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Nier Replicant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disco Elysium: The Final Cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Little Nightmares 2

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

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

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

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

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

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Hitman 3

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The Hitman series has been popping clogs and bursting bonces since way back in the ancient year of 2000. Naturally enough, the series has gone through many changes in the two decades since, but perhaps its most unique iteration has been the trilogy of Hitman titles from IO Interactive, which began in 2016 with the rebooted Hitman and now concludes with Hitman 3. And while this version has its problems, there’s much to love here.

Hitman 3 yet again has you occupying the role of bald, barcoded man mountain Agent 47. As with the previous IO Interactive games, you’re given six huge maps, multiple targets and oodles of ways to kill them. Nowhere is this more apparent than the second level that takes place in the sprawling Carlisle Mansion in England. While 47 is there to kill the Carlisle matriarch, you also end up with the option of assuming the identity of a famous Poirot-like detective to solve a murder in the flash abode.

And solve it you shall! You’ll interview suspects, investigate clues and at the end of it all: reveal the killer. And then you can kill your target. Or kill the entire family. Or start beating the cleaning staff to death with fish. See, Hitman 3 is a sandbox in which you’re encouraged to play, and with a bit of lateral thinking you can accomplish all sorts of blackly comedic goals. This level of freedom is thrilling, especially in levels like the massive underground rave in Berlin, or the final level that takes place in a dynamic location (that we won’t spoil).

The downside, of course, is the plot is by necessity rather vague and a bit naff. Serviceable but certainly not memorable. Actually, “serviceable” is a good way to describe the graphics and controls too. They’re fine, they get the job done, but they’ve evolved very little since 2016.

Still and all, IO Interactive’s take on Hitman is popular with its fans precisely because of adaptability and versatility, not AAA slickness. Judged by that metric, Hitman 3 is the perfect conclusion to a subversive series that always looks on the bright side of death.

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Spider-Man: Miles Morales

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a new console generation’s first few games are either a bit crap or shallow tech demos. You don’t even have to go back far to see the trend. The launch/near launch titles on the PS4 were Killzone Shadow Fall (pretty, shallow) and Infamous Second Son (pretty, shallow). Well, it’s all just a bit of history repeating with Spider-Man: Miles Morales providing a beautifully rendered, not terribly deep introduction to the beefy new PS5. However, just because it’s a bit simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a sequel/spin-off from Marvel’s Spider-Man, the very solid title from friendly neighbourhood Insomniac Games. This time around the player is thrust into the scuffed sneakers of Miles Morales, who revealed his superpowers at the end of the previous game. Peter Parker, the OG Spidey, has to bugger off overseas, leaving New York in Miles’ hands. Which would be fabulous, were it not for the arrival of a new big bad, The Tinkerer, who is using a kind of programmable matter to wreak havoc on the Roxxon company and, by extension, the city itself.

There’s a lot about Spider-Man: Miles Morales that works really well. Miles is an affable, engaging character and his relationships with friends and family give the entire story a lot of heart and moments of genuine pathos. The gameplay, like the previous title, is superbly kinetic, and swinging through New York has lost none of its charm, particularly when played at 60fps. The fluid, dynamic movement is an utterly engaging joy. Combat too, with Miles’ added Venom Powers, feels slick and acrobatic and the addition of new enemy types is extremely welcome.

On the downside, the game is short – 5-7 hours or so – and all the busywork, map-filling content in the world can’t hide that fact. Despite its slender length, there’s also a perturbing amount of filler. One mission in particular had Miles having to power up a bunch of generators to enter a building followed by… powering up another bunch of generators to use a McGuffin inside the building!

The plot, also, is serviceable rather than spectacular, with the villains never feeling particularly iconic and the combat scenarios skewing a little samey. Plus, there are a number of technical problems with the game, particularly on the higher visual fidelity modes, that led to dramatic crashes from time to time. Sure, this is to be expected when early adopting new tech, but it’s still a pain and should be noted.

And yet, despite all of that, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a damn good time. Superb graphics, flawless animation, fast-paced movement and concussive combat combine for a light but compelling experience. If you own a PS5 this is basically a must-own, despite niggling issues and a hefty price tag.

 

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Destiny 2: Beyond Light

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Destiny 2 is getting on a bit these days. First released in 2017, the venerable Bungie-developed shooter is one of the most long lived ‘games as a service’ titles, going through various updates, controversies and even owners in its journey to occupy the hearts and minds of shooter fans the world over. Now, in 2020, the latest content drop has been unleashed. Called Beyond Light, and featuring long-awaited story revelations, the result is a mixed bag but an entertaining one regardless.

Beyond Light finally, finally gets around to dealing with The Darkness in a meaningful way. The enemy has been alluded to since 2014’s Destiny, and featured in the previous expansion Shadowkeep, but this time around they’re front and centre. Not only have the pyramid-shipped ones lobbed up, they’ve gone and somehow flogged Io, Titan, Mercury and Mars! Not only that, a mad Fallen sheila by the name of Eramis has somehow worked out how to wield the power of Darkness, using Stasis to get her revenge on the forces of Light. Looks like it’s up to you, Variks and the Exo Stranger to go on another adventure, this time in the icy vistas of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. And yes friends, there will be shooting. A whole lot of shooting. Like, a staggering amount, hey.

As tends to be common with these larger content drops, Beyond Light’s story is a short but sweet five(ish) hours of engaging twists and turns with the usual slightly disappointing ending and climax with a villain who was a bit shit. Seriously, they’ve been pulling this nonsense almost every time, with 2018’s Forsaken being the only exception to the rule. Once the main campaign is concluded, a new end game pursuit opens in the form of Empire Hunts. These are quite entertaining, extended boss fights that incorporate grinding strikes and levelling up a lure for maximum rewards, and then going after the big bad with a vengeance. The biggest new addition, however, is your guardian’s ability to wield the powers of Darkness, using ice-based Stasis to freeze and shatter enemies and really give people the shits in PvP mode, Crucible.

Beyond Light is, as always, an entertaining ride. Europa is a gorgeous new environment, the boss fights in particular are very engaging this time around and of course the shooting is second to none. That said, Destiny 2 is absolutely starting to show its age. Beautiful skyboxes aside, it’s hard not to notice the reused assets, the samey enemies and the encounters we’ve done hundreds, possibly thousands of times before. Bungie’s decision to focus on 2-3 more years of Destiny 2 rather than creating a sequel has raised many eyebrows, and unless they make a seamless transition to next-gen consoles it’s hard to imagine everyone will go along for the ride.

That said, and it bears repeating, the shooting is like a soothing balm for the soul. Crisp, responsive and utterly addictive, it represents the best in the biz and is always a hoot with friends. Destiny 2: Beyond Light is a rather safe, but enjoyable, addition to the game. Plus, there’s plenty more to come, including further seasonal content and a brand new raid, Deep Stone Crypt. However, for longterm fans, it does feel like the cracks are starting to show and if Bungie wants to keep this cash cow going, they’re going to need to start thinking beyond the box.

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

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

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

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

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

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Watch Dogs: Legion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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