Beyond: Two Souls (PS4) – Review

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Beyond: Two Souls is a sort of spiritual successor to Heavy Rain, the brainchild of writer and “director” David Cage. Two Souls keeps the heavily narrative-driven style of Heavy Rain, so much so that it’s arguably more an “interactive drama” than a video game as such. Originally released for PS3 in late 2013, it was remastered along with Heavy Rain for the PS4 last year. The critical reception for Two Souls was somewhat harsher than for Heavy Rain: although, for me, it’s a superior experience overall, by the time it came out the novelty value of these kinds of games had started to wear off. Moreover, Two Souls came out a few months after The Last of Us: another PlayStation exclusive, and one which not only matched Two Souls for graphics, but surpassed it in story and gameplay.

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It probably didn’t help that Ellie in The Last of Us strongly brought to mind Ellen Page – a point seemingly not lost on the actress herself. Still, played now out of its original context, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty worthwhile experience. The story is told in the form of episodes from main character Jodie’s life: when she was a young girl, a teenager, and a young woman. Jodie was born tethered to an “entity” she refers to as Aiden. Aiden is invisible and can float and shift through walls and objects, but can only move a short distance from Jodie. He can interact with the physical world, and though quasi-autonomous is bound to Jodie and generally co-operates with her. As you’d expect, Jodie’s relationship with Aiden causes all kinds of social and developmental problems for her and she is entrusted to the “care” of the military while still a small child. As she gets older, Jodie tries to assert some level of independence in the face of the military’s demands, while managing her relationship with Aiden, and also navigating the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. She has a tough time of it and you can’t help but feel very sympathetic towards her, even if the character never really shows the kind of growth you would like and expect.

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Two Souls showcases sophisticated motion capture, and excellent facial animations, which allow it to do justice to strong performances from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, the latter portraying government doctor/researcher Nathan Dawkins. The young Jodie is also really adorable. However, the game proves that actors and technology can only take you so far without a good script. Although the plot is for the most part compelling, the dialogue and characterization is lackluster. The main characters lack depth, and scenes which should resonate often fall flat. Jodie endures some terrible ordeals over the course of the game, but it is only right at the end that the script really allows her to respond to her experiences in an emotionally convincing way. The game regularly provides you with options about how to react in various situations – such as being honest, evasive, or lying – but when you realize that “honest” and “evasive” answers can be virtually indistinguishable, it tests your investment in the story.

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While Two Souls rarely plumbs the depths of bathos seen in Heavy Rain, it still relies too heavily on socially unrealistic situations and behaviour. There are long passages in the second half which see Jodie amid a homeless community, and then staying with a Native American family. These seem to have been included just to remind us what a good person she is, but they’re shallow, unconvincing and superfluous to the plot. Throughout the story, people swing from one emotional extreme to another at a moment’s notice, and are willing to go along with ludicrous plans without hesitation. That includes Jodie, and the contrived way that the narrative tends to lurch forwards is irritating in a game which likes to pretend you have a degree of control over what happens.

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On the other hand, I didn’t expect to enjoy the action scenes so much. Two Souls has some really well-directed cinematic sequences which reminded me of James Cameron films like The Abyss and Aliens (no doubt in part due to the blue-heavy colour scheme), which was a pleasant surprise. These sequences are especially good when you’re controlling Aiden. Jodie can hold her own in combat, too – thanks to her CIA training – and is often called upon to defend herself in various situations. There is actually a fairly robust third-person stealth system which is, disappointingly, only used in one or two very effective sequences. Otherwise, the gameplay in these sections mainly involves moving the right analogue stick in a certain direction, in line with Jodie’s limb movements. In theory, it’s an intuitive system, but in practice it can be frustrating as it’s not clear until too late which body part you are supposed to be following. It’s hard to fail these sequences outright (I don’t think I got a game over at any point) but messing up too many times might result in an outcome you’d rather avoid.

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Two Souls is longer than I expected, clocking in at between ten and twelve hours depending on how leisurely your play style is. Replay value is limited but, while it may have been hard to justify a full-price purchase when it first came out, it’s fairly well discounted now and a decent pickup for a tenner or so. I really enjoyed Two Souls’ first few hours, and although the second half contains some overlong sequences that really should have been cut, things come together in time for a dramatically satisfying and quite moving conclusion. As much as I found Heavy Rain to have been overhyped and undeserving of much of the acclaim it received, Two Souls is probably an underrated experience that most fans of narrative gaming and sci-fi would appreciate.

7/10

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Tales of Berseria (PS4) – Review

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Tales of Zestiria was a massive disappointment. Conceived as the twentieth anniversary installment in the long-running and beloved JRPG franchise, Zestiria’s undoubted potential was undermined by a plethora of avoidable problems. The story suffered from an uneven script and poor pacing; the otherwise excellent combat was marred by an awful camera; and the myriad levelling and crafting systems were over-complicated and obtuse. Moreover, the game’s marketing pulled what has since become a notorious bait-and-switch, introducing someone who seemed like a main character before replacing her and selling her story as a paid DLC. Although Zestiria sold well, it riled up and alienated parts of the Tales fanbase, both in Japan and in the West.

So, a lot was riding on Tales of Berseria. Released in Japan last summer on both PS4 and PS3, and landing in Europe and America in January this year, Tales of Berseria is a prequel of sorts to Tales of Zestiria. Set in the same universe as Zestiria but in the dim and distant past, its events and characters are known only to a few of those encountered in Zestiria. The story is completely independent, and there is no need to have played Zestiria in order to understand the plot, but the experience of playing Berseria did make me appreciate Zestiria a little more. Moreover, knowing the ultimate fate of some of Berseria’s characters makes the journey with them here all the more poignant.

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Tales of Berseria is an excellent game with a compelling and engaging story, and an exceptional cast of characters. Most of the main cast are well fleshed-out – those on your side as well as your antagonists – and you will find probably find yourself sympathizing with most of them in turn over the course of the game’s 70 hours. Berseria is pitched as a story of “Emotion versus Reason”, and the plot largely eschews a conventional good-versus-evil dichotomy, instead showing how people pursue goals in line with their own philosophies and value systems.

Berseria’s world is a low-tech one where demons run rampant, and humanity has been driven to a marginal existence, confined to a few hard-pressed enclaves. A hero, Artorius Collbrande, emerges who establishes the Abbey, an order of Exorcists who combat the demons by controlling Malakhim, a race of humanoid spirits (familiar to some as the Seraphim of Tales of Zestiria). But the game is largely told from the point of view of Velvet Crowe, a young woman who has escaped from a hellish island prison and who knows the terrible secret of how Artorius acquired his power. On the surface, Artorius ticks many of the boxes we associate with our heroes, with many of the trappings of an enlightened and self-sacrificing leader. However, it quickly becomes clear that Artorius is willing to do almost anything in order to achieve his ideal world, and the main events of the story show how the end does not necessarily justify the means. Artorius is a Puritanical idealist unwilling to tolerate any human weakness. For her part, Velvet and her associates embody many such weaknesses, but despite their selfishness and individualism they generally seem more capable than the Abbey of sympathy and humanity (which is ironic, considering that most of them aren’t even human).

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Velvet is motivated by a single-minded desire for revenge against Artorius, and she is possessed by this furious monomania for most of the game. Velvet is about as different as it gets from the milquetoast leads we’re used to in most JRPGs, and in particular she’s a sexy and dramatic counterpoint to Zestiria’s poor Sorey.  Velvet’s party is composed of an assortment of humans, Malakhim, and Demons, each with their own motivations and distinctive personalities. Tales games are known for featuring entertaining casts and good drama and comedy, but Berseria’s character design and script is still really stellar. Although main character Velvet is only 19, her personality feels much older, and most other main characters feel like they’re in their 20s and 30s: grown up people living with grown up problems. Berseria doesn’t pretend that our problems can always be fixed and, for all of Velvet’s rage, it teaches the value of acceptance. We see broken or damaged characters living with past trauma, the legacy of bad and shameful decisions, or ongoing pain, but also finding friendship and camaraderie; trying to make the best of their lives, and where possible trying to help others around them.

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The strong ensemble cast is needed, because for all that Velvet is a striking lead, her singular focus on getting revenge against Artorius limits the ways she can develop as a character. But the supporting cast of Eizen, Eleanor, Rokurou, Magilou, and Laphicet make up for it. For me, Eizen was a real standout character, but you could make the case for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for any of them. In addition to Artorius, your antagonists include Shigure, an affable and charismatic master swordsman with hidden depths; and the brother and sister team of Teresa and Oscar, who between them have 95% of the attributes you would expect to see in the heroes in most games. It’s a bit of a weird feeling when you have to beat the snot out of poor, gentle, noble-minded Oscar, but Berseria is full of moments like this. Berseria goes beyond humanizing your enemies, although it certainly does this, providing rounded opponents with lots of little touches that show their humanity. What is more unusual is that Berseria shows you that your enemies might also be better, stronger, or more moral than you; and they might even be right, while you’re wrong.

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Berseria is a great achievement, and in many ways it feels like the Tales series celebration that Zestiria was meant to be. Some of the game’s mechanics and bonus systems contain nods to other games in the series, such as sets of collectibles, or a card-game featuring familiar characters from other games (rather like the card game from Graces). The Tales team must have pulled out all the stops for Berseria, because (with a couple of notable exceptions) the production values are consistently high and the game feels quite polished. For one thing,  Berseria features an outstanding score, with some stand-out tracks capable of evoking a gamut of emotions. A couple had a bittersweet feel that, for me, were a nostalgic reminder of playing my first Tales game (Symphonia) circa 13 years ago. The graphics are generally very good, with some stunning vistas and topography, and some of the cutscenes feature intense and dramatic contrast and excellent animation. As ever, the battle scenes feature explosions of colour as well. Berseria attracted some criticism for its visuals, and although it’s true they’re not necessarily pushing the envelope as far as technical proficiency goes, the stylized graphics are still attractive and occasionally beautiful.

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Berseria’s active combat system does not feature the Armatization system of Zestiria, instead making use of a ‘Souls’ system. Characters can perform moves and spells based on the amount of soul power they have available, and can also perform powerful Break Soul moves which consume a soul crystal in return for high damage and the ability to chain together longer combos. Some characters (Velvet) have a more powerful and easier to use Break Soul than others (Rokurou), but generally the relative power and style makes sense. Mystic artes also make a return, and fights are generally very good fun. Performing well earns high Grade, the resource used to master skills from equip-able armour. Eventually you unlock the ability to chain fights together and build a multiplier that increases Grade, giving fights a satisfying and addictive rhythm that makes exploration and combat a lot of fun and rarely a chore. The difficulty is well-balanced, and the game is quite generous with how often you can pull off special moves.

As with all Tales games, the ability to play the game in co-op mode is a major draw, and it’s a real joy to be able to experience the whole story with someone else. Unfortunately, as with other recent Tales games, for some reason only Player One is able to earn trophies. I don’t know whether this is a deliberate decision or just an oversight, but it feels like the game could be optimized a little better for multiplayer. Moreover, the first eight hours or so is pretty much a single-player affair, as Velvet doesn’t really have any partners at that stage, so if you plan to play the whole game in co-op there will be times when someone is twiddling their thumbs. That said, the Tales series is still fairly unique among A-list RPGs in allowing you to play in co-op at all, and long may it continue to do so.

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Berseria is an outstanding game, so it’s a shame there are a few annoyances and irritations. Some of the dungeon design is uninspired, and there’s a bit too much backtracking and aimless wandering for my taste. The inventory system is also disappointing: performing well in battle can see you ‘rewarded’ with huge quantities of junk items, which are individually listed in your inventory. There is a limit to what you can carry, meaning you will need to dispose of stuff eventually, but because you have to sell every item individually, it takes ages. There is also a way to upgrade equipment, but it’s long-winded and, because you get new equipment regularly, pretty much pointless (maybe not if you’re playing on one of the top difficulties). Finally, although the script and dialogue are top-notch, some of the subtitles seem to have been rendered as a phonetic transcription of the English voice acting by someone who doesn’t understand English (or by a machine), meaning the subtitles sometimes don’t match what the characters are saying. Considering the overall quality of the game, and the obvious passion that went into it, it’s unfortunate that a few things like this subtract from the overall package.

Nevertheless, Tales of Berseria is a great game and one which I’m truly grateful to have played. It marks a resounding turn to form for the franchise, and should serve as a solid basis for the future development of the series. Many Tales fans breathed a sigh of relief when Hideo Baba, a producer associated with many of the series’ problems in recent years, recently moved on to a new job with Square Enix, and indeed by all accounts he had little to do with this game. If Berseria is anything to go by, the series now seems to be in good hands, and I only hope future entries will maintain the sophistication and emotional maturity displayed in the story here.

9/10

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Heavy Rain (PS4) – Review

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Heavy Rain was first released on the PlayStation 3 amid much fanfare in early 2010. It was a significant game for several reasons. The PS3 was still languishing behind the Xbox 360 after a disastrous launch, and the console needed exclusive games that showed off its latent processing power and superior graphics. Heavy Rain was conceived as such a game, and much was made of its sophisticated graphics, in particular its characters’ faces and facial animations. It was also one of the first games to go down the route of “interactive drama”, and (along with The Walking Dead) it helped inspire the proliferation of similar games over the last six or seven years. It’s strange to think now, but back in 2010 motion controls were all the rage (thanks to the Nintendo Wii), and Heavy Rain was also used to demonstrate the potential of Sony’s Move controllers. So, a lot was riding on the game, but it proved a commercial and critical success, and was re-released on PS4 last year, taking advantage of the current craze for remakes. You can pick it up in a bundle with Beyond: Two Souls, also from developer Quantic Dream.

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In short, Heavy Rain was an ambitious game that achieved what it needed to, but with the passage of time and divorced from its context, it now feels fairly unremarkable. Heavy Rain is a noir-ish thriller with a narrative structure that follows several characters as they attempt to unravel the mystery of a serial murderer known as “The Origami Killer”. The story is told through a sequence of overlapping scenes told from four different points of view; the player has a certain amount of control over what the characters do, and how they interact with their environment and other people. The game has quite a few possible endings, so some of the decisions you make matter and have consequences, but there are still quite a lot of scenarios where the game forces you down a particular path and makes you do something you really don’t want to. It’s not quite the illusion of choice for which Telltale games have become notorious, but it can still be a bit jarring at times.

The central story of Heavy Rain is well-paced and emotionally resonant, but it is also overwrought and prone to melodrama. Even by video game standards the storytelling is unsophisticated, and at times the script descends into outright bathos and Narm; indeed, T. and I took to referring to the game as “Chubby Rain”, in honour of the legendary B-Movie of the same name. Certain events that are integral to the plot depend on characters behaving in an unrealistic or moronic way, which tends to undermine the player’s immersion and investment in the story. The much-feted facial animations can lead to occasional unintended comedy when characters gurn inappropriately or make exaggerated expressions; and there were also a couple of nightmarish occasions when characters spoke without moving their lips. On the whole, the character models and facial animations are impressive, but Heavy Rain has long since been surpassed by the likes of The Last of Us and The Witcher 3 (which also happen to be fully-fledged video games rather than “interactive drama”). Heavy Rain “director” and writer David Cage also has a weird insistence on using extreme close-ups of the main characters during cuts and loading screens, which may have seemed original in 2010 but now just feels pretentious and odd.

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The interactive part of Heavy Rain involves exploring environments and engaging with people and objects, and many of the scenes and settings are well-designed and executed, even if most of them are highly derivative of ’80s and ’90s cinema. The game doesn’t have difficulty levels as such, but it adjusts the complexity of the button and motion controls based on your level of experience with games. While I found the button controls to be fine, for me the motion controls were poorly implemented and a cause of regular frustration. Moreover, although some investigations and conversations proved thrilling, too much of Heavy Rain alternates between the mundane business of opening and closing cupboards, or a procession of overlong and ultimately dull fistfights.

Although it doesn’t always get it right, some of the relationships between characters can be quite affecting, in particular that between main character Ethan Mars and his son, Shaun. It’s fortunate that Ethan’s character arc is quite strong, because the other three characters are not developed that well. In particular, the depiction of journalist Madison Paige is somewhat problematic. Paige is an effective and tenacious investigative journalist, but almost every scene she’s in sees her luridly depicted as victim, nurse, or helpless object of sexual desire. This is testament to the script’s ’80s B-Movie DNA, but it’s somewhat jarring and out of sync with the game’s popular and self-perception.

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The relative success of any game is inherently conjunctural, depending as it does on a variety of technological factors and cultural trends, as well as whatever artistry it can bring to bear. The original Heavy Rain took advantage of a certain set of circumstances to deliver a commercially successful, technologically savvy experience which also suggested a possible future path for video game design. But it hasn’t aged well. Although this remake helps to spruce up Heavy Rain’s graphics, it’s unable to do anything about its dated story and characterization, or its overly stylized and pretentious self-image.

6/10

Resident Evil 0 HD (PS4) – Review

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Set the night before the infamous Mansion Incident depicted in the first Resident Evil game, Zero is a prequel which provides some extra backstory to the sinister Umbrella corporation and more context to RE 1 & 2. It was first released for Nintendo’s Gamecube in 2002, but was recently given the HD treatment by Capcom and marketed alongside the remastered version of Resident Evil. Zero received a fair critical reception when it was first released: it boasted impressive graphics and featured a couple of new gameplay mechanics to shake up the traditional RE formula. Resident Evil games had normally allowed you to play through as one of two protagonists, but Zero instead included a “partner system” which saw the player in charge of two characters simultaneously. But with the passage of time, how does Zero stand up now alongside the rest of the franchise?

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Zero starts with the player controlling Rebecca Chambers, the improbably young 18-year-old medic attached to STARS Bravo team. Rebecca soon bumps into the muscle-bound escaped convict Billy Coen, a 26-year-old ex-Marine sentenced to death for mass murder. In terms of tone and setting, Zero is a pretty dour affair, and the writing doesn’t invest either character with much personality.  Rebecca will be familiar to anyone who’s played through Chris Redfield’s story in the original Resident Evil, in which she’s a secondary and largely passive presence. In contrast, here Rebecca is the heroine, but although likable enough she doesn’t really get much development. Her vague lack of personality kind of makes sense in that she’s not much more than a child, but Zero still feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Billy is a pretty generic foil who has largely been forgotten by the rest of the franchise.

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For the most part Zero plays out like the first Resident Evil, but the controls have been loosened somewhat in the remaster meaning the game is easier to play. The “partner system” was one of the game’s selling points when it was first released, but then and now its execution leaves something to be desired. The AI that controls your partner is not very good, and you only have limited control over what your partner does. You can set them to attack or to remain idle, which has the predictable results that they either shoot wildly and waste precious ammo, or don’t do anything while a zombie munches on you. Although the system might seem well-suited to co-op, sadly this wasn’t included (and co-op has always been a controversial inclusion in RE games anyway). Moreover, your partner will often block you, fail to follow you through doors or onto elevators, etc.

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The developers did manage to put the partner system to use in some of the game’s puzzles, but it’s somewhat damning to consider that the system is most effective when the two characters are in completely different places. Rebecca and Billy have different abilities, but this doesn’t really come off either. Billy has a lighter, while Becky can mix herbs (Billy must be one of the only people in-universe who can’t mix a green herb with a red one). Billy is much larger and stronger than Rebecca, meaning he can take more damage, and also that he can move objects Rebecca can’t. In practice, this felt a bit lame, as I preferred to control Rebecca for most of the game, clearing areas solo and only summoning Billy to pick up items or move some furniture around.

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Zero features the dreaded inventory management of the early RE games, with each character being able to carry six items. You can transfer items between characters, but there are no longer item boxes to store your stuff. Instead, you can drop items on the floor. This is sometimes convenient, as it means you don’t have to keep shuttling items back and forth from the item box, but in practice save rooms tend to act as your item hubs anyway and you just end up dropping loads of stuff all over the floor. Which is about as elegant as it sounds. It also feels like Capcom had a bit of trouble balancing the game’s difficulty around the partner system. In theory, having two characters should make things easier, but in practice your partner is often more or less a liability. As in other RE games health and ammo are often extremely scarce, and even experienced Resident Evil players may find Zero’s punishing midsection to be harrowing work. Only towards the end does the game become more generous with ammo, herbs, and ink ribbons, and that’s probably just because nobody would ever complete the damn thing otherwise.

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Resident Evil Zero is not a game without merit. Certain sections of the game, especially the opening, are quite atmospheric, and the old Resident Evil formula has an inherent appeal which will probably be enough to help most series fans get through it at least once. The graphics are outstanding, and at times I thought it looked better than the HD remasters of 1 and 4, which are both far superior games. But I found myself much less tolerant of the game’s weaknesses than I was when I first played it on the Gamecube a dozen or so years ago. In particular, the antiquated AI and punishing difficulty are likely to drive most players today to distraction. Zero will still hold interest for some hoping to mine it for lore about the origins of the T-Virus, but even this material is a bit disappointing, and one can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience. If anything, Resident Evil Zero’s most enduring importance is probably as evidence of why Capcom had to radically change the style of the franchise. Zero sold over a million copies when it was released, and its remasters have done slightly better, but it’s still one of the most under-performing games in the franchise (even worse than a curiosity like Umbrella Chronicles). New series fans drawn in by Resident Evil 7 should definitely check out Resident Evil HD, but should feel free to give Zero a miss.

6/10

Tales of Zestiria (PS4) – Review

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I have some explaining to do. Eight months have passed since I posted my first impressions of Tales of Zestiria. That’s an inordinate amount of time under any circumstances, but particularly so in this case as those initial glowing impressions gradually gave way to frustration and despondency, meaning that T. and I took a six month break from the game. For a while I was worried in case my enthusiastic post would mislead anyone into buying a game which would ultiimately disappoint them. Having finally returned to and completed Zestiria, I’m relieved it’s not as bad as I feared it would be; though it still doesn’t live up to either its own early promise, or the standard of quality the series is generally known for.

The Tales series of RPGs is a long-running Japanese franchise where each game is generally set in its own fantasy universe, and you control a band of characters on some kind of journey to save the world. The franchise is known for its energetic real-time combat system, which functions almost like a beat-em-up with heavy reliance on combos and flashy special attacks. It also features couch co-op for up to four players, which is pretty unique for this style of game and a major selling point for the franchise. In Zestiria, the main character is Sorey, a young man who becomes the ‘Shepherd’. Sorey is a noble-minded hero tasked with quelling the ‘Lord of Calamity’ and the force of ‘malevolence’, a kind of ethereal element which can corrupt normal people and turn them into ‘Hellions’ (basically, monsters). Almost anyone can fall prey to malevolence, and it normally affects people who evince strong negative emotions. Interestingly, Sorey also has to guard himself against the affects of malevolence: it’s intimated that other Shepherds in the past have fallen victim to it, often under the pressure of the demands of a faithless, fickle, and dependent flock.

Sorey is a likable enough character, with an endearing simplicity and generosity of spirit. Sorey is accompanied on his journey by a number of Seraphs, who are elemental spirits associated with Water, Fire, Earth, and Wind. The spirits provide moral support and advice along Sorey’s journey as well as helping him out in combat. One of the new combat mechanisms introduced in Zestiria is ‘Armatization’, whereby Sorey can fuse with a Seraph to gain massive boosts to health and damage, also unlocking more attacks. This is one of the best parts about the combat system, and there is a good rhythm between pulling off combos in normal form, then armatizing and dealing massive damage.

Unfortunately, combat is seriously marred by severe camera problems. Most previous Tales games had a system where, when you encountered an enemy, you were taken to a generic instanced area to fight. However, Zestiria, in the effort to maintain an open-world feel, has you fight in the very area you encountered the enemy. Obviously, the world does not just consists of flat open areas, so this means you have to fight in corridors, around corners, on slopes, etc, and the camera is simply not designed for it. You’ll often find yourself fighting with little or no view of your own character or the enemy. In mitigation, at least this doesn’t tend to affect boss fights, but it does detract from one of the game’s main features. I don’t understand why they don’t simply switch to an overhead view on those occasions.  It particularly affects the enjoyment of players other than the first, because the camera always follows player one and his target. While I’m on the topic of co-op play, it’s worth noting that player two won’t get any trophies for this game, even if they’re signed in before they start. It’s a really weird oversight, as in previous Tales games both players can earn trophies, but here only the main player can do so. It’s either a deliberate and dickish decision, or a lazy oversight, but either way, it’s an avoidable irritation.

Over the years the Tales series has incorporated a number of different levelling systems and other mechanics that mean there is always something going on, whether its eating meals when resting at an inn to get stat boosts, or levelling titles to unlock special abilities, etc. Zestiria has a plethora of these systems but ultimately it’s easy to get lost in their complexities, and in the end we generally decided not to bother with them. It’s a shame because there are some good ideas here but they just get lost in a sea of menus and obtuse names. There are only so many unintuitive systems most players will be prepared to learn to play a video game in this day and age. Zestiria also features a huge number of skits, the talking-head cutaways featured in all recent Tales games. But sadly, the writing isn’t really able to keep up, and most of the skits fall flat.

The Tales series is known for the quality of its dialogue and the endearing and inspiring interaction between its characters. Zestiria starts well, but starts to go downhill once more characters are introduced. Unfortunately, a likeable main character is removed from your team early on, and although her replacement is endearing enough, the same can’t really be said for the seraphs in your party. The game gets the balance wrong, and there is too much sarcasm and snarky bickering, combined with too much zany nonsense. At times, the dialogue can also just be very difficult to follow, meaning jokes aren’t funny, and long sections of exposition seem impenetrable or don’t relate to what you’ve just seen. I don’t know if this is a translation issue (we played the game with the English dub), but it definitely felt like the writing was worse than most other Tales games.

It’s a shame, because the story is actually quite interesting, and features some really atmospheric anime cutscenes at reguar intervals throughout the game. The pacing really suffers about halfway through, which was the main reason why T. and I stopped playing for half a year. However, shortly after we went back to it, some important story events actually mitigated some of our frustrations with the game to the point that I felt bad for forming such a low opinion of it, and the closing sections are generally pretty good. The final section is a real slog, as the game throws several long dungeons at you followed by a marathon boss fight that forced us to turn down the difficulty to Easy (look, it was after 1am on a school night, don’t judge us). But this is within the margin of error for a JRPG, and genre fans will likely overlook it.

Zestiria’s graphics are really quite nice. As one of the first PS4 games we played, I was expecting to be blown away by the graphics, so at first was disappointed. I later learned this was initially released on PS3 and then touched up for PS4, which makes sense. However, the graphics are clear and colourful, and the more built-up environments are well-designed. The game features very large open areas between quest hubs, and these can look a bit barren, but it’s really just a case of adjusting your expectations from Skyrim or Witcher 3. The music is pretty decent for the most part, but a few dungeons have quite weird and unmelodious music, and there’s one tune towards the end of the game featuring singing that got on my nerves.

On the whole, Tales of Zestiria is a mixed bag. There are elements here of what makes the Tales series so great, with a few really moving and interesting story elements, and some good characters. But there is too much unevenness and bad writing to be able to recommend this wholeheartedly, and only Tales series completionists should play this over something like Graces, Xillia, or Vesperia. Zestiria has the feel of a bit of an experiment, and here’s hoping that they fine-tuned some of these ideas and mechanics for Tales of Berseria, which is due out in Europe this time next month.

7/10

The Last of Us Remastered (PS4) – Review

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I tried to play The Last of Us on PS3 a couple of years ago, but couldn’t finish it due to a gamebreaking bug. The bug didn’t just affect one copy of the game: it damaged the interaction between TLOU and my PS3, meaning any and all versions of the game were unplayable on my console. So I was grateful that the game was remastered for the PS4, and looked forward to finally being able to finish the story. It was a struggle over the last couple of years to avoid spoilers about the ending, let me tell you.

The Last of Us is a third-person action/survival horror game made by Naughty Dog, a developer primarily associated with the Uncharted series. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic USA where the population has been devastated by an epidemic of the Cordyceps fungus. Cordyceps is a real-world fungus which mainly affects insects and is famous for its bizarre affects on behaviour (google ‘zombie ants’) as well as the grisly protrusion of the fungal ‘fruit’ which erupts from the exoskeleton. Needless to say, the impact of the epidemic has brought humanity to its knees. Large-scale economic activity has ceased; the population has declined alarmingly, and most people live either in one of a few quasi-fascist militarized enclaves, or as part of predatory ‘hunter’ communities. It’s a hellishly bleak environment that evokes comparison with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

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For most of the game you play as Joel, a middle-aged man shorn of much of his humanity. Joel is defined by his ability to survive, and over the course of the story Joel kills a very large number of people and infected in often brutal ways. The human core of the story is Joel’s relationship with Ellie, a 14-year-old girl entrusted to Joel’s care early in the game, and the story of The Last of Us is the story of their journey together. It is difficult to discuss the game’s plot without giving away major spoilers, but suffice to say that the arc of Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the emotional backbone of the game and is the main reason why this is often spoken of as one of the best video games ever made.

Joel is something of a deconstruction of the typical video game hero. In fact, he is more of an antihero than anything else, showing little charm or compassion for most of the game; but this is entirely compatible with the setting. This is a world where almost everyone from ‘our’ society has been killed off, and the most extreme kind of self-reliance and emotional insulation is needed to keep going. It’s referred to more than once that Joel has done some very bad things in the past. However, Joel’s relationship with Ellie does humanize him, and his cold demeanour makes those moments of humour and compassion all the more moving. Ellie is the breakout star of the game and, although you only control her for brief periods, the game’s real hero. Ellie seems like a real teenager and is an often entertaining companion–as well as an absolutely lethal one. While Joel is a one-man bloodbath, Ellie is also deadly with a variety of weapons and more than capable of helping Joel out of a jam if he gets in trouble.

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Combat in The Last of Us is extremely violent, brutal, and impactful. Joel gains access to a variety of firearms, which all pack a heavy punch. The difficulty comes with aiming, as the game does a believable job of making it difficult to hit your enemies. Moreover, infected will generally keep coming straight at you until you kill them, meaning it’s easy to get overrun by even small groups. Ammo is very scarce, and Joel will often have to rely on improvised melee weapons, bricks and bottles, or even his bare hands to survive. These mano a mano fights have a surprisingly visceral quality, helped by the excellent cinematic camera and also the weight and inertia of Joel’s physical form. The desperation felt while sprinting to stop a hunter, about to kill a defenseless Ellie, was exceeded only by the relief that washed over me when I knocked him over and proceeded to beat him senseless. This is not a game for the faint of heart–a reflection of the world it’s situated in.

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The obvious visual and gameplay influences for The Last of Us are Resident Evil 4 and Half Life 2, and the game more than lives up to those lofty standards. The graphics on the remastered PS4 version are stunning, perhaps not as advanced as they were when the PS3 original came out but extremely good nonetheless. In particular, Joel and Ellie’s facial animations are exceptional and movingly convey a range of emotion throughout the story. The decayed urban cityscapes are extremely well-designed: the various cities you explore feel like real places, that have fallen apart in believable ways. Twenty years have passed since the first outbreak and nature is returning to the cities: not just in the form of grass and weeds, but in the abysmal spread of fungus that accompanies the most advanced stage of infection. The mere sight of spores forces Joel to don his gas mask, and is normally followed by some appalling prospect of a corpse completely overtaken by fungus, belching spores into the air. Before infected get to that stage, they’re known as ‘Clickers’: still able to move, but with their brains and crania overtaken by fungus, they rely on sound to navigate, constantly making a ‘clicking’ sound from the back of their throat. The sections of the game which see you sneaking around groups of Clickers are by far the most frightening.

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The sound design is yet another high point, and The Last of Us features some outstanding voice acting for the main characters. It also features an impressive turn from Nolan North, known mainly for the execrable Nathan Drake but who does a great job here. The soundtrack also cannot pass without comment: it is a perfect minimalist accompaniment to the story and, like the story, a work of sad and sombre beauty.

The Last of Us Remastered comes with the Left Behind DLC, which is a several-hour Ellie-centered expansion set during the events of the main story. It’s definitely worth a play and adds extra value to what is already an outstanding package. The main story clocks in at about 15-20 hours, and in addition to the DLC there are unlockables and multiple difficulty levels, as well as a multiplayer mode.

In making The Last of Us Naughty Dog revealed a level of maturity and sincerity in their world-building and storytelling that is totally absent from the risible Uncharted games. I only wish they would do more games like this, but at least they have created one unforgettable masterpiece. That’s more than most studios manage.

10/10

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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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