Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U) – Review


Xenoblade Chronicles X was released in the West at Christmas 2015. A spiritual successor to revered Wii JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles (but not a sequel – that’s coming to Switch later this year), X is a sprawling open-world sci-fi RPG set on the planet Mira. The game’s story quickly establishes that Earth has been destroyed by hostile alien races; because humanity had some advance warning, as many people as possible were sent into space on giant ark ships to try and stop us going extinct. The struggle to survive against the odds is a major theme throughout the story, and X tells an often inspiring and moving story, largely due to a strong script and a varied and likable cast of characters.

The player character, canonically known as Cross, exhibits that most convenient of storytelling devices – amnesia – and his introduction to the planet Mira serves for us as well. The humans on Mira all come from an ark known as the White Whale, which crashed on the planet with hostile aliens in pursuit. The stranded humans have set about establishing a colony which they’ve christened New Los Angeles. Fortunately, Mira is a miraculously Earth-like planet, and so humans can get by pretty well. The game is host to a vast array of flora and fauna, many of which are quite spectacular, and the game’s visual design is a real highlight. Although the character designs might not be the most sophisticated, the landscapes and vistas unfurled as you traverse Mira are often jaw-dropping. I really missed having a screenshot feature on the Wii U, as this is a game that was really made for such a function. The Wii U is not the most powerful games console, but X shows that design and artistry are more important than raw power. This is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve played.

The sound design is on a par with the game’s visuals, a testament to the passion that went into building the game. At first I was a bit put off by the soundtrack’s unusual nature and the fact that many of the songs feature vocals: most games prefer instrumental, ambient tracks, which are less likely to distract the player’s attention. However, after a while I really started to get into the music, and it won me over as one of the most enjoyable and memorable game soundtracks I’ve experienced. It reminded me of the excellent Kill La Kill soundtrack, which is no coincidence as it was composed by the same guy, Hiroyuki Sawano. There are several stand-out tracks I came to look forward to hearing, and some real earworms. That said, with over four hours of original music, there are inevitably a couple of tracks that will get on your nerves. Although the music is epic and very good, it’s not perfect.

X plays a bit like an MMORPG, even though it’s primarily a single-player game. It is possible to team up with other players online, but that’s not something that appeals to me these days. The main story is divided up into 12 ‘chapters’, some of which are quite short, so much of the story and context is filled out with a bewildering array of side missions. Some of these are picked up from a central mission board, and are often MMORPG staples like gathering or hunting missions, but there are also a huge amount of flavour missions you pick up from the denizens of New LA. The city expands considerably over the course of the game, but it can be a bit of a feast or famine situation as far as missions go. Some missions unlock a huge number of new side stories, and so completing the right missions at the right time is important to ensure you have a steady flow of content. If you go through the main story missions too quickly, you will soon find yourself under-leveled, and miss out on a lot of important content.

Gameplay revolves around exploration and combat. Once you initiate combat you can cast ranged and melee special attacks, buffs and debuffs, and can launch a high damage ‘overdrive’ mode if you build up enough ‘tension’ from your other attacks. You can also spend tension to perform more powerful attacks. Your teammates’ attacks can trigger combos to increase damage, restore health, and so on. You can also target enemy appendages to do increased damage and make them less threatening. I honestly found the combat to be a bit over-complicated, and this sort of gameplay is really better suited to a keyboard than a console controller, even a monster like the Wii U Gamepad.

Combat is more fun once you unlock Skells, giant mechs that reminded me a lot of Transformers. Skells also make it a lot easier to travel around Mira: while for the first 30 hours or so you have to go everywhere on foot – sneaking round powerful monsters that can kill you in one hit – Skells make getting around a lot easier. But even then, you’ll have to be careful not to aggro powerful beasts, as there is an abundance of elite and high-level monsters throughout Mira who can easily kill you even after you complete the game. It’s a bit frustrating, as replacing your Skell can become prohibitively expensive, so having it destroyed is not a trivial matter. The game only allows you one save file, so you need to ensure you save regularly, especially if you’re worried about replacing your Skell. The game doesn’t auto-save, and losing an hour or more of progress due to the game crashing (which happened to me more than once) is not fun.

X makes good use of the Wii U Gamepad, using the touchscreen to manage an interactive map, as well as your mining and exploration probes which generate revenue and resources. The whole game can also be played on the Gamepad screen, but it really benefits from being seen on a big screen.

This is a game that eschews holding the player’s hand and expects you to find out a lot on your own. There is an enormous variety of combat and exploration mechanics which are not thoroughly explained: there is a cumbersome in-game manual, but most people will end up relying on the internet for advice. I don’t think I’ve ever gone online as much while playing a game as I did during X, not just for help with quests and battles, but also for help understanding the myriad combat and leveling systems.

I’m all for complexity, but this game takes things too far with its obtuse systems, and seems contemptuous of the player’s time and convenience. The party management system is a case in point. You can have up to four characters in your party, but to add someone to your party you have to physically find them in New LA and talk to them – you can’t just switch them out using a menu. Moreover, to unlock character-based side quests (‘affinity missions’) you have to raise the affinity level between that character and your avatar, which takes ages and can only happen if they are in your party. The icing on the cake is that characters only gain experience if they are in your party, so you’re almost certain to have a host of squadmates who are seriously under-leveled and therefore useless in combat: which is a problem because fights can be very tough. It’s a shame because many of the side stories are really well-written, but getting to experience all the content with each of the fifteen or so party members is a massive chore.

Once you complete the game, there are a few repeatable missions you can do to raise your affinity a bit faster, but even then, it takes much longer than it should. Some missions are also just ludicrously difficult, and completely out of sync with the level requirements specified for the mission. Even after beating the game, and having played for over 100 hours, I finally gave up on trying to do everything when a level 37 mission featuring a level 46 boss repeatedly wiped my squad of level 55+ characters. Frustrating as it was, this wouldn’t have been such a problem were it not for the fact you can’t abandon missions once you start them. So, in order to do anything else I would have had to go and grind for hours to be able to complete the mission before I could move on. Then there are things like a character recruitment mission you have to be level 44 to begin, but at the end of said mission the character who joins is level 32 – guaranteeing they are at least 12 levels below you, and requiring you to grind for ages if you want them to be remotely useful.

The often disrespectful and sadistic nature of the gameplay is at odds with the positive tone of the story. It really is an inspiring tale which features a wonderful cast of characters, and both the main story and the side missions are a trove of joy and entertainment. X features some wonderfully-designed alien races, at times even giving something like Mass Effect a run for its money. Though it’s ostensibly set in a grimdark universe, X has an optimistic, light-hearted and childlike sincerity that you rarely see in a genre dominated by more cynical Western games, and it’s a refreshing and beautiful take on the space opera formula. The stand-out character is Elma, wonderfully voiced by Caitlin Glass, who is basically the protagonist of the main story and an inspirational lead in the Shepherd mould.

photo 1

Elma and Cross enjoying some down-time.

X is a long game, and the Western release contains additional content that was released as DLC in Japan, which stretches things out even further. If you’re looking for a hardcore RPG to play on the Wii U, this is probably your best bet, and it could last you for ages (I was playing it on and off for about six months). It’s just a shame that the game makes it so hard to experience everything it has to offer. Xenoblade Chronicles X could and should have been a great game, but it falls frustratingly short through fault of its own.


Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS) – Review


2016 was the year of the Pokemon. Pokemon Go was one of the cultural phenomena of the year, the free-to-play mobile game generating an exceptional level of interest that briefly captured the public imagination. Of course, Pokemon Go was developed and published by Niantic, rather than Nintendo, but Nintendo still benefited from the massive exposure their franchise received. Pokemon Go’s runaway success undoubtedly helped sales of Pokemon Sun/Moon, the fully-fledged Pokemon RPG released for 3DS last year. Nintendo shipped over 12 million copies of Sun and Moon in 2016 (over 15 million at time of writing), making it the best-selling game of the year, two million clear of Fifa 17.

The Pokemon bug got me too. Before Sun, I hadn’t played a Pokemon game since the one that started it all, Pokemon Red/Blue, almost twenty years ago. Although the series is often associated with the famous catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”, there is more to Pokemon than an addictive compulsion to catch cute monsters. The Pokemon games – at least the main-series RPGs released on handhelds, if not necessarily all the spinoffs – have always been robust and well-crafted, even if (by all accounts) few have recaptured the perfect balance and pacing of the originals. Sun/Moon were generally well-received by critics, and with their cheery aesthetic and legions of cute monsters, this is a hard game to dislike. But while it reminded me why I have such fond memories of the franchise, it never quite lived up to my hopes.

Pokemon Sun/Moon are set in the archipelago Alola, a new, Hawaii-influenced setting for the series. This establishes a bright, sunny and colourful tone, likely to prove appealing to all but the most morbid of players. Alola also features quite some biodiversity, and there are about 300 monsters in the game. This means not all of the 800 or so creatures in the franchise are present, but there are still some new ones in addition to “Alolan” variants on familiar creatures. The quality of the monster design varies a little, and like many people I strongly favour the “original” Pokemon cast; but I suppose there needs to be some variation, otherwise I might as well have just played Red/Blue again. As a solo player, I was irritated to find some monsters won’t evolve without trading with another person. Believe it or not, as a man in his 30s I don’t know many people who play Pokemon, and I can’t rightly start hanging around outside schools asking people to trade. Thus I was never able to evolve the likes of Machoke and Kadabra into their final forms. I get that playing and trading with others is part of the game, and the developers want to get you interacting with other players in the world; but I just found it a shame not to be able to get the evolutions I wanted.

For a game as aesthetically cheerful and upbeat as Pokemon Sun/Moon – the closest thing to a holiday without actually taking one – the gameplay mechanics are surprisingly liable to frustrate. Wild monsters can summon a partner to help them in a fight, and you can’t throw a Pokeball to catch a monster unless it’s on its own. Monsters can also summon a partner on the same turn you take one of them out, leading to a near endless supply of reinforcements you have to eliminate (which can make you fell pretty bad, too, like you’re killing a bunch of wildlife for no reason). Of course, Pokemon can also break out of a Pokeball, and you often need to make several throws before a successful catch. This means random fights in the wild can go on for much longer than you would expect, at least if you are bothered with trying to catch new monsters (and who isn’t?) At the same time, the actual story progression for the first 20 or so hours is really easy – even boss fights feel trivial – and I didn’t find the artificial “challenge” derived from the frustrating and random catch system to be very rewarding.

As far as presentation goes, the music is chirpy but some themes can become a little grating. On the other hand, the graphics are impressive: as well as being bright, bold and full of colour, they’re surprisingly crisp and detailed. It’s a joy to see such a nice-looking game on a handheld, and it’s a tribute to Nintendo’s 3DS hardware. To get it running smoothly they’ve dispensed with 3D effects – a move in line with the recent release of the 2DS and 2DS XL. I still think the 3D effect is quite cool when it’s used, but Nintendo ditching it does encourage you to think of it as something of a gimmick. It’s funny now to read game reviews from five years ago which criticize inadequate or unimaginative use of 3D, when the Big N themselves seem to have abandoned it.

As for the 3DS’s other features, the bottom screen is mainly used for a world map, but it’s annoying that about half the screen is taken up with the googly eyes of Rotom Dex (the Pokemon who lives in your Pokedex). You can use the touch screen for selecting commands, or for stroking your monsters after battle to reward them, cure status ailments, and increase your affinity. I tended not to do that much just because it made me feel guilty for playing a game instead of bestowing affection on my actual cats. That said, the relationship between people and animals is at the heart of the Pokemon experience, and if the game helps nurture childish affection for animals, then that can only be a good thing. It’s also nice to think of children being able to spend time with Pokemon as surrogate pets if they’re not allowed or able to have real ones at home.

This is a game heavily marketed at young kids, of course, perhaps explaining the very low difficulty (a shame Nintendo didn’t adopt the same policy when I was a kid). Only towards the end do you have to deploy much in the way of strategy or grinding, and the rock-paper-scissors elemental system is quite straightforward. The main story is quite short and simple, clocking in at just over 30 hours. There’s a fair bit left to do in the post-game, but unless you’re really into context-less Pokemon battles and filling out your Pokedex, it’s unlikely to grab you. The game also has lots of little side mechanics – like developing little islands to house your Pokemon – but none feel very compelling, or are well-integrated into the core gameplay, meaning they’re easy to ignore.

I noticed a couple of other curious things as well. One was a literal way the game has of describing your actions after you acquire an item, explaining each and every time that you “pick up an item and put it away in the item pocket”. It soon felt like a bizarre pastiche of Hemingway. I was also put off by Team Skull, the rival faction you encounter over much of the game’s story. Team Skull are a bunch of generic ne’er do wells who are cruel to Pokemon and engage in various low-level crimes and disorder in Alola. They have a very “ghetto” style, wearing gangbanger outfits and using a rap music motif. The weird thing is, although Alola is an ethnically diverse place with lots of light- and dark-skinned people, every single person in Team Skull is white, giving it the profile of a racist gang. I don’t know whether this was conscious, and whether the developers were scared of being accused of racism if they had non-white members indulging in stereotypically “gangster” behaviour. It may just be an accident because the Team Skull “grunts” (as they’re called) all have the same character model.

In the end, Pokemon Sun/Moon is an enjoyable game with a good heart, and one that’s worth playing. 3DS owners are, of course, spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and there are plenty of other games that can offer better and more sophisticated stories and gameplay. But there aren’t many that can show you more love.




We need a Persona 2 remake


The last few years have seen a craze for remakes. On the whole, I’d say this is a good thing. So long as they’re not merely cashing in on nostalgia, remakes and ports play an important role in bringing classic games in front of new audiences. We’re at a point now where young people are playing games without having grown up with classic consoles like the NES, Super Nintendo or even PlayStation, and making classic games available helps develop an appreciation of video game history. Remakes and remasters can also help games find an audience if they were released on neglected or commercially unsuccessful consoles like the Dreamcast or Wii U. The PS4 has seen a glut of remakes over the last year and a half, and I caught up on games I missed on PS3 like The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls. I also played a bunch of Resident Evil HD remakes, while on Nintendo consoles I was finally able to enjoy Majora’s Mask and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

Of course, it’s important not to get carried away with remakes and re-releases. It’s arguable that you shouldn’t have to fork out for the same game on multiple consoles (like repeatedly buying the same port of a classic game on different iterations of Nintendo’s Virtual Console). Moreover, publishers need to be warned away from relying on cheap and badly done re-releases as an easy money-spinner: a rash of low-effort remasters is bad for the future health of the industry if people spend all their money on classics rather than trying new games.

But there’s one game I think is crying out for a remake: Persona 2. Persona 2 is actually two games, P2: Innocent Sin and P2: Eternal Punishment. They were released for the PlayStation in 1999 and 2000, and developer Atlus has since ported them to different Sony consoles. However, they’re still hard to get hold of: in the UK, you can only play Innocent Sin on PSP (and who plays PSP now?), unless you still have an old PSX knocking around and are prepared to mess around with NTSC discs off ebay. And even if you find a way to get the game up and running, you’re faced with a seriously outdated gameplay system and have to contend with an unreasonable number of random battles. Basically, the only way for a contemporary-minded gamer to play it now is with a walkthrough open the entire time.

The Persona series is big business these days, not just in Japan but in the West too. The games are loved for their stories, characters, and dialogue; areas where Persona 2 does not disappoint at all. The game’s story needs to be brought to a modern audience, many of whom would be put off by the game’s frustrating and old-fashioned mechanics. The graphics actually hold up pretty well, but would be easily improved; while the excellent soundtrack, which was re-done for the PSP version, barely needs any work at all.

Atlus could potentially release both games as one “Ultimate” version of Persona 2, perhaps even containing the original games as “extras” for the few diehards who might want to play them that way – the memory requirements are pretty trivial these days, after all. The overall play time for the two games combined would likely be around 80-100 hours, which is pretty standard now for most AAA RPGs. It would also help fill in the release schedule nicely before the next mainline Persona game. Finally, we know Atlus is not averse to ports and remakes: their release schedule is full of them, many of which were originally series spin-offs in the first place like Strange Journey or Devil Survivor. The sales ceiling for a P2 remake is much, much higher – even if the risk of damage to the brand is higher too.

This brings us to the small matter of Innocent Sin’s… unusual story, which is awesome but does contain time-travelling Nazis and at times adopts a surreal tone which might be poorly-received by some games journalists today. But this is surely not insurmountable. Persona 2 is a game which really deserves to be enjoyed by more people, especially considering how many have fallen in love with the series over the last decade. Atlus asked fans for their opinion on a P2 remake earlier this year, so they’ve clearly considered the idea. Now it’s time for us to apply the power of positive thinking!

Beyond: Two Souls (PS4) – Review


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Valve, gaming’s Uber

Read the full article here: www.polygon.com/2017/5/16/15622366/valve-gabe-newell-sales-origin-destructive

From the article: “Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a ‘platform that connects gamers to creators.'”

Good to see Polygon provide a forum for someone to “speak truth to power” for once. Makes a change from their endless brand promotion for Netflix, Blizzard, etc. I have had similar thoughts about Valve for some time now. I would add to this that Valve’s incorporation of gambling mechanics in and around games like Dota 2 and Counter Strike is also profoundly irresponsible and deeply troubling.

Resident Evil Revelations 2 (PS4) – Review


The first Resident Evil Revelations was a well-received spinoff in the much-loved horror franchise. Its hipster status was probably helped by the fact it was first released on 3DS (a console hardly anyone owned in 2012), combined with the fact it came out around the same time as Resident Evil 6, a much-maligned game which it was cool to hate. Revelations was a decent game and it did well enough to earn a sequel, which was released on a variety of platforms in 2015.

Revelations 2 doubles down on the episodic structure introduced by its predecessor, and comprises four main episodes (and a couple of bonuses) which weigh in at about two hours each. Each episode is roughly divided in half as we follow our dual protagonists, Claire Redfield and Barry Burton. Claire and Barry are both second-tier franchise characters. Claire is much like her brother Chris, in that she is about as generic a lead as you can get: she’s not unpleasant or annoying, but she’s very lacking in charisma, and doesn’t really get a memorable story here. Instead, the emotional arc of Revelations 2 mainly revolves around Barry and his teenaged daughter Moira, who acts as Claire’s partner through most of the game. Barry is accompanied by the mysterious young girl Natalia, who he encounters while looking for his missing daughter.


Revelations 2 has an unusual asymmetric co-op system, where one player controls the ‘main’ character (Claire or Barry), who can use guns; while the other character controls the sidekick. The sidekicks can’t use guns, but they have other uses: Moira wields a crowbar, while Natalia is able to avoid detection and see invisible enemies. Yes, unfortunately Revelations 2 continues the trend of introducing more and more frustrating mechanics, outdoing even the invisible Hunters of its predecessor. This time, we get huge invisible fly monsters who can one-hit-kill Barry once they get in range. Invisibility or insta-death are bad enough on their own; whoever thought it would be a good idea to combine them, is a sadist with no place designing video games.


This is an extreme example, but the alacrity with which Revelations 2 frustrates the player is a prevailing problem. This is a difficult game, and the challenge is compounded by a terrible sense of pacing. Revelations 2 ignores some basic tenets of storytelling, one of which is knowing to follow a stressful or climactic scene with a bit of downtime to let the audience recuperate, catch their breath and replenish their ammo. Here, we have long periods where the gamer is thrown into into the meat grinder time and again with little or no respite. The effect isn’t thrilling, just exasperating and depressing. In a way, it’s odd that the game suffers from such bad pacing. In Resident Evil 4, the franchise already has the perfect example of how to tell a story like this. I suppose part of the problem might be that in trying to outdo previous games, it just dispensed with too many of the “boring” bits that are actually essential to a satsfying experience.


Revelations 2 is set in the nondescript, fictionalized version of Eastern Europe to which the franchise retreated after the contrived “racism” controversy that met RE 5’s African setting. As far as the storyline is concerned, Revelations 2 features some surprisingly serious and poignant family melodrama revolving around Barry and Moira. Of course, the larger narrative that provides the overarching context is absurd, and the script is chockablock with bad puns and memes. This sort of silliness has always been part of the camp, B-Movie DNA of the Resident Evil series; but you can have too much of a good thing, especially when you stumble across a story with some heart. It’s a bit too much to see Barry, supposedly at his wit’s end looking for his daughter, running around making references to Jill Valentine memes. This is all framed by po-faced and pretentious nods to Kafka, largely in the form of vapid quotes between each mission. Without playing it yet, my impression is that Resident Evil 7 has tried to move away from all this childishness, towards more of a stripped-down narrative and a less overblown identity. If so, that can only be a good thing.


It’s a shame Revelations 2 is so much less than the sum of its parts, because the core gameplay is strong. Killing monsters is fun, and the gunplay can be exciting and rewarding, particularly when the game isn’t trying to force some gimmick down your throat. This is shown off in Raid mode, another variation on the Mercenaries minigame. But just when you’re starting to enjoy yourself, the game will throw some invisible arseholes at you, force you into an excruciating stealth section, or make you fight a boss with no ammo. Sometimes, in order to go forward, you just have to go back to basics.


Tales of Berseria (PS4) – Review

17546923_10158488845095223_2170240815272257611_o - Copy (2)

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.

17835055_10158488826390223_7087741221386172373_o - Copy

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).


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.

17761184_10158488836645223_1117662750169011266_o - Copy

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.

17359353_10158488838235223_1937477424204705714_o - Copy (2)

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.


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.


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.


17834772_10158488841480223_975221805808626351_o - Copy