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Returnal

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When I was a nipper, sometime in the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t so easy for me to play video games. Oh sure, I had a mate with a Commodore 64, and another with an Atari 2600, but those wankers didn’t like it when I lobbed over uninvited and kept wanting to play this thing called “sport’, which was downright baffling.

This was a few years before I managed to get a Nintendo Entertainment System, so if the urge to play games hit me – and it did, often – I had to go down to the local fish and chip shop to play whatever game they had. The game could be anything, Wonder Boy in Monsterland, Altered Beast, Golden Axe – whatever – it was frequently rotated and would almost certainly be a belter.

And it would always, always, be surrounded by a cadre of local teenage gronks, oozing with acne and adolescent disdain, standing at the machine, their twenty cent pieces piled high. You’d eventually get a game, sure, but you’d spend the whole time being aware of the skinny bloke with a rattail glaring at you, a pack of durries tucked into his shirt sleeve.

I mention this because the experience of playing Returnal is, in some weird ways, very similar to those formative pseudo pinny parlour experiences. Like the twenty cent-gobblers mentioned above, Returnal is a cruel mistress, causing you to start over again and again and again. And while you don’t have to deal with the bleary, piggy little eyes of Hendo and his mates, the barrier for entry is high. Perhaps, at times, too high.

Returnal is a third person shooter roguelike (or “roguelite”, depending on your definition) where you play the astronaut Selene, who has crash landed on the mysterious planet Atropos. As Selene, you’ll find you’re stuck in a time loop where you’ll dash through six biomes, fighting increasingly difficult enemies and die over and over again. And after you die? You start right back at the beginning. And even after unlocking shortcuts and new abilities, every death means a new slog to try and get back to where you were.

Hosuemarque’s slick sci-fi bullet hell is gorgeous, the graphics are superb and silky smooth, the gameplay addictive and finely honed. When you’re having a great run, everything feels so right. The haptic feedback from the PS5’s controllers adds an extra layer of immersion and clever, if minimalist writing keeps the story compelling. However, when you go for a forty minute run, get killed right before the boss and then have to start all over again, with very little of value unlocked, it just feels… cruel for the sake of it.

Repetition is clearly an important part of a time loop game, but would the overall package really have been made worse by being able to fast travel back to a new level once you’d unlocked it? Purists would say yes, but honestly, for this old time gamer, there’s a reason we stopped bowing at the altar of those cruel twenty cent hoovers, and adopted things like save points.

Returnal is a beautiful game, and those who have no fear of steep difficulty spikes and frequent restarts will no doubt engage fully with the impressive package Housemarque have delivered here. For me, though? I’ve spent enough time having ciggie smoke blown in my face by greasy monsters while I’m trying to enjoy a game session and Returnal just feels a bit too much like that. Plus, you can’t even get a chiko roll straight afterwards to soothe the sting.

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Resident Evil Village

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2017’s Resident Evil VII was a bold reinvention for Capcom’s long-lived spookshow series. Changing the action to a first person perspective, and delivering a story that felt like an even more demented riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other hillbilly horrors, the game was a tense, engaging triumph. Naturally, excitement for a potential sequel was high and now Resident Evil Village (VIIIage – geddit?) has arrived and despite minor flaws, it’s pretty bloody good.

Resident Evil Village puts you back in the shoes of VII’s protagonist, and man voted Most Likely to Injure His Hands Constantly, Ethan Winters. After the events of VII, Ethan has managed to make a better life with his missus, Mia, and infant daughter Rose. That is until his world is shattered, his daughter flogged, and he finds himself wandering the Transylvanian vistas of a very unpleasant European village.

What follows, in a lot of ways, feels like a bigger budgeted remake of VII. You’ve got a demented family, multiple members of which you’ll have to face in unique encounters, and a central mystery to decipher before it’s too late. The difference, other than the more gothic aesthetic, is in terms of scale. Instead of sickening Louisiana swampland, Ethan will be trekking across icy European environments, imposing castles, hideous dungeons. Instead of facing endless mouldy blokes, you’ll come across werewolves, leathery undead acolytes, bug ladies, cyborgs and, of course, an enormous sheila the internet is super thirsty for. It’s a huge array of foes, and it’s great to see such enemy variety.

Of course, having so many enemies means Village is more focused on combat than the previous entry. And, one wonderful sequence where you’re disarmed aside, this is absolutely an action-based experience. It’s Aliens, not Alien, which is great if you’re up for it, but disappointing if you were hoping Capcom would continue leaning towards more psychological horror.

Resident Evil Village is more of a carnival ghost train than a nuanced horror yarn, but it’s so effectively realised – and consistently tense throughout – that you can’t help but get swept up in the wild story, creepy atmosphere and surprisingly emotionally resonant conclusion. If you like your horror of the “balls to the wall” variety, you’d be an idiot to miss out on this Village.

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Nier Replicant

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Nier: Automata was one of the best games of 2017. A genre-straddling, fourth wall breaking, bullgoose loony trek through a robotic dreamscape that was at turns funny, sad, thought-provoking and jaw-droppingly odd. Polished gameplay, memorable locations, quality writing and unforgettable characters combined to create something truly unique.

Except, that’s not entirely true. See, Automata’s “uniqueness” was more due to the fact that it was the next evolution of an equally nuts – although in different ways – title from the same director, Yoko Taro, called Nier (or Nier Gestalt in some territories), which dropped in 2010.

The game did not do spectacularly, but it did manage to gather a loyal cult following, which helped Automata’s release no end. So, the good people at Cavia and Square Enix have dusted off Nier, prettied it up, added some new gear and released it as Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… so, uh, we’re just going to call it Nier Replicant.

Nier Replicant is the story of a brother and sister. The sister is Yonah, the brother is the player-named main character. In the beginning, you’ll look for a cure for Yonah’s disease, go on a bunch of fetch quests, fight shadowy ghosts called Shades and get into various shenanigans. Typical video game gear.

Then the game takes a hard left turn, and it never quite stops turning. Automata did similar things, but Replicant’s wild narrative shifts are no less engaging just because they’re expected. This is genuinely surprising, subversive stuff (that we will absolutely not spoil), and for fans of narratives that explore lofty concepts, and take risks, this can be thrilling.

That said, the gameplay is a little less accomplished than Automata. Even upgraded from 2010 standards, there are clunky elements here and for newbies to the series, Automata is definitely the superior option, mechanically speaking.

However, if you were one of the people who stumbled across Automata and were blown away by its wild twists and turns, you might want to give Replicant a spin. It’s a surreal, engaging, surprisingly emotional yarn that packs a wallop, even when some of its technical shortcomings make it feel a little dated.

Not quite the equal of Automata, it’s still something of a Nier masterpiece.

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Disco Elysium: The Final Cut

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How good is the Australian Government, eh? No, seriously, what an excellent organisation, full of forward-thinking, intelligent, perceptive individuals doing a great job in a cohesive, logical fashion. So, so good.

I mean, just look at some of the decisions they enable. Like the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) and their recent “refused classification” ruling re: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, effectively making it impossible for anyone with a console to play this popular RPG. Sure, the cynics among you will say, “isn’t it staggeringly short sighted to arbitrarily ban a game that has been available on PC since 2019, and if anything this decision just exposes the shortcomings of a blinkered, reactionary organisation that in an international online context lacks even the barest hint of relevancy?”

Further, you callous doubters might be moved to say something along the lines of, “and while we’re on the subject, what was the point of fighting so hard to finally attain an R-rating for games if the OFLC simply refuses to classify them anyway? It speaks to a system beset by inadequate planning and a fundamental misunderstanding of the various demographics who enjoy video games. Particularly in the case of Disco Elysium, which is a (mostly) non-violent game in which drug and alcohol use isn’t painted in a positive light at all, but rather used to explore a nuanced and intelligent conversation about self destruction and the nature of the self.”

And, finally, you grim misanthropes might be moved to utter: “And with Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, now fully voiced and with added quests and improved graphics and animation, this is the best version available of an already stellar game and it’s practically a crime that a cadre of unimpressive bureaucrats have been able to flex their tepid, inconsistently-applied powers and ban a deadset masterpiece.”

To which I, an ardent fan of both the Australian government and the revered OFLC, would say: “What’s your solution then? Create a fake account by using an American or UK postcode? Attach a credit card that can be used internationally (or borrow an overseas friend’s and pay them back) and then buy said game, download it and then switch to your Australian account to play it? Is that what you’re suggesting? An investment of time that would literally only take ten minutes and will ultimately have you playing one of the best RPGs ever? A tactic sweetened by the fact that you’ll be bypassing an absurd, alarmist and frankly embarrassing ruling?” Because if that’s what you’re suggesting, we of the FilmInk family could never condone such an action, no matter how quick and easy it may be.

In conclusion: thank you, OFLC, for saving us simple, easily-influenced Aussies from the tyranny of an all-time classic game with numerous paths, choices and consequences. And thank heavens it’s not actually staggeringly simple to circumvent your-definitely-not-borderline-farcical rulings. Cheers, ta!

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Outriders

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Day leads into night, night into day and yet another looter shooter launches in a messy bloody state. The latest title to do so is Outriders from developers People Can Fly (Gears of War: Judgement, Bulletstorm), and it’s a testament to the quality of the actual gameplay that despite the many, many issues, this damn thing is fun as hell.

Outriders tells the story of humanity’s exodus from Earth, which is cactus, to the brand spanking new planet of Enoch which is meant to be a paradise and a new beginning for humankind. Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way and after an engaging if cluttered opening, the player finds themselves in a very different world, harsh and brutal. A world where human fights human, roaming creatures fight everyone and a dark secret has dire ramifications for the continued existence of the species.

On the plus side, though, you’ll find yourself with newly minted superpowers and are now functionally immortal. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

Outriders is a fast-paced, third person POV looter shooter playable solo or with up to two mates or randos. Although looking like a cover-based shooter, the action is far more frenetic and will usually involve you getting up in your enemy’s faces to ensure you gain health back. There are four classes including Pyromancer who can flame on, Technomancer who can spawn turrets and the like, Devastator who is your classic tank class and Trickster who can manipulate time itself. Each class feels completely unique and evidently a lot of thought has gone into the implementation of powers and how they affect gameplay.

Put simply, Outriders is a bloody hoot. The shooting/powers/looting loop never gets old, even if the story – which starts promisingly enough – ends up feeling a little limp. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a pretty hearty recommendation, but at time of writing the game is a mess with server malfunctions, errors that delete your gear and numerous other little joy-sucking gremlins lobbing about the place.

Here’s our recommendation: give it a couple of months for all the kinks to get ironed out, and then give Outriders a go. It’s the game equivalent of a B-movie that punches well above its weight and a gory, bombastic blast to boot. It’s rough around the edges, and occasionally fairly stupid, but you’ll likely be having too much fun to care.

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The Outer Worlds: Murder on Eridanos

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The Outer Worlds was released in 2019, and on the whole, it was received very favourably. Developed with more attention paid to character and story depth than recent Bethesda entries – which was apt considering developers Obsidian created the much-loved Fallout: New Vegas in 2010 – the game sold well and was a decent-sized hit.

The problem with The Outer Worlds, though, is that it makes a great first impression and then starts to feel a little samey. Enemy variety, mission design and combat are all actually quite shallow, so by the time you’ve reached the end of the game you’re pretty much done and dusted.

About a year after the main game, the first DLC was released, and it was… okay. Called Peril on Gorgon, the unambitious yarn was oddly designed, quite repetitive and didn’t add anything of note. It was received with considerably less relish than the base game.

Now the second, and final, DLC has arrived and while Murder on Eridanos is an improvement on its predecessor, it still feels a bit like cut content flogged as DLC.

Murder on Eridanos has the player character (and crew) investigate the brutal murder of actress Ruth Bellamy, who played the iconic Halcyon Helen character on the space tellies of millions. You’ll lob over to Eridanos, investigate Rizzo’s beverage distilleries, check out the Purpleberry Orchards and get involved in some weird stuff involving mind controlling slugs, exploited workers and narky insects.

The DLC features the game’s ubiquitous snappy sense of humour, and a crime scene investigation device adds light puzzle solving mechanics, but other than that, it’s basically mildly reskinned enemy encounters between sections of a mostly entertaining story in the classic whodunnit vein.

If that sounds like we’re damning it with faint praise? Well, we are. Murder on Eridanos is a perfectly adequate bit of gear, but its lack of impact on the overall game means that it’s more of a diversion than a revelation. Considering the quality of Fallout: New Vegas DLC back in the day, it feels like a missed opportunity, albeit one with a few chuckles along the way.

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Little Nightmares 2

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Generally speaking, childhood is an unfathomable nightmare full of dark mystery and morbid misunderstanding. See, when you’re a kid, you don’t understand how the world works, don’t fully grasp the insidious banality that infects the human condition, so you tend to view things in the shadowy, mysterious manner of a creepy fairy tale.

Game devs, Tarsier Studios, know this only too well. It’s why their previous title Little Nightmares was so effective at getting under your skin and lowkey spooking you out. They continue this proud and rather morbid tradition with Little Nightmares 2, a sequel that maintains its predecessor’s quality but perhaps doesn’t innovate as much as one might like.

Plot-wise, Little Nightmares 2 is light on detail and heavy on atmosphere. You play a masked boy named Mono who needs to wend his way through poorly-lit, scary as hell environments, solving light puzzles under duress. Sometimes you’ll come across terrifying adult characters, all of whom want to kill you, and either flee from them or kill/trap them in some fashion. Shortly after the beginning of the tale, you’ll join up with Six (the protagonist from the first game) and she will assist you along the way.

Over the four or so hours of play, Little Nightmares 2 sustains a genuinely uncomfortable, eerie vibe that becomes increasingly twisted and warped, particularly in the final third. The puzzles themselves are serviceable, although occasionally a bit repetitive, and the ending appropriately dark, but it’s the little details and genuinely imaginative monsters that remain with you after the credits roll.

One creature in fact – a squawking schoolteacher beast whose neck extends endlessly like “Sweet Henrietta” from Evil Dead 2 – is easily the most disturbing creature you will see this year, certainly a scarier proposition than most recent movie monsters. So, if your loins are sufficiently girded for discomfort, and you’re okay with the relatively short length, Little Nightmares 2 offers a grim and disturbing look back at the dark side of being a confused, lost child haunted by things beyond understanding.

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

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Somewhere during the Assassin’s Creed series’ 20-something games, your humble reviewer found himself checking out of the series. Not completely, mind you. There were still highpoints. 2013’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was a good ‘un and 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was not without its charms, however the emphasis on janky combat over stealthy assassinations, of vast but oddly repetitive environments over smaller but more detailed locations, and the increasingly level-gated content, that all but required seemingly endless grinding (looking at you AC: Origins and Odyssey) put the series firmly in the “it’s just not for me” basket. It’s a surprise then, that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, despite suffering from some of the above-listed afflictions (but we’ll get to that later) has gone down as easy as a frosty horn of mead and a cheerful after-dinner pillage.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla tells the story of Eivor, a young (female or male, player’s choice) viking in AD 873 who leaves Norway to establish new lands in Anglo-Saxon England. Eivor is joined by bestie, and would-be king, Sigurd, his wife Randvi and a host of other Nordic chums, all with their own personalities and agendas. Over the course of the 60-something hour adventure, friends will become enemies, enemies will become friends and – of course – a mysterious ancient order of “Hidden Ones” will appear, giving the meta story its contractually mandated due. The thing is, the story is a really good one. Eivor is an intriguing lead and the RPG-light style of choices with consequences you’ll come across, add a new layer of player agency to the proceedings. This means, you’ll likely find yourself genuinely invested in the story, particularly in the relationship between Eivor and Siguard, a pairing that in true Shakespearean tradition, appears doomed from the beginning thanks to an early prophetic dream. In fact, the experience of playing the game feels a bit like binging a season of a surprisingly decent historical drama, even if some of the beats are a tad predictable.

In practical terms, Valhalla’s combat feels more grounded than Odyssey, with a pleasing sense of brutality and viciousness that feels appropriate for the subject matter. As vikings, you will pillage monasteries, burn enemies’ houses and flog anything shiny that isn’t tied down, which at the very least is a little morally ambiguous. You’ll forge alliances with various factions in England, performing tasks and solving problems, and slowly upgrade your homebase as you seek more and more power. It’s engaging, exciting stuff, which is somewhat undone by the ubiquitous Ubisoft second act that just drags on a bit too long. Other less than positive wrinkles are the bugs that, while tolerable, feel a bit out of place in a full price AAA game. Nothing breaks immersion like watching your horse fly off into the distance like a rapidly deflating equine dirigible.

Still and all, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a big return to form for the series. A fascinating period of history gorgeously realised in a massive, expansive – but nuanced – environment with a solid story and intriguing characters. If you’re even vaguely interested in viking culture, and can handle a bit of grit and gore, Valhalla is a worthy longship ride into glory.

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope

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Creating a game that becomes a huge hit is a blessing and a curse. Just ask Supermassive Games, who are responsible for the very unexpectedly successful Until Dawn. See, Until Dawn gave players the chance to essentially direct their own slasher movie, attempting to save the likable characters, to kill the annoying ones and see what impact their decisions would have. It was a hoot of a game, particularly effective when played half drunk with your mates peppered around the loungeroom, and it was inevitable more of the type would be made. The first of these “Dark Pictures Anthology” games was Man of Medan, which had its moments but was undone by a rather pedestrian third act twist. The latest iteration is Little Hope and while it has its charms, unfortunately it’s not quite the classic it needs to be to get this series back on track.

Little Hope tells the tale of five characters who, after a bus crash, find themselves trapped in the creepy hamlet from which this game gets its name. Little Hope is a town with a dark past, involving witch trials, murder and all manner of macabre shenanigans, many of which you’ll experience as flashbacks, jump scares and dream sequences. This is prime material for a horror yarn, and the early minutes of the game are intriguing, however, as the story wears on, a lack of structure and identity creep in.

Until Dawn worked because it was mostly set in a creepy abandoned ski resort and large house. Man of Medan worked (up until the end at least) because it was mostly taking place on an abandoned boat. Little Hope has some good moments, but utilising a whole town in the context of a story like this feels too vague and formless. Similarly, the voice acting feels oddly disengaged and inconsistent, with even good actors like Will Poulter sounding wooden and listless in their delivery.

That’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had in Little Hope. Remember that loungeroom with your mates scenario? That remains delightfully fun, you can even do online co-op which is dandy with a headset handy. However, a game like this shouldn’t require the addition of boozy sarcasm to be fun or scary, and sadly, it’s just not all that engaging a narrative.

Visually gorgeous, sonically okay, occasionally spooky but just too inconsistent, Little Hope is serviceable but more of a reminder of the lighting-in-a-bottle experience that was Until Dawn.

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Watch Dogs: Legion

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Tell you what, there must have been some champagne corks a-popping over at Ubisoft HQ when Cyberpunk 2077 was delayed yet again. The latest (and hopefully final) delay has shoved CD Projekt Red’s insanely anticipated title back to December 10, from a much-touted November 19 launch day. That means that November of this hell year of 2020 has just one plucky cyberpunky game on the block, and that game is Watch Dogs: Legion.

The Watch Dogs series has always been an odd duck, brimming with potential that has never entirely been realised, but with Legion – set in the near-future in an Orwellian London – they’ve definitely had a red hot go this time around and created the best title in the series so far.

Watch Dogs: Legion tells the story of the London branch of hacktivist group, DedSec. In the opening minutes of the game, the group is almost completely destroyed and blamed for a savage act of terrorism. Since that day, security group Albion has turned London into a police state and it’s up to the loosely affiliated remains of DedSec to set things right, using their hacking skills, combat abilities and Pommy accents so broad they’d make Dick Van Dyke blush.

Watch Dogs: Legion’s story, while seasoned with a pinch of future dystopia ala Black Mirror, is still very much business as usual. You’ll have enemies to vanquish, computers to hack, civilians to convert and loads of busywork to complete. The gameplay, too, while engaging on a minute by minute basis isn’t exactly revolutionary. No, what sets Legion apart from other Watch Dogs titles is that you can recruit and then control any and every NPC that wanders around in the game’s massive map. Just think about that for a second: Every. Single. NPC. You see someone you like the look of, or scan them and realise that their skills will be useful, you can chat with them, do a short mission for them and then assume control of them, swelling the DedSec ranks with skills that are useful in certain situations, or perhaps you just thought their trousers were nice.

For instance, you recruit a tradie so you never get questioned when walking around a building site. Or perhaps you recruit a tidy fighter, if you need to get all kicky-punchy with some folks. Or a gun nut. Or a lady who can summon a construction drone you can ride like a hoverboard. Or a bloke who has weaponised cyber bees (no kidding, this actually exists). It’s impossible to overstate what a seismic shift this mechanic represents, and the near-endless options it gives you in accomplishing your goals.

Of course, playing as anyone diffuses the already overly familiar story, and it also means that most characters sound the same, which is unfortunately all a bit “oo-er guvna, let’s smash the system and ‘ave some fish and chips, by crikey”. It’s also a little hard to take the frothing anti-capitalist banter seriously when the Ubisoft store has a perpetually tumescent prompt, swollen with its desire to separate the player from their hard earned dosh.

Still and all, wonky dialogue and corporate greed aside, Watch Dogs: Legion took a big risk with its recruitment mechanic and it’s certainly paid off. And while it’s not a perfect game, and one wishes Ubisoft would push the narrative envelope a little harder, it’s a memorable, engaging romp through near-future London with oodles of systems to muck about with and trouble to start against the forces of oppression. So if you want to scratch that cyberpunk itch, and enjoy a memorable game in its own right, Watch Dogs: Legion has you covered. So quicksticks ‘op on this one and take back London, innit!

 

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