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Nier: Automata

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Years into Earth’s future humanity has buggered off somewhere leaving the planet to be reclaimed by nature and robots. No, you haven’t stumbled across another review of Horizon: Zero Dawn by accident, this is the premise for Nier: Automata, another action RPG set on an apocalyptic earth brimming with mechanical monsters and surprising secrets. Similar premises aside, Nier: Automata is a very different game suffused with a slick style that is gorgeous, quirky and extremely Japanese.

You initially play the role of 2B, a stern, blindfolded android lady who wields blades with much alacrity and seems to have a persistent desire to show off her g-banger via the medium of fan-servicing skirt flips. 2B is joined by similarly attired, emo schoolboy, 9S – who seems to be going through android puberty and follows 2B around like a puppy, occasionally attempting, and failing, to penetrate her imperious demeanour. If that all sounds a bit like bad fan fiction you’re not entirely wrong, Nier: Automata’s story ranges from silly to sexy to incomprehensible, but it gets across the line because of one huge factor in its favour: the gameplay.

Nier: Automata comes from developer PlantinumGames, who gave us the brief-but-fun Metal Gear: Revengeance, and those cats excel at combat. Every second you’re hacking, slashing, dodging and shooting your way through waves of enemies is fun and exciting. PlantinumGames also cleverly play with point of view, shifting into side scrolling shooter, top down blaster and a bunch of other quirky perspective shifts, including fourth wall breaking silliness. Nier: Automata is fun and odd and kind of feels like Bayonetta with its mix of sexy and slashy.

As the game progresses the shine does wear off a little, mind you. The robots are an initially fascinating antagonist and as the story drags you from one goal to another you begin to realise all is not what it seems. Then, just as things start to get really interesting, the game ends. And then it keeps going by switching you into the character of 9S. Apparently to get the complete “true ending” you’ll need to play through the game at least five times – plus there are 21 (!) other endings to unlock for the OCD completionists amongst you.

There’s nothing wrong with a heavy dose of weird, but one can’t help but feel Nier: Automata would have been better served with a more straightforward first playthrough. That said it’s hard to argue with the finger-twitching, fast-paced, utterly mesmerising combat and memorably bent characters you’ll run into along the way. If you only buy one game set on a post-apocalyptic Earth brimming with out-of-control robots this year get Horizon: Zero Dawn. However if you’ve room if your heart for two, Nier: Automata is a gleefully bizarre ‘bot-beater and well worth a look for those with a taste for the surreal.

 

 
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Horizon Zero Dawn

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In 2016 I began suffering from a condition the medical community have dubbed Open World Game Fatigue (OWGF). Whereas once I would explore every nook, cranny and other orifice in all the open world games I played, I was beginning to tire of the endless fetch quests and pointless busy work. The condition became acute during the release period of Mafia 3 – a game that forces you to piss fart about between main missions to an outrageous degree just to unlock the next bit of story! I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror and said: “Maybe you just don’t like open world games anymore, bro.” Then I sighed melodramatically and Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” played mournfully in the background. And somewhere, far off in the distance, a dog howled. It was quite a moment.

Cut to: this week and the long-awaited arrival of Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Game’s brand spanking new IP about a red-haired cavewoman fighting hordes of robotic dinosaurs in a massive post-apocalyptic landscape. Despite having completed the main story missions and a buttload of side quests, I find myself drawn back in to hunt yet another robot T-Rex or clear a bandit camp of undesirables. The love for open world gaming has returned, but why? What is it about Horizon Zero Dawn that succeeds where so many others fail? First, let’s take a step back and introduce our star.

Horizon Zero Dawn (henceforth known as HZD) is the much-anticipated PS4 exclusive from Guerrilla Games. Guerrilla have been quiet on the release front since 2013’s adequate-but-hardly-amazing Killzone Shadow Fall, and haven’t attempted a new IP since 2004’s Killzone. Nothing in the Dutch company’s history suggests that a sprawling, open world experience would be within their purview and yet here we are.

Horizon Zero DawnHZD tells the tale of Aloy, the aforementioned redhead, who is a skilled hunter and archer living in a matriarchal tribe at some far flung point in humanity’s future. A catastrophe has wiped out the majority of the human race and nature has retaken large sections of the world, leaving the ruins of the “Old Ones” (that’d be us) for those who remain and the robots. The humans now live in tribes, some peaceful some not, and technology is primitive and basic. There is a return to religion and superstition, and science is a barely-remembered dream.

So what was the catastrophe that ended life as we know it? How are there still humans left alive if said event was extinction-level? Oh and why are there friggin’ robot dinosaurs roaming the earth in herds, acting as both hunter and prey depending on their programming? Impressively all of these questions are answered in HZD’s 30-50 hour play time and answered well.

Aloy’s journey from a shunned member of her superstitious tribe to a lone wanderer to a fledgling heroine and beyond is a deeply satisfying narrative experience. Although the premise sounds goofy, HZD has a core of hard sci-fi running through it and the explanations for the world are both clever and thought-provoking. More than that though, HZD offers a world you’ll actively want to explore – a beautiful, often daunting landscape littered with dinobots to hunt, quests to complete, and ruins to investigate.

Horizon Zero DawnAloy is a likeable, capable protagonist who has a dry sense of humour and an acerbic attitude toward those who attempt to do her wrong. You’ll occasionally meet up with people from other tribes and help them, but ultimately Aloy is a loner and the game works best when you’re stalking a particularly vicious dinosaur through the tall grass on a lonely field or infiltrating a camp of savage bandits and taking them out from the shadows. Character skills unlock as you progress and by the end of the game you’ll be able to shoot three arrows at a time, summon obedient dinosaurs to ride like robo-horsies and slow time to make that perfect arrow shot. Fighting human foes is adequate but taking on some of the tougher robotic enemies is sublime.

One side quest that stays with me is the hunt for a particularly vicious Thunderjaw (aka robotic T-Rex) called Redmaw. Sneaking through the woods, with freshly crafted ammo, I decided to set a number of traps around Redmaw’s terrain. I planted numerous fiery wire traps, explosive wire traps and a bunch of smaller traps all across the landscape. My reasoning was: if Redmaw caught a glimpse of me and charged, the toothy mongrel would soon be a burning husk and I the cackling victor. I popped my head out of the long grass and launched a volley of arrows. Redmaw turned around and blasted me with its disc launcher, killing me in one hit.

Over the next dozen or so attempts on Redmaw I began to learn from my mistakes. Now my first move was to knock the disc launcher off and destroy sections of Redmaw’s armour, giving me access to the sweet spot on its metallic hull. The traps I set hurt the beast, but if I was nearby I’d take fire damage too, so I’d have to lure the metal monstrosity into the killzone from a distance. The battle was long and hard and sweary but eventually I bested Redmaw. The satisfaction of the kill was immense and I felt like a genuinely bad arse robot hunting lady and not a hairy man letting out a yorp of primal glee from a lopsided couch.

Horizon Zero DawnThat’s not to say HZD is without flaws, mind you. Melee combat is a little clunky and some of the voice acting is hit or miss, particularly in the first few hours. Plus while the quests and side quests are almost uniformly excellent, the tasks called “errands” are about as much fun as popping down to the shops for some milk. This is the kind of fetch quest nonsense that plagues open world games and it would have been nice if Guerrilla had focused on quality rather than quantity in those moments.

That said, the errands – and indeed the side quests – are totally optional. If you were to stick purely to story missions you’d still enjoy a hefty adventure. Plus it’s hard to argue with a game that gives you such a stunning-looking world. Honestly HZD may be the best looking video game of this current generation, looking utterly superb on my somewhat ancient telly and PS4 and giddily beautiful on a 4K monitor played on a PS4 Pro. I did experience a dozen or so instances of pop-in and texture loss during my playthrough but these kind of niggles are both brief and likely patched by the time you’re reading this.

Ultimately, HZD was a huge risk for Guerrilla Games; a new IP in a game genre they’ve never previously attempted. Happily, the risk paid off and Horizon Zero Dawn is an easy early contender for Game of the Year. More than that, though, if you too are feeling the effects of Open World Game Fatigue, HZD may just be the cure for that deadly affliction. Because Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t just give you a big map with lots of stuff on it, it offers you a world worth exploring.

 
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Sniper Elite 4

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Shooting Nazis is almost as ubiquitous a trope in video games as hearts representing health pick ups or red barrels being explosive. The average 30-something gamer has probably killed over a million on screen Nazis in their life, and that’s a conservative estimate. Frankly the whole thing had started to become a bit passe in recent times but then the world went fucking nuts and suddenly Nazis are back in the zeitgeist, and positions of political power, once more.

While that’s shockingly, heart-breakingly bad news for humanity it’s a pretty sweet deal for killing Nazis in video games, which brings us to Sniper Elite 4.

Sniper Elite 4 tells the tale of Karl Fairburne, an Office of Strategic Services agent who has all the personality of unsalted tofu but boy can he shoot folks. After Karl grunts through a fairly unexciting opening cutscene you, the player, are dropped into action in a sprawling map of Italy in 1943. Immediately the game distinguishes itself from its very linear predecessors by giving you options and many of them. Naturally sniping is the main focus, but you can also lure enemies into traps, drop crates on groups or even destroy trucks or heavy ordinance while a cadre of Nazis mill around nearby, creating hilariously nasty death traps.

When you make a kill the game switches to an X-ray mode so you can see the exact impact of your bullet, or other projectile, and watch it literally tear through organs, splinter bone and smash testicles. Yes, the series’ favourite iconic testicle shot is back and it’s even more wince- and chuckle-inducing than ever before. There is an immense sense of satisfaction to be garnered from setting up and executing a perfect scrotum-smashing shot, or popping a Nazi eyeball. It’s grim and nasty but given the nature of the enemy, there’s a great deal of catharsis to be had.

On the downside Sniper Elite 4’s story is a non-event. That’s to be expected to an extent in this kind of choose-your-own-path-to-kill title, but even a touch of character or Inglourious Basterds-style gallows humour would have been appreciated and made the wholesale slaughter all the more satisfying.

That said, Sniper Elite 4 scratches an ultraviolence itch in the best kind of way. The ten generously proportioned maps offer a wealth of opportunities to kill your foes in interesting, creative ways and a surprising number of co-op and PvP modes round out the package, offering decent multiplayer options for those who want to shoot their friends and co-workers right in the ballbag.

Sniper Elite 4 knows exactly what it is, and as a way of blowing off steam, or engaging in some splattery wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s a bloody good time.

 
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Nioh

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In 2007, back in the days when print magazines still wandered the earth proudly with little fear for their own extinction, I was tasked with writing the play guide (aka walkthrough) for a PS3 game called Ninja Gaiden: Sigma by talented developers Team Ninja. In essence, this meant I had to play through the entire game over a weekend, and write tricks, hints, and tips to defeat the various enemies and challenging bosses.

The task almost killed me. You see, Ninja Gaiden: Sigma is a malevolent beast that spurns your puny human skills and laughs at your attempts to beat it. I ended up enlisting the help of my flatmate at the time, and over a frankly unwise surplus of coffee and dearth of sleep the task was completed, but at great cost to sanity and the couch cushions, which were the recipient of many a rage-punch.

Cut to: ten years later. The memories of Ninja Gaiden: Sigma are dim, and the ‘triumph over great adversity’ narrative that accompanied the experience has been supplanted by FromSoftware’s “Soulsborne” games aka the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne. Then it was announced that Team Ninja, those responsible for that lost weekend a decade ago, were releasing their own Dark Souls-style action RPG, Nioh.

Just when I thought I was out… they drag me back in!

Nioh is an action RPG, played in a third person POV. It features large, sprawling environments that are filled with hidden shortcuts and treasures and is populated by enemies, any of whom can kill you if you’re not paying attention. As you kill foes you collect Amrita, which you can then use to upgrade various traits (strength, heart, magic etc.) but only if you make it back to one of the shrines dotted around the map. If you die before you reach a shrine your Amrita is left with your corpse. If you don’t collect it before your next death, you’ll lose it all. This is where the Soulsborne comparisons come from, and there’s no question Team Ninja has taken a leaf (hell, a whole branch) out of FromSoftware’s book.

That said, Nioh is far more than a Dark Souls/Bloodborne clone. For a start, the setting is Japan in the 1600s, with the main character based on real-life English samurai, William Adams. Naturally, the game plays extremely fast and loose with the time period, including demons, guardian spirits and magic use as plot devices, which is probably not all that historically accurate.

William will complete main missions, sub-missions and twilight missions on his way through a daft-but-fun story that takes him from England to Japan to the underworld itself. Along the way you can master skills with various weapons, ninjitsu, and magic, improving the frankly dizzying number of combat options and adjusting your stance, armour load outs and consumables on the fly.

Nioh is a game that demands your attention. It’s hard, yes, but it speaks a logical language. It rarely sacrifices established rules for an unfair kill and gives you plenty of options to upgrade and enhance your modes of attack. Find yourself getting too close to your enemies? Why not switch to spear. Blobby things from the deep giving you grief, try imbuing your weapon with fire, or chuck some fire bombs at the sloppy bastards. Bad arse, super-fast demon samurai boss wrecking you hard? Level up your magic and use the Sloth spell to temporarily slow him down. Nioh wants you to succeed, it doesn’t delight in your demise and for those who found the Soulsborne titles crushing, provides a more gradual learning curve.

The one downside to Nioh is the curious lack of variety, particularly in the game’s final third. Once you’ve mastered all the systems and mechanics, you’re essentially repeating the same ‘enter the new area, kill the baddies, maul the boss’ gameplay loop over and over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a damn fine loop, but in your 60-80 hour playthrough, you’ll rarely be surprised by the appearance of a scary new enemy type that changes the game completely, which is something Bloodborne achieved spectacularly well.

That aside Nioh is an absolutely phenomenal title. Engaging story, gorgeous graphics, slick animation (with options to knock it up to 60fps, which is a literal lifesaver in some of the tougher battles) and a genuine sense of accomplishment when you best a tough foe or insidious dungeon. It’s a bit of a one trick pony, but damn if that trick isn’t pretty excellent. If you own a PS4 and are up for a challenge, you need to own Nioh.

Just be ready to punch the couch cushions and drink plenty of coffee.

 
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Yakuza 0

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I’m walking down the steamy, seedy streets of Tokyo on a hot summer’s night in the 1980s. My goal? Panties. I’m tracking down the head of a used underpants (or “burusera”) operation, who happens to be a teenage girl. To find her I must approach random adolescent schoolgirls and ask them about their smalls. Even in a virtual environment, it’s… awkward. It’s at this point I raise an eyebrow and say, “Yakuza 0, you’re not like other games, are you?”

Indeed not. Yakuza 0 is the latest in the increasingly convoluted cult Yakuza series but takes place before the later entries, acting as a prequel. The story revolves around the entwined fates of Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza on the outs with his crew and Goro Majima, the exiled owner of a cabaret club. The pair find themselves involved with a bloody mystery that concerns an area known as the “vacant lot” which seems to be attracting an undue amount of trouble, including murder.

In practical terms Yakuza 0 is an open(ish) world brawler in which you travel around various fictionalised versions of locales in Japan, brawling with punks and ne’er-do-wells and taking on side quests, main quests, and fun diversions. These diversions should not be underestimated as you’ll literally be able to play pixel-perfect recreations of era-appropriate arcade games (Outrun anyone?), sing your little lungs out in karaoke sessions and dance up a storm in clubs.

The slavish devotion to recreating a specific place and era is commendable, however, one can’t help but wish more attention was paid to the gameplay in general, specifically the combat. Yakuza 0 is a couple of years old, which is an eternity in video game time. The combat would have felt clunky in 2015’s original Japanese release but in 2017 it seems practically ancient. That’s not to say it’s a total loss, switching combat modes on the fly and cracking opponent’s skulls on the ground is a hoot – but it lacks the fine polish of recent games like Nioh or the Batman Arkham titles.

The storytelling also feels a little dated, with lengthy, often unskippable cutscenes with subtitles (because there is no English voice track) and occasionally baffling acting choices. But here’s the thing: Yakuza 0 isn’t like other games and it quite honestly doesn’t give a shit if you don’t like that. Feeling like a mishmash of Takashi Miike-style ultra violence, mixed with absurdist comedy and over-the-top characters, Yakuza 0 is here to tell its story the way it damn well wishes to. It doesn’t care about your delicate sensibilities and really would be entirely okay if you buggered off.

The thing is, beneath the slightly impenetrable, slow first hour there is a really compelling, weird and engaging story to be enjoyed. If you’re a fan of crime yarns, and you’re willing to deal with inconsistent game mechanics and occasionally wonky graphics, Yakuza 0 might just hit the spot. Much like buying used underwear – it’s a niche proposition. It’s not for everyone, but for those who appreciate it – it’s a weird delight.

 
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HITMAN: The Complete First Season

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The road to Hitman: The Complete First Season has been a tortuous one. After numerous delays and a missed 2015 release date, the game saw its first content drop on March of 2016, but there was a wrinkle: Hitman was going to be released episodically.

Reaction to this news was mixed, to put it charitably.

However credit where it’s due, the first batch of content – featuring a number of tutorial missions and an assassination at a Paris fashion show – was quality and hearkened back to Hitman’s best entry, Blood Money, as opposed to the more recent, critically derided Hitman: Absolution.

The problem was the monthly(ish) release schedule didn’t exactly engender a sense of momentum or a strong desire to revisit the game. Once you’d eliminated the target or targets and played a few escalation missions the whole exercise felt a little half-baked.

It didn’t help that Hitman featured a baffling ‘always online’ mechanic that in the wifi dead zone of Australia caused progress-shattering drop outs with frustrating regularity.

Many players and reviewers (including this one) decided to wait until the game was released in its entirety. So that day is now and the result is… pretty good, actually, with a few caveats.Hitman: The Complete First Season features the iconic, bald, barcoded bonce of Agent 47 who travels the world, steals other people’s clothes and ganks fools in creative, often hilarious, ways. The puckish sense of humour that’s always driven the series is present and some of the methods of dispatch are genuinely clever. Impaling a charismatic, right wing dictator on a church steeple was particularly satisfying and ending an enemy assassin during an early morning yoga session was extremely memorable. Namaste, motherfucker!

On the downside the story has been stripped back to a bare bones sketch of a thing that honestly barely registers and inexplicably ends on a cliffhanger. Presentation wise there are flaws present too, with the character models looking similar and moving stiffly. Plus it seems like only half dozen voice actors were used over and over, which is particularly jarring when the same noisy American brays in Paris, Bangkok and Hokkaido.

That said, there is a genuine sense of satisfaction when you pull off an unlikely assassination and manage to get away, and revisiting the same six maps to wipe out tougher, smarter foes in escalation missions – and the excellent, PS4-exclusive Sarajevo Six content – gives the game legs it might not otherwise have had.

Ultimately Hitman: The Complete First Season is an experiment that works. It’s rougher around the edges than stealth stablemates Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Dishonored 2, but it has a unique appeal and dark sense of humour for those with a flexible moral centre and a love of sociopathic experimentation.

 
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Resident Evil VII: Biohazard

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Sometime over the last two decades Capcom seemed to forget what made the Resident Evil video game franchise awesome. It wasn’t the gunplay or action movie-style cutscenes, it wasn’t the increasingly convoluted narrative or baffling plot twists and it certainly wasn’t whatever the hell Umbrella Corps was supposed to be. No, what made Resident Evil awesome was its “survival horror” core, a foundation of suspenseful, creeping fear and clammy-palmed desperation.

As the credits rolled on my first playthrough of Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, I sat back on the couch and let out a deep, shuddering breath. Over my 10 hour journey I’d been clobbered by a seemingly invincible madman, stalked by a cackling lady who controlled insects and eviscerated by my own psycho ex wielding a chainsaw. I’d fought shambling, ink-black creatures in dank sub basements and solved devious puzzles in elaborate death traps and throughout it all I was tense, on edge and often genuinely scared.

RE VII wastes little time immersing you in its grimy, horrific atmosphere. After an incredibly brief cutscene you’re thrust into the first person view of likable everyman, Ethan Winters, who has received a weird message from his missing wife, Mia. Ethan has traveled out of the city to the sprawling, unkempt rural property of the Baker family, which has clearly taken design tips from The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Initially unarmed and increasingly agitated, you’ll explore the filth-encrusted stink palace, descending into the cellar and that’s when the horror really begins.

res1A big point of contention for RE VII has been the shift from third person to first person POV. While initially jarring for longterm fans of the series, this proves to be an excellent move and increases the immersion to a huge extent. The early hours of RE VII, when you’ll find yourself with nothing but a pocket knife, handgun and very few bullets, is the literal stuff of nightmares. Every corner you turn around or door you push open can lead to a messy death, especially when the members of the Baker family are following you. As the game progresses you’ll get better weapons, including the shotgun – your new best friend – but you never feel particularly overpowered as your foes will find inventive new ways to end your existence.

Ironically for an entry that seems to be such a massive change in terms of perspective, the gameplay in RE VII most closely resembles the original 1996 classic, Resident Evil. You’ll find yourself in a focused environment, with puzzle solving opening up new regions and objectives, and you’ll constantly need to manage your inventory and backtrack through areas that were previously inaccessible. It’s classic Resident Evil through a grimy, first person perspective filter and it works to a revelatory degree.

The boss fights in particular are showcases of gleefully creative grindhouse gore and you’ll need to keep your wits about you to defeat them. This will be a recurring theme, in fact, as puzzle solving under duress is what Resident Evil does best. Are you able to craft some burner fuel for your flamethrower? Yeah? Well how about we send a hideous, clawing, insect/human hybrid creature after you at the same time? Let’s see how you fare now, professor!

res2That’s not to suggest everything in RE VII is stellar. The 10-12 hour playthrough time is a little on the short side, and while it’s nice to have an experience not artificially expanded with tedious filler I would have liked another 3-4 hours of content. Another sticking point is more subjective: there are no zombies in RE VII. They are instead replaced with a group of creatures known as Molded; filthy, slurpy, black things that gurgle and gibber and slide from ceilings and out of walls. They’re undoubtedly cool looking but RE purists may be disappointed that you’ll never fight off traditional shambling undead in first person.

Possibly the biggest bummer is the game’s third act. It isn’t bad per se but compared to the rest of the game it’s a little unimaginative. Like a lot of previous Resident Evil titles it mostly eschews horror for action and in a game that gets the horror so right for so long that’s a little disappointing.

That said, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is easily the best RE title since part four. Capcom seem to have course corrected this sinking ship of a franchise and delivered an intense, nerve-shredding experience that delivers scares, gore and a satisfying story (almost) completely free of franchise baggage.

So grab your green herb and your shotgun, gird your loins and get ready to crawl into the murky depths of the Baker residence and beyond. Resident Evil is back and this time it’s up close and personal.

 
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REVIEW: The Last Guardian

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“Fuck you, you stupid fucking feathered fuckwit!” That’s me screaming at the telly and punching my couch while playing The Last Guardian. I’m not proud of myself.

“Oh how enchanting and lyrical. It’s lovely.” That’s me again, still playing The Last Guardian, mesmerised by the visual poetry unfolding.

“JUMP! Jump, you fucker, JUMP! I’m pressing JUMP! WHY WON’T YOU JUMP, YOU BAFFLE-WITTED PRICK? JUMP!” That’s also me, a few minutes later, hating The Last Guardian with every hairy fibre of my being.

Welcome to The Last Guardian review. Truly it was the extremely brief best of times and the frequent, enraging worst of times.

The Last Guardian is a game with baggage. Team Ico – the renowned developers responsible for Ico (2001) and absolute masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus (2005) – began work on the title way back in 2007.

The game was delayed so frequently it became a running joke, like Half-Life 3 and Final Fantasy XV. Well, FFXV arrived and so has The Last Guardian and although this sounds strange to say about a game that has appeared almost a decade after its inception: it really needed further development.

The Last Guardian’s story, like all Team Ico efforts, is basic and told through visuals and actions, rather than extended cutscenes. You play as a young boy who wakes up in a gloomy pit, covered with strange tattoos and no memory of how he got there. You’ll soon find a huge winged bird/dog/cat hybrid, Trico, next to you chained up and injured. After pulling spears from the great beast’s hide, and giving him some glowing barrels to eat, you and Trico begin to form an unlikely alliance and try to understand the situation you’re both in.

The concept of a boy and his monster on an epic adventure is a good one, and Trico is an impressive creation. Beautifully animated and featuring an AI that makes him seem like a living creature, one can’t help but be impressed by the work of director, Fumito Ueda and his dedicated team.

That sense of respect dwindles, however, when you actually start playing the game in earnest. Put simply The Last Guardian’s controls are absolutely woeful. The little boy wanders around and staggers over objects just like a real little boy, but his imprecise movements, while visually impressive, soon become annoying when exacting jumps and fiddly climbing are required. Worse than the boy’s controls, however, is Trico. A few hours into the game you’ll be able to give Trico commands, to jump, stop, follow and so on. Trico actually heeding those commands, however, seems to be up to the mysterious whims of chance.

Now it’s true in real life one wouldn’t expect a wild beast to behave obediently but a game needs to have a sense of consistency. I lost count of the number of times I knew how to solve a puzzle but Trico simply wouldn’t obey and I was unable to progress. I’d punch the couch a few times, hurl obscenities and rage quit. Later on, I’d load up the game and Trico would do it on the first go. Needing to reset the entire game to get past a puzzle isn’t good game design, it’s a bug and a fiercely annoying one at that.

That’s not to say The Last Guardian is without its charms. When everything’s working properly there is a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction to be gained from solving a tough puzzle, or getting Trico out of a sticky situation. The problem is the game is so inconsistent it’s hard to tell whether you’re stuck because you haven’t found the solution or the game’s AI has just popped out the back for a smoke, and will return when it’s good and bloody ready.

It’s hard to be swept away by visual poetry when you’re rage grinding your teeth into a fine powder.

Ultimately The Last Guardian is an acquired taste. If you can handle inconsistent, buggy AI and awkward, cumbersome controls you may find something to love here – other people certainly have.

However, for me, The Last Guardian was mostly an exercise in enraging, furniture-abusing frustration only occasionally leavened by moments of magical whimsy.

 
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REVIEW: Final Fantasy XV

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Final Fantasy XV is one of the weirdest AAA game releases in years. Like, wearing-a-traffic-cone-on-your-head and yelling-at-guide-dogs-about-the-impending-invasion-of-lizard-people nutso. It’s also endearingly charming and hard to dislike, at least in the first two thirds of the experience.

FFXV tells the tale of Prince Noctis and his mates Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto who are off on an epic road trip, the end of which will see Noct marry the beautiful and ethereal Lunafreya. Not to mince words but the lead foursome look like a boy band circa 1990. Their fashion choices are somewhere between camp, baffling and clown shoes, so it’s initially a little jarring when you realise you’re actually meant to take the escapades of these gaudily-clad adventurers seriously.

When we first control the gang they’re pushing their broken-down supercar to a 1950s style petrol station and diner, where a half-naked blonde lady who inexplicably talks in a yeee-hah southern American accent tells you she’ll fix your ride if you go and kill some monsters for her.

At this point you’ll either need to go along for the ride or eject the disc immediately. If you can get past the mishmash of tones and genres, you’ll soon find the game’s charms are many. For one thing it’s absolutely gorgeous: the four leads move, chat, hang out and cook in organic-looking, vivid ways in stunning, massive environments. The revamped combat system is also visually splendid and a lot deeper than it first appears, although players seeking classic turn based combat will be disappointed.

What really sells the game, if you let it, are the four lead characters. As the story kicks into high gear and takes the foursome to dark and dangerous places, the initially ludicrous-looking band become a more substantive and emotionally rich group. Yes, it’s bizarre to see a game that has you fighting giant water demons while texting on your mobile phone, but it’s so gloriously silly that you can’t help but grin.

Less smile-worthy, however, is the final third of the game where the open world structure is more or less abandoned and it all becomes a bit of a linear slog. You’ll probably want to push through to see the ending, which is surprisingly emotional, but it’s a pity the more open structure couldn’t go the distance.

Final Fantasy XV plays like the idle fever dream of a horny Japanese teenager passed out and listening to their iPod on shuffle. It’s weird, silly, occasionally baffling and quite a lot of fun – if you can leave your sense of logic and reason at the door and embrace the high camp lunacy.