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A Short Hike review

Using video games for self-care is nothing new. How about a game about self-care, designed for self-care?

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A Short Hike - review

Using video games for self-care is nothing new.

While certain genres of video game lend themselves to self-care – relaxing simulators like Animal Crossing, or puzzle games like Tetris Effect, for instance – you can find your centre in most any kind of game, if it fits your mood and your personal needs. Some people relax by clicking on heads in shooters like Overwatch. Others bring order to the wilderness in survival simulators like The Long Dark. Many lose themselves in an RPG, or get lost in an open-world game.

A Short Hike is particularly interesting, not just because it is a game that feels ideally suited to self-care, but because it is a game that is explicitly about self-care, created as an exercise in self-care by the game’s developer. You play as a young bird named Claire, on a weekend away with her aunt. She’s waiting for an important phone call and is fretful and afraid in equal measure. We’ve all been there.

There’s no mobile signal in the Hawk Peak Provincial Park, so in order to find some, Claire plans to hike to the top of the eponymous peak. Her aunt believes the adventure, the fresh air, and the friends she will meet on the way will serve as a welcome distraction.

And she’s right. A few minutes into A Short Hike, I found myself collecting coins and shells on the beach, with no external driver and no obvious motivation. The fact they existed – and were glinting in the sun, and were there to be collected – was in and of itself reason enough to collect them.

A Short Hike is still a video game, though. Collecting shells and coins soon reveals attached mechanics. These became major and minor objectives – the cash required to purchase upgrades; the shells a collection quest from an NPC – but the fact you instinctively spy and grab and accumulate these shiny objects from the sand, like a child on holiday? It bodes well for A Short Hike’s self-care credentials.

To pigeon-hole A Short Hike into one genre is difficult. It’s simultaneously a 3D platformer and a Zelda-like adventure, a classic collectathon and a narrative experience. Perhaps to best offer a comparison, we need look at another indie game about climbing a mountain for your (and your character’s) self-care – Celeste. There are obvious similarities there: the skills learned and upgraded to access new areas; the double-jump and wall-grab; the devilishly-simple stamina system.

But where Celeste is diamond-hard and punitive, A Short Hike is generous in the extreme. If you slip and fall, you simply spread your wings and glide back to ground level. You are a bird, after all. This offers a downy-soft comfort blanket at every turn, but adds an extra facet to the exploration on offer. Using the full three dimensions of A Short Hike’s sumptuous map is a joy, and while there is mostly one route to the top, you can approach the adventure in a number of different ways. You might take the direct route and climb straight up a cliff face, or climb something nearby and glide across on the breeze. It affords a creativity that most prescriptive 2D platformers can’t muster.

And as you explore, you’ll run into a delightful cast of characters. A Short Hike is warm and genuinely very funny, with its gentle comedy and pleasant dialogue pitched somewhere in the Venn diagram of Pikuniku, Grace Bruxner’s Frog Detective, and Night in the Woods. In one moment you’ll be platforming. The next, you’ll be engaging in point-and-click item swaps with characters. Soon you’ll be using items and quest rewards to take part in optional quests and minigames. A volleyball-like sport, where nobody wins or loses and the only objective is to work together to keep up the longest rally, is a particularly sweet touch in a game filled to the brim with them.

But in every moment you’ll be smiling, bouncing between exploration and exposition, progression and pointlessness, finding joy as much in the spaces between as the major beats. Then, suddenly, you’ll run out of ways to waste time and find yourself atop Hawk Peak. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but for a short time at least, Claire had forgotten her worries. Her aunt was right, as they so often are.

And do you know what? I had forgotten my worries, too. In this day and age, that’s sheer sorcery of immeasurable value. I couldn’t ask for any more from A Short Hike, and next time I’m feeling in need of self-care? I’ll make that short hike again. I’m sure of it.

A Short Hike
4.5

Summary


Platform: PC (reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer: Adamgryu
Publisher: Adamgryu
Release Date: July 29, 2019


Developer Adam Robinson-Yu began developing A Short Hike when he was feeling burned out working on another project. It’s fitting, then, that what began as an act of self-care for the game’s developer has blossomed into a welcome respite from the modern world that everyone should experience.

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Reviews

Resident Evil 3 review

Hot on the heels of the Resident Evil 2 remake, the Resident Evil 3 remake is here. Does Capcom stick the landing on the second attempt?

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Resident Evil 3 remake
Capcom / Thumbsticks

Hot on the heels of the Resident Evil 2 remake, the Resident Evil 3 remake is here. Does Capcom stick the landing on the second attempt?

I’ve never even played the original PlayStation release, but it’s clear to me that the strengths and weaknesses of Resident Evil 3 are ironically very similar to those levied against its 1999 counterpart. Much like the original, it follows the incredibly popular Resident Evil 2 just a year later, a game that few would disagree was one of the best 1998 (and the brilliant remake in 2019) had to offer.

It was a horror masterclass that catapulted the Resident Evil franchise back toward stardom, with incredible pacing, nail-biting scares, and a haunting atmosphere. So, in an effort to strike while the iron’s hot, Capcom have rushed with all their might to turn around a sequel, the remake of Resident Evil 3.

“Look,” says Capcom. “You guys loved Mr X, so here’s an even more punishing version of that mechanic”.

“Here you go”, they say. “You guys can have a more action-focused version of the Resident Evil formula that doesn’t chastise you for going in gung-ho”.

Much like the original 1999 version of the game, the experience that comes out the other side – while brimming with exceptional ideas and moments – feels rushed to lay down more track for the Resident Evil hype train. This is a short game, with my playthrough barely scratching the five-hour mark, and while there’s nothing wrong with a title that makes its point and leaves before it can wear out its welcome, its short runtime comes at the cost of pacing and new mechanics.

Every level, encounter, cutscene and story arc feels unexplored in Resident Evil 3 because the game spends so little time on each. You’ll visit a new area, meet a new character or encounter a new enemy type (just to be rid of it in half an hour), jumping between brilliant concepts without ever being allowed the time to see them stick. While Resident Evil 2 gradually unlocked one comprehensive hub that you could slowly and satisfyingly plunder through, Resident Evil 3 feels like a speeding train that puts you in interesting scenarios before instantly whisking you away to the next set-piece.

That’s not to say what’s contained in this small package is entirely lacklustre. In truth, what makes Resident Evil 3’s breakneck pace all the more frustrating is just how much the game has to offer.

As most fans of the franchise will already know, Resident Evil 3 puts players back in the boots of Jill Valentine, one of the two protagonists from the first Resident Evil. Traumatised by the events she witnessed surviving the zombie-infested corridors of the Spencer Mansion, Jill is currently living out her days in her apartment in Racoon City before, lo and behold, a zombie infestation breaks out and the heroine is launched back into action.

While Resident Evil 2 was a much more exploration-focused affair, one of the first things you’ll notice about Resident Evil 3 is that it’s much more linear. Despite my criticisms of the pacing, that’s not always a bad thing. Traversing levels constantly offers something new, and while some might lament the distinct dearth of traditional Resident Evil puzzles, there’s much less time spent trekking back through areas as the game keeps pushing you forward. It also leaves a lot more time for Jill to shine as a character through frequent set-pieces and gorgeous cutscenes, with her sarcastic personality and tough attitude making her a much more likeable protagonist than the relatively dry offerings of Leon and Claire.

Alongside that, combat feels more refined and streamlined, with the addition of an unbreakable knife, weightier guns, and ways to dispatch enemies using the environment around you. Perhaps the best of all is a nifty dodge roll that allows players, if timed right, to avoid enemies and open a brief window of slow-motion to land some attacks. The roll itself can be unreliable, especially because you can often get hit mid-roll, but it’s a significant addition all the same. In turn, the game feels far more combat-focused than the last, which makes for a welcome change of pace in comparison to Resident Evil 2’s more puzzle-focused gameplay.

To cement this position, the Resident Evil 3 remake also provides some brand new playable sections surrounding former side-character Carlos, who’s two core missions go hard on the action. Ammo in these segments is plentiful and enemies are dealt in bigger numbers. Sure, Carlos is a much less investable protagonist than Jill – and his gameplay is much less tense and gratifying than hers – but it’s still interesting to see parts of the games that lean closer tonally towards the later entries in the Resident Evil series.

Yet – and you’ve no doubt be waiting for this all along – the real star here is Nemesis. Yes, he’s terrifying. Yes, he’s intimidating. And, yes, he will absolutely batter you silly until you learn how best to outrun him. From the moment he enters, there’s a sense that your time playing Resident Evil 2 was preparing you for this, as the grotesque monster stalks you through the streets, cutting you off as you try to lose him, pulling you back If you stray too far, spawning beefy enemies to help drain your ammo, and walking through any damage you throw his way.

From the game’s incredible opening prologue to around the three-hour mark, all you do is fear the big hulking behemoth, as you listen out for his faint footsteps or his horrifying monotone chanting of the word “STARS”. Much like Mr X, he’s an absolute masterclass in horror design, especially with the addition of him eerily waiting for you outside locations and jumping down from unpredictable vantage points.

Then, as fast as he appeared, Nemesis is gone, quickly relegated to typical boss fights and uninspired QTE encounters. What was initially the crowning achievement of the game is gone far too early with almost no warning, once again reigniting that feeling that, while there’s a great game here, it’s reduced to something of a highlight reel rather than a fully fleshed-out experience.

While the emergent encounters you have with early Nemesis stand as some of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had playing Resident Evil, there’s always that small part of you that knows it could’ve been so much more.

Sadly, that sentiment holds true for almost all of Resident Evil 3. There’s a great game here, don’t get me wrong, and for fans of the franchise, it’s a healthy second helping of Resident Evil 2’s gameplay. However, there’s always a frustrating desire for Resident Evil to stop for a minute and take its time. Mirroring the 1999 original perhaps a little too closely, it often feels like an inconsequential next step for a franchise that had just managed to get back to its feet.

Resident Evil 3 review
3.5

Summary


Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: April 3, 2020


There’s a lot about Resident Evil 3 to love. Its combat is meatier, its linearity makes for an interesting change of pace, and Nemesis is pure nightmare fuel in all the right ways. Yet, the game’s pace is simply too hasty for its brief runtime. In the end, it’s an enjoyable – but noticeably rushed – remake, that never quite matches the heights of its outstanding predecessor.

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Control: The Foundation DLC review

Without meaning to sound disparaging, the best thing about The Foundation – the first of two new DLCs coming to Remedy Entertainment’s most recent release– is that it’s more Control.

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Control The Foundation review
Remedy Entertainment

Without meaning to sound disparaging, the best thing about The Foundation – the first of two new DLCs coming to Remedy Entertainment’s most recent release – is that it’s more Control.

For those who played the surreal, action-adventure title when it released last year, they’ll know Control leaves you constantly wanting more. More interesting world-building collectables, more slick, engaging combat, and definitely more large-scale boss fights with severely agitated refrigerators.

Enter The Foundation which – much like Remedy’s excellent line-up of additional content for Alan Wake – builds upon the existing world of Control in a way that doesn’t feel like an afterthought or spin-off. The story itself picks up pretty much exactly where the original campaign left off, with Jesse fully embracing her new-found role as the Director as she begins to tackle a new problem occurring deep within the Oldest House.

This problem takes Jesse to The Foundation: a deep cave network far beneath the corporate offices and conference rooms that the base campaign saw players explore. Yet, all is not right within this extensive and deeply mysterious set of eerie tunnels. The Astral Plain appears to be bleeding through into The Foundation itself, causing large areas of the cave to transform into the ethereal void glimpsed briefly throughout Control’s original storyline. Jesse’s goal is to find out what’s causing these bizarre universe shifts and put a stop to them before they engulf all of the Oldest House and beyond.

From here, The Foundation opens up into another 4-5 hours of exceptional – if perhaps a little safe – Control fun, bringing back more of the desirable collectables, satisfying abilities and compelling atmosphere that made the original campaign such a joy. Best of all, it feels like a meaningful expansion of the story that begins to answer some lingering questions about the game’s bigger mysteries, while also sewing the seeds for some bigger reveals down the line.

The actual structure of The Foundation does have some alterations, however, with the core composition of the DLC feeling far more open-ended than the missions seen in the main game. Here, Jesse’s goal to figure out what’s happening throughout the mysterious cave system is split into four separate objectives, with the player being able to tackle each in whatever order they choose.

It’s a strong new string to Control’s bow, allowing for a more natural foundation for exploration as well as a more liberating sense of freedom. The DLC also features three new side-quests which, much like the main game, are interwoven with a strong sense of humour and some great twists on the game’s central mechanics.

Another major addition is a pair of new powers that will be essential to navigating The Foundation’s perilous terrain. The first allows Jesse to destroy giant crystals that emerge from the ground, freeing up paths and other obstacles, while the second gives her the ability to summon them. Neither are particularly game-changing, with both mostly factoring into platforming, but they’re a fun change of pace. They also offer some handy environmental uses in combat, with Jesse even acquiring the ability to raise crystals from the ground to violently impale enemies.

As ever, the defining strength of The Foundation remains in the exceptional world-building Remedy puts at the forefront of every encounter, interaction, and area. The DLCs brand new locale is crammed full of brilliant new scraps of lore, darkly comic interactions and more intriguing details that hint at some creepy goings-on behind the scenes. If like me, discovering what made the Oldest House tick was the highlight of Control for you, then The Foundation will not disappoint.

Naturally, there’s still some frustrating combat encounters and some minor technical issues – especially for those who haven’t upgraded to the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X – but The Foundation is simply more Control, and after its exceptional debut last year, that’s far from a bad thing.

Control: The Foundation DLC review
4

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One (June 25, 2020)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: March 26, 2020 (Xbox One June 25, 2020)


With more sensational world-building, slick combat and compelling narrative, The Foundation feels like a superb next chapter to Control’s story. It might not do much with the ideas introduced within the original campaign, but with Control being one of last year’s best games, that’s far from a disappointment.

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Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide review

Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is an updated edition of the book first released in 2016.

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Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide
Titan Books / Thumbsticks

Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is an updated edition of the 2016 large-format hardback written by Arin Murphy-Hiscock and published by Titan Books. Running to 256 fully illustrated pages, it’s a weighty tome that digs deep into the lore of Ubisoft’s long-running video game series.

I love big hardback books like this. Video games, especially big open-world video games, take time to revisit, and official guides and art books are useful aid-memoirs. They give readers a chance to revisit their favourite games over a mug of coffee, rather than committing to a full playthrough.

Most game-related books focus on a particular title. Titan has released some stunning books based on individual Assassin’s Creed games in the past, but Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide has a much larger task on its hands. It attempts to piece together 14 years of mythological spaghetti from Ubisoft’s sprawling action-adventure series. And to the book’s credit, it absolutely manages to pull it off.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide

The Essential Guide charts the history Assassin’s Creed, from the time of the First Civilisation, through to the formation of the Assassins Brotherhood, the rise of the Templars, and the influence of Abstergo on modern-day life. It’s a comprehensive review of the franchise’s many time-periods, locations, characters, and technology.

The overarching narrative – and some handy timeline charts – helps make sense of a series in which storytelling is often non-linear, oblique, or just plain muddled. Through the games and its spin-offs, Ubisoft has created an intriguing but complex tapestry that combines real-life history, secret wars, advanced technology, and ancient alien races. To see the dots connected so clearly is informative and illuminating.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide

As you can probably gather, Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is very much focussed on the fictional aspects of the series. And that is its biggest flaw.

If you’re enough of an Assassin’s Creed’s fan to bury your nose in its fictional history, you’d likely appreciate some content covering its global development effort. Across 22 video games, a movie, and a plethora of comics and books, there’s a wealth of production content to be explored. It’s a real shame that this aspect is completely ignored. Indeed, the book never refers to the games by title, and you won’t find a single screenshot. This is fiction presented as history.

Instead, there is a smorgasbord of illustrations and art to pore over. The level of research and detail in big-budget video games often goes unnoticed. Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide offers a welcome opportunity to see some of that work beautifully printed on the page. The Assassin’s Creed games have always been beautiful games, and this is a beautiful, well-produced book.

Given the task at hand, the quality of the text is also worth noting. It’s unfussy and economical, clear and informative. The events of the games, film, novels, and comics are all referred to, and all treated as canon. Given the tangle of ancient races, mysterious artefacts, and malignant mega-corporations the book covers, it’s quite an accomplishment.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide
I’ve recently been playing the Assassin’s Creed remasters on Nintendo Switch, and this book has become a constant companion. It provides historical context for my adventures, it helps me decipher the meaning behind cryptic Abstergo emails, and it fleshes out the expansive cast of characters I encounter. Yup, Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is pretty much essential.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide
4

Summary

If you’re intrigued by the title of this book, you’re probably a fan of the series. And if you’re a fan of the series, this book probably is essential. The absence of production material is a disappointment, but it’s as thorough an exploration of the Assassin’s Creed universe as you could ever want. Recommended.

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Doom Eternal review

Doom Eternal? More like… no, actually, “eternal” pretty much covers it.

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Doom Eternal review
Bethesda / Thumbsticks

Doom Eternal? More like… no, actually, “eternal” pretty much covers it.

At the beginning of the Doom (2016) reboot, Doomguy wakes up in a tomb. He’s being prodded and poked by demons, which he’s obviously a bit miffed about, so he smashes their faces in. He grabs a pistol, shotgun, and his bottle-green armour, then sets off for the surface of Mars. All of this happens without breaking first person, just like Half-Life. It’s immersive and brutal and rattles along at one hell of a clip.

A voice – Dr Samuel Hayden, head science bloke of the UAC – speaks to him over an intercom. He tries to explain what’s going on. Why it’s happening. How it’s (sort of, mostly) his fault.

But Doomguy has no interest in Hayden’s mea culpa. Incensed by the presumptuousness of such unnecessary exposition, he smashes the intercom with his fist. The opening credits roll, he cocks his shotgun in time to the rising metal soundtrack, and we’re underway.

That is, in short, the smartest move Doom has ever made as a series. Doomguy really doesn’t care what’s going on or why it’s happening, and I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: neither do we. None of us could possibly care less about the “plot”, such as it is. The reason doesn’t matter. He’s here – we’re here – to rip and tear demons into little pieces of demon confetti. That’s all.

It’s disappointing, then, that Doom Eternal is absolutely chock-full of cutscenes and needless exposition. We see Doomguy animated in third-person! He has actual conversations! Nobody will shut up for a second! You can’t move without a hell priest, or a demon goddess, or some other pantomime villain soliloquising about prophecies and McGuffins and their destiny to wipe out the human race.

Doom Eternal was never going to be a narrative masterpiece. It’s about demons emerging from Mars and overrunning the Earth, and the gruff bloke who kills them all singlehandedly. It’s nonsense on stilts. But while you’re barreling through it at breakneck speed you don’t notice just how dumb it all is. When the game goes to great lengths to explain every last detail, however, to lampshade its own abject stupidity, you realise just how big those stilts are.

It’s generally just dreadful, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have the odd, ridiculous highlight. Doomguy’s intercom-punching brusqueness still rubs up against the exposition overload in amusing ways, while seeing human characters cower in his presence is never not hilarious. (And it’s also nice that, for older fans the series, some NPCs in Doom Eternal actually refer to him as Doomguy and not the far more pretentious modern invention, the Doom Slayer. You can even unlock the original game’s armour, complete with exposed abs from demon tears.)

At one point, he needs to get his ass to the centre of Mars – because reasons – but there’s no path down there. While other characters are discussing the options, or lack thereof, Doomguy silently brings up an image of an orbital BFG-10000 defence cannon on the magic space GPS system of his weird spaceship. (Yes, he has a base hub now. You need to unlock it, a room at a time, over the course of the game. It’s tedious busywork, but at least it features a nice little gallery of your collectables, in addition to that retro armour.)

“You can’t just blow a hole in the surface of Mars,” protests an NPC.

Undeterred, Doomguy punches in the coordinates, brings up a portal, grabs a plasma rifle, then goes and blows a hole in the centre of Mars. He’s a man of his word. A man of action. Thankfully, action is what Doom Eternal excels at.

Mechanically, Doom Eternal is as potent and satisfying as the series has ever been. The movement is slick, the weapons fierce, the action intense. In addition to the core item drop tactics of the 2016 reboot – use the Chainsaw on demons if you’re low on ammo; Glory Kill them if you’re low on health – you can use some new abilities to manage the fight. The Blood Punch allows you to convert potential energy from Glory Kills into a devastating haymaker. The Flame Belch, a shoulder-mounted flamethrower, causes enemies to drop shards of armour while they’re ablaze. The Ice Bomb freezes enemies solid, which means they’re stationary, they take additional damage, and there’s a chance they’ll smash into pieces. (Think Terminator 2’s liquid nitrogen scene or the Winter Blast plasmid from BioShock.)

Doom’s retro sensibilities, with pickups for health and armour, are key. It just wouldn’t work with the glowing red screen/hide behind a wall damage regeneration mechanics of other, more modern first-person shooters. Doom Eternal frequently throws you into gladiatorial arenas – from confined pits to expansive, vertiginous theatres – where you have to survive wave after wave of demons with limited resources. Sometimes a totem will enrage and empower demons until you destroy it. Occasionally, there’ll be an enormous boss demon to contend with. If you don’t learn to master the ebb and flow of the action, the extraction of health, armour and ammunition from your enemies, you won’t survive. It means you’re frequently on the cusp of death, and only well-timed, last-ditch glory kills will keep you in the fight.

It’s also a technical marvel. You’d never call Doom Eternal “beautiful” – some of the levels look more like a colonoscopy video than a game – but it’s visually impressive all the same. The gore nests and demonic temples make for ridiculous, reductive caricature, but the human facilities, the space stations and military bases and former shopping malls, show off just how impressive Id’s engine can be. Even on a base PS4, it’s fluid and slick. The lighting in particular, with nuclear-green tones signposting the path forward, really shines in the darkness.

(It’s also refreshing that the ubiquitous “lighting slider” doesn’t encourage you to make the game as dim as possible. Doom Eternal’s prodigious use of HDR makes a potentially very gloomy game sparkle. That the PC version doesn’t support real-time ray tracing is a surprise, though, given Id’s penchant for the cutting edge.)

Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is another consistent highlight. It’s an expansive build on his work in Doom (2016) featuring bigger soundscapes, arrangements, and a heavy metal choir. To use metal as a metaphor, which feels appropriate for Doom Eternal, it’s like Metallica progressing from 1986’s Master of Puppets – raw, untamed, seething – to their glorious 1999 live album with the San Francisco Symphony.

To extend that metaphor to the game itself is to expose the cracks in Doom Eternal, however. It’s bigger in scope, more expansive in range, and drenched with polish. And that makes it so much worse than the game that precedes it, somehow? It’s a pompous and self-important peacock of a game, a grandiose pantomime production under a thin veneer of heavy metal.

It all just feels antithetical to the core of the series, to the brilliant resurgence of the 2016 reboot. The worst criticism I can give of Doom Eternal is that it feels just that – eternal. It feels like it goes on forever. And not in a good way. Where once levels lasted 15-30 minutes, here, they can last several hours. They’re rampant and repetitive – even the perma-tense combat feels formulaic after a while – and all punctuated by a combination of tedious roadblocks, unlocks, and that ever-present, abysmal storytelling.

Doom Eternal is twice as long as the 2016 reboot and it’s evident. Somehow, it feels even longer still. Perhaps its the influence of parent company (and RPG specialist) Bethesda, or that awful notion that longer games represent better value for money, but it feels like a brilliant six-to-eight hour core game that has been spread too thin, a meagre helping of butter scraped across far too many slices of toast.

None of what’s here is inherently bad. Some of it is, in fact, very good indeed. But it’s such a shame something so lean and savage has become so bloated and overblown.

I can’t believe this is how I’m going to close a review of a Doom game, but here we are: Doom Eternal bored me to hell.

Doom Eternal
3

Summary


Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia (yes, Stadia)
Developer: Id Software
Publisher: Bethesda
Release Date: March 20, 2020


Doom Eternal features all the raw, raucous action of the 2016 reboot, but for reasons we can’t comprehend, is dragged out to an interminable length. Technically solid, blistering in parts, but lacking in soul.

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Lair of the Clockwork God review

“You clever little bastards,” I mutter to myself, for what feels like the thousandth time while playing Lair of the Clockwork God.

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Lair of the Clockwork God review
Size Five Games

“You clever little bastards,” I mutter to myself, for what feels like the thousandth time while playing Lair of the Clockwork God.

What precedes and follows this moment of realisation is, on average, twenty minutes of feeling very stupid. As a rule, I tend not to review puzzle games to a deadline. Trying to beat a complex, single correct solution scenario with no walkthrough available is incredibly stressful. And point and click adventure games are the zenith of obscure puzzling.

I tend to fixate, you see. I become determined that something must be the solution, even though all evidence suggests otherwise. I repeat the same action over and over, expecting a different result. It’s a fun way to see how many pithy quips and unique fail conditions the developers have written, if nothing else.

There’s a reason why LucasArts maintained a telephone tips hotline for its games in the 1990s. But even today, in 2020, point and click games are set in their ways. Tilting towards modernity, Ron Gilbert – the veteran LucasArts developer – included an in-universe tips hotline in Thimbleweed Park when it released in 2017.

In its bid for currency, Lair of the Clockwork God features dual protagonists. In addition to the trusty “look at” verb (always a good place to start if you’re stuck in a point and click game), Ben can turn to Dan and ask what’s going on. Dan will respond with some suggestions about what to do next. But on a couple of occasions, I had to turn to Dan’s real-life counterpart – Dan Marshall, writer, programmer and artist on Lair of the Clockwork God – to ask what to do next. Yes, just like the LucasArts tips hotline. (He has since said he regrets not putting together a walkthrough beforehand. I feel at least a little responsible for that.)

“You clever little pricks,” I grumble, for probably the thousand-and-first time, as Marshall nudges me towards a puzzle’s solution.

It may be clever, but that’s not to say the puzzles in Lair of the Clockwork God are especially highbrow or cerebral. This is a point and click game, after all. You’ll spend a good portion of your time hoarding junk that can’t possibly be useful, combining items that shouldn’t really work together, fiddling with inconspicuous detritus in the environment, and bickering with an assortment of NPCs. (And this is a very British point and click game, so there are also lots of knob jokes.)

The rest of the time is spent platforming. This is also a very clever development. Within the narrative of the Ben and Dan Extended Universe, Ben is a die-hard advocate of point and click adventuring. He carries tat in his bottomless bindle, combines it together to solve puzzles, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything so gauche as jumping. Dan, on the other hand, would dearly love to be a modern indie development darling. He believes pathos-powered, pixel-perfect platforming is the path the pair should pursue.

In Lair of the Clockwork God you get to do both, switching between characters – and playstyles – to simultaneously solve puzzles and progress the adventure. Sometimes that’s together. Sometimes that’s at odds with one another. But it’s always filled with humour, heart, and occasional heroism. (And knob jokes.)

Conceptually, it’s a bit like fusion cuisine. The individual elements are great. The idea of fusing them together seems sound. And yet, you always run the risk that smushing the two together will render the sum inferior to the component parts. Experience tells us that fusion cuisine rarely works.

Thankfully, both facets of Lair of the Clockwork God complement each other. The platforming lurches from super-easy to Super Meat Boy, but it’s an ideal foil for Ben’s deliberate, obstinately slower pace. As Ben combines inventory items to upgrade Dan’s abilities – “If you’re going to do that, at least call it ‘crafting’,” Dan insists – with double jumps, wall grabs, and even a whacking great gun, the game opens up in an almost Metroidvania fashion. That was a pleasant surprise.

From gently introducing this mechanic through opening a door – Dan stands on a floor plate, because platformers don’t use items, while Ben throws a nearby wall switch – this dual-protagonist tango forms the backbone of the game. Later, Dan can carry Ben on piggyback to cart the adventurer to new stuff to interact with, and the pair can even teleport to one another. (And Ben’s grin when he’s on his buddy’s back is just adorable.)

Lair of the Clockwork God piggy back

Swapping characters to solve puzzles becomes second nature, even if it’s easy to jumble the controls and stumble at times. As a result, Lair of the Clockwork God is probably the first point and click game that’s actually better on a controller. Except for one bit where you need a keyboard to type into a computer terminal. (The game’s Steam store page lists controller support as “partial” as a result. There’s also a raft of brilliant accessibility features which are gratefully received.)

It’s fusion cuisine, then, but this time it actually works. Not only does it work, but both parts – that could grow hollow or repetitive in isolation – are improved by the other, by the alternation and changes in cadence. It’s a sort of beautiful symbiosis. A metaphor for Ben and Dan’s enduring friendship, perhaps.

“You clever little sods,” I say aloud, to nobody in particular. I’ve lost count of how many times that thought has entered my head.

But what is most clever about Lair of the Clockwork God, and the thing that makes the game so special, is the way it weaves its narrative and themes into the experience. That’s what also makes it such a bloody difficult game to review. I want to tell you about all the brilliant moments! And there are so many of them! I want to shout about all of the tricks and callbacks and creative curveballs Marshall and Ward throw out in the game’s 7-10 hours! But if I do, I’ll rob you of the joy of uncovering them for yourselves.

Broadly speaking, the narrative takes place in the titular lair of the Clockwork God. It’s a computer system that protects the human race from all the apocalypses, but something has gone awry. The machine has forgotten why humanity deserves protecting, and it’s up to Ben and Dan to teach the Clockwork God feelings. To do that, they’ll play through artificial “constructs” – snippets of narrative and gameplay, themed and designed to elicit certain emotions – to restore the Clockwork God’s database of empathy and prevent all the apocalypses.

And that’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want to spoil it. But the themes of Lair of the Clockwork God touch on everything from mortality to game design, and the manner in which these themes are delivered – with some left-field design choices and deliberately dissonant sequences – is exceptional.

Think about that bit in The Witness, where you turn around and realise the starting area was a puzzle the whole time. Or when you piece the case together in Return of the Obra Dinn. Or when you finally get what’s going on in Portal. Or, you know, all of the Stanley Parable. Lair of the Clockwork God is made up of so many of these moments, deftly woven, strung together, and concealed through sleight of hand and ingenious narrative. The fourth wall is smashed, the meta-narrative is bold, and the resulting ride is a wild one.

But other narrative-driven puzzle games revel in their challenge. They invite the player to defy their creator. The experience is gladiatorial and their reward is extrinsic. In Lair of the Clockwork God, you don’t feel like you’re clever because you bested Marshall and Ward’s best-laid plans. They beckon you in. You’re allowed to cotton on. They build you up. They make you feel clever because they’re letting you in on the scheme as it unfolds. It’s collaborative, and it’s kind, and the experience is far richer for it.

“You clever little bastards,” I say directly to Dan Marshall and Ben Ward.

You clever little bastards.

Lair of the Clockwork God
4.5

Summary


Platform: PC
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games
Release Date: February 21, 2020


Dan Marshall has said publicly that if Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t sell well enough, it will most likely be Ben and Dan’s final adventure. And if that’s how it transpires, then this game will be a fitting swansong. But if there’s any justice in the world it will sell hand over fist, because it’s a brilliant, joyous, clever and generous experience.

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