sunken nuclear power stations. Cajun shark hunter “Scaly Pete”, who is searching for a shark that belonged to his father, becomes the central character of the show during the first episode when he attacks a pregnant shark and loses his hand in return. While the show Maneater focuses on Pete’s quest for revenge against the shark, the game Maneater focuses on your revenge against Pete.
I don’t normally review betas of game, which is mostly because during the last couple of years betas have moved to being pre-order bonuses rather than actual open beta tests. However, the Call of Duty: Vanguard Open Beta surprised me, and not in a good way.
Firstly, I’ll give credit where its due. Vanguard does actually innovate beyond the typical COD gameplay thanks to its adjustable lobby size system (known as “Combat Pacing”). Instead of having specific small maps (or cut-down versions of maps) for 6v6 gameplay and large maps for big-team gameplay, each of the main maps can be played at different lobby sizes. Choosing the “Tactical” pacing creates a familiar 12-player (6v6) match, and the “Assault” pacing creates a 20-28 player match, while the “Blitz” pacing creates a match of between 28-48 players depending on the map. Players can choose to search just by mode, just by pace, or by mode and pace combined.
I think this idea is clever: firstly, it allows players to control how intense an experience they want in each individual gameplay session without fundamentally overhauling the entire game’s style and pace. Secondly, most COD games contain specific maps that are overplayed due to their chaotic and often-mindless nature (such as Shipment or any version of Nuketown) and other maps that are ignored or rejected by the playerbase due to being more open or only supporting slower-paced modes. In theory, allowing these larger maps to exist in a busier form, and these smaller maps to exist in a slower form, could be a great solution to this issue.
I bought Forza Horizon 2 sometime in 2018, when its upcoming delisting from the MS store was announced. However, it then fell deep into the backlog. After playing Forza Horizon 4 and finding that I preferred the original Forza Horizon‘s smaller scope and slightly more grounded nature, I returned to FH2 in the hope that it would be closer to its predecessor than its sequels.
Where it counts – the driving and racing experience – FH2 makes an excellent first impression. Its six locations across the France/Italy border allow for more environmental variety than the original game’s Colorado-inspired setting, and the dynamic weather system that brings in night races and rainstorms further enhances the game’s visual appeal. FH2 also improves offroading, giving players more freedom to tear across the map, although its delineation between driveable and non-driveable offroad areas is inconsistent – the same type of tree can be breakable in one area but an impassable, skill-chain-destroying barrier in another area.
FH2 contains the same varied event types and map extras as FH1, including drift zones, speed cameras, showcase events and smashable signs. In many ways it’s a great sequel – it iterates upon the successful mechanics of the original and also expands the vision of what the Horizon Festival concept could provide.
However, while I completed every single event of the orginal Forza Horizon, I was effectively done with FH2 by the time I reached 30% game completion.I appreciated Playground Games’ attempt to create a game that reached a defined conclusion fairly quickly for casual players yet also contained plenty of challenges, events, and collectibles for dedicated open-world completionists. Normally, that’s an approach I celebrate. But it just didn’t work too well for me in this case, mainly because of the clumsy way that Playground Games handled the story elements.
Before I discuss Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I should make clear that I am not its intended audience. I’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game, and I’ve had the minimum exposure to Disney that someone born in the 90s can possibly have. As such, I can only play and review MoM as a rhythm game, not as a Kingdom Hearts game. (I will mention the story later, however, because long-term KH fans will need to pay attention to this game’s ending).
MoM can be summarised as a controller-based rhythm game that takes players through songs from previous KH games in chronological order, including other spin-off games. The World Tour campaign features 140 songs across around 100 stages, and each stage is based on a location from a KH game. (Barely any Final Fantasy characters appear in MoM; its focus is on the Disney and Kingdom Hearts characters).
One of the most intriguing parts of MoM is how it approaches the core rhythm game task of hitting notes. The game’s layout during the tutorial and the early Field Battle stages suggests that its controls will be simple. Notes travel down the screen in three lanes, while three buttons can carry out regular attacks, so at first it feels like one button per lane is the way to go: LB for the left lane, A for the middle, and RB for the right lane. This works… for early songs on Beginner difficulty. After that point, the other mechanics kick in and make MoM about more than just memorisation.
The middle lane isn’t just for hitting notes, but also for jumping (the B button), aerial hits (B then any attack), special attacks (Y) and gliding along aerial strings of notes (holding B while steering with the left stick). Almost every button on a controller has a role in MoM, so remembering which button you need to press in any moment can be the most difficult aspect of the game to get used to.
When I saw the trailer for Rain On Your Parade, my initial reaction was “its probably like Untitled Goose Game, but with soaking items to cause chaos instead of moving items”. That statement isn’t entirely wrong, but it massively understates the game’s charm and character.
From start to finish, Rain on Your Parade is filled with creative levels covering a surprisingly wide range of styles for a concept that could so easily have been a one-note joke. Every part of the game fits together coherently, from the interactive start screen that acts as a pre-game controls tutorial, to the credits level that contains its own mini-games. It feels like a complete game rather than just a collection of levels. Even the world map contains hidden characters to talk to and secret areas to discover.
So what is in Rain’s world? As Rain is set inside a bedtime story, Cloudy’s epic quest to reach Seattle is filled with an eclectic mix of characters and locations. The locations include schools, beaches, moshpits, game development conferences, and desert canyons filled with lasers. Although Cloudy has to overcome rhyming villain Dr Dryspell, who wants to eradicate clouds so that he is never rained on again, they are helped along their way by a cast of eccentric friends. Some of these are typical adventurer’s mentors, like the wise old cloud, while others are more unusual; Froggie introduces himself by claiming to be the hero from “a famous 90’s video game”, and later recruits turret-wielding monkeys to help you on your way.
The first few levels of Rain are almost impossible to fail, as they are simply about getting used to the objectives system and how long the rain meter lasts. However, Rain quickly goes beyond its title and introduces new sources of power for Cloudy. Hovering over any bubbling liquid lets Cloudy rain down that liquid instead, whether its corrosive goo, coffee, cleaning fluids, or even petrol. Cloudy also gains new permanent abilities such as lightning strikes and snowfall, which can be combined to create even more chaos. To give just one example, snowing on people (hoomans, in this world) to turn them into a snowball can be followed with a lightning strike to propel that snowball around the level. Similarly, raining petrol in an unbroken line from a fire source lets you trail fire across the level and cause major destruction.
What do you get if you mix chimney sweeps, evil industrial tycoons, PG-rated toilet humour, and matryoshka dolls?
A charming and surprisingly entertaining adventure game.
When I first saw screenshots of Stacking, I was intrigued by its art style, but I was also unsure of whether it would actually be a complete game rather than an experiment. But once I saw that it was created by Double Fine, who have a penchant for making games that are both weird and enjoyable, Stacking jumped onto my to-do list.
Stacking‘s opening scenes lay out its setting and style quickly. The world of Stacking blends the familiar tropes of Victorian England and of early silent films. Cutscenes take place in theatre sets, accompanied by dialogue cards, piano soundtracks and film projector effects. Most importantly, every character is a matryoshka doll. This isn’t just a visual style, but the foundation of Stacking’s design.
Because protagonist Charlie Blackmore is “the tiniest Russian doll in the world” getting anywhere fast relies upon taking control of a chain of dolls, each one size bigger than the next, to get to the doll you need. (This raises some questions about how their consciousness works, how their anatomy works, and the weirdness of bodysnatching without consent…). Stacking into other dolls is essential because many of them have special abilities that you’ll need to access new areas and explore each level. Taking control of a railway maintenance doll lets you use his wrench to open an alternate route into a challenge, while taking control of a bird allows you to fly into map areas that human dolls can’t access.
Rather than relying upon convoluted logic or long sequences of causes and effects, each puzzle in Stacking has up to 5 smaller solutions to discover. In the first level, these can be as simple as bringing the right doll to the right place and using their ability. Later challenges bring in a greater degree of lateral thinking, such as stacking into the largest doll you can find to use their weight to move an object around, or using one doll to lure a second doll into a new location so that you can use the second doll’s ability. The last level also introduces ability combinations. One puzzle solution required stacking into both a doll who could produce water and one who could produce a blast of cold air. After going to the correct area and using the water ability as the water doll, I then needed to quickly un-stack into the smaller doll and use the cold air ability to combine the water and cold air into ice.
Three things that always catch my interest are reading, gaming, and coffee. So when I saw that Games with Gold was featuring a visual novel game centred on brewing coffee, I instantly downloaded Coffee Talk.
Coffee Talk was released in January 2020 and set in the near future of … September 2020. This version of Seattle is home to elves, werewolves, succubi, nekomimi, and many other species, but thankfully not to COVID-19.
As the friendly yet mysterious owner of a coffee shop that only opens at night, you attract all sorts of customers in a variety of circumstances. Over the course of two weeks in the world of Coffee Talk, you eavesdrop on, and help along, the lives of six characters. How do you do this? By listening, talking, and of course by brewing them the perfect drink they need for the situation they’re facing.
Somehow I’ve never owned a Tetris game before, so when I discovered Tetris Effect Connected on Xbox Game Pass soon after it was released, I decided to try out this version. The graphic style showcased in the screenshots and trailers seemed impressive, and the idea of head-to-head online matches appealed to me much more than experiments such as Tetris 99.
My first impression of Tetris Effect Connected was a little negative, purely because it seemed oddly pretentious. This was mostly due to its language and exposition; the campaign is called a “Journey mode” and is described as “a voyage of emotion and discovery”, while you are referred to as a “Guardian” whose job is to help save the galaxy from a negative void that’s going to erase existence. Leaving that to one side and jumping into the gameplay, however, quickly appeased my scepticism.
Its clear from the first information screen that Tetris Effect Connected aims to be an immersive, sensory-blending experience; its encouragement to equip surround sound or wear headphones “for maximum enjoyment” is presented with the same prominence as its photosensitivity warning.
This aim is reinforced by how the Journey mode is built to be near-seamless. After completing each stage, you automatically transition into the next one, while failing a stage resets you to the start of the previous stage rather than returning you to the stage selection screen. This approach feels like its designed to absorb players into a flow state, especially as the power-up mechanic is called “the Zone”. Once you’ve filled the Zone meter by scoring points, you can activate it to slow down time and hold tetrominoes at the top of the screen until you’re ready to release them. While activated, lines that you clear won’t vanish as they normally do, but will instead stack underneath the existing game board. When the Zone activation ends, all of those lines are cleared at once, allowing for not just the titular high-scoring Tetris (4 lines cleared at once), but an Octoris (8 lines), a Decahexatris (16 lines), and even clearing more lines than the game board contains at once (an aptly-named Impossibilitris).
Today I’m looking at indie game, and former Switch exclusive, The Touryst. One of my friends recommended it to me, as he found its free exploration and relatively short length relaxing.
Initially, I didn’t find it quite as peaceful, because the first thing I did was jump out of the arrival boat on the wrong side to see if I could swim in the surrounding ocean … I could, until I was eaten by a shark.
Once I respawned which let me quickly discover that there is no life counter and no major consequence for death, I began exploring the islands. The Touryst takes place across a cluster of small islands, which you travel between by boat. The boat being at the end of a boardwalk and accompanied by an ever-present Captain reminded me strongly of the balloonist in Spyro the Dragon, which added to the game’s nostalgic vibes.Some of the islands are inspired by real-life locations like Santoryn (Santorini) and Fyjy (Fiji); all of them are compact, colourful, and studded with secrets, mini-games and tasks.
According to TrueAchievements, I first played Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell in July 2015. While I’ve dipped in for a couple of co-op sessions since, it’s been on my “I’ll finish this eventually” pile for years. My plan was to spend 1-2 hours finishing any remaining campaign missions on and fulfilling any close achievements, and then to retire the game completely.
What actually happened was that I spent around 5 hours that evening finishing every activity New Hades had to offer, and unlocked the 100% activity ending. After my second evening of exploring, I had beaten up Satan, and collected every orb, book, and piece of audio commentary. Then I saved my progress and realised I was at 98% game completion…
So the day after that, I went for full 100% completion. It’s safe to say that Gat Out Of Hell caught my attention, and my time, much more this time around.
Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell is a standalone expansion pack that follows on from Saint’s Row IV. It features the same open-world gameplay and upgradeable superpowers found in IV, but moves the actions to a new location – Hell itself. As Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington, you must prevent Satan from marrying his daughter Jezebel off to Johnny. You do this by getting supernatural assistance from a cast that includes previous Saint’s Row characters as well as famous additions like Blackbeard and William Shakespeare.
Given that game reviews have accidentally become my most common posts on this site, I wanted to make sure I was doing them as fairly and as well as I possibly could. One part of this, for me, is figuring out how I compare games to each other. While I don’t want to get as granular as using a number or percentage system, as I think that I would then focus too hard on those numbers at the expense of looking at the individual games, I did want to add some kind of structure.
A more general tier or category list, that covers the most likely possible options without forcing reviews into a rigid scale, seemed like the best approach. While this will change in future if I need it to, the table below contains the rough framework that I’ll use for comparing games.
I’ll also keep a running list of games I’ve reviewed in each tier below – consider this post the meta-post for my game reviews!
Games that are so strong in design, gameplay and enjoyment that they offers an excellent experience to many different audiences. Games that are the pinnacle of their genre, or even the inventor of a genre.
Grand Theft Auto V
Games that offer a consistently great experience, are finished to a high standard, and have very few weak points.
Spyro Reignited Trilogy
Games that are just “good” – competent and fun, but not extra-special. e.g. games that are technically good but formulaic, or games that are enjoyable but not impactful. The default tier.
Team Sonic Racing
Games that had an interesting concept but executed it poorly e.g. technical or design issues made them difficult enjoy to their full potential, or promised features were missing on release. Alternately, very generic games that don’t have any new/creative ideas.
Games that are so novel, or so reliant on deconstruction or meta-narrative, that they are polarising. Generally, eople who like weird indie games /art games will enjoy them, while people who don’t like them won’t.
Games that offer little or no enjoyment e.g. shovelware. Or, games with such extreme technical flaws that they can’t be played/enjoyed.
Sometimes I first play a game years, or even decades, after its release. Other times I get partway through a game, get distracted, and then revisit it years later. Calling any discussion of a long-lived or dormant game either a “review” or an “impression” feels incorrect, so the more literal title wins out. (However, I’m going to use “finished” to mean “finished by my own standards”, rather than 100% completed).
Going from my first recorded achievement date in 2014, to completing the career mode yesterday, I took 6 years and 1 month to complete skate … somehow I doubt this is the worst offender on my backlog!
So how well did skate hold up? Was it still enjoyable in 2020?
Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey Remastered (often referred to as Letter Quest Remastered) is a word-assembling RPG where you defeat monsters with your vocabulary, your scythe, and bacon.
I was introduced to LQR by two of my friends, who assumed that I would enjoy its celebration of verbal geekery. I’m happy to say that they were correct.
In LQR, titular young reaper Grimm must battle though the foes who are blocking him from his desired treasure … pizza. Battling is carried out by finding words in a board of Scrabble-style letter tiles; your score for each valid word becomes damage to the current enemy, who then retaliates with attacks of their own. Each defeated enemy and completed quest awards Gems, which you use to strengthen Grimm’s selection of scythes and to buy skill upgrades.
Imagine flying a Wipeout-style ship along the musical ribbon from Vib-Ribbon, while dodging lasers, while playing a twin-stick shooter at the same time, and that almost sums up Aəero.
Aəero is part of a new generation of indie rhythm-action games that has sprung up since the over-saturated -Hero games met their demise and Beat Saber took VR gaming by surprise. It shares two foundations with other experimental rhythm games; a blend of various gameplay styles, and an aim of creating flow-inducing multi-sensory experiences.
The core gameplay of Aəero is balancing the duelling roles of the left and right analogue sticks. With the left analogue stick, players follow the ribbon of white light that traces out each song’s most salient melody. The ribbon can soar and fall with the singer’s pitch, or swoop and spiral to follow synthesizers and bass. For me, the most challenging songs are the ones which quickly swap between delicate adjustments and larger jumps or spirals. When the ribbon isn’t on-screen, players instead use the left stick to avoid obstacles and fly through narrow gaps in routes interrupted by burning lasers or crushing platforms. The right stick controls the aiming reticle, which players use to target enemies and projectiles, while the right trigger fires the ship’s laser beams.
As Dear Esther begins, the protagonist stands at the entrance to a deserted island quickly revealed as being in the Outer Hebrides. Behind the protagonist is a short concrete path leading into the ocean. I promptly walk them into the ocean (for science, of course). As a result I discover some of the island’s mystery within seconds of playtime. My screen fills with indistinct images and pulses like a heartbeat, while the narrator’s own voice whispers “come back…”, before the protagonist reappears at the starting point. After walking into the ocean again to see if any of the environment changed as a result, and only unlocking an incongruous-seeming achievement for drowning, I start to actually play Dear Esther.
While I’ve played other Environmental Narrative Games before, I’ve somehow never played Dear Esther nor had its story spoiled. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game that brought ENGs into mainstream discussions.
Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer was the first game I recieved with my PS1, and also my first 3D game, so this is a nostalgic revisit for me. (As it’s named Ripto’s Rage in the Reignited Trilogy, I’ll just refer to it as Spyro 2 here). It was also one of my favourite games – I remember enjoying Idol Springs and Crystal Glacier, and finding the summer and autumn home worlds incredibly peaceful. I don’t think my 7-year-old self ever reached the final third of the original game, as it was mostly unfamiliar. This time, however, I beat Ripto at 98% completion after about 13 hours of in-game time, then reached 100% at about 14 hours (blame the Fracture Hills level for that delay!).
The major difference between Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2 is revealed in the first cutscene, which shows off a more detailed story taking place across a larger set of worlds and also introduces you to allied characters who need Spyro’s help to take their homes back from antagonist Ripto.