The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (3DS) – First Impressions

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Majora’s Mask was released towards the end of the N64’s life cycle back in 2000, meaning many people (like me) missed out on playing what has since come to be regarded as a classic Zelda game. Happily, Nintendo released an enhanced remake for the 3DS last year, so I’m finally able to fill this gap in my video game experience. So far, I’m only a few hours in, but it’s already becoming clear to m why Majora’s Mask has such an enthusiastic following.

Majora’s Mask was released a couple of years after Ocarina of Time, which is still widely regarded as one of the best video games ever. Sensibly, Nintendo decided against rehashing the story and setting of OoT, and Majora’s Mask instead takes place in a different time and place. Specifically, the story is about what Young Link did next after his part in the events of Ocarina of Time. Link is off adventuring when he runs into a mysterious character who comes to be known as Skull Kid. Skull Kid is a mischievous child who has come into possession of a mask said to house an evil spirit, and who seems to be caught up in a plot to end the world.

Ocarina of Time wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course, but nevertheless Majora’s Mask feels quite ‘dark’ in comparison and certainly has a decidedly creepy and strange atmosphere at times that actually makes it feel kind of scary. There’s one moment in particular early on that would rival much of what I’ve encountered in horror-themed games. This is not what you might expect in a game centered around Young Link and generally childish shenanigans. Of course, there is still a lot of trademark Nintendo humour as well as the odd blatantly weird inclusion like the 35 year old ‘forest fairy’, Tingle, who sells you your maps.

Majora’s Mask is perhaps most famous for its unusual time-based mechanic. The story takes place during a recurring three-day time period, played out in real-time with one minute being equivalent to one second or so. Link therefore spends his time going over a lot of the same ground, like a tiny elfish Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. This time-travelling mechanic allows for some interesting gameplay and storytelling possibilities, as your understanding of the world and its denizens’ routines expands alongside your inventory.

It also impels you forward, and there is a sense of urgency about proceedings that is quite rare. Although Link’s Ocarina has the power to turn back time, you’ll lose many items and progress when you do so, meaning you’ll often feel in a hurry to get things done before you run out of time. Combined with a gameworld where things change depending on what day it is, it results in a more poignant and reflective atmosphere than any experienced gamer will be accustomed to. Time matters in this game: perhaps an unwelcome reminder to some of us who have devoted tens of thousands of hours to video games over the years. The linear progression through Majora’s Mask’s ostensibly looping time cycle serves to remind you not only that time spent is irretrievable, but may also, depending on your own temperament and disposition, lead you to reflect on your own mortality. Scary stuff indeed.

As far as the look and feel of the game goes, Majora’s Mask will be achingly familiar to anyone who played Ocarina of Time in the late ’90s. The iconic music from that game, in particular, is heavily recycled, and I admit to feeling an almost physical sense of shock the first time I heard the Song of Storms since playing Ocarina of Time in 1999 or so. The sound on the 3DS is great, of course, and the graphics translate very well to its 3D display. The controls have also been successfully mapped to the 3DS interface, and controlling Link using the analogue stick is straightforward. The buttons occasionally feel a little small, for those of us used to playing action games on consoles, but it’s very rarely more than a slight inconvenience.

For a 16-year-old game, Majora’s Mask has aged quite well, though of course it benefits from a bit of sprucing up in this version. Having just completed the first dungeon, I’m looking forward to playing through the rest of the game, although I get the impression there is a lot of optional content and I’m not sure how long it will take me. As with many aspects of Majora’s Mask, I suppose you could take that as a bit of a metaphor for life in general.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PS4) – First Impressions

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It doesn’t take long to realize that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a special game. Just like Witcher 2, Wild Hunt features an early cinematic introduction that ranks among the best I’ve seen since the first time I played Final Fantasy 8 in the late 90s. As soon as the game gives you the controls, the sumptuous visuals and stellar voice acting and writing draw you in, while a sedate early section proves a good way to familiarize yourself with Wild Hunt’s controls and dynamics. The Witcher series has always had a distinctive feel to its gameplay, and Wild Hunt is notable for excellent pacing and a strong sense of weight to its movement.

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This is never more apparent than when Geralt is traversing the game’s stunning landscapes on horseback. Witcher 3 sensibly gives you a horse from the beginning, and your mount, Roach, is a major part of the game’s early going. Wild Hunt’s graphics are nothing short of beautiful: its colours are incredible, with sunlight, weather, trees, plants and earth combining to create some of the most stunning vistas I’ve witnessed in a game. Seeing it all on horseback is the perfect perspective. The score is also a delight–alternately mournful and wistful and a perfect accompaniment on your travels.

The game’s brooding atmosphere and weighty control system give your movement and actions a sense of significance and deliberateness that is quite unusual. Geralt is a strong lead, more engaging, less sleazy and (T. informs me) more handsome than he was in Witcher 2. We’re used to being able to create our own characters in these games now, of course, but there is something to be said for having a well-written, dedicated lead for a change. Geralt is generally a morally ambiguous sort of anti-hero, and although you can decide how exactly you want to play him, he’s the perfect fit for Wild Hunt’s dark and tragic fantasy.

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As a Central-Eastern European take on the traditional fantasy genre, Wild Hunt stands out somewhat from the usual and more familiar Anglo-American interpretations. But one of its most interesting aspects is the relatively earthy and realistic depiction of serfdom and feudalism. As you travel through White Orchard, the game’s first proper area, you’ll see peasants toiling over tiny plots of land. Sickness and disease are prevalent due to the masses of unburied corpses from a recent battle nearby; the bodies of deserters hang from trees by the roadside; political tensions are high due to the Nilfgaardians’ occupation of Temeria. Side quests explore various sordid aspects of feudal life, and some of the tragedies that befall peasants who fall foul of their masters.

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Combat is fast-paced and visceral. The game avoids the mis-steps of Witcher 2, the early stages of which were ruined by a maddeningly difficult combat and a bizarre decision to lock central combat techniques behind a leveling system. Wild Hunt provides a wide range of combat options and encourages you to investigate its many crafting trees. The crafting and other menus can be a bit daunting at first, but new mechanics are introduced slowly enough that you’re not quite overwhelmed. Meanwhile, there is an exhaustive bestiary with a lot of well-written text that provides even more context and background. This is a very well-conceived and crafted world, and one that looks like it will reward you handsomely for your time.

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Tales of Zestiria (PS4) – First Impressions

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Tales of Zestiria sees the series make its first major foray into the world of open-world exploration. I was a bit nervous about this at first. Building an interesting and attractive open world for the gamer explore takes a lot of resources, and my concern was whether this resource investment would mean less of the high-quality writing and storytelling which have become the hallmark of the Tales series.

Zestiria takes a while to get going, with a fairly generic main character, Sorey, and what comes across at first as a very generic story and environment. However, having spent a few hours with the game I’m relieved and delighted to say that Zestiria shows all the signs of sustaining the series’ reputation for excellence. Once you gather a few characters into your party their interaction becomes hugely entertaining and very funny, and the English voice acting is superb. The story quickly starts to branch out and bring in all sorts of intriguing elements, as well as having the somber tone the series is known for. Although the graphics might not look quite as fancy as I expected from a PS4 game, the overall visual design is beautiful, and the character design is a high point once again. Well, apart from one mis-step in the form of Sorey’s bizarre earrings. The voice acting is consistently excellent and the game’s score is pretty good, firmly in keeping with other Tales games.

One of the interesting things about Zestiria so far is how it plays around with familiar RPG tropes. For example, one early encounter finds Sorey in the midst of what would normally be a standard fetch quest encounter. However, here he’s told not to get himself involved as an errand boy: if he does a favour for one person, everyone will expect him to do the same. Interactions like this subvert expectations, and it’s already possible to discern a theme about inspiring others to work at making the world a better place, rather than just waiting for a saviour to come and fix everything. Which is a bit ironic, really, because Sorey is a sort of messianic figure (‘the Shepherd’), but his role is to inspire people to do better rather than just to do their washing-up for them.

Combat in Zestiria takes place in a sort of battle area on the world map, rather than transporting you to a separate screen as in previous games. This adds a bit more immediacy to proceedings, but it means that camera problems are a regular issue. Fighting next to a corner or in front of a wall makes the camera zoom up extremely close, meaning you can end up with no view of the battlefield. It doesn’t happen in every fight, or even most fights, but it’s a glaring issue. It’s not something that has caused us to die or anything, yet, and it can normally be fixed by switching targets or making enemies re-position themselves, but still. It’s the one apparent flaw so far in a game which seems otherwise perfect.

Playing Zestiria is an absolutely joyful experience, in large part due to the mature and witty dialogue. This is a trademark of the Tales games as much as the co-operative combat; long may the Tales team continue to put out material like this. It’s certainly the most enduring and consistent JRPG series of the last decade and it’s a real pleasure to be discovering what promises to be yet another stellar game.

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS) – First Impressions

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In years gone by I’ve seen these blue arrows in my dreams. Now it’s a matter of time before that happens again. 

The term ‘Killer App’ isn’t really used much anymore, but back in the console war days it was all the rage. Nintendo used to be the king of ‘Killer Apps’, that is to say, console-exclusive games which were so good you simply had to buy that console in order to play them. The N64 was probably the best example of such a console. Anyway, for me Fire Emblem is the closest thing there is to a killer app these days, and we recently bought a 3DS so that we could catch up on the Fire Emblem series, following the recent release of Fire Emblem Fates.

Before we can get round to Fates, though, there’s the small matter of Fire Emblem: Awakening. This is the game that basically saved the Fire Emblem franchise by breaking into the commercial mainstream and making bank for Nintendo. Its critical reputation is sky-high too, supposedly one of the best games in the franchise; and certainly the best since Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken on Game Boy Advance, which was the first FE game released in the West and the first one I played.

Having played through the first few chapters, I’m certainly enjoying the game, though it doesn’t make the brightest of starts. There is a sort of player avatar in the form of the ‘Tactician’, and you get a few options to customize him. I was disappointed that the customization options were unbelievably slim: beyond your character’s gender and life stage (pubescent, late teens, or 30s), you can’t really choose much, with five options for a face (which all look the same) and five hairdos, all of which look stupid. You also get to choose between English or Japanese dialogue, but aside from the most important scenes most of the dialogue is not voiced. There’s an awful lot of dialogue and character interaction, though, so that’s fair enough. The character portraits are very nice and quite expressive, and the dialogue is well-written, but I find the 3D models and backgrounds somewhat plain, and less appealing than the sprites in the older games.

After a pretty nifty cinematic sequence gets the ball rolling, you go through quite a lot of exposition before the game really lets you experience any fights, and I confess to finding the game’s opening section quite boring. You can choose from three difficulty levels at the beginning (Normal, Hard or Lunatic). I plan to play through all of them, so I started on Normal to ensure I have the freedom to use any characters I want. In older Fire Emblem games you had to be very  careful which characters you used, as there was a finite amount of experience available from killing enemy units, and you had to be precise about who on your team got kills to ensure that XP was not wasted. The basic archetype of the series is that characters who are strong early on end up useless in the late game, whereas characters who start off weak have great stat growth so you need to babysit them through the first missions. The same system seems to apply here, although it looks like you can summon fights on the world map using items, which should make it easier to level up everyone if you can be bothered.

In any case, starting on Normal is the best way to ensure you can use all the ‘hard carries’ you want, and so I benched Frederick, this game’s Jeigan/Marcus XP hog, straight away in favour of characters like Sumia and Donnel instead. On harder difficulties, I expect you have to use some of the tankier units early on just to get through the first chapters, which will provide a different kind of reward. It certainly looks like there will be a lot of re-play value in this one.

This is my first proper experience with a 3DS. Apart from the FE games, I’m also excited to play Majora’s Mask, and to play a Pokemon game for the first time since Red/Blue. There are about a gazillion versions of the 3DS now. I opted for a New Nintendo 3DS, having been put off by the reports that the XL’s larger screen causes polygon stretching and that its shell picks up grubby fingerprints. In hindsight, the New Nintendo 3DS strikes me as quite small, and even though I have small hands I wonder how comfortable it will be for long sessions. Even so, I’m delighted to have it and am looking forward to levelling up my team of overpowered misfits as I steamroller Fie Emblem’s easy mode.

XCOM 2 (PC) – First Impressions

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I got my XCOM 2 and Body Harvest folders mixed up, but you can excuse the error.

The launch of XCOM 2 has been a model advertisement for console gaming. Developers Firaxis decided to make this game desktop-only, available only via Steam, in contrast to the last XCOM which came out on 360 and PS3 as well. The reason was supposedly so that development would be more straightforward and so Firaxis could focus on making the best possible experience for gamers (don’t laugh).

Having spent a few hours with XCOM 2 last night, I’m seriously unimpressed with Firaxis, publishers 2K, and Valve/Steam. Purchasers have reported widespread performance issues with the game, which do not affect every machine–but they certainly affect mine. Although the game’s cutscenes look good, the rendered graphics suffer from atrocious framerate issues, with massive jumping and stuttering. This is especially apparent during action scenes, but it even happens during dialogue and exposition, and it really spoils any sense of immersion. The mission environments also sport some really ugly textures. During the first tutorial mission I was, frankly, disgusted by the graphics, where the environmental textures and generic enemy armour skins brought to mind an N64 game or some cheap and nasty free-to-play game. Not at all what you expect from a brand-new, £35, supposedly AAA game. The game also sports the worst loading times I’ve encountered since playing an unpatched copy of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.

You might think it’s unfair to dwell on this too much, as the problems have been acknowledged and Firaxis say they are ‘working furiously’ to fix things. But it beggars belief that a game can get to launch with such rampant and ruinous issues–when it has been developed specifically for PC–without anyone at Firaxis or 2K putting a stop to it. The fact that the game is PC-only makes it even worse. At least if it was on consoles some gamers could choose to play it on another device. As it stands, it’s more or less pot luck whether the game will run properly on your machine. My own PC is not exactly super top-end, but it can run AC: Black Flag, Bioshock Infinite, Hitman Absolution and RE6 on top settings without problems, so it should be more than adequate to run this game smoothly. (It doesn’t make any difference if I set the graphical settings to the lowest possible, the performance issues remain–although they are worse if I set the settings to ‘High’.)

Another disappointment has been the fact the game supposedly was developed with native support for the Steam Controller in mind. I foolishly pre-ordered a Steam Controller about a year ago, and since it arrived I have found it to be completely unusable; it feels more like a novelty tech demo than something anyone would actually expect to play a game with. So I was excited to try it with a game sort-of designed for it. I was amused therefore to find that the game informed me that controllers were not supported (lol), but I could try it anyway. After trying to start the game in Big Picture mode and waiting for 5 or 10 minutes for the game to initialize, I gave up. I had to close down the game and Big Picture mode in task manager and boot the game normally (using my mouse) to get it to load, which it then did immediately. Seriously, Big Picture mode and the Steam Controller just feel to me like monuments to Valve’s endless narcissism.

So… what about XCOM 2’s actual gameplay? Well, beneath all the technical issues this is still XCOM, and it’s good fun. I found the set-up for the game’s story kind of annoying, as it basically says “Remember kicking the aliens asses in the last game? Humanity lost anyway–LOL!” So the scene is set to go through more or less the same process as in the first game. Back in 2013, I thought aspects of the first game’s story strongly brought to mind Mass Effect, and that resemblance is even more pronounced here. But nobody plays XCOM for the story. Tactical combat remains fun, and although the tutorial is quite easy–I got ‘Flawless’ ranks on my first couple of missions despite making a few mistakes–it still feels tense and dramatic.

One change I liked is that the scenery is more destructible than before, which can make it easier for you to turn the tide of battle in your favour, by blowing up enemy cover. I expect it can be used against you later on, too. You’re also able to set up Overwatch ambushes, which is a really cool system that has the potential to set up some awesome emergent gameplay moments. Well, if your framerate doesn’t ruin things, that is. The soldier class archetypes are still there, but there is a twist to each of them which makes them feel fresh and edgy. I also liked how the look of the soldiers is more badass than before, with your squaddies sporting a plethora of cool hairdos, shades, and baseball caps.

So, there is probably a really good XCOM game in here somewhere, and I look forward to playing it. But it’s risible that the game was made available for sale in this condition, inspiring cynicism about everyone involved.

Fallout 4 (PS4) – First Impressions

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A world awaits. 

Fallout 4 is the game we bought a PS4 to play. There’s a funny symmetry about it, because back in 2008 I bought an Xbox 360 so I could play Fallout 3. I did enjoy that game, particularly the early stages, but I think at a certain point I just found its world too empty, a bit too much of an actual wasteland.

Fallout 4 promises to be very, very different.

A few hours in, and it seems that Bethesda have done a good job of giving Fallout 4’s wasteland the ‘Skyrim treatment’. This is a world full of people to meet, locations to explore, and quests to discover. The graphics and production values are sky-high, considering the scale of the game; and it is very pleasing to have a fully-voiced protagonist. I haven’t quite bonded with my character yet, but I think that’s more due to some slightly lacklustre character creation on my part, rather than the voice acting. I’m sure it will get there. One of the challenges of a game like this is deciding how you want to build your character, and getting a feel for them. There are such a wealth of options in Fallout 4–so many ways you can go with your character and play style–that it’s going to take me a while before I settle on my character’s personality. It’s fun experimenting, though.

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The game’s opening does a good job of establishing the background for the game’s action and I found it really moving and sad. There are a few events and revelations in the early going that really make you stop and think–quite aside from the whole nuclear apocalypse thing. Before long, your character is free to do what he wants, and although there is a main quest to crack on with, most players will get sidetracked into one of the myriad questlines. Given the nature of the main story, this might feel a bit weird, but considering the scope and scale of the game anything else would feel like a waste.

After only a few hours, the game has introduced you to combat, weapon customization, and settlement building. Combat is good fun, with plenty of options available to you right from the outset, and the VATS system gives combat a cinematic sense of drama, as well as giving you a bit more control. Like Fallout 3, there is scope for some hilariously OTT blood and gore–especially if, like me, you take ‘Bloody Mess’ as one of your first perks. In one shootout yesterday I fired my laser rifle at an enemy in a building high above me, and then saw their severed head fall about 200 feet towards the ground, bouncing against the side of the building, before rolling to a stop on the floor, while the rest of their body remained atop the building. Only in Fallout.

It’s already evident that the variation in weaponry is absolutely insane, and enemy Raiders will often come at you with all kinds of grisly weapons, which you can of course equip yourself or customize at one of the many workbenches. Building weapons or armour requires raw materials, and you will loot almost everything you can get your hands on. Fortunately, you can give stuff to your companions to carry, as otherwise it’s easy to exceed your carrying capacity. There looks to be some great variety among your possible companions–some more entertaining than others–and they also seem to be somewhat sturdier than those in Fallout 3 or Skyrim; which is good news for careless players like me.

Another mechanic which makes use of raw materials is building settlements. This is not something I was really aware of beforehand, but it’s a well-developed system. Basically most cleared settlements can be re-built to house settlers. Not only must you build dwellings for them but also beds, supply water, food, and power, and build defensive structures in case of attack. I get the sense you can ignore it all if you don’t want to do it, but it’s good fun: T. has already done some amazing work in her game expanding and furnishing her settlements. You can also go around ‘scrapping’ ruined buildings, junk and trees for raw materials, and it is incredibly satisfying to see rubbish and mess cleared up at the click of a button. The first time I did this, I put on the in-game radio and tidied up my home town to the music of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Not what I was expecting when I fired up the game but there you go. I’m telling you, it’s a good job you can only scrap stuff within settlements or I would probably go round the entire wasteland just scrapping things and not playing the game. Like I said, it’s very satisfying.

A special mention should go to the ambient soundtrack and sound design. You have access to a couple of radio stations at the beginning, but on the whole I just prefer to listen to the sounds of the wasteland and wait for the game’s soundtrack to kick in. The best way I can describe the score is like a cross between Skyrim and The Walking Dead. It’s great.

This game is going to take me absolutely ages. Last night I accepted a quest to help some settlers in Twelve Pines, and made the trip down to Lexington and the Corvega Auto Plant to clear out some Raiders. It was tougher than I expected, and with a few minor distractions (like clearing some Feral Ghouls out of a local Supa Dupa Mart) it took me two hours before I could be confident the Raiders wouldn’t bother the good people of Twelve Pines any more. That’s one side quest. I remember before the game came out, people were talking about hundreds of hours content in here, and I can believe it. I managed to sink 150 hours into my one playthrough of Skyrim and I expect this will be even longer than that. I can’t wait.

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The evening redness in the West. 

Bioshock Infinite (PC) – First Impressions

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Bioshock Infinite received glowing reviews when it came out in 2013, but my impression is that it wasn’t really the commercial success it should have been. I’ve only just got round to playing it, having picked it up for a fiver in a Steam sale last year, so I can’t exactly claim to have done my bit to support the franchise. Which is a shame, because a couple of hours in, I have to say this game seems absolutely outstanding.

The game makes a slow start, but soon delivers you to the fantastical, floating city of Columbia. Exploring the streets of Columbia for the first time is a jaw-dropping experience and sceptic that I am, I must admit to something of a sense of wonder here. This game’s opening reminds me of nothing so much as the beginning of Half-Life 2, and indeed that is a comparison that is bearing up throughout the early stages. The game has a deeply congruous and well-realized sense of place and it is obvious a great amount of thought and care has gone into designing this world. One of the first areas you explore is an entire, functioning amusement arcade which serves no obvious plot or tutorial purpose, but helps to flesh out the environment and the world you’ve entered. Columbia is quite well-populated by people talking and going about their business, and most of them have interesting dialogue to follow. It’s excellent.

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Graphics are very colourful and the visual design is to be commended. The game is set in 1912 and there are impressive feats of mechanical and electrical engineering throughout the gameworld. But for all its Utopian pretensions, Columbia is a deeply sinister place, characterised by religious fanaticism and racial prejudice, and the game has a really creepy atmosphere. I was stunned at the point, very early on, when my initial exploration of Columbia came to an abrupt and violent halt. I don’t want to say too much, as this is a game that really should be experienced for yourself, but the narrative is well-paced and intense. There is an air of mystery and everything you learn seems to point the way to more questions.

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So far, the weakest part of the game is the player character Booker DeWitt, a generic private investigator who took an assignment in Columbia to pay off a gambling debt. I’m sure there will be a few twists along the way, but so far he is a cookie-cutter character and I can’t help but think that featuring him so prominently in the game’s marketing was a mistake. This game has plenty of selling points but the protagonist is not one. Elizabeth, a mysterious young woman with supernatural powers, is much more interesting and indeed I remember her cropping up regularly in coverage of the game when it was first released.

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The game’s combat is surprisingly deep. It has a number of features I remember from Bioshock 2, and in addition to melee and firearms you also get ‘Vigors’ which are equippable spells that allow you to do things like possess humans or machines or throw fireballs. The Vigor system is very cool, and combat is hectic without feeling overwhelming. On normal difficulty, the game’s challenge also seems relatively mild and frustration-free which is very welcome indeed.

So far, I’m really intrigued and enjoying Bioshock Infinite. The game blends a complex and interesting setting and story, great action, and stunning set-pieces and environments. I understand now why it received such wide critical praise; and I wish I’d played it sooner. It’s disappointing to learn that developer Irrational Games has since closed down, but I’m going to try not to dwell on that until I’ve finished the game, and just savour the experience while I’m playing it.

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