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Valkyria Chronicles 4

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In 2008, The Valkyria Chronicles was released to much acclaim and some confusion. A bizarre mix of military turn-based tactics, strategy and anime-style storytelling all wrapped up in a sketchy watercoloured aesthetic, there truly was nothing like this out there. Even people who wouldn’t play a strategy game on a dare couldn’t help but be charmed by this curious offering. Sequels were released, mainly on the PSP and mobile platforms, and a console spin-off Valkyria Revolution, hit market but none of these games could touch the singular charm of the original. Ten years later and it looks like they’re going to have another bash with The Valkyria Chronicles 4, but can lightning be caught in a bottle a second time? Kinda yeah.

The events of Valkyria Chronicles 4 occur in the same timeline as the original, however the story is told from the perspective of new characters. This is a wise move as trying to follow the byzantine competing narrative threads would be an exercise in confusion. Set on Europa, where the second Europan war is being fought, you take control of a squad of youngsters with silly hair and funny voices. The character designs are, like the predecessors, total anime nonsense. That’s part of the charm, really, but if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you should know that going in. If you can get past the rather goofy aesthetic, however, there is a surprising amount of story depth with solid journeys for all of the characters and even a couple of genuine emotion moments.

Gameplay-wise things are pretty much unchanged from the original. You move your troops into position, fight the enemy, move forwards and do it all again, experiencing cutscenes and story beats along the way. The mixture of exploration and real time strategy remains an intriguing one, although the mechanics aren’t quite as fresh a decade later. Graphics and animation are also fine, but not exactly spectacular. Still, that’s not really the purpose of Valkyria Chronicles 4. This almost feels like a more modern reboot of the original and for those of you who are fans of that oddball title – this is a pleasing and engaging tank ride down memory lane.

 
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Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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In 2013 when Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise it couldn’t have come at a better time. Lara Croft was a beloved character in theory, but her most recent adventures at that point were lacking. The concept of seeing Lara before she was a gun-toting bad arse was a solid one, and the game remains an exciting, quite brutal, adventure experience.

2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider seemed to pitch itself as “what if Tomb Raider… but more?” The title was technically very slick, full of exciting set pieces and brimming with side content, but something was missing. Or rather, the lack of innovation in anything but technical specs was clear. Put simply: the graphics were gorgeous but the gameplay was more of the same.

2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider is closing out the prequel trilogy and, for good and ill, it continues Rise’s tradition of piling on more stuff without adding much in the way of innovation.

Now, for the record: if you’re really into this Nu-Tomb Raider trilogy you’ll have an absolute blast with the game. The jungle setting, Lara’s new ability to smear herself with mud and the apocalyptic plot are all rock solid, if surface-level, additions to the franchise. This is more of what you love, if you love it.

Those on the fence about these games, however, will find little that hasn’t been explored in the other two titles. The graphics are slick, the animation gorgeous, the voice acting stellar and the level design clever and intricate… and yet it really is business as usual. You’ll never be particularly surprised in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and other than a couple of plot points towards the end there’s little that feels destined to be memorable as, say, the hideous body pit in Tomb Raider.

In cinematic terms, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a solid, but unexceptional entry in a long running franchise. It’s Mission: Impossible III rather than Ghost Protocol. Or Tomorrow Never Dies instead of Casino Royale. In short: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an engaging action adventure with one of video game’s most iconic characters, but sadly bereft of the innovation and surprise that would raise it to ‘classic’ status.

 
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Strange Brigade

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Back before it became a seething hellscape of capering reality TV stars and xenophobic Brexit voters, Britain used to rule the world. Quite literally, actually, they had a whole empire thing going on. This gleeful colonisation was glorious for them, although not so ideal for the rest of the world. That era of ‘stiff upper lip’ no-nonsense plummy invasion is the thematic premise for Strange Brigade, a four-player co-op shooter from those barmy chaps over at Rebellion Developments.

Set in 1930, right smack bang in the middle of the era described above, archeologist Edgar Harbin uncovers the dusty tomb of Seteki, a terrifying African Queen renowned for her cruelty. Naturally digging around in the tombs of evildoers is always a bad idea and sure enough, Seteki’s spirit rises up – bringing with her an army of the undead. Who can stop this terrible turmoil from beyond the grave? Could it be you, dear reader, do you have what it takes?

The titular Strange Brigade are a group of Secret Service agents with various appealing personalities and different skills that can be tweaked along the way. Ultimately, however, you’ll be shooting. A lot. Hordes of zombies, wraiths, monsters, insects and all manner of bosses swarm towards your team and must be dispatched tout-bloody-suite. You can aid the wanton destruction by incorporating traps and supers into the mix, plus some light puzzle solving will unlock enhancements for your weapon, but this is a group shooter through and through. Happily, Rebellion – creators of the Sniper Elite series – are no strangers to shooters. The gunplay is snappy and responsive, with headshots feeling satisfying and movements well tuned. Playing alone is possible but the general sense of repetition may hamper long term enjoyment. If you can find a group of three others, however, the game truly shines, offering an agreeable mix of horde mode with traps and bosses to spice things up.

Strange Brigade is charming, featuring a tongue-in-cheek narrator and a sense of style. This charm doesn’t quite disguise the fairly simplistic nature of the gameplay loop, but it gives the title a sense of identity in a crowded market. By yourself Strange Brigade is just okay, but if you can rope in some chums, by crikey you’ll be blasting ambulatory corpses and laughing with glee until the sun finally sets on the grand old British Empire. Pip pip! Cheerio.

 
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Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition

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I’ve always considered myself to be something of a polyamorous geek; that is I can hold many different pop cultural passions in my heart at once. Certainly horror movies are my first and most notable love, but I also ardently adore video games, sensually worship excellent telly, vigorously exalt books and even give comics a friendly frotting from time to time. But for all of these most delightful lovers one particular branch of the gnarled dork tree has always eluded me: the turn-based fantasy RPG.

I’ve admired them from afar, mind you, and even dipped my toe into Pillars of Eternity and the first Divinity: Original Sin but something about the setting, characters and/or world always failed to grab me long term. That is until Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition came along and ignited a new passion in my old, cold, black little heart.

Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition (called Divinity 2 henceforth) tells the tale of a number of characters – both existing and user generated – who are “Sourcerers”: magicians who can command the power of Source. Because of this enigmatic power they are treated like second class citizens and at the start of Divinity 2 you’ll find yourself jailed by Magisters at Fort Joy – a prison island – wearing a Source-dampening collar. What you do from there is pretty much up to you, although forming a party and escaping the island is a pretty good first goal.

This isn’t a spectacularly original premise for a fantasy RPG – mysterious powers, unknown origins and a quest to embark on are all pretty well-worn elements of the genre – but what separates Divinity 2 from the pack is the quality of the details. Every character in the game, and I mean every character, is voiced and has a backstory. From the lowliest shopkeep to a random wandering crab (yes, you can talk to animals with the Pet Pal perk – and it’s highly recommended you do) you’ll find details, lore and even helpful hints on quests in the area. The game is dense with choice and options, featuring dozens of different ways to tackle even the smallest objective. Having trouble in a head-on fight? Why not sneak in via the back and sabotage a base’s oil barrel stash. Not feeling violent? Why not bribe your way into your objective, or disguise yourself as your enemy? Or turn invisible? Or summon a giant spider made of bone? Or… look, you get the idea. That’s not just for main quests either, every single quest feels meaningful and never ‘collect six radishes’ or ‘kill nine frog monsters’. Hell, I found myself investigating missing eggs for a group of chickens, only to find them murdered later – so I chatted with one of their ghosts – and had to take the surviving chook to meet its papa. Then the twist ending of that was the bloody kid was the murderer and I had the kill the bastard! Ended up with some nice trousers and a spear though so, you know, worth it.

This level of nuance and detail doesn’t come without a price, however. You’ll sometimes find yourself confused about what to do next and properly baffled by a few of the more Byzantine mechanics. Still, that’s nothing a quick trip to the game’s Wiki won’t help, and in a game as richly detailed as this there’s no shame in it. Less appealing were a half dozen or so bugs that reared their ugly little heads from time to time, but nothing a quick reload didn’t fix and one suspects they’ll be patched out soon enough.

Ultimately Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition is an embarrassment of riches. A complex, fascinating turn-based fantasy RPG of epic size and scope, with nuanced characters, rewarding combat and satisfying exploration. Whether played single player or in the game’s excellent co-op mode Divinity 2 is the kind of title that will have you calling in ‘dead’ and staying home, playing it for hours.

It also turned me into a new kind of dork and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

 
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Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr

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There are certain immutable truths in this strange world of ours. Hollywood will never stop churning out technically-competent-but-forgettable-remakes, films based on video games will invariably suck and the Warhammer series will continue to release a half dozen games each year, until humanity’s bones have long since turned to dust.

You can see the appeal, mind you, the tabletop gaming franchise exists in a realm of constant war, with epic battles spanning galaxies and featuring countless ghastly enemies – of the human and alien variety. And to be fair Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr (by the Emperor, what a title!) has a neat premise and engaging concept.

You play an Inquisitor (shonky future black ops types) who uncovers a conspiracy aboard an enormous abandoned vessel, and is sent on a mission that will take you all through the Caligari sector and beyond. Unlike most Warhammer entries there are genuinely intriguing concepts and ideas woven into the narrative, and playing through the story campaign feels rewarding as a result.

Unfortunately the gameplay, the majority of what you’ll be doing, is less polished and engaging. Based in a top down view similar to Diablo III, Martyr has you wandering through abandoned ships/planets/caves etc. and blasting waves of enemies as you uncover secrets and grind for loot. The shooting is… fine. It gets the job down but never feels like a joy to play, which is a problem when the action is this repetitive. You can unlock and build different weapon loadouts but they rarely amount to anything beyond ‘more bullets’ and ‘different flavours of explosion’. Plus the cover system is just terrible, having you latch onto objects seemingly at random, and never really justifying its existence.

Yet for all of that, Martyr is actually pretty fun. The environments are weird and atmospheric, the story is engaging and gleefully over-the-top and there’s a general sense of future grimdark horror/action that feels so unique it’s almost worth putting up with some of the weaker gameplay elements and general lack of innovation.

Ultimately Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr is a worthy if unspectacular addition to the already staggeringly huge (black) library of games, and while flawed this latest effort improves on the storytelling and is fun when grouped with like minded friends. It’s not the game that finally clarifies the appeal of Warhammer 40K to non-fans, but it’s another clanking mech suit footstep closer.

 
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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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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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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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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.