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Vampyr

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Some years ago, before the zombie plague swarmed all over the zeitgeist, vampires were the monster du jour. They infested popular culture, sexily biting in books (Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls), fanging it up in movies (Neil Jordan’s lush Interview with the Vampire adaptation) and even taking over the telly (Joss Whedon’s beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer). One place these toothy mongrels didn’t have much of an impact, however, was video games. In fact, vamps haven’t had anywhere near the same cultural influence on consoles and PC. We’ve had, what, Bloodrayne, Soul Reaver/Blood Omen and Castlevania and maybe a half dozen other notable titles. Compare that to the staggering number of games where you’re battling zombies, demons or Johnny Foreigner. Vampyr seeks to redress that balance, and while it doesn’t always succeed it has a hell a crack.

Vampyr puts the player in the fancy trouser of one Jonathan Reid, a doctor who at the start of the game has just been transformed into one of the undead. The game gets off to a rough start, frankly, making you sit through two endless introductory monologues and an overlong, not terribly exciting starting section that will likely leave players feeling a bit lost. Persevere, because once you arrive at the Pembroke Hospital – the location that essentially acts as your home base for most of the game – Vampyr begins to show its considerable charms. See, Johnno is a vampire but he doesn’t relish the idea of feeding on his fellow man. This leads into the game’s darkest conceit. You, the player, can feed on any NPC in the game. However they’re quite often sick, something you can help with. Then, after you’ve applied the hippocratic oath, you can feed on the very patient whose blood you just improved. It’s super dark, and a little bit funny, especially when your killing has an impact on other characters and may even shut you out of potential questlines. You end up weighing the relative value of a human life versus how much you need that XP to improve your fighting skills in a boss encounter or similar. That brings us to the other divisive element of Vampyr, the combat: it’s just okay. You flit about the screen, using a club, sword or similar and augment your vampire powers, slashing with claws, boiling blood with supers and freezing enemies with a look. It’s not bad, you understand, but it’s a tad limited. For all the Bloodborne-esque gothic aesthetic, Vampyr is no Bloodborne and the late-game boss fights can become quite aggravating if you’re not sufficiently powered up. Essentially this means you’ll often consume humans out of irritation with the fighting mechanics rather than because of the story, which is a bummer at times. That said, the story is wonderful. Dense and detailed and certainly not for people with short attention spans, but the depth of the vampire world – with its factions and in-fighting – is genuinely intriguing and well written for the most part.

Vampyr is truly a strange beast. Beautifully realised environments, strong, interesting characters and a deep, fascinating story are paired with repetitive combat, some janky animation and hit or miss voice acting. You’ll definitely need to do some of the work to appreciate its finer qualities, but my goodness they’re in there. Vampyr is like a dense novel that takes a little while to get into, but is well worth the effort. It won’t be for all tastes, but for fans of RPGs that skew a bit goth, it’s something warm and appealing to sink your teeth into.

 
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Detroit: Become Human

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What does it mean to be human? What is at the very core of this strange state? Are we an accumulation of our experiences or do we have a soul, some other part of ourselves connected to something greater? What happens when we die? What is love (baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me… no more)? These are the heady questions posed in Detroit: Become Human and over the ten or so hours it takes to play through the story, they will be explored to varying degrees of success and subtlety. Actually, considering this is a David Cage/Quantic Dream production subtlety is out the bloody window, but there’s still a lot here to like.

The story is essentially divided between three main characters. There’s Connor, a police investigator android – or “RoboCop”, if you will – tasked with hunting down deviants aka androids who’ve gone berko. There’s Markus, a caretaker android who looks after Lance bloody Henriksen (!) and develops sentience, and finally there’s Kara, a robo nanny who wants to get a particularly dull child, Alice, away from her abusive father. All three stories begin small in focus and scope, but expand rapidly and eventually intersect in unexpected ways. Or not, actually, because after all this is a Quantic Dream game (makers of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) so there are a variety of different paths the tale can take, some good, some bad, some just plain weird.

Gameplay in Detroit: Become Human is more hands off than totally interactive. Oh sure, you’ll move your character around the map, and indulge in light puzzle solving, but the bulk of the action is related to the choices you make on behalf of the character on screen. The game shines in these moments – far more than in the frequently eye rolling quicktime events – and having the agency to truly shape the destiny of these (mostly) likeable characters can feel like a heavy responsibility, in a good way. Presentation-wise the game is just gorgeous. Sumptuous graphics, beautiful audio, mostly solid voice acting (except for Alice) and a glossy sheen over everything, really selling the sci-fi conceit and near future setting. Writing-wise things are a little dicier, with David Cage never content to make a point just once (you’ll lose count of the times one of the android characters says some variation of “I’m a slave!”) and quieter moments are rarely given a chance to breathe. Still, Detroit: Become Human is meant to be a blockbuster, not an indie film, and while more nuanced moments would have been appreciated, the swinging for the fences technique works in a stirring albeit blunt sort of way.

Ultimately Detroit: Become Human is a solid, pretty, interactive movie with insanely good production values and a very solid cast. In terms of overall quality it’s less an early Ridley Scott movie and more a Netflix Original, but for all of that it’s still an engaging yarn.

 
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Space Hulk: Deathwing Enhanced Edition

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Space Hulk: Deathwing is the latest attempt to bring the popular tabletop gaming experience into the video game realm, with typically mixed results. The premise is on-brand bombastic and kinda cool. You play a “Librarian” of the Dark Angels 1st company of Space Marines, a group of shooty-bang-bang blokes comprised of Terminators (not the James Cameron kind). This band of hard, gruff men are tasked with heading into a massive derelict spaceship called a Space Hulk (not the Bruce Banner kind) and clear out the deadset antisocial aliens that have infested the joint and made a right mess of things.

The setting is gratifyingly comprehensible. Warhammer games tend to skew more towards lifelong fans, featuring obtuse lore and dense worldbuilding, whereas Deathwing clearly owes much of its inspiration to Aliens. The Space Hulk is looming and imposing, occupying the mech-suited boots of a Terminator feels appropriately bad arse and your base weapon is a freaking enormous chain gun. The first couple of missions are quite a bit of fun, especially if you’re playing with friends but the game’s flaws are never far away. The shooting is serviceable but never particularly satisfying and the AI – of both the enemies and your fellow soldiers – is occasionally shockingly bad. The prolific number of times a friendly terminator interpreted my “kill everything” order as “walk directly into a wall and keep doing so forever” lost its charm very quickly.

The enemies, also, are a wee bit naff from a design perspective. That may court the ire of the tabletop gaming fans, but the creatures just aren’t terribly scary – they sort of look like mildly nonplussed garden lizards and fail to raise the heart rate even when they’re pouring towards you as a wave.

Ultimately Space Hulk: Deathwing is another swing and a miss for a killer Warhammer game, but it does offer moderate thrills for undemanding fans or shooter obsessives who have three mates on call. It’s unlikely to convert anyone dubious about the IP, but offers some light fun for those willing to overlook the patina of shonkiness.

 
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Dark Souls Remastered

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Everyone can remember the moment a FromSoftware game really clicked with them. Maybe it was in Demon’s Souls back in the day, perhaps one of the Dark Souls trilogy, or a nightmarish section of PS4 exclusive Bloodborne that finally pushed the dubious player over the pain threshold and into the strange, utterly compelling zone of total immersion, Zen-like concentration and frequent couch-punching frustration. So much has been written about this series now it’s become a memed cliche (“[X] is the Dark Souls of [Y]!”) to even discuss the game’s difficulty and demands placed upon the player, so we’ll spare you the usual spiel and assume you know that challenge plus amazing level design times dense, obtuse lore equals Soulsborne games.

While Dark Souls II has already been spectacularly remastered (with new content) in the rather glorious Scholar of the First Sin edition – and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III are too recent to need it – the original Dark Souls hasn’t been prettied up since its 2011 release; that is until this very moment.

Dark Souls: Remastered brings the full game and DLC to consoles (where it was desperately needed) and PC (where, thanks to modders, its a little less essential). So how does the now beloved classic stack up seven years later? Very well, but with some qualifications.

See, while Dark Souls remains an absolute pearler in terms of clever, intricate level design the actual moment-to-moment combat feels a little sluggish compared to the likes of Bloodborne or, more importantly, Dark Souls III. The third chapter in the Souls trilogy may not have been the mind-blowing revelation of the first game, but it improved the fighting mechanics to a spectacular degree and it’s a little hard to go back, at least initially. If you give Dark Souls: Remastered an hour or two, however, you’ll probably find yourself feeling the old magic once more as you uncover a cleverly hidden shortcut or triumph over a particularly dickish boss. Some minor quality of life tweaks (like being able to use multiple items) and improved multiplayer has been added, not to mention a mostly consistent 60fps on consoles, which is certainly a welcome addition. However, while the graphical improvements and tweaks are noticeable – you won’t be mistaking Dark Souls: Remastered for the beautiful-looking Dark Souls III anytime soon, which seems like a missed opportunity.

That said, console players on XBOX and PS4 (with Switch slightly delayed but still on the way) who are Souls fans should feel comfortable knowing this is the best version of Dark Souls available for their respective systems. And those who’ve never played the first of this iconic trilogy owe it to themselves to check out where the madness began… at least until the Demon’s Souls remaster. Please, FromSoft?

To slightly bastardise the aforementioned meme, Dark Souls: Remastered is the Dark Souls of Dark Souls remasters – consequently you should probably check it out.

 
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SEGA Mega Drive Classics

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I never had a Sega Mega Drive when I was a kid. I’d managed to whinge and cajole my way into a Nintendo Entertainment System and was more than happy with the result. However, it has to be said, the old Mega Drive had some absolute belter games on it and, short of nipping over to my annoying mate Trevor’s place over the weekend, I could only watch them from a jealous distance.

Happily those days are over now with the release of Sega Mega Drive Classics – a collection of 54 (!) certified old school gems. So how classic are these “classics”? Depends on a number of factors, really. If you played and loved the games as a younger person you’ll probably dig what you find. If, however, you’re fresh to these titles it’s unlikely that Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle will wow you with its depth or Streets of Rage will impress with its nuanced, Tekken-esque combat. These are titles from the 16-bit era and although they blew the roof off a couple of decades ago they don’t hold a candle to modern efforts.

Still and all, half the fun of retro gaming is looking back at a time when concessions to players and quality of life improvements were basically nil. In terms of the cream of the crop Altered Beast still works a treat (in a primitive side scrolling kind of way), all three Shinobi titles are pretty fantastic and the Golden Axe trilogy remains solid with co-op a welcome touch. Of course your mileage may (and probably will) vary, that’s another part of the nostalgia dumpster dive: your own past greatly informs your taste. The graphics are primitive, the audio thin and the gameplay often hilariously simplistic, and yet for all of that there’s something deeply satisfying about this trip down memory lane. And hey, this time around you don’t need to be nice to Trevor to play the games.

Suck it, Trevor.

 Certified retro gaming maniac Grizwords has helpfully compiled footage from all 54 (!!!) games. Have a squiz!

 
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Conan Exiles

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In 1932 writer Robert E. Howard created the character of Conan The Barbarian for the pages of Weird Tales magazine. Conan wasn’t just a scantily-clad barbarian bloke who liked to chop shit up though, he inhabited an entire detailed world with warring factions, religions and ideologies; a Hyborian Age of mythic adventure, blood and magic. Over the years Howard’s legacy has included good movies (1982’s Conan The Barbarian), bad movies (2011’s Conan the Barbarian), comic books and video games, which brings us nicely to Conan Exiles.

Conan Exiles is set in Howard’s Hyborian Age, and a fairly unpleasant bloody time it is too. You begin the game as a user created male or female character, left to die in the desert naked and alone. It’s a pretty great opening for an online RPG, and gives an immediate sense of the stakes. You’ll literally need to craft clothes to cover your dangling tockley or heaving bosom (both of which come in many colours and flavours, thanks to the prolific and slightly pervy character customisation options) and your first steps will be all about finding food, shelter and a weapon.

Conan Exiles isn’t here to fuck spiders, it’s a game that really wants to make you feel as if every poor decision you make will lead to your death at the hands of deadly fauna, starvation, the elements or other players. If you happen to die? Well you can respawn at your most recent sleeping spot, otherwise it’s back to the nude desert for you – sans food, gear and pants. That sense of grim consequence is appealing in a masochistic sort of way, however at time of writing the servers are a little wonky and losing hours of progress because of technical difficulties may have you cursing the name of Crom.

Another negative is the fact that without a friend some of Exiles can feel like a slog. The combat is unwieldy, acceptable but hardly Dark Souls, and the endless crafting, eating, sleeping and building grind can be tedious without someone to swap sarcastic comments with. That said, if you do buddy up trawling through dungeons and building more and more elaborate shelters is a lot of fun, and will help you look past the wonky combat and fairly frequent technical hitches.

Conan Exiles is far from perfect, it’s only recently out of early access and showcases a number of alarming bugs and technical shortcomings. However, if you’re willing to look past the lack of polish, and embrace this vicious, uncaring landscape, Conan Exiles may scratch a very specific itch. Conan Exiles is certainly not what is best in life, but it’s an intriguing and fairly original take on the survival genre and worth a gander for armchair barbarians.

 
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God of War

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By the time the credits rolled on 2010’s God of War III, Kratos – the shouty, chain-wielding, revenge-taking protagonist – was really starting to get on my tits. He’d become a one-note bore, a hyper-masculine, invincible douche bro who couldn’t stop blaming everyone else for the problems his own violent dipshittery had exacerbated over the previous couple of games. Worse still, he’d become predictable and just not that much fun to play. This feeling persisted in sorta-prequel, 2013’s God of War: Ascension, an otherwise excellent hack-and-slash adventure that felt inessential due to a protagonist who didn’t have anything new to bring to the table. “Reckon I’m about done with the God of War series,” I mused, and gave it no further thought.

Cut to: 2018 and the much anticipated release of God of War – a new entry in the series that acts as a sequel, reboot and reimagining all in one.

An indeterminate amount of time has passed for Kratos, who now sports a hefty lumberjack beard, and his chains are nowhere to be seen. When we first meet him he’s preparing his significant other’s funeral pyre, assisted by his son, Atreus.

Wait, what, son?! Kratos has children???

Yes, it seems our bald-bonced deity-slapper sprogged up and the experience has caused the former “Ghost of Sparta” to calm down a bit, and reflect on his past misdeeds. Although having children has caused your real-life friends to become unutterably tedious, the experience has improved Kratos no end. Instead of posting basically the same photo of Atreus over and over and over again (we get it, Charmaine, your kid’s wearing a hat! Sew adorbs, you guyz), Kratos is trying to be a good father, a positive example, and bring up a decent being in the world of Norse mythology.

A fresh pantheon of Gods and a brand new outlook aren’t the only big changes in GoW, we also have a perspective shift to behind Kratos’ shoulder, similar to the POV from The Last of Us. Essentially the game appears to take place in one long, uninterrupted take, which gives a sense of immediacy and grittiness absent from the other titles. The tradeoff here is that you won’t get the series’ signature zoom-out-to-showcase-the-size-of-the-environment/monster but it’s a conceit that really works. The story starts off with very low stakes, Kratos and sonny boy explore the strange lands to scatter some ashes from atop a mountain, and things build from there. Of course the plot twists and turns like a massive serpent, but I won’t reveal any of the specifics here. Needless to say, Norse mythology is a great belief system to tackle and by the end of the game’s 30ish hours you’ll have executed feats of daring and strength that are some of the most memorable in the series.

The biggest surprise in God of War is not how much fun the new Thor-like, boomeranging, Leviathan Axe is to use, because the series has always had excellent combat. Nor is it a huge stretch that Atreus is such a compelling character, because The Last of Us pretty much set the standard for non-annoying buddy characters and is clearly a significant influence here. No, the biggest surprise about this year’s GoW is how much you’ll care about Kratos. Christopher Judge turns in a fantastically nuanced voice and motion performance, with significant range. Combined with a clever, layered script and a story that goes to some genuinely emotional places, old bald-man-punch-a-lot has transformed into a fascinating character reminiscent of William Munny, Clint Eastwood’s broken old gunslinger from Unforgiven (1992).

In 2010 Kratos became a bore. In 2018 he is reborn and headlines what is probably the year’s best game so far. Put simply: if you own a PS4 of PS4 Pro this is a day one, must-buy title. Epic, exciting, visually splendid, violent and emotionally resonant – God of War is more than just an excellent, action-adventure reboot, it’s a Gods-damned masterpiece.

 
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Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom

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No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is the sequel to 2013’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Like its predecessor, Ni No 2 presents a fantasy world with the dreamy aesthetic of a Studio Ghibli film (although with no actual involvement from the studio this time around) and the result is as charming and whimsical as that would suggest. However all is not perfect in the playful realms presented, as Ni No 2 seems to want to ask: what if whimsical… but too much?

The story of Revenant Kingdom begins in the land of Ding Dong Dell where the evil-but-cute-looking Mausinger (a giant mouse) is in the middle of a coup to oust animal-eared little boy and heir to the throne, Evan Pettiwhisker. Roland Crane, a mysterious man from another world, saves Evan and the pair escape the kingdom, striving to create one of their own. The game then introduces you to an impressively large semi-open world you can explore and start to build your party and new kingdom where everyone will be happy and no one fights.

If that all sounds a bit saccharine, you don’t know the half of it. Ni No 2 comes off like a wide-eyed idealist or an earnest mate who necked one pinger too many, and although that can be charming it does grate after a while. This almost cloying sense of lightness also creeps into the gameplay, which while well-honed in terms of combat mechanics is also ludicrously easy, without a hard mode available at time of writing. Again, not every game needs to be Dark Souls but it’s hard to get excited about exploring optional dungeons for better loot when your bog standard gear is more than enough to take on even the toughest foe.

That said, there’s a solid little adventure here and while there aren’t quite enough fully animated cutscenes or fully voiced sections (which is weird when you consider how important the art style is to the title), you’ll likely find yourself diverted by this colourful, albeit slight, ephemeral journey. Taken as a fluffy jaunt through a child-like world of wonder and whimsy, Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is an appealing experience, just don’t expect much in the way of challenge or narrative depth, otherwise you might be unable to see the goods through the twee.

 
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Far Cry 5

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Why do people join cults? Is it a love of Kool-Aid and other easily poisonable beverages? The promise of sex with dozens of vacant-eyed acolytes? Or is it based on a genuine belief system wherein you – the cult leader – are literally in contact with God (or Gods) and have the answer to that whole pesky ‘meaning of life’ thing? Sadly Far Cry 5 does essentially nothing to answer any of these questions. Happily Far Cry 5 features a mechanic where you can rain down hellfire on a camp of cultists and then have a cougar sneak in and eat anyone still left alive.

Yes, Far Cry is back and this time it’s Murica! Far Cry 5 puts you in the boots of a sheriff’s deputy (appearance and gender lightly customisable) and the result is a great deal of absurdist, explosive – albeit narratively shallow – fun.

The game is set in the fictional town of Hope County, Montana, where an inexplicably popular preached named Joseph Seed has convinced whole sections of the community it’s the end of days, and everyone should follow his word to the letter. Joseph – who looks sort of like a sweaty, man-bunned Jared Leto – has brought other Seeds with him, including John, Jacob and Faith, all of whom are the bad kind of Seed. In your role as Rook (or Rookie) you’ll need to dismantle the operations of these siblings, amass a legion of followers keen on fighting these coiffed God-botherers and finally take on the big man himself. But will you be able to survive decimated Hope County? And, more importantly will you blow lots of shit up along the way?

The answer to that latter question is an emphatic yes. Far Cry 5 doubles down on the exploration/explosion conceit of Far Cries 3 and 4 and ups the ante even further, adding planes, helicopters and all manner of companion characters, human and otherwise. You’ll fight, shoot, hunt, explore and craft increasingly potent weapons as you battle the sinister death cult with the power of guns, guns, guns. Yee-hah!

You might think a game released in 2018, set in America, and featuring such savage bloodlust might actually take an ideological position on the story shenanigans, but you’d be wrong. Far Cry 5 is a “shoot first, think never” experience, which – while totally valid for disposable escapism – does rather stop the antagonists from resonating as anything other than names on your shit list.

A more relevant disappointment is the enemy AI, which seems to have not improved since previous Far Cry entries. Yeah, it’s fun to blast away at idiotic, directionally-challenged rednecks, but as Metal Gear: The Phantom Pain showed us, a smart enemy is far more satisfying to outwit.

That said, Far Cry 5 is a massive, gorgeous game and another step along the Ubisoft course correction path that (arguably) started with Watch Dogs 2, then Assassin’s Creed: Origins and continues with Far Cry 5.

It’s not deep, it lacks layers, but burning a scorching path through Hope County, particularly with a co-op buddy, is an undeniable hoot. Ultimately Far Cry 5 won’t answer the question ‘why do people join cults’, but boy howdy does it ever deliver a fun experience while burning them to the ground.

Check out just under 40 minutes of co-op gameplay footage captured by the mighty Grizwords:

 
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A Way Out

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What’s a better proposition in a game: a slick rehash of something you’ve seen dozens of times before, or an original but wonky experiment and a not-entirely-successful attempt at something fresh? That’s the question that is central to your enjoyment, or lack thereof, regarding A Way Out: a brand spanking new game released by Electronic Arts that is unlike any prior EA title.

A Way Out is a two player, co-op only, experience that puts you in the dirty shoes of prison inmates, Vincent Moretti (Eri Krogh) and/or Leo Caruso (Fares Fares). Vincent is the straight man, severe, serious and efficient while Leo is an absolute mad bastard with a nose for trouble and, indeed, a troubling nose.

Damn thing is huge. Like Cyrano de Bergerac-sized.

These two protagonists aren’t exactly the best of friends, but they need one another to escape from their prison and exact revenge on a mutual enemy. They will need to work together or rot in jail, a decision neither man finds particularly difficult to make. What’s unique about A Way Out is that you’ll be playing co-op with your partner for the entire 4-6 hour adventure. You’ll band together to escape from the prison (which should honestly have been called Endless Shawshank Redemption References Jailhouse), survive on the land and enter a final act that I won’t reveal, but is clever, engaging and unexpected.

That’s all the good news about A Way Out. Less successful are elements like the gameplay, which offers many options but most of them are a little clunky and half-baked. You most likely won’t care that a lot of your progress is essentially quicktime events and mini-games, because the story is genuinely compelling, but it’s worth noting that your fond memories won’t be regarding the driving mechanics or precision shooting. Because they’re workmanlike and functional at best. Like Telltale Games titles, A Way Out is all about the narrative and your interaction with you co-op partner, and when it works it shines. Hell, even when it doesn’t work it’s still pretty fun to riff on it with your mate.

Ultimately A Way Out is a bold experiment that doesn’t always work, but should be admired and appreciated nonetheless. It also sells for $39 bucks and only requires one player to own the game. The price is great, the game is good and the story is legitimately engaging. If you’re into trying new things, then buddy up and have a good time. Because in 2018 any game that isn’t a microtransaction-riddled mess with grindy, tedious busywork is something of a victory.