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Pokémon X & Y Review

The path to the release of Pokémon X and Y was a strange time for me, checking sites like Serebii and Bulbapedia in order to savour every new update and scrap of information.

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The path to the release of Pokémon X and Y was a strange time for me, checking sites like Serebii and Bulbapedia in order to savour every new update and scrap of information.

I didn’t even own a 3DS, but my resolution to play the new Pokémon game was so strong that by the time it was released I ensured I had one. I wouldn’t say Pokémon was the sole reason for my buying Nintendo’s handheld but it was these games that provided the major catalyst for spending £250 on a new console. So was my spending justified?

I have not yet finished the game, and I have no designs on rushing it at all to complete, so consider this more of a ‘review in progress’. Spoilers may be ahead however, so be warned Poke-fans. Also, I bought the Y version, so if you play X your experience will likely differ in some aspects.

Game Freak have followed an almost uniform approach to starting their games since Generation I. Your character has just moved into the Kalos region with your Mother (again, a curiously absent father) and you are soon invited by your neighbour Serena to join them in the next town. For the first time you are greeted to a group of four new friends. All of which have their own personality, likes and dislikes, and preferences in approaching the world of Pokémon.

The kid called Trevor (who reminds me heavily of Brief from Panty & Stocking) ‘battles’ you to see who has caught the most Pokémon. Tierno is always searching for Pokémon that dance, Serena (or the male equivalent) prefers battling and becoming the strongest trainer she can be. Shauna, who prefers collecting cute Pokémon for friendship, also seems to be an attempt at a one-sided romance (the protagonist doesn’t talk as always) which is a nice change. It’s interesting to  develop relationships with your entire friend group, and it helps that they all seem very real. Thankfully this group dynamic isn’t a one time throwaway away thing, you’ll find the group in different strands turning up on the routes and in cities with each one reacting differently to you in their own personality.

pokemonxystarters

Your first encounter with them presents you with your choice of three starting Pokémon the fire type fox Fennekin, the water type frog Froakie and the grass type chestnut Chespin. The same grass, fire, water dynamic remains unchanged and within minutes you’re treated to a battle. For the first time in Pokémon history I found myself with the type advantage. They then you’re off to see Professor Sycamore. This short introduction takes place within the first twenty minutes of starting up the game and before long you’re released into the wild. No hour long tutorials or cumbersome trips between villages before you’re plunged straight in, given poke balls and allowed to do with your time whatever you please.

Your character is a full sized 3D model for the first time, and it’s strange how much the experience is enriched for it. You’re also able to customize your character by dressing them in whatever you can afford and changing their hair and eye colour, making the character feel like yours, not just a carbon copy of everyone else’s.

The world you walk around is truly beautiful.The cities, often based on French architecture, are beautifully crafted. Daytime is accompanied with shining rays of light and the night is lit by glowing street lamps. Sometimes the camera angle is are unfortunately too high up to fully appreciate the settings though but it will often orient itself in order for the player to fully enjoy the amazingly detailed backgrounds.The player is also gifted various ways to travel, walking, running (straight away this time), via roller blades, bicycle, and eventually flying. You can even ride on the back of certain Pokémon. Being able to travel in 8 directions rather than the standard four is great too and makes full use of the 3DS’s analogue pad. (OMG, I can walk DIAGONALLY!)

Photo opportunities are present at the more scenic of places, giving you a chance to take pictures of yourself in front of these landmarks, you can control zoom and focus levels, and moving the 3DS actually moves the camera, it’s a nice touch, considering how beautiful the world has become. The Pokémon Gyms are nothing short of glorious, each one lovingly crafted. From the Eiffel Tower Quiz Show Lighting Gym to the Doll House Fairy Gym you’re treated to a rich experience each time, every gym leader is also extremely individual and extraordinary; they also really fit in well with their specific gym.

The Pokémon battles retain the same core system; turn-based exchanges where you pit your Pokémon against other trainers or wild Pokémon in order to faint or catch them respectively. Touch screen use has been perfected over three different generations of Pokémon games hosted on the DS, with all of your battle options made accessible by touch screen.

The most obvious change to Pokémon battles are the Pokémon themselves. Each and every Pokémon of the now incredible roster of over 600 has been lovingly rendered as a full 3D model. It’s nothing short of a tribute to the series that has been going on almost as long as I’ve been playing games. Each Pokémon is given its own unique attitude and attack animations, Meowstic’s glowing eyes and pulsing ears are cool to watch as she attacks. Actual attack animations are shared, but moves such as Brave Bird have been given really cool animations that you won’t mind watching again and again.

Battles are much faster now, and can also be enhanced by other bonus features like the Pokémon-Amie petting system. All of the Pokémon’s cries have been updated to fill the void between the scratchy ear penetrating screech of the first three generations so they fit in better, and new Pokémon cries are as good as ever. Certain Pokémon like Electrode still offend the ears unfortunately. Pikachu even has its own cry from the anime. Triple Battles are present in game now, available at certain places and restaurants, pitting three of your Pokémon against three of theirs. Admittedly the best part of this is the joy of seeing three of your Pokémon at once fighting alongside each other. Sky Battles also join the mix, pitting your flying type against hard to find sky trainers, usually over cliffs or across seas, these are new and interesting but don’t offer much variation on the usual battles except for that you’re usually outnumbered. It’s also a little odd to see an enemy use a Carnivine in a flying battle.

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Pokémon catching itself now feels oddly optional, with so many Pokémon out there it feels redundant to ‘catch ‘em all’ as the old slogan would suggest. But if, like me, you still have a compulsive need to fill your boxes with caged Pokémon then catching hasn’t much changed, though two features have served to enrich the experience. Firstly I was told by one of the many hundreds of helpful NPC’s about an opportunity that once you’ve caught a certain number of Pokémon catching them become easier. If your catching level is high enough then it barely wobbles before sealing, this is great because it makes you feel more like an expert trainer and shows that catching Pokémon does go towards something.

Secondly is the inclusion of gaining experience for catching as well as fainting Pokémon. This is a long awaited feature (at least for myself) and awards you for catching Pokémon which, aside from being a Pokedex and box filler, is a large money sink. Especially in a world where you’ve never had so many options and different ways to spend your money. Random minstrels and restaurant waiters ask for tips, odd items are available at each Pokémon Centre, TMs are now very expensive (though they do last forever) and customization is expensive; a new outfit from Lumiose City cost almost 250,000 poke dollars but it’s worth it to look unique

Ease of use has been greatly improved over previous generations. Pokémon and items are now displayed side by side with their health and items, which can be removed, added or switched using the touchscreen, streamlining any item changes. It also displays their health so that any restorations can be done quickly without switching back from screens.

When it comes to teaching your Pokémon new moves your HM’s and TM’s are also displayed alongside your Pokémon, each one displaying if either they already know the move, that they can’t actually learn the move, or they can. Saving you time again switching back and forth between ‘booting up’ TM’s. Lastly on this ease of use is the radial menu. Made accessible with the X button, the radial menu presents up to 4 items you can freely register from the item menu, most useful here is your bike, fishing rod and dowsing machine. The dowsing machine has also been improved, going from a radar like item to a seeking machine where different coloured beams point you towards hidden items. It also stays on until you deactivate it, providing you with the option of running around with it constantly. In short, every effort has been made to make X and Y as streamlined and convenient an experience as possible.

The music score is also beautiful, with nice melodies and calm tunes accompanying village and town walks, and cool heavy music accompanying Team Flare’s (this generation’s Team Rocket) strut, battle music is also heavily improved, and the score becomes extremely tense when your Pokémon are low on HP, which truly makes it feel dangerous.

Small but powerful additions are based on the bottom touch screen at all times whilst roaming the world. The first of these is the Pokémon-Amie System. Half mini-game, half fan service, you select a Pokémon from your team and take them into the Pokémon-Amie field area. With this you can use your touch screen to pet them, it’s a cute experience with the smaller Pokémon, extorting cooish awws from even a grown man. Rubbing the stylus next to them will sometimes make them try and high-five you, and certain Pokémon have areas where they preferred to be petted. Some of these even fall in line with the Pokémon’s description which enhances the immersion. For example Honedge, a new sword based Pokémon, is told to trap people’s souls if it touches its scarf, and whilst touching the scarf in Amie doesn’t trap your soul, it’s not appreciated. Amie is even funnier with larger Pokémon, the large and intimidating panda Pokémon Pangoro looks hilarious as he begrudgingly accepts your affection, likely resisting the urge to seismic toss you.

You can also feed your Pokémon Poke Puffs, little cupcake like food stuffs that you earn from playing in the three mini games, which to Game Freak’s credit, are a lot of fun. If this is where X and Y would have left it we would have parted as friends, but Amie does so much more than that. Your Pokémon have various levels that can be raised through Amie: affection, hunger and enjoyment. Once a Pokémon is getting close to maxing affection it has an effect in battles. The first time I started noticing that my Greninja had started dodging attacks because it ‘was so in sync with my wishes’ or clearing itself of paralysis or sleep ‘to stop Daniel from worrying’ I realised that the love I had given them returned to me when I needed it in battles. I think the best part about this was that I had no idea that was the outcome, I wasn’t told by the game, so all decisions to pet my Pokémon were made with no gain in mind except for my Pokémon’s happiness, (and my partners affection for cute Pokémon) being rewarded for something that would have been fine as a standalone feature is nothing short of an incredible reward for the player. Not only that, but a certain loved Pokémon can evolve if given enough attention via the Amie system too.

3d fighting 2

The second of these bottom screen activities is the Super Training System. This is also a great feature, giving players much more control over the growth of their Pokémon. If you’re a serious player, or a Pokémon aficionado then the odds are you already know about EVs, or Effort Values, and how they affect your Pokémon’s stat growth, These were previously hidden from the player but with Super Training, not only are EVs out in the open in a handy circle chart, but you’re able to influence them as you want with the fun mini game and punching bags you receive from them. The game itself is fairly interesting, as you float around an arena shooting footballs at balloon representations of Pokémon, and didn’t drag for me at all even when fully training 3 or 4 Pokémon in one afternoon to their fullest. It’s nice to have so much control this time around, and makes you feel like you’re really training your Pokémon. A little variety on the training could have been improved this, because every stat was trained in the same way. Attack and Defense were both trained by throwing balls at a balloon; couldn’t Defense have been trained by resisting being hit or dodging balls?

Fortunately though this mode doesn’t end when you have maxed out a Pokémon’s stats, a further two levels that offer cooler rewards like elemental stones and advanced punching bags for your other Pokémon are revealed, showing that Game Freak goes above and beyond when it comes down to even their mini-games, always thinking about their players even after completion.

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The last feature are the O-Powers.These are powers you can access that temporarily increase aspects of your game, for example Prize Money, Experience, Attack Power and even Capture power. You are given a certain amount of charge, and these charge orbs are used up by the powers. Powers last 3 minutes and consume varying amounts of charge orbs. Your charge orbs are then charged up over time. This feature is reminiscent various RPG’s offering outside buffs (Blue Dragon comes to mind), and is a welcome addition to the already budding list of features. Pokémon however sets itself apart from the rest in that it’s possible to give these ‘buffs’ to other players for cheaper charge orb costs. Nintendo is known for promoting friendliness and teamwork amongst their players, a breath of fresh air in the FPS dominated scene of unfriendly gaming.

Another feature which I found delightful was the ability to make something called a PR video, it’s essentially a 10 second video to advertise yourself as a trainer. You can fully customize this from effects to music to the way your character looks and even feature a chosen Pokémon from your party in it. This sort of system is similar to making your intro sequence from various wrestling games, and is just as, if not more, fun. It’s one of those ‘get out what you put in’ minigames; where time and effort is often rewarded with something truly worthwhile.

This is unfortunately where the endless praise subsides for a little while, and the chinks in an otherwise flawless suit of armour begin to show. There are small niggling problems that aren’t terrible but do mark the game, for example being able to tip certain people is different, but only serves to give the player a two dimensional choice that has no effect rather than presenting the player as either a tight bastard or a big shot spender.

Swarms are a feature that wasn’t mentioned earlier because I find them so tedious. At first it was different and interesting, but it soon became annoying when the one Zangoose in a herd of Seviper became uncatchable due to the Seviper systematically ganging up on the poor thing before I could get rid of them. It’s great that they stick to the Seviper/Zangoose rivalry, but not being able to catch one because I can only send out one Pokémon against five was annoying after a while. Plus these horde encounters become a waste of time, especially when you’re vying for higher levels and they offer tiny levels of experience, even for fainting them all. What would have been interesting would have been a swarm of five different Pokémon, not 5 of the same that all do slow attacks, eating up your play time. For a game so seemingly focused on a streamlined experience this is the only time I feel bored playing.

One of the little things that also irked me was the breaking of the fourth wall ; I had one trainer assure me that my Pokémon’s power levels were ‘over 9000’. I appreciate memes as much as the last guy, but it feels out of place with the Pokémon World. Another was not so bad because it wasn’t just an out of the blue reference and involved the world. An NPC mentioned the story of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ in which a human is turned into a Pokémon, but the girl loved him even so’ the reason this wasn’t so bad was because it integrated our world with theirs which is always interesting. It wasn’t a random blurt that looked like unnecessary pandering from a company that should have enough self-respect to be the reference not the referencer.

One more little annoying thing, and sort of understandable, is the censorship. At my most immature of times I like to give certain Pokémon funny names, some of which certain people might find offensive. But never have I been censored when naming Pokémon. Now my free speech is gone and not even being able to name a Pokémon Poo, is a shame .

3d fighting

I’ve done the good, and I’ve done the bad, now for the somewhat ugly.

The game is extremely easy and for some this might be good. But I think the problem lies in the overpowered EXP Share. Now being literally an ON/OFF option rather than a hold item it affects all of your Pokémon. You’ll find that you can pretty much get away with using one Pokémon and your team will follow in levels without the need to train them individually. You could potentially use one Pokémon and have a team of six all at the same level. While this is part of the streamlining of the game I’m in two minds about it. On one hand I think back to Gold and Silver, which were brutal for Experience, you could spend hours grinding to get your team levelled up which frankly wasn’t fun. But then having all of your Pokémon at such a high level so quickly feels like the game is rushing you along. The story isn’t that long so it shouldn’t really be rushing the best parts. I wish there were a better balance, so that EXP Share could be used on a chosen number of Pokémon but you sacrificed the amount of EXP that is allocated between them. Again it’s the old Skyrim ‘fast travel argument’, if you don’t like it you don’t have to use it, but if something is there to make your life easier you will invariably end up using it, wouldn’t you?

The story is not Pokémon Y’s strong point. The story of the Titan’s past is rather interesting, and it’s beautifully animated, albeit with washed out stills. Reaching the legendary Pokémon Yveltal (who seems to quite like poke puffs and being stroked under his neck) was a matter of defeating a few cloned Team Flare trainers, who you would think would have a more unique Pokémon collection, and throwing one Ultra Ball. Whether it was that the game had been made too easy by the EXP share and O-Powers or I’m just an awesome Pokémon Master is up for discussion. The point is the story was very intriguing, but the meat of it wasn’t revealed until a very short sequence in-between the 7th and 8th Gym and odd messages and small skirmishes with the (though interestingly attired) fairly boring Team Flare. When it was good, it was great, but it just didn’t last long enough and had a fairly big anti-climax, with everyone just returned to what they had been doing before as though nothing had happened. Except that I now had a Pokémon in my party that apparently could wipe out the lives of thousands of creatures yet was almost fainted in two attacks.

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The game also can’t seem to decide whether this is the main focus of the game, or if it’s about Mega Evolution, which apparently is at least the second most important thing about Pokémon Y. Call me old-fashioned here, but Mega Evolution has never appealed to me. I’m not going to say Pokémon shouldn’t have it at all, or that it shouldn’t be in the next game. I’m just saying that, pre and post release; it held zero interest for me at all. This ties into my major grumble with the game in that there are only 69 new Pokémon, where each new generation added at least 100 if not a full 150.

A personal wonder of mine (not based at all in any fact) is whether Game Freak simply couldn’t think of new Pokémon and then used Mega Evolution as a cheap copout, ever so slightly changing some already existing Pokémon to distract us. These evolutions are for temporary use in battle and require a hold item specific to the few available Pokémon able to use it. You are given a test ride with Mega Evolution, where you are given the chance of using Mega Evolution with a Lucario you are lumbered with, and I’ll be honest I didn’t feel my interest was piqued enough to pursue it with other Pokémon. This however is a personal opinion; I would have much preferred a seemingly taboo permanent fourth evolution instead. These temporary evolutions feel more tentative than anything, a shy toe in the water rather than a bold and confident leap forward.

My issue with the lack of new Pokémon also extends to the prevalence of the older ones. I always assumed that the point of a new Pokémon game was to showcase its new world and its new creations. So coming up to release I was cynically saying ‘If I see another damn Pidgey, Rattata, Machop, Zubat or Geodude I’ll stop playing the game!’ and I was only half-joking, nothing was going to stop me from fully experiencing the most important step forward in Pokémon gaming history. But my first random encounter was with; yes you guessed it, a damn Pidgey. At the time this was hilarious, I smugly sat back and said ‘What did I say?’ but looking back it was a sign of things to come.

Meeting Professor Sycamore for the first time yields you a choice of one of three Pokémon; Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander; the starters from the very first Pokémon games. This felt like an insult to the player, personally when playing new generations I like every member of my team to be of the new generation, and filling up 1 of your 6 possible spaces with a Pokémon that I’ve already spent tons of time with just feels needless. Now this might be an effort to display Mega Evolution via friendly faces, but why not give the new Pokémon Mega Evolution? As far as I’m aware (at time of writing) none of the new Pokémon even have Mega Evolutions and you’re forced to use old ones to enable this.

Now this probably wouldn’t bother those that are newcomers (or the less irritable crowd) and in retrospect is good for those who might like familiar faces. Unfortunately for me it felt like another excuse for a lousy number of new Pokémon. The Pokedex, your catalogue for registering data about new Pokémon now feels like a given and doesn’t even feel important. The new Pokémon are collected together with the old in different region sections (admittedly cool) in an effort I wonder to hide how little of them there are.

4

Summary

Honestly though the lack of new Pokémon doesn’t completely take away from the experience, seeing even old Pokémon in their shiny new 3D forms makes a big difference and almost makes up for it. It’s a negative that is easily ignored amongst all the good. Pokémon Y is an amazing experience, it’s colourful and enjoyable, and really draws you in. New Pokémon and old are a joy to see in 3D in a game that has been slowly improving over the years. Pokémon’s X and Y are a massive step forward for the franchise and will stand for years to come as arguably the best Pokémon game yet, if not the best RPG on the market, and definitely a reason to own a 3DS on its own. Even the shoehorned story is vaguely interesting. Pokémon games have gone through a lot of changes through the years but thankfully this one stuck to its core strengths and came out on top, with only a few niggling remarks (that don’t take away from the experience) to make my resounding last statement is that this latest generation is damn near perfect.

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Daniel Bowes resides in Lincoln, when he's not playing or making games, he's writing or thinking about them.

Reviews

Maneater review

Is it safe to go back in the water? We’re not sure, so we sent Callum to review Maneater. [WARNING: Contains terrible shark puns.]

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Maneater review
Tripwire

Is it safe to go back in the water? We’re not sure, so we sent Callum to review Maneater. [WARNING: Contains terrible shark puns.]

First up: the shark puns. I’m sure this is what you all came for. I assume my editor also wants a section of this article dedicated to terrible oceanic references, so let’s just get this out the way quickly. Will Maneater, the new hyper-violent shark simulator from Tripwire, sink or swim? Has its Jaws-dropping concept got any bite? Will it be a fin-tastic ride? Or is it destined to sleep with the fishes? [This was a very elaborate way of handing in your resignation, Callum – Ed.]

All out of our system? Are we done? Wonderful. Then let’s crack on.

With that out the way, many of you have likely seen the over-the-top trailers for Maneater that dropped following its announcement last year. After all, it’s hard to miss a game where players take control of a raging, hyper-aggressive bull shark with a love for human meat ripped straight from the hull of a fishing boat. Yet, now it’s here, it’s easy to recognise both the satisfying highs and debilitating lows of making a self-proclaimed “shaRkPG.”

Undeniably, the trailers’ promise that players will step into the fins of an unstoppable oceanic predator that can chomp through reinforced steel and make paddling beachgoers into mincemeat is far from unmet. This is perhaps the closest players will ever come to fulfilling the (oddly specific) fantasy of making some elderly, one-armed shark hunter bitterly recall a cliché movie monologue about their antics and for that, Maneater deserves props. However, making a 10-hour game where the one goal is to tear through an ocean’s worth of potential-prey comes with its downsides, especially in the varied gameplay department.

To add some context, Maneater sees players assume the role of a young bull-shark pup who was torn from her mother at birth and severely disfigured by a ruthless hunter named Scaly Pete. Thrown back into the vicious waters of the Gulf Coast, your mission quickly becomes to grow into a fully-fledged shark and track down the man who killed your mother, tearing your way through whatever comes in your path.

Maneater seaweed

As expected from a game about a giant, eternally ticked off oceanic predator, Maneater isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy storytelling. However, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve to make up for its thankfully silent protagonist. For one, the game is set out like a trashy American reality show, putting Chris Parnell of SNL and Rick and Morty fame as an ever-present – and frequently funny – narrator. Not only does strong writing make his “nature documentary” commentary land perfectly, but small additions like cutscenes filmed from a handheld perspective make for a pretty endearing central style.

Parnell’s commentary serves as entertaining underlining for Maneater’s gameplay, which is definitely more fleshed out than the title’s trailers may have you believe. I, for one, saw this game inaccurately labelled “GTA with sharks.” In reality, Maneater is much more at home when compared to a game like Crackdown. Beginning as a very small fish in a monumentally big pond, the core focus of the experience is battling your way through increasingly tough oceanic wildlife and human enemies as you grow bigger, gain new abilities and acquire brand new – very cool – body parts.

One of Maneater’s biggest surprises is how well balanced and fun this sense of progression is from start to finish, with my journey seeing me originally struggle against giant alligators and colossal sperm whales before actively engaging them by the end of the campaign. Maneater takes you from a weak bottom feeder to a literal apex predator, picking fights with whatever you please and watching your prey flee from you in fear.

To achieve this sense of oceanic dominance, you first have to master combat and exploration. The latter is easily the less-prevalent of the two. Scattered around the world are several major collectables and landmarks, each coming with their own set of fun easter eggs and shark-movie references. Combat, on the other hand, comprises much more of Maneater’s experience, which, unfortunately, isn’t for the best.

That’s not to say combat is bad. Once you get the hang of it, Maneater mostly relies on a fairly simple and easy to pick up control scheme, seeing players utilise a bite, tail whip, dodge, charge, and a powerful special ability. While it can rely too heavily on button-mashing – especially as tapping bite repeatedly is the key to defeating most foes – there is something morbidly satisfying about leaping from the water, grabbing a helpless human from a boat and dragging them to the sea for a gory kill.

Fights below water are slightly less entertaining, mostly because enemies become something of a pushover towards the latter half of the campaign. They can still grow intense when you come face to face with the game’s other apex predators, though: much bigger and more dangerous variations of the base game’s enemies.

Maneater alligator

However, Maneater’s structure is where it really begins to let itself down. While the core loop has its moments, it becomes evident fairly early on that most missions recycle the same “go here, kill this,” objective without any nuance or deviation. There’s simply not enough variety to warrant Maneater’s relatively padded campaign, making it something of a one-trick pony. Granted, it’s not a bad trick, but after 10 hours of the same repeated activities, the fun nature of Tripwire’s shark sim does fade.

After swimming through the game’s early areas, you’ll realise the heart of Maneater simply doesn’t have the complexity to work for more than a few hours. You’ll run through several monotonous objectives, fight an apex predator, watch a mandatory cutscene, complete some side missions, then advance on to the next level of the game where you’ll rinse and repeat. Sure, there are some fun optional objectives – such as hunting unique, named shark hunters who pose slightly more of a challenge than their weaker minions – but even these activities are so overused that they become tedious overall.

If you’re jumping into Maneater to live out your life-long fantasy of starring as a fully-grown, 500-pound bull-shark that cares more about sinking freighters than honouring the food chain, there’s no denying this is the game for you. There is a strong progression system, some hilarious gags, and some really satisfying combat that makes stalking your inferior prey all the more satisfying. Yet, it’s worth remembering that Maneater is, at its heart, a gimmick, and like all gimmicky media, it does eventually wear out its welcome.

Fin.

Maneater review
3

Summary


Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Release Date: May 22, 2020


Maneater really does do what it says on the tin. It’s a hyper-violent, super fun and wonderfully tongue in cheek shark simulator that lets players live out their fantasy of becoming the ocean’s most notorious predator. Yet, it’s beyond that where Maneater struggles, as its repetitive missions and frequent padding prevent it from sustaining its 10-hour runtime.

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Reviews

Lonely Mountains: Downhill Nintendo Switch review

Lonely Mountains: Downhill rides onto the Nintendo Switch. It’s time to pump up those tyres and hit the wilderness once more.

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Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review
Megagon / Thunderful

Lonely Mountains: Downhill rides onto the Nintendo Switch. It’s time to pump up those tyres and hit the wilderness once more.

It’s not something we often talk about, but there’s a crispness and clarity to Lonely Mountains: Downhill. That’s not to say those words aren’t in the collective video game vocabulary, but they’re rarely used in good faith.

When people talk about crispness, or clarity, they’re almost always referring to visual fidelity. They’re talking about resolution and frame rates and antialiasing. Remember those boring old uncles at parties, who would talk incessantly about cars, or their favourite sports team, or hi-fi separates? Those drips, those human joy sponges, are the sorts of people who think a game is better because it runs a higher frame rate.

It’s time to reclaim those terms. Forget technical jargon and tedious Top Trumps; let’s use them instead to talk about something more meaningful, like crispness of vision or clarity of intent. Let’s use them to talk about something wonderful, like Lonely Mountains: Downhill.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill finds you at the top of a mountain, as all good mountain bike adventures should, with knobbly tyres beneath and a crash helmet above. There are thin margins between you and failure, as in real life. And fail you will. A lot. At times you’ll rattle down the mountainside like a ball in a Pachinko machine, hitting every tree and rock and stump, careening off every edge and into every pond.

Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review depth of field

You might even struggle with the controls. The game, by default, starts up with an eight-directional scheme that, try as I might, I could not fathom. Others have told me they don’t understand why, but it just intuitively works. However, the tattered gears and linkages in my primate brain could not make the correct decision at any point. Then I switched to classic Micro Machines controls – where the cyclist pivots clockwise or counter-clockwise based on the direction the nose of the bike is pointing – and it all clicked into place.

The important thing is that Lonely Mountains: Downhill isn’t unnecessarily punitive – instant reloads are critical in a game with fine margins and knife-edge failure – and, as with the controls, there are always options.

The titular mountains, lonely as they are, are split into numerous downhill trails. First, you’ll be given a free ride down, with no time pressures and no objectives. Then, once you’ve crossed all the checkpoints and reached the bottom – and you’ve had a good look at the trail – it’s time to start the challenges. Time-attacks are standard, obviously, with targets growing tighter as you improve. You can best the novice targets by sticking to the established trails, but in order to achieve the best times? You’ll need to venture off the beaten path.

Sometimes that means just clipping a corner, kissing the apex, or cutting it off altogether. That will shave off a few milliseconds from your split times. But if you chart your own route, barrelling down sheer gravel chutes or hopping down rock faces or leaping across chasms, then you can cut out huge swathes of the course. Your times will tumble as a result, which will access new challenges, bikes, and customisation options. But greater reward brings greater risk, and as your times tumble, your rider will, too.

But you’re not always in the mood for breakneck recklessness and hundreds of retries. Sometimes you want to explore without the time pressure. That’s catered for, too, with as much enjoyment to be found just in bumbling about the mountain as racing for time. The game even features hidden rest spots, beautiful dioramas where you can park your bike, park yourself, and just drink in the game’s sumptuous atmosphere.

Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review rest spot

There’s no music in Lonely Mountains: Downhill, either. The only sounds are the chirrups of birdsong and the crunch of knobbly tyres on dirt, gravel, and rock. And that’s as it should be. You can enjoy the silence, or you can pop in some earbuds and listen to your own soundtrack. It harkens back to my youth, skipping through the forest with grunge and punk rock on mixtape cassettes, as the new kid on the block, the Sony Discman, was too prone to skipping to be taken on such an adventure.

There’s a zenlike aspect to Lonely Mountains: Downhill that, once you’ve found it, amongst the wilderness, it grabs you. It’s remarkable clarity of design for what appears, on the face of it, as a knockabout arcade racer.

With that in mind, Lonely Mountains: Downhill also features challenges based on arriving at the bottom (relatively) safely. New trails and mountains are gated behind getting to the bottom with less than a specified number of crashes. There’s even a permadeath-like mode with no checkpoints and no restarts, and if you beat that? You can unlock the option to take on the trails at night.

And here’s the thing: there are no lighting sources, other than the pathetic white bulb on your bike’s handlebars. Nobody’s lined the trail with Tiki torches or strings of fairy lights or strategically-placed floodlights. There’s no dubious ambient glow or convenient skybox gradient. It is dark, it is stark, and it is a brilliant piece of design.

Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review night mode

If you’re going to succeed on Lonely Mountains: Downhill – and even more so, the night stages – you’ll need to learn the trails, their personalities and their pitfalls. In the age of procedural generation, it’s a beautiful slice of praxis to have to learn intricately-designed courses once more, to experiment, to improve, to better your own abilities and by extension, improve your times.

But exploring these handcrafted mountain dioramas is its own joy because they are just so sumptuous. It might seem simplistic at a glance, but the low poly visuals are teeming with life and are anything but low fidelity. Each stage, each scene, is carefully assembled and layered, dripping in sun shafts and particle effects and depth of field, all built with optimal viewpoints in mind.

Rather than an over-the-shoulder or orbital camera that we’re so familiar with in extreme sports games, the viewpoint on Lonely Mountains: Downhill tracks down the trail on a pre-defined path. This means you’ll be treated to the sort of perfect cinematography that you’ll never achieve with either procedural generation or user-controlled cameras. Sure, you might stumble on something beautiful every now and then if you’re in charge, but there’s a reason why open-world games wrestle control of the camera away from the player if they want to show off their most beautiful vista or their sparkliest sunset. It wants you to see the game at its most vibrant, to make sure all that time and energy setting up those moments wasn’t wasted.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill is crammed full of those moments of elegant crispness, to the exclusion of most anything else. It’s almost exhausting how postcard-pretty the game is, but don’t worry: you’ll crash into a tree or a rock before too long, and come back down to earth with an unceremonious thump.

That’s the joy of downhill mountain biking, captured in capsule form, and it’s even better now you can take it out on the trail on Nintendo Switch.

(Well, when lockdown lifts and you’re allowed outside once more. Until then, Lonely Mountains: Downhill brings a welcome slice of the outside inside.)

Lonely Mountains: Downhill
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, Mac
Developer: Megagon Industries
Publisher: Thunderful Group
Release Date: May 7, 2020


Lonely Mountains: Downhill excels as both an adrenaline-fueled racer and a zenlike exploration. It’s a signal of the game’s clarity of vision and tightness of scope that it can, somehow, succeed at both. A triumph of beautiful cinematography and spinning tyres alike.

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Void Bastards – Nintendo Switch review

Suicide Squad meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as Blue Manchu bring Void Bastards to the Nintendo Switch.

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Void Bastards - Nintendo Switch review
Blue Manchu

Suicide Squad meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as roguelike FPS Void Bastards comes to the Nintendo Switch.

Blue Manchu’s Void Bastards has a simple premise. Revive a rag-tag bunch of freeze-dried prisoners stored aboard a transport vessel called the Void Ark, and send them into action on a series of derelict but dangerous spaceships. The mission is simple. Salvage the materials required to power the Void Ark for its final Faster Than Light jump home.

Each ship – which is procedurally generated from a set of common parts – is populated with a cornucopia of beasties, mutated citizens, and security systems. Limited health and a slowly depleting oxygen supply provide the impetus to make your raid as swift as possible. But, a tantalising assortment of loot on each ship tempts you to stay longer than is necessary.

If – or rather, when – you die, another prisoner is “rehydrated” and deployed. Each one can reuse any weapons and gadget upgrades you’ve obtained, and continue the objective of retrieving the required FTL parts. It’s a roguelike. You get the idea.

Void Bastards - Combat

I’m always excited for science fiction games. I’m from the generation that grew up with the original Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Logan’s Run, and the homespun charm of the BBC’s Blake’s 7. Any game that evokes that style – and the feel of British sci-fi comics – immediately has my attention.

The flip side is that I’m not a particular fan of games that use procedural generation to create environments and levels. I like to see the artist’s hand at work, whether it’s in the design of a space to provoke a specific action, or in a beautiful vista composed to generate an emotion. It’s the main reason why No Man’s Sky never quite took off for me. Those magical, mathematically created worlds are always impressive, but part of me is also always wondering if the next planet will be even more impressive, or the next, or the next.

Void Bastards manages to avoid this problem with its procedurally generated spaceship layouts. In part, it’s a virtue of the universal truth that sci-fi corridors are sci-fi corridors are sci-fi corridors.

Void Bastards - Spaceship

Crucially, Void Bastards has just enough variety. Some ships have specific purposes. Medical ships, for example, echo the design of Sevastopol Station in Alien: Isolation. Lux Cruise vessels are decorated with plush furnishings, chandeliers, and ionic columns, with flavour added by the occasional robot maître d.

Bold changes in colour and lighting also make each ship feel different. It fittingly recalls how 1970’s Doctor Who would reuse and reconfigure small sets to create a larger sense of space. Not that there’s ever time to stand still and admire the surroundings. The moment-to-moment tension of exploration, combat, and looting never lets up.

Void Bastards’ balance of risk and reward is perfectly judged. On almost every occasion, death is the result of pushing yourself a little too far, of being a little too greedy, or a little too curious.

Even when death comes, the game has mastered the art of making the player want “one more go.” Developer Blue Manchu has cited the influence of Bioshock and System Shock, and it’s in this satisfying and repetitive gameplay loop that it’s most evident. It never gets boring.

Each run is also kept fresh by a range of prisoner attributes, buffs, and de-buffs. For example, one prisoner might have a slow walking speed or a General Grevious-like cough that attracts enemy attention. That might be offset, however, by a high percentage chance of finding ammo clips, or the ability to always find a biscuit in a ship’s break room. (Which is more helpful than you might think.)

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The thrill of reaching the evacuation point with loot intact, a horde of enemies on your tail, and a single point of health remaining is consistently rewarding. And if you make it to the end of the game – which is no easy feat on normal difficulty – you are treated to a joyously bleak payoff.

An extensive arsenal of weapons – which can be modded and enhanced – also helps to keep the game varied. Identifying the best loadout for each type of ship and enemy type is an enjoyable exercise of testing and refinement. And noodling around on the workbench or galaxy map – which is also procedurally generated – to plan the most effective route is its own strategic pleasure.

The only aspect of Void Bastards that doesn’t always click is its humour. The game has a particularly British tone, or rather, tones. At one extreme you have the delightfully droll witticisms the Void Ark’s computer. Kevan Brighting’s sparkling performance evokes the work of Peter Jones as The Book in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are also numerous references to corporate bureaucracy, finance, and employment law. They range from P45 Prisoner requisition forms to the Void Ark’s computer being a BACS Unit. A gag for fans of payroll systems, we assume.

At the other extreme is alien dialogue that frequently resorts to terms like “dick-wad” and “twat-face”. It’s a touch of vulgarity that strikes one of the game’s few bum notes. The incessant screeching of the enemy Juve – voiced by The Stanley Parable’s William Pugh – is another. Sorry, William.

Void Bastards - Screenshot

Thankfully, none of the game’s visual splendour appears to have been lost in the move to Switch. The comic book visuals look bold and crisp – in both TV and handheld modes – and the frame rate is 99% rock solid. Font size can be an issue in some menus, but it’s a beautiful game that plays to the strengths of the Switch.

Field notes

  • We have a feeling that someone at Blue Manchu must have played the classic ZX Spectrum game, Rescue.
  • Ryan Roth’s soundtrack is superb. A sublime fusion of ambience and guitar twinged electronica.
  • Those menu fonts really are small.
  • Completing the game unlocks a fun challenge mode.
  • The game’s enemy design is wonderfully bonkers, from the Trilby wearing Spooks and Glowtrotters, to the mop-topped Outpatients. Top marks.
  • And every game should have Kittybots.
Void Bastards - Nintendo Switch Review
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One,
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Release Date: May 7, 2020


Aside from being called Spunky Mc-Fuckface on regular occasions, this is an excellent game. Void Bastards delivers a finely-tuned mix of action, planning, and strategy, and its bite-sized structure makes it perfect for short bursts of Switch gaming.

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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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