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Team Sonic Racing

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Dear reader, there was a time in our video game history, in that halcyon decade known as the ‘90s, when nary a console gaming system was connected to the internet. Mainly because the internet, at least how we understand it today, didn’t exist. Therefore, if you wanted to enjoy a multiplayer experience in your own loungeroom you’d have to physically bring people into your home and play the damn thing in person, with split screen. Twas a simpler time. The undisputed king of the loungeroom was Mario Kart 64, a game where you could play as various Nintendo characters and hoon around bright, cartoony tracks and hit each other with shells. Over the years that followed, kart games have come and gone, and video game experiences have skewed ever more online, but even without the warm haze of nostalgia, it has to be said that the loungeroom kart experience has been missed.

Enter Team Sonic Racing, the newest kart kid on the block, who would really prefer you ignore the various iterations of Mario’s vroom vroom fun times and focus on the bright blue fella. Team Sonic Racing, as the name suggests, takes characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog IP and throws you and your mates into an array of colourful tracks where you kart about, picking up power ups and questing to best your opponents, human and AI alike. In terms of new gameplay mechanics, it offers some intriguing team-based additions, like faster speeds when you follow your teammates closely and supers that are more powerful if you launch them simultaneously. These are actually smart additions, making the gameplay less mindless than your usual kart gear, and it’s an undisputedly fun time.

On the negative side, and this is a little subjective, but Sonic and friends have always been a bit… dull as characters. Honestly, the most impact that Sonic has ever made was with his nightmarish (and soon to be amended) movie trailer appearance. With the dead eyes and the teeth… those weird, human-like teeth. Point is, without much in the way of personality, it’s hard for the Sonic agnostic among us to get particularly worked up over the hero character’s antics.

Ultimately, however, the entire reason for Team Sonic Racing’s existence can be boiled down to a single question: do you want a kart game you can play with your mates? Because Team Sonic Racing is available on PS4, XBOX, Nintendo Switch and PC, unlike the (admittedly superior) Mario Kart 8 which is Switch only. So, if you have a group of likeminded chums who seek to return to those barely remembered days on the couch – or if you’re so young you’d like to have that experience for the first time – Team Sonic Racing offers an engaging, if unspectacular, reason for a group hoon with some sparkly animal friends. Freaky teeth not included.

 
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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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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.