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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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Trials Rising

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The Trials games are weird, narky little titles that absolutely should not work and yet somehow, against all odds, do. The premise is thus: you’re a little 2D bloke (or lady) and you ride a motorbike through increasingly evil courses involving the need for speed, precision, stunt skills and nerves of steel. The tracks get harder and more elaborate and the player gets sweaty and more frustrated, until you either run out of tracks (unlikely) or rage quit (extremely likely).

And yet despite obviously being a lower budget title, with 2D courses and occasional moments of graphical glitching, Trials games are utterly compelling. Trials Rising, the latest incarnation, is no exception to the rule and in fact features some of the cleverest, most devious and darkly diabolical courses in the series’ history. You’ll cackle with laughter as your manage to just survive an insane jump leaping through fire, you’ll punch the couch in spit-flecked frustration as a second later you’re coat-hangered by the lip of a ramp you hadn’t previously been aware of. You’ll repeat the courses over and over again, trying to shave precious seconds off your best time, and why? Because the real metagame of any Trials title is beating your mate’s high score.

Ironically, Trials Rising’s biggest problem is the opposite of most AAA games. As a critic one gets wretchedly tired of reviewing yet another tentpole title that doesn’t revolutionise or even vaguely evolve the core gameplay or mechanics, yet Trials Rising has done that and, uh… it’s not great. See, the way you unlock new tracks in previous Trials games was by getting better and better scores on existing tracks, which unlocks new areas. While that mechanic still exists here, to some degree, the main method of unlocking involves grinding random tracks that have new objectives like “30 back flips” or “finish in under a minute”. This sort of randomised content would be fine if it was optional, but it rather steals the thunder – and indeed the whole joy of progression – from previous games.

Other additions to the formula like online multiplayer and the ability to do tracks with your mates are fun, if inessential, but the progression system is a real bummer and feels antithetical to the precision and discipline required to “git gud” at these games.

Ultimately Trials Rising remains a worthy addition to a somewhat niche series, and features some of the most clever, wonderfully torturous tracks in the masochistic series’ history. However a new, frankly baffling, progression system steals the game’s thunder in a confounding fashion. Well worth a squiz for veterans and newbies alike, however, particularly if you have a group of competitive friends whose tears you wish to drink like salty, salty wine.

 
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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.