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Assassin’s Creed: a global project

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A dive into the multiple studios behind the Assassin’s Creed franchise.


To celebrate the release this Friday of Assassin’s Creed: Origins we are going to explore the series and its weird and wonderful world. Whether it be foible, folly, or flourish, we will look at the worlds, the ideas, and the studios, to revel in a decade-long franchise that’s shifted the gaming landscape. For more AC Week articles, go here.


It now seems almost quaint that the original Assassin’s Creed involved just one studio, Ubisoft Montreal. What started as Prince of Persia: Assassin was soon spun out as its own IP after moving too far away from what defined a Prince of Persia game.

This became what we know as Assassin’s Creed (2007). On release, it received a decent critical response, with some caveats. The assassinations and exploration of the Holy Land worked well, but it was criticised for lacking substance elsewhere. The game exceeded Ubisoft’s expectations so a sequel was green-lit, moving the setting to Renaissance Italy.

Assassin’s Creed II (2009) rectified all the main concerns players had with the first game, whilst also improving the exploration, free roaming, and general narrative of the game. It’s held up as the perfect example of how to make a sequel, and sure enough it outshone its predecessor critically and commercially. It also triggered an annual release schedule – quite the task for one studio.

Ubisoft Montreal alone could not make this a reality; it would need help. Ubisoft already had studios dotted across the globe, and many of these had been geared towards support work. Ubisoft Singapore had worked on the PC port of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, with Ubisoft Quebec developing PSP and Wii versions.

For the next project, Ubisoft Montreal remained the lead studio but saw production supported by Bucharest, Singapore, Quebec, and Annecy (known for Splinter Cell’s multiplayer). The result was Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010), and for the first time in the series, the game took place in a single city – in this instance Rome.

This was the largest individual urban area that Ubisoft had ever created and despite initial assumptions that this was to be a glorified expansion to the previous game was instead a full game in its own right. The multi-studio approach made it possible in such a tight timeframe, and with Annecy’s assistance, it incorporated a surprisingly fun multiplayer mode.

Assassin's Creed

Brotherhood’s multiplayer was a surprisingly enjoyable addition to the series

The same approach continued for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations in 2011. The same studios were involved, along with Massive – which Ubisoft had only purchased three years prior – who would be developing Desmond’s puzzle sequences.

With other studios sharing the load, Montreal had the flexibility to begin working on a future entry whilst development was still taking place for the current game. This meant that Montreal exerted much higher control with Assassin’s Creed III (2012). Annecy returned to develop the multiplayer but it was Ubisoft Singapore that had the most notable influence. Assassin’s Creed III saw the introduction of naval gameplay which was a significant addition to the series, greatly expanding its scope. Its success was a guiding light for the next game in the series.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) saw a return to the multi-studio approach, with Quebec, Bucharest, Kiev, Montpellier, Annecy, and Sofia providing support. Set on the high seas and focusing on the popular naval element, Black Flag is considered a high-note for the series. While Montreal still lead the development, it was Singapore that built its backbone.

Taking a cue from its namesake, Assassin’s Creed Rogue (2014) is an outlier amongst the series. Still considered canon, it was released only on the previous generation of consoles; meanwhile, another brand-new entry, Assassin’s Creed Unity, only graced the new generation of consoles and was the first in the series to do so, boasting a new engine (AnvilNext 2.0). Whereas before, Black Flag released for both generations, the support studios meant Ubisoft could straddle a generational divide with two different games simultaneously.

Rogue used the same engine (AnvilNext) as Black Flag and shared many gameplay elements that were subsequently absent from Unity, most notably naval gameplay. Taking place after Black Flag but before III, Rogue took a new direction by casting the player as a Templar who had left the Assassin Order.

Whilst Montreal was involved with this entry, Ubisoft Sofia took point, supported by Quebec, Chengdu, Milan, Bucharest, and Singapore. This was not the first time Sofia took the lead for an entry in the series, having previously developed Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for the Vita. Released alongside III and set in a similar period but in Louisiana, the game was a classic example of the multi-studio approach: bolstering its main entries with side projects and exploring new locations.

Meanwhile, leading the charge on new consoles, Unity was unfortunately leaden with bugs. As talented as the people at Montreal are, balancing so many versions of Assassin’s Creed was bound to take its toll. Ten studios were involved in developing Unity (deep breath): Toronto, Kiev, Singapore, Shanghai, Annecy, Montpellier, Bucharest, Quebec, Chengdu, and of course Montreal.

Though it was by no means a failure, still largely receiving a positive critical response, the negative player response was down to a cavalcade of glitches and no small amount of fatigue with the series’ formula. The collectathon aspect of the series had reached breaking point with Unity, its map filled to bursting with empty clutter. The disparity between versions also pointed to a possible crack in the multi-studio approach, with the PC version received a dire port.

Assassin's Creed

Fair to say Unity went a little overboard with its collectibles

Ubisoft issued an apology for the state Unity was released in, offering the first DLC, Dead Kings for free. What’s more, for those who already purchased the season pass, a free digital Ubisoft game from a choice of six was offered – on the condition that they forfeit their right to sue Ubisoft regarding issues surrounding Unity.

In July 2014 Ubisoft had announced that Ubisoft Quebec would be the lead studio for the next Assassin’s Creed game, marking the first time a core entry was not led by Montreal. The logic behind this move wasn’t to lessen Montreal’s load, but a desire to invest and expand Quebec.

The result was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015), taking the series to its most modern setting:  London 1868. Victorian London had been one of the few settings high on the wish list of players, so the game was off to a good start. The series had long reached the stage where it was impossible for a new main entry to be the product of an individual studio, and so Quebec was supported by the usual suspects.

Syndicate also saw the introduction of Ubisoft Reflections, renowned for their vehicle physics, having developed the Driver series. The studio brought the horse-and-carriage mechanics to the game as well as helping with other vehicles and damage systems.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was well received by critics and players, but sales were flagging. Ubisoft acknowledged that the lower sales at launch were due to the negative reception that was generated from the unstable release of Unity. Players were hesitant to part with their cash.

Because of this, Ubisoft make a statement in February 2016 that the series would be put on hold. For the first time since Assassin’s Creed II, there would be no new annual release that winter; as outlined by Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, the extra time would allow for a focus on quality that would benefit future games.

The extra time allowed Ubisoft to delve into new projects. The multi-studio approach allows these teams to use the expertise gained from working on Assassin’s Creed and put it towards their own projects. Ubisoft Annecy developed Steep in 2016, taking inspiration from being near the Alps and their expertise at creating multiplayer games, to create a connected extreme snow sports game.

Ubisoft Singapore is doubling down on its expertise in naval combat and developing Skull & Bones – revealed at E3 2017. It looks to be a fusion of its pirate theme with the kind of online multiplayer Ubisoft has developed in games like The Crew and the aforementioned Steep.

Assassin's Creed

Not a screenshot from Black Flag, rather its close relative the future release Skull & Bones

With the release of Assassin’s Creed: Origins this Friday, we’ll see if the extra time is really what the series needed, or whether it’s now too much of a behemoth to reign in. With plenty of studio support as ever – Kiev being brought in specifically to develop the PC version alongside consoles – there is a lot riding on the success of Origins. It isn’t just the series returning to its origins either: Ubisoft Montreal is once again taking back the helm of its flagging ship, hopefully steering the blockbuster series out of choppy waters. The horizon holds promise.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.

Features

Is Half-Life: Alyx worth playing?

After a 13-year gap, Valve return to City 17 and the battle against the Combine in the new action-adventure VR game, Half-Life: Alyx. Here’s our review round-up.

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Half-Life 2: Alyx - Review roundup
Valve

After a 13-year gap, Valve return to City 17 and the battle against the Combine in the new action-adventure VR game, Half-Life: Alyx. Here’s our review round-up.

When Half-Life: Alyx was announced, there was an expectation that Valve would create a landmark in virtual reality gaming. That expectation ignores the progress achieved by many other developers in recent years, but the prospect of a return to City 17 was long-awaited and eagerly-anticipated.

In the event, Half-Life: Alyx isn’t quite as groundbreaking as its predecessors, but it does present a refined, polished AAA VR experience.

Half-Life: Alyx has received praise across the board. The game’s narrative, puzzle-centric gameplay, and stomach-churning Headcrab encounters are all highlights. After a long wait, it appears that the Valve people love is back. Here’s our pick of the game’s best reviews.

Half-Life: Alyx review round-up

Kotaku

“Half-Life is a different beast in VR. It is more stressful and intense than its non-VR predecessors. It can be downright exhausting—sometimes for extremely laudable reasons and other times for deeply frustrating ones. Alyx reveals what VR games can be, but perhaps also what they should try to avoid for fear of overwhelming or frustrating players.”

No score – Review by Nathan Grayson

USGamer

“If Half-Life: Alyx is a success, I think there’ll also be a strong argument for more Half-Life needing to stick with VR moving forward. This game will reach a limited audience at launch, surely. There are some limitations in scope that may rankle, such as a small set of (upgradable!) weapons. Some people may dislike it purely because they don’t like VR. But having played through Half-Life and Half-Life 2 numerous times, along with some of the best FPS campaigns released in their wake (Titanfall 2, 2016’s Doom, Halo: Reach), I think that Half-Life: Alyx stands as proof that Half-Life’s continued evolution can’t look like those of other shooter series.”

4.5/5 – Review by Matthew Olson

Eurogamer

“The controls are as clear-headed as the narrative. Playing room-scale or simply standing with a more confined space, you can choose one of four movement options, two of which work brilliantly as teleport jobs while the other two offer continuous movement guided by either the hand or the head and seemed to me pretty clumsy and nausea-inducing. Whatever movement you choose, one hand generally holds a weapon or gadget – switching them is as easy as pressing a button and waving your arm up and down – while the other is always free for interacting with the environment, opening doors, grabbing ammo clips from your backpack and ramming them home, priming grenades before lobbing them.”

RecommendedReview by Christian Donlan

Polygon

“(But) Half-Life is back, and Valve has finally released another AAA single-player game, something many of us doubted the company ever would, or even could, do again. The impossible has already been achieved, and the fact that it’s happening in VR only makes it more novel. Valve has succeeded at just about every goal it must have had for this project. The only thing left is whether hardcore fans will be willing to buy, and use, a virtual reality headset in order to learn what happens next in the world of Half-Life.”

RecommendedReview by Ben Kuchera

IGN

“Back when VR first became a real thing and we all started spitballing which game worlds we’d most like to be fully immersed in, Half-Life topped my list (tied with BioShock). It took a few years, but Half-Life: Alyx has more than realized that potential. With it, Valve has set a new bar for VR in interactivity, detail, and level design, showing what can happen when a world-class developer goes all-in on the new frontier of technology.”

10/10 – Review by Dan Stapleton

RockPaperShotgun

“For better and worse, HL: Alyx feels at times like a beat-by-beat recreation of Half-Life 2, with that Vault taking the place of the Citadel. More excitingly, and perhaps more surprisingly, many of the game’s best elements feel like they’re drawn from the original Half-Life. Half-Life 1 was much more of a horror game than its sequel, trapping you inside the B-movie nightmare of a research facility overrun by monsters from another dimension, and eventually sending you to that dimension, Xen.”

Not scored – Review by Graham Smith

The Verge

“While it’s about as long as the landmark Half-Life 2, with my game clocking in at 15 hours, it doesn’t feel as big or as narratively and mechanically fresh. It advances the series’s main plot, but it doesn’t come close to resolving it.

But if you keep these admittedly big reservations in mind, Alyx is a worthy addition to the Half-Life universe. It’s not just a good VR game; it’s a good video game, period.”

Not scored – Review by Adi Robertson

UploadVR

“If you’re prepared to pantomime, Alyx holds some of the most active and immersive combat you can experience in VR. In its tougher battles I’d find myself huddled on the floor, opening car doors to fire through the gaps in driver seats, instinctively flinching at the hammer of gunfire above and then poking out remaining shards in a shattered window to access a stray ammo clip with the flick of my Gravity Gloves before fumbling a hasty reload.”

5/5Review by James Feltham

Other publications

  • Gamespot – 9/10
  • GamesRadar – 4.5/5
  • Shacknews – 9/10
  • VGC – 5/5

Title: Half-Life: Alyx
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Release date: March 23, 2020
Platform: Windows


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Is Animal Crossing: New Horizons worth playing?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the season’s big Nintendo Switch exclusive. Is it worth playing? Here’s our review roundup.

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the season’s big Nintendo Switch exclusive. Does it offer the respite from the real world many of us are seeking right now? Is it worth playing? Here’s our review roundup.

The timeliness of this week’s two big video game releases has provoked much conversation. Each game offers some small solace from the world outside but in uniquely different ways. At one end of the scale, Doom Eternal lets players vent their frustrations in a (mostly) satisfying parade of things to shoot. At the other, Animal Crossing: New Horizons offers an escape. A chance to isolate on a deserted island that can be grown into a community of (mostly) happy villagers.

Nintendo’s latest Switch exclusive evolves on its predecessors in small but significant ways. New crafting and terraforming mechanics allow the experience to be even more personal than usual. The extra power of the Switch makes this the most beautiful game in the series yet. And Nintendo’s commitment to supporting the game through future events means it should be a reassuringly lengthy escape from reality.

The critical response to Animal Crossing: New Horizons is nearly unanimous in praise. Here is our pick of the game’s best reviews.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons review round-up

Eurogamer

“Is this a gritty reboot for Animal Crossing? As unpalatable as that might sound, it kind of is – and it definitely works. There’s a more grounded logic at play here, to those first few weeks at least. Your first pieces of furniture will likely be made from naked wood chopped from the very trees around you (though rest assured you’ll soon enough get the option to lend them a lick of paint or apply a fresh design with a customisation kit – another new feature for New Horizons). Elsewhere there’s a stronger throughline thoughtfully imposed on a game whose aimlessness has always been one of its biggest strengths, and once you’ve flipped your first few houses and invited a couple of animals to stay the sense of ownership over your surroundings is unparalleled in the series.”

Essential – Review by Martin Robinson

Ars Technica

AC:NH‘s first great success is in threading the needle between that classic mantra of patience and giving addicted players more to do when they want (without charging them more money). Like in prior installments, the game starts with players moving into a sparsely populated village—in this case, a remote island—and being informally tasked with helping the village develop. That impetus is doubly emphasized by AC:NH‘s island gimmick because your new home is billed as a getaway to an uninhabited island.”

Not scored – Review by Sam Machkovech

Nintendo Life

“In all seriousness, the presentation in every sense here is all but flawless. It’s one of the prettiest games on the Switch, so when you couple that with atmospheric lighting, a crisp 1080p docked resolution running at 30fps, sound design that hangs like honey in our ears, and undoubtedly the finest museum in video game history, this is nothing short of an audio-visual dream. Handheld play unsurprisingly feels extremely natural given the series’ history, but docked is where you’ll get to see the shiniest of the pretty things in the quality most deserving.”

10/10 – Review by Alex Olney

IGN

“The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, and Super Mario each found new life on the Nintendo Switch, and following those games in kind is Animal Crossing: New Horizons: An expanded, polished, next-generation reboot of a classic Nintendo game. Perhaps most importantly, like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is full of surprises. I cannot wait to see what’s to come: Seeing cool custom islands from the community, special events, season changes.”

9/10 – Review by Samuel Claiborn

GamesRadar

“This is an Animal Crossing game through and through, and although that comes with some time-based frustrations, that urge to just spend ‘five more minutes’ on your island deepens with every passing day. As your island evolves and starts to drip-feed fresh things to discover and see, you’ll have the urge to check up on your toe bean-boasting critters on a daily basis more than ever before. Animal Crossing: New Horizons has perfected the gameplay loop the series is famed for, and somehow manages to keep its steady pace relevant in a world where there are plenty of genre rivals.”

4.5/5 – Review by Sam Loveridge

Vice

New Horizons is asking you to create a society from scratch, to build a community out of a deserted island, but making a community isn’t dependent on how many trees you cut or weeds you pull. Community in New Horizons is built in the same ways it is built in the real world: by talking to your neighbors, and listening to them in return.”

Not scored – Review by Gita Jackson

Polygon

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a respite from the current state of the world. I find my general anxiety slowly subside as I run through my town, water my plants, and build furniture for the sassy chicken gentleman living down by the beach. It’s exactly what I need right now.

There are moments when I look up from a long session and realize that I’ve been ignoring everything around me. Then I take a look around at what actually is going on around me, and realize that maybe I’d better stay in my island paradise for a little while longer”

Recommended – Review by Russ Frushtick

Other publications

  • Destructoid – 8.5/10
  • Game Informer – 9/10
  • GameSpot – 8/10
  • Videogamer – 9/10
  • USGamer – 4.5/5

Title: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: March 20, 2020
Platform: Nintendo Switch


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Is Nioh 2 worth playing?

Team Ninja’s Nioh 2 is another deadly slice of action RPG adventure for the PlayStation 4, but does the game improve on the acclaimed original?

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Nioh 2
Team Ninja

Team Ninja’s Nioh 2 is another deadly slice of action RPG adventure for the PlayStation 4, but does the game improve on the acclaimed original?

Nioh 2 continues Team Ninja’s strong run with another rough diamond of a game. Its combat is universally acclaimed, requiring finesse, expertise, and resilience. The Dark Souls comparisons loom large, of course, but, like its predecessor, Nioh 2 manages to carve out a distinct identity.

Many critics also agree on the game’s flaws, believing that Team Ninja has perhaps added too much content into the mix. A plethora of gruelling side missions, and some less than memorable locations, take the shine off an otherwise top-notch action experience.

Here is our pick of the game’s best reviews.

Nioh 2 review round-up

GameRadar

Nioh 2 very much doubles down on the vision of the first game. It tells another story of feudal Japanese warlords, samurai and demons. It again sticks close to From’s Dark Souls structure, with added loot and frenetic combat that recalls Team Ninja’s own classic Ninja Gaiden series. And it’s still huge, with long, meandering main missions bolstered by optional sub-missions that often reuse parts of the same maps.”

4.5 – Review by Jon Bailes

Polygon

Nioh 2 is Ninja Gaiden mixed with Dark Souls and Sekiro and drowned in an ocean of complexity. Every enemy is a threat, if I’m anything less than deliberate. I don’t feel skilled when I succeed. I feel smart. And I guess I like feeling smart.”

Not scored – Review by Dave Tach

GameSpot

Nioh 2‘s definitive feature is its challenge. With core mechanics refined from the bones of Dark Souls, Nioh 2 boils down to a series of battles and duels in all kinds of situations. These battles demand intense precision: Not only are your attacks and skills limited by a stamina meter–called Ki–but any extra attack or mistimed movement will leave you exposed, often to an attack that will cost you a substantial amount of health. Like other Souls-like games, there is a painful pleasure in mastering whatever opponents the game throws your way.”

8/10 – Review by Mike Epstein

Kotaku

Nioh 2 has some glaring flaws in spite of the fantastic combat and challenging encounters. Chief among them is level design that turns most of the game into a blurry slog. The Sengoku period is packed with battles and sieges, but Nioh 2 delays on embracing a more magical presentation until the latter half of the game. As a result, there are strings of levels that are either muddy battlefields, crumbling towns, or dilapidated castles.”

Not scored – Review by Heather Alexandra

IGN

“It took me about 55 hours to beat Nioh 2, and while every single hour of gameplay was challenging, none of the main missions ever felt insurmountable or made me think that I needed to grind in order to overcome them. However, some of the sub-missions definitely skirted a little too close to the line between difficult and unfair.”

9/10 – Review by Mitchell Saltzman

Eurogamer

“In Dark Souls, the world is an interlocking, eldritch conundrum. In Nioh 2, it’s a series of fiendish puzzle boxes. Engrossing and oppressive, for sure, but not that startling or intriguing. Nioh 2 is a work of immense skill and scale, but Team Ninja’s next project needs to be more about changing things than adding them. After all, no amount of equipment buffs can protect you against the element of surprise.”

Recommended – Review by Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Destructoid

“If there’s one point I want to get across above all others, it’s this: Nioh 2 isn’t as revelatory as the first game, but that shouldn’t be held as a mark against it – at least not this time. Team Ninja was right to iterate and expand carefully. Nioh got so much right on the first go.”

9/10 – Review by Jordan Devore

Other publications

  • Game Informer – 8.5/10
  • Metro – 9/10
  • USGamer – 3.5/5
  • Atomic – 82/100
  • ShackNews – 8/10

Title: Nioh 2
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo / Sony Interactive Entertainment
Released: March 13, 2020
Platform: PlayStation 4


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Is Ori and the Will of the Wisps worth playing?

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the latest game from Moon Studios. It’s the follow-up to Ori and the Blind Forest, but is it as good?

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Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Moon Studios

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the latest Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive from Moon Studios. It’s the follow-up to the 2015’s acclaimed Ori and the Blind Forest, but is it as good? We dip our toe in critical waters to find out. 

Creating a sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest was never going to be an easy task for Moon Studios, but based on the overwhelmingly positive critical response for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, it appears the studio has once again struck gold.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps refines and expands on what made the first game so special with a delicate and affecting story, a glorious, imaginative world to explore, and some spectacular boss battles.

Here’s our pick of the game’s reviews.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps review round-up

Mashable

“When everything lines up so perfectly like it does in Will of the Wisps, it’s hard to pull away. It’s an experience that’s probably familiar to those who’ve played some of the legendary games that make up the 2D platforming pantheon — games like Super Metroid, Celeste, Hollow Knight, and Super Meat Boy.”

Not scored – Review by Kellen Beck

PC Gamer

“I prefer Ori and the Blind Forest for its compactness and simplicity, but Ori and the Will of the Wisps is also worth playing to the end. It trips over its complexity at times, and really doesn’t need so much combat, but it’s gorgeous, funny, and the triple-jumping could go on forever without getting old.”

81/100 – Review by Tyler Wilde

Polygon

Ori and the Will of the Wisps offers a gorgeous world to explore and a varied, creative series of abilities and tasks that guide my exploration and help me see more of this wonderful place. It expands my options in combat and offers me more to do, and mostly benefits from that added complexity, while losing some of its focus in the process.”

 Not scored – Review by Andrew King

GameSpot

“Ori’s suite of acrobatic moves makes delving into new areas a thrilling treat. Exploration becomes especially engaging as you unlock more abilities and become increasingly adept. Some of them are lifted directly from the first game, which can be disappointing next to the excitement of discovering a shiny new ability. Still, those old standbys still work well and make the improvisational leaps and bounds feel as great as ever.”

8/10 – Review by Steve Watts

VentureBeat

“As a huge fan of Ori and the Blind Forest, Will of the Wisps is everything that I could have wanted from a sequel. It’s a longer adventure with fantastic additions, especially the incredible boss fights. The ending sequence will go down as one of the best in gaming history. The occasional technical problems can be annoying, but I’d put up with five times as many bugs to play through this masterpiece.”

98/100 – Review by Mike Minotti

Videogamer

“I would place Ori and the Will of the Wisps in the small catalogue of games, tucked into a sunny corner of my mind, from which I would make prescriptions for anyone with rainy spirits. The solution, when life stands no chance of imitating its art, is merely to jump back in.”

9/10 – Review by Josh Wise

IGN

“In Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Moon Studios has taken an excellent foundation and made even more out of it. Its many new elements expand on and add to the first game’s fun without bogging it down or becoming overcomplicated. And that’s really the best praise you can give a sequel – it stays true to the spirit of the original, doubles down on what made it great, and gives you more stake in the world and options to navigate it.”

9/10 – Review by Brandin Tyrell

Other publications

  • TheSixthAxis – 100
  • GameInformer – 95
  • VGC – 100
  • Twinfinite – 90

Title: Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Release date: March 11, 2020
Platform: Xbox One, PC (Available via Xbox Game Pass)


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An idiot’s guide to Dragon Ball Z, learned entirely through Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

When we realised that plot of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot spans the entire history of the franchise, we wondered: is it possible to gain a passable understanding of the series’ vast history through one video game?

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an idiots guide to Dragon Ball Z Kakarot
Bandai Namco

When we realised that plot of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot spans the entire history of the franchise, we wondered: is it possible to gain a passable understanding of the series’ vast history through one video game?

It seems impossible, right? The Dragon Ball media franchise, in various forms, has been running for decades. It’s a ridiculous undertaking. You’d have to be an idiot to think you could cram the entire franchise into a single video game.

Luckily, we know just the right idiot for the job. So without further ado, here’s an idiot’s guide to Dragon Ball Z – learned entirely through playing Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot – by our own Callum Williams.

“Giant alien monkeys”

Although I’m sure it’s blasphemous to admit it, I’ve never watched Dragon Ball Z. While I’m aware a lot of kids my age watched the re-runs of the anime smash-hit on the Cartoon Network, I was far too pre-occupied living out my Star Wars fantasies to care what Goku and his merry band of supporting characters were up to. Before long, Dragon Ball simply became “that show where a load of dudes with weird hair shot laser beams at each other” to me. And until around two weeks ago, it stayed that way.

However, because of the thorough journalist I am, I decided to correct that mistake and finally experience Dragon Ball Z as it was intended: by skirting around sixteen seasons of well-paced anime and playing a brisk video game adaptation instead. That’s right, I’ve finally had my first experience with the Dragon Ball universe entirely through the newly released Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, and let me tell you, it’s been quite the ride.

Dragon Ball Z Kakarot giant space monkey

From epic battles with giant alien monkeys to a newfound reverence for the words “power level,” I’ve almost learnt too much and too little about Dragon Ball Z in the thirty-hour crash course that is Kakarot. Whether or not this was the way the game was meant to be experienced – and the fact the Dragon Ball Z Wiki is now firmly lodged in my favourites tab seems to indicate the latter – there’s such a strong affinity for Akira Toriyama’s world condensed into this video game adaption that it’s almost overbearing. So, sit back, and let me explain what I learnt about Dragon Ball Z through not watching the show at all.

The first revelation that hit me fairly early into Kakarot was that this is far from the beginning of the Dragon Ball story. For one, there’s very little explanation of what the world of Dragon Ball is about and who on earth its inhabitants are. Essentially, the story takes place on a part-fantasy, part-science fiction interpretation of earth. From what I can gather, everyone is either cosplaying as Ryu from Street Fighter or Spock from Star Trek. Or both. (This means they can fire off some Hadoukens, but also fly spaceships, too.)

There are also some magical blue men in the sky and a whole realm for the afterlife, but Kakarot doesn’t think they’re important so it doesn’t bother explaining them. Just know the gods sometimes do magical stuff that essentially acts as deus ex machina whenever the writers are trapped in a corner.

In truth, the only thing that really matters in this universe is seven magical spheres known – surprise, surprise – as the Dragon Balls.

Bringing all these balls together summons a big dragon in the sky who lets you make a wish, but only if you follow a long list of rules that mean Dragon Ball’s writers can rebuff Redditers poking flaws in the series’ logic. They’re a McGuffin that every villain is at least partially interested in acquiring, but they also let any character that dies come back from the dead, no doubt resulting in a horrific overpopulation problem. Goku, who is the story’s main protagonist, defends the galaxy from a series of increasingly colourful antagonists that want these dragon balls to wish for immortality.

“A giant green pickle and a little bald man”

Now, in Dragon Ball’s universe, one thing is abundantly clear: Goku is the centre of everything. When you’re playing as Goku, you get every attack, thousands of experience points, and tonnes of combat variety. Every other character? Well, they can have a watered-down imitation of Goku’s move set. This is because Goku is a Saiyan, which in Dragon Ball terms basically means he can do anything the story needs him to do at any given moment. In short, if you’re not Goku, you might as well not bother, because you’re pretty inconsequential. This is increased ten-fold by the fact that Goku easily has the best moves in the game, so when you’re fighting literally any enemy, it feels like he’s a freight train hurtling towards a snail.

Dragon Ball Z Kakarot driving test

He does, however, have some lowly, lesser powered friends, because he’s such a humble guy. These consist of his son Gohan, a giant green pickle called Piccolo, angry Goku (AKA Vegeta), and a little bald man called Krillin. Where Dragon Ball Z seems to secretly excel is in the fact these characters are actually far more interesting than Goku will ever be. (See also: DC struggling to keep the perfect superhero, Superman, interesting and relevant.)

Vegeta wrestles with his pride. Piccolo struggles with his identity. Gohan desires to leave battle and become a scholar. And Krillin is… well, to be honest, Krillin just seems like a nice dude. I’m sure the show gives them ample screen time to blossom as characters, but the game cares little for their petty issues. After all, they are not Goku.

As I played the game and experienced my first two official sagas, I was feeling assured about my knowledge of the Dragon Ball Z world. Sure, I had no idea who the creepy blue god with sunglasses in the sky was, and I’m still baffled why a giant pink troll with a Viking helmet welcomed me to the afterlife, but the stories themselves were fairly easy to follow.

Before I knew it, I’d fought both Vegeta and Frieza, and finished my first two major story arcs. It was an exhilarating handful of chapters, and I’d learned as much about the Dragon Ball world as Kakarot’s exclusively action-packed take on the story could show me.

Then, I got stuck into the third and fourth sagas. It didn’t take long for a distinct sense of repetition to set in. Not only were most of the game’s characters practically just standing around going, “Oh no, here comes a massive new villain, and he’s way stronger than the last one,” multiple times every hour, but a number of the story’s beats seemed to be yanked directly from previous sagas.

“I’m a big scary anime villain”

As always, Goku gets a major rest at the start of both stories – in which all his supporting cast get to play hero for a bit – before eventually returning to save the day. Both Cell and Majin Buu – the villains of the third and fourth sagas – have suspiciously familiar world domination plots, seemingly yanked from the same “I’m a big scary anime villain” handbook. Granted, I was getting far more accustomed to the world, while Kakarot’s incredibly bland side missions were a boring – yet still somewhat welcoming – introduction to who most of the side characters were. But something was still a bit fishy.

Dragon Ball Z Kakarot Kid Buu

It didn’t take me long to lock down a pattern for every Dragon Ball saga I had played up until this point. Now I’ve completely finished Kakarot, I have a distinct summary of what I call the seven steps of Dragon Ball. It goes a little something like this:

  1. Goku is written entirely off-screen for some bizarre reason. He might be dead, have severe heartburn or just be sleeping. All that’s important is that he’s gone.
  2. All of his little buddies then have to group together to face some dastardly villain who wants to get the Dragon Balls, for reasons.
  3. They push themselves to the max, but every time they can’t quite topple this massive foe. One of them then has to die or be really badly injured.
  4. Goku’s friends are about to perish. “I guess this is the end,” they say solemnly. BUT WAIT! WHAT’S THAT?
  5. Goku flies in. He looks at the big villain and says, “Hmmmph. You’re no match for me anymore. I’ve dug deep and found a new level to my seemingly limitless Super Saiyan abilities,” and then beats them to a pulp.
  6. The villain then decides to only now unleash his true power, which basically means he just gets buffer. In retaliation, Goku dyes his hair and takes his shirt off. Now, somehow, he’s equally matched in power.
  7. Goku hits them with a massively OTT super move. They die, and everyone goes home.

Now, this is almost definitely because, without the presence of the TV show, Kakarot was essentially showing me a condensed version of Dragon Ball Z that lacks any semblance of filler or quiet story moments. Kakarot is seemingly so against downtime that it even flashes cue cards to avoid filling these giant narrative gaps.

If somebody isn’t fighting, Kakarot acts like an impatient friend that fast forwards a TV show to every fight scene. When you dare to protest it gives you a concise version of the story, as though it will give you any context as to why Goku is currently fighting a giant pink bubble-gum man.

“So damn endearing”

I’m sure within each televised season of Dragon Ball there’s a lot of character development between the story’s epic battles, but going on what the game shows you, Dragon Ball quickly becomes a tale of severely jacked warriors shooting laser beams at each other and saying cringey one-liners. They don’t want to develop as people; all they want to do is dye their hair yellow, beat each other up, and show off their flashy new power levels to their friends.

Dragon Ball Z Kakarot super kamehameha

Yet, as my time with Kakarot went on, I started to learn that not only is the eccentric and formulaic nature of Dragon Ball Z sort of what makes it so entertaining – it’s also what makes it so damn endearing. Akira Toriyama’s incredible designs, the show’s bonkers characters, and the cyclical formula that sees Goku going head to head with endless psychotic villains; they all make for a story that’s hard not to get behind. I felt like I was getting the “my parents are tired but I’ve insisted on being read a bedtime story’” version of the narrative, but even through the confusing lens of Kakarot, it grew on me.

Goku transforming into a Super Saiyan was powerful, Future Trunks demolishing Mecha Frieza was shocking, and Gohan eventually defeating Cell was elating. All the moments my friends had raved about when they watched the show still made their impact through Kakarot, even if all the bits and pieces weren’t exactly in the right place.

It’s a testament to the game that I genuinely feel like I have some attachment to the world of Dragon Ball Z now; well, Dragon Ball Z and the Dragon Ball Wiki anyway. Perhaps it’s more like Stockholm Syndrome? Anyway, I digress. If you’ve ever been interested in getting into Dragon Ball Z, Kakarot is the equivalent of skip reading a novel (or reading the Cliff Notes, or watching the movie) the night before an exam. It’s far from the most detailed analysis, but hell – you’re in a rush. It’ll do.


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