The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (PS4) – Review

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The Witcher 3’s first expansion, Hearts of Stone, offered a deep and well-written story largely set in the same parts of Velen that players had become used to during the main adventure. The second, much larger expansion, Blood and Wine, in contrast moves the action to a new area, the Duchy of Toussaint. Blood and Wine is a last hurrah for The Witcher 3 and for the Geralt character, as it is the last piece of content released for the game and the last piece of content centered on the titular monster-slayer. Most fans of the game will therefore be delighted by the sheer amount of content on offer in this expansion: there’s as much to do here as in some standalone games, and a completionist playthrough of the expansion may well take you 30-40 hours. In this sense, it’s very much in the spirit of the sprawling base game, rather than the comparatively taut and linear Hearts of Stone. Moreover, the combat mechanics have been expanded with a new mutagen system, and the production values remain as high as ever.

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Toussaint is a very different place to Velen and Skellige. For one thing, Toussaint is not ravaged by war or internecine strife, and so the general tone of the game isn’t as bleak. Moreover, Toussaint is a stunningly beautiful idyll, where the sun almost always shines and where the plants and crops grow in abundance. In particular, Toussaint is famed for its wine, and much of the action here revolves around the wine industry. Set after the events of the main game, the whole adventure has an aspect of ‘Geralt goes on holiday’, which is welcome up to a point, but perhaps could be construed as disloyal to the established aesthetic. A quest or series of objectives in an environment like this would be fine, but an entire 30-hour expansion felt like too much to me, and somewhat incongruous next to the overall tone of the rest of the game and indeed the franchise.

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That’s not to say the whole thing is a bed of roses for Geralt. The main story of Blood and Wine sees him sucked into a high-stakes world of courtly intrigue, precipitated by a series of brutal murders. Geralt is tasked with investigating and killing the monster responsible, but of course it is not quite as simple as a bloodthirsty monster on the loose. There are also a plethora of side quests, and this is where you will find much of the best writing in the expansion, with some really interesting and unusual scenarios. The process of investigating and (sometimes) resolving people’s problems is one of the best parts of The Witcher 3 experience, and Blood and Wine is no different.

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At the same time, I regretted that for all the beauty of the gameworld, I wasn’t able to engage with the main story here to the same extent as in Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone. The story of Wild Hunt could end in a number of different game-states, and it’s not hard to appreciate why CD Projekt Red decided to re-locate the bulk of Blood and Wine’s action away from those events. Considering that the game-world can be very, very different depending on what happened previously, it would be unrealistic to expect CDPR to adapt the story to allow for every possible outcome. That said, it’s unfortunate they didn’t find more of a way to incorporate the well-loved characters from the main game into the events here. While Hearts of Stone was a brilliant story that amplified the dramatic impact of the main game (like, say, the Leviathan expansion did for Mass Effect 3), Blood and Wine fails to deliver the kind of character-based swansong Bioware served up with Mass Effect 3’s Citadel expansion. If anything, sending Geralt to Toussaint, which is clearly inspired by the south of France and Spain, struck me as an indulgence for the game’s developers, rather than one for the fans.

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For a game which up until now had managed to make every single action feel important, I was disheartened to find that about halfway through Blood and Wine I wasn’t enjoying it any more and wanted it to finish. I don’t attribute that to fatigue with The Witcher 3 itself, but rather to the design choices made in this expansion. It’s not helped by the fact that combat can be irritatingly difficult at times: if Hearts of Stone’s arachnomorphs were an annoyance, the flesh-eating plants in Blood and Wine are even worse. By this stage, it makes no sense that Geralt should find these sorts of creatures a challenge, but the level scaling here is quite steep and rapidly makes redundant that eye-wateringly expensive Mastercrafted gear you spent so long forging. Gwent is a pleasing diversion, of course, helped by the introduction of a new faction representing Skellige. But in the end, the new characters introduced here are inadequate, and fail to generate the level of interest or empathy we’re used to from Ciri, Triss, and Yenn, or even from Shani and Olgierd in Hearts of Stone. For a game that left me with so many great memories and experiences, I came away disappointed that Blood and Wine didn’t do more to celebrate that. Instead it tried to do something new, and was ultimately unsuccessful.

8/10

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Resident Evil 4 (PS4) – Review

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I pre-ordered Resident Evil 4 when it was released for the Gamecube back in 2005, and ever since have considered it to be one of the best games I ever played. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I approached playing it again, 11 years later, on the PS4. I have great memories of RE4, and wanted to introduce it to T., who never played it back then. Resident Evil 4 has always been regarded as quintessentially ‘cinematic’, a game that is almost as much fun to watch someone play as it is to play it yourself. But at the same time, a voice at the back of my mind nagged away: what if Resi 4 has aged badly? What if it has not only lost its magic, but what if it sucks?

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried, because Resident Evil 4 still kicks ass. The PS4 edition is basically a port of the HD version released for PC last year. The original Gamecube game featured groundbreaking visuals at the time, and while the HD version is never going to win any awards, for the most part it looks pretty decent. Textures lack detail at times, but on the whole I thought the environments looked good and still established a gloomy and oppressive atmosphere. This is partly down to the game’s trademark colour scheme, which relies heavily on washed out browns and greys, whic makes those flashes of colour (like Ada’s dress) all the more memorable. The character models haven’t aged so well, and it’s perhaps a shame Capcom didn’t go the whole hog and actually remake the visuals so they’d be up there with current games. But they’d probably face howls of derision from outraged fanboys if they did that, so fair enough.

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After firing the game up it took a bit of time to get used to the control scheme. Resident Evil 4 features what is by today’s standards a quite limiting movement system, as you can’t sidestep, and can only move forward in the direction you’re looking. You also can’t move and shoot. This might sound frustrating, but the game’s combat and other systems are all balanced around the control scheme which means it works well, and you rarely feel like the game is being unfair. What’s a bit more jarring is the fact you have to enter your menu every time you want to swap out a weapon, and you wonder whether Capcom might have included an option to let you switch guns on the fly. In general though, the pacing and difficulty feels pitch-perfect and the game knows exactly how much pressure to put you under without making you feel overwhelmed or frustrated. There are regular set-pieces but also enough down time in between to get your bearings. Resident Evil 4 remains a high point of game design which few games have equalled in the decade since it was released.

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The game’s gunplay is very enjoyable, and you have access to a varied arsenal which can be upgraded by the ubiquitous merchant. Said merchant is now something of an internet hero, and he’s the main source of light relief in the game’s intense early sections. As the story progresses, the oppressively horrific tone gradually lightens up a bit, and Leon in particular comes into his own, becoming a thoroughly likeable and winning lead. Equal parts wisecracking badass and put-upon would-be lothario, this was a breakout game for the Leon character and one can only hope he gets to headline another game of this quality. Chris Redfield may be the ‘original’ Resident Evil hero but there’s no question which of them has more appeal, at least in our household. In addition to Leon, the game features a generally entertaining supporting cast of misfits and genetically mutated monstrosities. The story is a typically cornball Resident Evil affair, but the script is entertaining with some memorable standout lines (“I see the President has equipped his daughter with… ballistics.”) The game’s music is muted for the most part, but the voice lines of the Ganados and other enemies provide more than enough dramatic accompaniment to the action. Hearing some hooded menace chanting around a corner, or hearing a chainsaw being revved up right behind you, is truly the stuff of nightmares.

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Resi 4’s campaign felt surprisingly long and generous when the game was released, and my playthrough on Normal difficulty took about 16 hours. If you haven’t played it before it’s more likely to take you about 20 hours. But this is a game which is truly “all killer no filler”–there is nothing wasted or overused here, and every moment of the campaign feels meaningful and dramatic. It truly is a white-knuckle ride and pretty much a perfect game. This edition also comes with some high-quality extras, including a couple of Ada-centric side stories (Separate Ways and Assignment Ada), along with The Mercenaries. The Mercenaries is like the original horde mode/time attack minigame, packed full of cool unlockables and a lot of fun in its own right. It’s amazing to get all this AAA content for just £15.  Indeed, Resident Evil 4 marked a paradigm shift in what people expected not only from a Resident Evil game, but from the action game genre as a whole. For me, only a select few games have managed to equal if not surpass Resi 4, such as The Last of Us and the first Dead Space. I do wonder whether Capcom might have done more to bring the game ‘up to date’, with true next-gen graphics and quality of life improvements like switching guns without entering the menu. Regardless, I’m just glad to get to experience this game again, and if you haven’t played it yet, you really, really should.

9/10

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Chrono Trigger (DS) – Review

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Chrono Trigger was originally released for the Super Nintendo in 1995, but wasn’t brought out in PAL territories. It came out a few years later on Playstation, in a port which was widely criticized for technical issues, so thankfully it was ported properly to the Nintendo DS in 2009. Chrono Trigger is widely regarded as one of the most influential RPGs ever made, so it’s important to be able to play a decent version of it on a proper console, rather than the inevitably fiddly and unsatisfying option of playing an emulated version on a mobile phone.

Chrono Trigger was developed by Squaresoft after they made Secret of Mana, and it was overseen by a ‘dream team’ of people responsible for the blockbuster Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. Square obviously had it in mind to come up with something special and Chrono Trigger did not disappoint. The game delivers on pretty much every level. The graphics pushed the SNES pretty hard, and the character sprites and environments are colourful and characterful, as are the animations. There are a surprising number of animations in the turn-based combat system, while the characters’ post-battle fist-pumping and posturing is always a delight. The game also made us of Mode 7, which was one of the Super Nintendo’s notable features. But aside from the graphics, Chrono Trigger also features an excellent soundtrack that features some of the best music of the 16-bit era. The audio is definitely deserving of the plaudits that have come its way over the years.

Chrono Trigger has an interesting time-travelling premise which gives the story a different dynamic to your standard JRPG. The story also moves forward at a fair clip, and on the whole the pacing is brisk and you’ll rarely feel bored or not know where to go. The writing is surprisingly good, and there’s a fair amount of comedy and even some bawdy humour in the dialogue–not what you expect from games of this era, but nevertheless quite welcome. The story sees the player avatar, Crono, travelling across time and gathering allies in a bid to stop a catastrophe that threatens to destroy the world. Along the way, there are a number of quite moving scenes and interactions which must make this one of the more poignant games of the mid-90s. It won’t be a surprise to people who’ve played Secret of Mana, but generally you don’t expect games that look this primitive to be able to move you. It testifies to the quality of the script and storytelling.

Combat features a semi-turn based system using an active time gauge, which means it’s more intuitive than Secret of Mana’s system but, with its plethora of menus and commands, somehow both less tactile and more shallow. You can switch out party members and perform combos, but you’ll rarely need to do these outside boss fights, and there are a number of abilities you’re unlikely to ever use. Enemy design is varied enough to keep things interesting, and battles rarely take too long, but the combat is not what will keep you coming back to Chrono Trigger. Rather, it’s the environments, music, and the interesting characters you meet during your journey.

Some of the major scenes in the game are accompanied by short animated cutscenes which must have been quite a technical accomplishment back in 1995. They still look good, but I don’t understand the art style chosen to depict the humanoid characters. They all look sleazy and malevolent, including the heroes. The same style is also used in the box art and other promotional material for the game. It’s curious, and stands out partly because the rest of the game’s graphics are so gorgeous.

Chrono Trigger was a pioneering game in its use of side-quests and multiple endings. Although most of the game is quite linear, towards the end you are allowed to go off and explore a number of areas (and time periods) to do companion quests and collect gear to help you in the home stretch. The decisions you make at this point have a profound effect on the ending of the game: a mechanic we take for granted now, but something quite unusual back when this game was released. The story is relatively short, and even doing all the side-quests you can expect to finish it in 20-25 hours. Personally, I’m quite happy with this, as there’s nothing to be gained by playing a longer story that’s pointlessly padded out by hundreds of boring turn-based fights that play out the same way. With the branching endings, Chrono Trigger has replay value if you want it, but most people who come to this game fresh now will probably be doing so for historical reasons. While there are of course better RPGs out there these days, if you want to try a retro JRPG, there are few better alternatives than Chrono Trigger. But try and play it on a Nintendo handheld rather than your phone.

8/10