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Firewatch review

On paper, Firewatch doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a particularly exciting experience, sitting in a remote lookout tower waiting for fires to start.

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Firewatch

On paper, Firewatch doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a particularly exciting experience, sitting in a remote lookout tower waiting for fires to start.

We’ve perhaps all thought about doing something similar at one point in our lives, disappearing off to the wilderness to escape the troubles of life and eking out simpler existence sounds gloriously tempting – for a short time, at least – but Henry, the game’s protagonist, has taken the leap and actually done it. This is the basic premise of Firewatch, but to put it in such simplistic terms isn’t doing it justice; there’s significantly more to it than that.

Firewatch review screenshot 10

You don’t simply sit in a tower watching for forest fires, although there is some of that – it would be a little far-fetched as a premise if there wasn’t to be any watching of fires in a game called Firewatch – but what starts as an innocent summer spent saving the Wyoming wilderness escalates into a tale of mystery and intrigue, that has ambitions of mixing it up with the very best adventure games, past and present. The crew at Campo Santo certainly have pedigree in this regard: a number of the team have worked on Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Tales of Monkey Island, among others.

Traditional graphical adventure games, often known as point-and-click adventures – though very little pointing and clicking remains in the glossy, modern implementations – have grown up and out from their two-dimensional, fixed-scene beginnings into dynamic, cinematic affairs. For all the pains Telltale Games have done to remain faithful to the genre and the visual style of their various franchises, the likes of Until Dawn and Life is Strange have gone a step further, bringing a touch of Hollywood gloss to the genre. One thing that remains, however, is the notion of choice, that the actions the player takes and the way they handle certain situations within the game – especially when conducting conversations – has an impact on the way the story pans out.

The other road down which graphical adventure games have diverged is into the first-person perspective – often pejoratively known as ‘walking simulators’ for their slow pace and reduced interactivity – with Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as the biggest and best-known successes from this sub-genre. It’s fair to say these games aren’t for everyone, and the common criticism is that the player is passing through someone else’s story like a non-corporeal ghost, gleaning second-hand information about events that have gone before with no capacity to experience or influence the story.

Firewatch review screenshot 04

Firewatch sits somewhere in between these two established paradigms of adventure. The perspective is first-person and the environment is experienced through the eyes of the protagonist, but all the key elements of the traditional point-and-click adventure – the exploration, the fetch-quests, the progressive dialogue and most importantly, the choice – have come along with Firewatch into this new perspective. There is of course the danger that fashioning two styles together could turn out as a distinctly Heath Robinson join, and Firewatch could easily have been a jack of all trades, master of none.

Thankfully Campo Santo have got the hybridisation just right, and the end result? It’s the best of both worlds, plus a little something extra for their trouble.

Press to examine

I must confess, I’m not a massive fan of the recent trend for interactive controls when manipulating objects, which is especially prevalent in the adventure genre. What is supposed to be an instinctive way of examining something you’ve found – with the character able to waggle it around freely to view it from all angles – often descends into frustration, and having to make frequent glances at the on screen prompts quickly shatters any implied feeling of realism foisted on the player by this mechanic. What is supposed to come across as a connected and intuitive extension of your body can instead appear unnatural, disjointed, and at times just plain weird. I’m usually the guy walking around frantically flapping his virtual arm, trying to put down an object that feels like it’s stuck to his disembodied meat hook by some sort of adhesive.

That being said, Firewatch is probably the nicest implementation of this control scheme that I’ve come across to date. Interactions with objects within the game feels smooth and natural, with simple and reassuringly mechanical-feeling button presses to perform interactions – none of the bloody awful hammering of buttons to open a door, or timed press-and-holds to pick things up, or swirling the analogue stick round in circles to operate a control mechanism – followed by a fluid and dynamic object manipulation system that really does feel like the arm on screen is yours.

Firewatch review screenshot 15

Part of the reason for this elevated sense of engagement with the control scheme – hell, I’m going to go so far as to say all of it – are the character animations you see from this first-person perspective. Every little thing you do, every move you make, is all perfectly captured in some of the most realistic-feeling embodiment animations you’ll ever see. If you’re walking and look down you’ll see your feet tramping through the undergrowth, along with your portly, middle-aged gut swinging around in front of you. Switch it up to a jog you’ll see your chubby, hairy arms flinging up into view. That sort of thing is fairly standard for a first-person experience, but it goes so much further than that. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • When walking down from your lookout tower there’s a section with low headroom – you’ll place your hand on the structure to project your head as you stoop under it.
  • When opening the padlock on a supply cache, your animated fingers will be working on the corresponding tumbler – you’ll also fidget and drum your fingers on the box lid.
  • When climbing – either scrambling over or down rocks, or when using ropes – the animations will vary depending on the terrain you’re traversing, and if you fall it’s realistic. And hilarious. And realistically hilarious.

This is the work of animator James Benson, who the Campo Santo team found when he was putting together a series of YouTube videos as a sort-of portfolio of his animation chops, where he re-imagined what Half-Life would look like if Gordon Freeman was more than just a gun pointing at the centre of the screen. It’s simple things, from Freeman’s hand being in view pressing buttons on the way into Black Mesa, through to him attempting to pry open the doors before resorting to crowbar for the first time or losing his glasses after taking a big hit, that make a real difference to the immersion.

Where most games are happy to use embodiment animations for simple things like pressing buttons or reloading weapons – or even for Sonic the Hedgehog-style bored character animations, like Artyom trapping his finger while tinkering with his gun in Metro: 2033 – you can see every one of those tricks realised in Firewatch and then some, and with an animation for every single thing that happens in the game it never gets boring or repetitive. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

Firewatch review screenshot 14

What Firewatch also does incredibly well is to feel accurate and of its time period – being set in the summer of 1989 – while still making allowances for the fact it is a video game. We’re all so used to mini maps and on-screen directional guides towards our next quest games often feel unnecessarily cruel without them, but without the cover of a generic sci-fi head’s up display to hide behind, making them feel in-keeping with the retro setting is a challenge. Campo Santo have achieved this beautifully by simply giving us a paper map, a pencil and a compass.

As you progress through the game and find additional annotated sections of the map, you’ll copy the information down to your own map with your pencil, and will circle objectives and key areas on the map as you go. Being armed with a compass you can of course hold this up to orient yourself, but you can also walk around with it held out in front of you – a gift to those of us who rely on quest markers – and can even walk around with the map held in front of your face, but if you do you’ll miss out on so much of a beautifully crafted world.

A painted world

The style and concept of Firewatch began life as a painting by Olly Moss, a talented artist who has produced posters and cover art for such luminaries as Studio Ghibli, Lucasfilm and J. K. Rowling. In the beginning, Moss painted some scenes as concept art for the environment, that were subsequently turned into these beautiful in-universe posters:

The challenge for Jane Ng and the team at Campo Santo was to translate this unique painted style into a first-person experience that still felt immersive and grounded around the player. It would be relatively straightforward to render this stylised, block-printed world into being and is something that the Unity engine – upon which Firewatch is built – seems to excel at delivering, but when your ambition is deliver a complex and emotional narrative with the player in the shoes of the protagonist, the danger is that a world which looked cartoon-like might shatter the immersion at any time.

There’s a plethora of really clever and interesting things they did to achieve this, from simple tricks like fog and lighting manipulation through to more complex solutions, including the increased flatness and stylisation of trees and foliage the further they are from the player’s view, or making interactive items – those that can be picked up and examined in more detail – appropriately more detailed than their surroundings, but we could talk about that for hours and we’d never really be any further forward. The net result is that Firewatch is both beautiful and unique, but if you do want to know more then check out our report on a talk Jane Ng gave about creating the art of Firewatch.

Firewatch review screenshot 05

A colleague of mine felt that Firewatch wasn’t actually as pretty as he was expecting it to be, which surprised me because everything I was seeing was simply stunning.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage he was playing on PS4 and I was using a mid-range gaming PC; he told me he did notice some stuttering and asset degradation during play, whereas my experience was glossy and flawless. It’s also worth mentioning that we’d recently been discussing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the hyper-realistic Unreal Engine powered vision of rural England that looks as though it’s been ripped from our collective childhood memories, so I felt that perhaps the impressionist approach of Firewatch was being unfairly looked upon.

He insisted that there were some issues with the PS4 visuals, so we arranged to stand atop the lookout tower at the same time of day, and take an identical screenshot for comparison. Here’s what they look like when spliced together:

Firewatch PC vs PS4 graphics comparison

PC source image, captured at 1080p with ultra settings on my PC.
PS4 source image, captured at native resolution on his PS4.

These images haven’t been tinkered with, tampered or doctored, and you can see the source images linked above. This is literally all I did for the above comparison:

  1. Overlay the PS4 image on top of the PC one in a graphics editing program.
  2. Cut off roughly the left half of the PS4 layer, so the PC image was visible underneath.
  3. Move the PS4 image about so that the tree in the middle lined up.
  4. Cropped the border of the image, so that no PC layer could be seen around the PS4 layer (where it had been moved to line up the tree).
  5. Added a dotted white line down the middle to signify the join (ignore the little white targeting reticule).
  6. Added the labels to show which part of the comparison was from which source.

While things in the long distance look nearly identical, from the middle-distance into the foreground we see a reduction in the quality of the trees, foliage and shadows, past the levels of intentional stylisation of the game. He would also find that the frame rate would stutter periodically. This isn’t therefore an isolated incident of reduced graphical fidelity in the example above, but I don’t want to get bogged down into comparing frame rates and draw distances for the purposes of this review; I’m sure the Digital Foundry folks over at Eurogamer will produce a video pitting the PC and PS4 versions against one another to compare the running frame rates before too long, but that’s not why we’re here.

Firewatch review screenshot 03

For now, we’ll simply say that – as is expected with pretty much every video game release going these days – the graphical fidelity and performance of the PC version is superior to that of its PS4 counterpart, but hopefully there’s some optimisation or adjustments the team at Campo Santo can make to get the PS4 version running closer to the PC equivalent.

What’s more important than the raw graphical performance of Firewatch is the stylistic setting and the feelings it evokes through its tone. If most first-person games are considered the gaming equivalents of the ambitious, budget-busting works, shot using specialist equipment so they look great in an IMAX theatre, Firewatch is very much the art-house indie picture of the video game world, shot on a vintage Super 8 camera to help it feel authentic to the time, making it – and us, the players – far better for the experience.

We need to talk

We’re going to talk about about the story of Firewatch for a moment now, and I’m going to do my best to avoid any spoilers. You may come away from this section of the review feeling that you haven’t learned a great deal and that’s fine: Firewatch is one of those games you should go into blind to get the best from the experience and I’d rather err on the side of caution. There will be some plot details here, but nothing you couldn’t already glean from trailers or videos produced by Campo Santo.

The game opens with the story of how Henry – our protagonist – came to be a firewatch lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. It’s told in part through branching choices, selectable from the on-screen text as you read through the prologue, and through Henry’s actions in the first-person, as he packs up his life and heads off to take up his post. It only lasts for a couple of minutes, and while some of the choices (although significant for Henry’s character) seem insignificant to your progress – and you are ultimately funnelled to the same result of him experiencing an emotional trauma and wanting to get away from it all – the choices link through into what dialogue choices you’ll be presented with and how Henry behaves throughout in the game. These choices are similar in impact to the psychiatrist sections in Until Dawn, where selecting a fear of clowns over a fear of spiders will impact how the game tries to scare you for example, but they’re far more sensitively woven into the experience; they’re also charming, funny and sad in equal measures, and are above all very real and believable.

Firewatch review screenshot 11

When Henry has arrived in the Shoshone National Park in Wyoming, and made the two day trek from his truck to his new home in the Two Forks lookout tower, he’s greeted on the radio by Delilah. Delilah is his supervisor and for the next six hours or so of gameplay – or the whole summer, in their terms – is basically the only major relationship in Henry’s life.

In another nod to the game’s fantastic use of technology – or lack thereof – their entire communication takes place over shortwave radios, the method Delilah uses to keep in contact with Henry and the other lookout towers under her supervision, although you get the distinct impression she talks to Henry a lot more than she does the others. The use of radio contact for these interactions is the foundation upon which Firewatch is built, and it’s absolutely inspired for one key reason: you are contactable from virtually anywhere on the map. This means there’s no need to trudge back and forth from nominal quest-giver to destination, then back again to collect your reward and be given a new quest, and saves what could have been an interminable string of fetch quests into a delightful jaunt through the countryside.

There is a downside to the radio formula from a design perspective, though: radio contact is a two-way medium. This is fine for an asked-and-answered interaction where Delilah has fired the opening salvo, delivering a question to Henry that results in several branching conversation choices you can reply with in the finest tradition of point-and-click adventure games, but what happens when Henry, or rather, the player wants to tell Delilah something? It’s straightforward enough to slap a radio icon against an objective that the quest-giver has sent you to, “Go to this landmark and call me on the radio when you get there,” but having a portable radio in your hand just wouldn’t be believable if you were only using it within these narrow constraints. This is where Campo Santo took a little bit of a leap of faith with the conversational mechanics in Firewatch, and this has seriously paid off for the experience as a whole.

Firewatch review screenshot 17

You might see something up ahead that obviously needs reporting to Delilah, like a thin plume of smoke indicating a fire that needs to be investigated, but you might also have something to report that’s a little more abstract and complex. While there are many interactions that are used to progress the story forward, from rudimentary fire prevention to the mystery that evolves around Henry and Delilah, it’s often the inconsequential conversations that often hold the most joy. Report to Delilah that you think a meadow is beautiful, and she might tell you that it’s a lovely place to camp. Report to her that you’ve been stung by a bee, and she might make fun of you for being a baby. Tell her that you’ve seen some unusual stone circles in the grass and she might recommend a tourist attraction you visit on your drive home at the end of the summer, and tell her about a small body of water she discovered? She’ll probably tell you the funny story of why they had to confiscate the sign telling you what it’s called.

These are all incredibly gentle and subtle ways of building your relationship with Delilah, but it’s a two-way street. If you’re not very nice to her, or do something to downright piss her off like badgering her for something she clearly doesn’t want to talk about, she might sulk with you and not respond to your calls for a short time; at least until the next important story event comes up, in any case.

Talking to Delilah genuinely feels like having a real conversation with a real human being. I don’t think I ever found myself presented with a situation where I had to choose something I’d never say because the writers’ choices were too outlandish, and the way their relationship progresses through this natural and beautifully written dialogue – filled with as many swear words and crude jokes as it is poignant personal revelations and important discoveries, just like real life – is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. Everybody else may as well pack up and go home: in Firewatch, Campo Santo have created the perfect video game dialogue system. It’s just that good.

Firewatch review screenshot 07

It may not have the wildly variant ‘butterfly effect’ story arcs of Until Dawn or Telltale’s offerings – truth be told, I think there’s only one possible ending here, without throwing multiple play-throughs at it to be sure – but the breadth of choice on offer in Firewatch is more about the relationship you build and the way in which you reach the end, than having any impact on the end result itself, which is an important distinction and something of a lesson in life.

Let’s also not forget that without two of the best acting performances I’ve ever come across – that’s acting performances, end of sentence; there are no ‘voice acting in a video game’ caveats here – from Cissy Jones as Delilah and Rich Sommer as Henry, this wouldn’t be such a believable story and a remarkable experience. From its beginnings as an innocent tale of burgeoning friendship and escaping personal problems (a charming undercurrent that is thankfully not lost as the story progresses through to a roller-coaster of mystery and suspense) with some moments of genuine sadness in amongst the charm and humour, Firewatch and its remarkable performances are incredible from start to finish.

In summary: Should I play Firewatch?

You’re probably wondering if there was anything about Firewatch I didn’t love and the honest truth is, there really wasn’t. I made a list, and here’s all I could come up with:

  • When Henry finds a Walkman, I would have liked to have been able to listen to some 80s tunes as I hiked the wilderness.
  • Some of the dialogue choices are a little quick, with the tempo picking up the more stressed Henry and Delilah become – my wife and I like to play branching adventure games by committee, and I had to go all unilateral on the radio at times.
  • I would have liked more of it. That’s not to say the game is too short – the narrative is tightly focused and it leaves the player wanting more, which probably means it’s the perfect length – but it’s simply a world I would love to spend more time in.
  • It would of course be nice if the PS4 version looked a little sharper, but I’m sure they’re working on that – you may prefer to play it on PC in the meantime, if you have both options available.

Firewatch review screenshot 06

5

Summary

That’s it. That’s literally all I managed to grumble about, which I think is a fairly unequivocal endorsement that you should go and play Firewatch

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

Reviews

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Nintendo Switch review

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is the latest in an increasingly long list of last-generation game to grace the Nintendo Switch. Is it an Old West epic or a penny dreadful?

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger - Nintendo Switch
Techland

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is the latest in an increasingly long list of last-generation game to grace the Nintendo Switch. Is it an Old West epic or a penny dreadful?

Revisiting older games on Nintendo Switch often serves as a reminder of how much things have changed in the last decade. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is one such example. Originally released on PC and consoles in 2013, it received a warm welcome and won acclaim for its clever storytelling techniques.

In the intervening years, game narratives have evolved in intriguing ways, the digital Wild West has been redefined by Red Dead Redemption 2, and the FPS genre – despite remaining the same on a mechanical level – has become increasingly entwined with RPG mechanics. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a throwback to a time when those seeds were being sewn. In some respects, it still feels modern, but in others, the lines of age are showing.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger screenshot

The good news is that Call of Juarez: Gunslinger still spins a wonderful yarn. The player assumes the role of Silas Greaves, a dyed-in-the-wool bounty hunter who regales a saloon of drunkards with far-fetched tales of his exploits. Each story ticks off a who’s who of Wild West icons, with the likes of Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and The Wild Bunch all making guest appearances.

If it sounds improbable that one man would cross paths with so many legendary outlaws, that’s because it probably is. Silas Greaves is the most unreliable of narrators, weaving a tapestry of deeds and perils, of heroes and villains, of lies and half-truths. Like just the real frontier, where stories were passed on, changed and embellished by word of mouth, Greaves creates folklore that is all his own.

It’s more than window dressing, however. Each story Silas recounts changes the game in interesting ways. Whole sequences rewind and play out entirely differently as Silas remembers – or reinvents – his tale. Environmental features – a ladder or a cave, for example – appear on the fly as he conjures up an escape route from a sticky situation. Enemies will even pop in and out of existence as Greaves endeavours to entertain the eager ears of his audience. And that audience also has an impact, calling Silas out on his tall tales with corrections that are then reflected in-game. The result is a story told with economy and humour in a way that feels authentic to the setting.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger screenshot

The skilful storytelling helps to obscure the fact that the game is a fairly standard first-person shooter. It’s a mostly linear affair in which various ne’er do wells considerately offer themselves up for headshots with blithe indifference. It’s a not a subtle game, either. Each level is ripped straight from Hollywood’s Wild West, with locations ranging from dusty towns and dangerous gold mines to foggy swamplands and mountain-perched railroads. It’s a pleasingly familiar greatest hits package, and all the better for it.

Gunplay also feels good, with a selection of close, mid and long-range weapons all having weight and punch. Aiming can also be fine-tuned with help from the Nintendo Switch’s gyroscope, and the console’s HD rumble is also put to effective use.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger also shows how the FPS genre was evolving with its simple progression system. Points are awards on how you dispatch your opponents – headshots are best, naturally – and as you level-up, perks unlock across three categories: Gunslinger, Ranger and Trapper. Each upgrade offers a welcome boost, although it’s often hard to feel the benefit as – on the standard difficulty at least – this is not a particularly tough game.

The game’s trickiest – and most frustratingly repetitive moments – are found in its duels and boss encounters, both of which are textbook examples of live-die-repeat game design. The game also attempts to expand upon on Red Dead Redemption’s dead eye mechanic for duel encounters. Unfortunately, the method of using both thumbsticks to maintain hand position and focus is unnecessarily fussy.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger screenshot

As for the quality of the Nintendo Switch port, it’s good news. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger runs at a consistent clip, with some occasional slowdown only evident during the game’s more demanding moments. It also looks decent enough, while some locations – such as the Union Pacific railroad bridge – are quite beautiful.

The performances are also noteworthy. The late John Cygan gives Silas Greaves a pleasing blend of world-weariness and pent-up rage, and his ongoing commentary throughout each level is another delightful narrative flourish. Pawel Blaszczak’s excellent soundtrack also sounds the part and features some memorable themes.

Elsewhere, collectable Nuggets of Truth offer a potted history of the game’s cast of characters. Completionists can replay campaign levels to find them all, and there’s an enjoyable arcade mode for some bite-sized sharpshooting thrills.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is no substitute getting Red Dead Redemption on Switch, but as a whistle-stop tour through a theme park of iconic Wild West moments, it’s a whole heap of fun. The game shows its age, but the use of an unreliable narrator pays off in spades. It’s a small scale adventure by modern standards, but one worth revisiting, particularly on Switch where there’s a comparative dearth of enjoyable shooters.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
3.5

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Techland
Release Date: December x, 2019


Call of Juarez: Gunslinger comes to Nintendo Switch in fine fettle. A solid port with plenty of memorable moments cover the cracks to make it a wild west story worth retelling.

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Reviews

Alien: Isolation – Nintendo Switch review

Alien: Isolation docks onto the Nintendo Switch five years after its debut. We review the latest port from Feral Interactive.

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Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch review

Alien: Isolation docks onto the Nintendo Switch five years after its debut. We review the latest port from Feral Interactive.

Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation was universally admired when it debuted on Xbox, PC and PlayStation in 2014. Slow-paced, measured, and faithful in tone and spirit to its movie roots, it earned acclaim from all quarters.

The game performed well enough commercially but it wasn’t the smash hit many predicted. Five years on, the Nintendo Switch gives Alien: Isolation another opportunity chance to shine courtesy of porting wizards, Feral Interactive.

The game looks the part, of course. Creative Assembly was granted access to a wealth production materials from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic and the studio’s devotion to the source material is evident in every pixel. From the phosphor green screens and chunky computer banks to the padded corridors and gloomy air vents, Alien: Isolation takes the design aesthetic of the original film and makes it tangible.

Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch

For the most part Alien: Isolation takes place on Sevastopol Station, a space habitat struck by disaster following the arrival of a deadly Xenomorph. The station is a finely crafted piece of design that stands alongside Bioshock‘s Rapture and Half-Life 2‘s City 17 as one of the most well-realised locations to feature in a video game.

Creative Assembly’s achievement is in making Sevastopol a varied but coherent location. Areas such as the medical ward and travel bays all have their own distinct identities, but they remain consistent with the station as a whole. For all the sci-fi trappings, it feels, most of all, like a place of work. There’s a sense of real-life happening here, of Sevastopol being a home, a tour of duty, a hum-drum and claustrophobic slog for a weary workforce.

There’s also a pleasing lack of friction between the world and the player. Maps are found in spots that make sense for the station’s inhabitants, and whoever worked on the signage deserves a medal. Dimly lit air vents – a franchise trademark – are entwined throughout, offering disorienting shortcuts to new locations at the cost of shredded nerves.

Alien Isolation - Nintendo Switch

Alien: Isolation goes to great lengths to maintain this sense of unease. Doors take their own sweet time to open. Keypads respond a l-i-t-t-l-e too slowly, and saving the game is a deliberately agonising 20-second process. Even if an alien wasn’t on the loose, Sevastopol Station is a scary place to be. It’s not all stifling claustrophobia, however. Occasional, spectacular glimpses of the galaxy outside tease escape and freedom.

At the same time, Christian Henson’s evocative score continually grinds the nerves without tipping into hysteria. It’s a groan of mood and escalating fear that offers the calming reassurance of fingernails dragged down a blackboard. The undercurrent symphony of ambient beeps, ticks and whirrs only adds to the tension.

Character movement also plays its part. There’s a run button, but it’s rarely advisable to use, while the standard walking speed is just slow enough to make you feel venerable. It also took some time for me to adjust to the POV head bobbing, which, for the first few hours, actually made me feel slightly nauseous. On the flip side, there are some considerate touches to Alien: Isolation’s hunter and hunted design philosophy. When hiding – in lockers or cabinets – you can peer forward and to the side, eking out a better view of the situation without revealing yourself.

The Xenomorph is used sparingly, for the most part, and effectively so. The first time you catch sight of it unfurling from a ceiling vent is truly heart-pounding. It’s also wonderfully animated, lurching from a prowl to attack with lethal grace and constantly adapting its behaviour.

Avoiding the creature – and the multitude of murderous androids – is a cautious and drawn-out affair. A variety of tools and weapons, including the iconic Motion Detector, are on hand to assist, and there are hiding places aplenty.

It’s shame, then, that save points are sometimes few and far between. Too often, a cagey game of cat and mouse ends with the Xenomorph noshing my face off, and also wiping out ten minutes of progress.

It should be said that the atmosphere and tension, delightful as it is, papers over a simple set of fetch quests and exploratory missions. But it hardly matters, Alien: Isolation is a well-executed twist on the survival horror genre that is as fresh now as it was in 2015.

Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch

The story and script – from prolific comic book writer and author, Dan Abnett – are concocted from familiar ingredients but they tell a better yarn than all but two of the films.

Underpinning the story is Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley. She’s a one-note character in some respects – driven by little else than a desire to uncover her mother’s plight – but she’s nicely performed by Elizabeth Inglis. A flashback also puts players in the shoes of another character for an enjoyable and effective sojourn.

However, in its later stages, the game unfortunately loses some focus. A storyline involving the ship’s AI picks up the narrative slack, and although it’s well-handled, calm, psychotic computers feel old hat. As a result, the game begins to overstay its welcome.

Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch

Everything I’ve mentioned so far could refer to the game’s original 2014 release on Xbox and PlayStation. So what of the Switch version?

From a content perspective, the full base game is included, along with every piece of post-launch DLC. The highlights are two missions featuring the cast of the first film: Crew Expendable and Last Survivor.

From a technical perspective, the Switch port of Alien: Isolation is a marvel. Following on from the studio’s stellar work with Grid: Autosport, Feral Interactive has again worked a small miracle. The game looks glorious in both docked and portable modes, with a crisp image, smooth movement and rocksteady frame rate. It’s, without doubt, one of the best looking games I’ve played on the Switch. Other publishers with last-generation games gathering dust should be knocking on Feral’s door with haste.

If you are a fan of the film franchise or survival horror games, Alien: Isolation is easy to recommend. The game is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s true to its source material and it jangles the nerves in the best possible way.

Alien: Isolation
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Feral Interactive / Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: December 5, 2019


Although Alien: Isolation wanders somewhat to its conclusion, it’s a thrilling, chilling, tense and unnerving video game. It’s also that rarest of things, an excellent game based on a movie license. The sparkling port from Feral Interactive and wealth of DLC content make this an essential Nintendo Switch release.

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Terminator: Resistance review

If there’s one thing I can say about Terminator: Resistance, it’s that it almost perfectly mimics the time-travelling robotic infiltrators that stand as the imposing antagonists of every Terminator movie.

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Terminator: Resistance review
Reef Entertainment

If there’s one thing I can say about Terminator: Resistance, it’s that it almost perfectly mimics the time-travelling robotic infiltrators that stand as the imposing antagonists of every Terminator movie.

Not only does it feel like a game out of its time, reliving the glory days of cheap, early noughties movie tie-ins, but it mimics a AAA shooter despite the fact its inner workings are a robotic, emotionless void of personality. Granted, I’ve played worse shooters and experienced cheaper licensed tie-ins, but it’s rare to find a modern game that lacks as much individuality or charm as Terminator: Resistance. Much like the downwards spiralling movie franchise it spawned from, it’s an adaptation that doesn’t understand what made The Terminator so unique and suffers tenfold because of it.

If you’ve ever seen a Terminator movie, the premise should be pretty familiar. You play Jacob Rivers – a bog-standard, run of the mill action hero with the emotional range of cardboard – who is separated from his troop of elite resistance fighters during a fierce battle against Skynet: the faceless army of robotic murder bots looking to eradicate humanity. Left the sole survivor of his squadron, he bands together with a local group of civilians, journeying with them as he attempts to reunite with the resistance. Little does he know, however, that he’s being stalked by a robotic enemy known as an Infiltrator: A Terminator unit that can pose under the guise of a human form. As fans of the series can no doubt tell, the game documents the events that lead to the Terminators being sent back in the original movie and Judgment Day, discarding all the timeline changes from the bad sequels and acting as a prequel to Cameron’s masterpieces.

Terminator: Resistance screenshot

It is, at its core, a potentially interesting take on the franchise’s world and mythos, yet Resistance never puts enough effort into its plot to matter. While it could have been an interesting piece of canonical connective tissue that has yet to be explained in the movies, its awkward character models, horrific dialogue, and entirely predictable story beats make every moment unexciting or unengaging. Even when the game deals you out a selection of unimpactful moral choices, it’s hard to involve yourself with the outcomes because the characters are flat-out unlikeable and look, talk and move more robotically than their mechanical adversaries. This goes doubly so for the game’s two romantic narrative arcs, which, of course, end with the most awkward sex scenes in human history.

The gameplay, on the other hand, is more of a mixed tale. While there’s evidently been some effort here to try and mix your standard shooter campaign with some stealth, RPG, and even survival horror elements, Terminator’s reluctance to ever pick one makes it a jack of all trades but a master of none. The shooting feels weightless and grows dull after the first hour, while its RPG elements – essentially just putting points into perks – feel basic at best. The central loop of the gameplay is simple. You get put onto one side of the map with a main quest and a couple of side-objectives, shoot your way through a repetitive slog of robots, hack or lockpick through some doors, complete the mission and then run to the map’s exit. Every one of Resistance’s missions throughout its dull eight-hour campaign is virtually the same, and while you’ll face some bullet-spongey bosses on the way to the credits, it never manages to diversify the core structure at any point.

Terminator: Resistance screenshot

It also lacks difficulty. Playing the game on hard, I only ever really felt challenged through a couple of combat encounters, which is incredibly disappointing seen as the game boasts one of the most intimidating adversaries in cinema history. Despite building up the iconic T-800 units as an imposing threat, you can slice through them like a hot knife through butter, and even if you can’t, the sea of medkits in the local vicinity can heal you up in seconds flat.

That’s not to say it’s completely awful. Managing to get your hands on some of the iconic, laser-powered weaponry from the movies can make for some empowering moments, and the sound design, music, and authentic visuals did awaken my nostalgia as a Terminator fan. There’s clearly been an attempt here to devise a game that is evocative of the classic movies Resistance takes influence from, and for some mega-fans of the series, that will probably be enough. Its use of side-missions also expands the world in several interesting ways, managing to take the edge of the grind of the main campaign with some more engaging side stories and fleshing out of friendly NPC’s.

Resistance also plays with a handful of strong stealth sections, which feel like where the title should’ve invested its strangely wide focus. An incredible early segment in the game sees you sneaking through a dilapidated factory overrun by Terminators, tasking you with sneaking through vents, hiding behind rubble and keeping out of the sights of this “indestructible” foe. It instils into you the ruthless nature of Terminator: Resistance’s bleak, post-apocalyptic future, as you attempt to keep away from your mechanical, robotic overlords.

Resistance just never manages to be anything more than a forgettable, mediocre shooter. It feels like a game that would release in the early years of the last generation, where it doesn’t adopt a focus but opts to try and play to the widest crowd possible, losing all semblance of identity in the process.

Terminator: Resistance screenshot

In the end, Resistance is the kind of game that’s destined to coat the bottom of bargain bins. It’s soulless, feels rushed and, worst of all, incredibly boring. If you’re a seasoned fan of the franchise and your only desire is to do battle with authentic-looking T-800 models while Brad Fiedel’s theme serenades you, then there might be something here. But if you’re looking for an engaging shooter, leave Resistance well enough alone. I hope to dear god that it won’t be back.

Terminator: Resistance
2

Summary


Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Teyon
Publisher: Reef Entertainment
Release Date: December 10, 2019


Terminator Resistance is a forgettable, dull and uninspired shooter that lacks focus and a true sense of identity. While there’s a commendable authenticity to the original movies in its design and some strong stealth sections, the game winds up a soulless shooter that lacks purpose. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger could’ve saved this one.

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Life is Strange 2 Episode 5 review

Life Is Strange 2’s fifth and final episode, Wolves, is in many ways a fitting encapsulation of all the series’ strongest and weakest elements so far.

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Life is Strange 2 Episode 5 review
Dontnod Entertainment

Life is Strange 2’s fifth and final episode, Wolves, is in many ways a fitting encapsulation of all the series’ strongest and weakest elements so far.

While it’s, at times, an anti-climactic and somewhat rushed conclusion to the series, it’s also a poignant and emotionally rich finale that shows the weight of your choices and refrains from shying away from the more morally complex aspects of your adventure thus far. It may not be an epic final sprint that introduces some drive to a series that has often lacked it, but it is a bold and surprisingly melancholic ending that – much like the rest of the sequel – takes some big risks and ultimately succeeds because of it.

Despite the final episode ending with Sean and Daniel Diaz making their way to the Mexican border, Wolves’ first big surprise is that it takes a lengthy detour from this cliffhanger. Picking up a few weeks after the finale in a tiny desert town known as ‘Away’, around half the episode concerns the brothers planning their route across the border and bonding with their estranged mother. It’s a slow start for sure – especially after the chaotic ending of the fourth episode – but within this 90-minute segment is a lot of superb character moments for Sean, Daniel, and their mother, Karen. While most episodes this season concern the family fighting about repetitive topics, it’s refreshing to see them enjoying each other’s company and establishing the newly found bond they all share.

It’s here that Dontnod also provides this episode’s largest location to explore and scour for collectables, with the town of Away full to the brim with characters to converse with, objects to interact with, and even a treasure hunt to complete. It seems every episode I praise Dontnod’s attention to detail with these explorable locations, but it’s worth reiterating that it’s without a doubt their strongest asset. Whether it’s small decisions like leaving a loving, cold, or scathing note to your mother in her trailer, or finding small items that expand character backstories, exploring in Life Is Strange is always a rewarding experience. There’s even a returning character from the first season that makes a short appearance, and some some fun easter eggs that hint towards the fate of the main cast.

However, it can’t help but feel like a strange diversion for an episode that so desperately needs to focus on giving this story purpose. Every episode thus far this season has struggled with feeling largely aimless, and an hour and a half pitstop to explore a town and meet brand new characters can’t help but feel slow-paced and uneventful. This comes off as a moment that should occur at the midpoint in the story, not in an epilogue which looks to wrap up the main characters’ story arcs.

As a result, what remains can’t help but feel rushed. When the brothers do eventually start making their way to the border, it appears some massive questions that deserve to be explored are passed over. Daniel asks Sean whether they will be able to live a real life in Mexico; whether running is really the best answer and how they will be able to make a living on their own. But, because the game leaves these questions until the last minute, you never get time to ponder the answers.

Even when the finale does eventually pick up speed it lacks appropriate pacing, with several major plot beats happening suddenly without feeling earned or properly set up. What is there is supremely interesting and morally grey in the best way possible, but you can’t help but feel something is missing; a piece of the puzzle out of place. In truth, it’s not the ideas that Wolves raises but the speed of which it resolves them, which is a shame when considering just how much time is spent treading water in Away for the first half of the episode.

Luckily, it leads to a moral decision that is much more difficult than the binary ‘good or evil’ choice that capped off season one’s conclusion, asking for you to make a crushingly hard call in a split second. While the road to the ending is rocky, it’s this moment that cements Life Is Strange 2 as a worthy successor and a beautifully heart-breaking story, with the outcome of your decisions leading to a number of different endings. The best part? There are no “bad” or “good” epilogues. Every single one (of which there are 7) leads to a surprisingly melancholy and bittersweet conclusion that takes your prior choices into account and shows the realistic result of your adventure.

It is without a doubt proof of how much Dontnod’s storytelling has matured and garnered nuance since Life Is Strange’s debut episode, presenting a finale that few would’ve expected after playing the first episode. Granted, while Life Is Strange 2 has definitely not been a flawless effort, it is a game that has a lot to say and one that ultimately finds an emotionally impactful way to say it. If this does happen to be the last episode in the franchise for a while – which might be the case, with Dontnod moving onto Xbox exclusive Tell Me Why then this is a fitting end, showing the hard-hitting, emotionally poignant brilliance that made Life Is Strange such a cult-hit in the first place.

Life is Strange 2 Episode 5
3.5

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: December 3, 2019


Life Is Strange 2: Wolves is by no means a perfect finale, but it’s a heartfelt and emotionally charged conclusion that refuses to shy away from the morally complex nature of the story so far. After the credits roll, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t agree that the end of the Diaz Brothers’ story is impactful, unpredictable and, ultimately, deeply touching.

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Final Fantasy VIII – Nintendo Switch review

Final Fantasy VIII might be the eighth game in the main series, but for Squaresoft on the global stage, it was the proverbial difficult second album.

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Final Fantasy VIII nintendo switch review
Square Enix / Thumbsticks

Final Fantasy VIII might be the eighth game in the main series, but for Squaresoft on the global stage, it was the proverbial difficult second album.

That’s not to say Final Fantasy games hadn’t been released in the western world before. English translations of the first, fourth, and sixth games – titled Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy III, respectively – were released in the US only. But until Square’s first PlayStation release, Final Fantasy VII, stormed the global stage, it was very much a Japan first, America (maybe) second strategy.

Then came Final Fantasy VIII, a game under huge pressure to meet expectations, both critical and commercial. While Final Fantasy VII was the breakthrough hit, Final Fantasy VIII – released two years later – would form the cornerstone of Squaresoft’s (now Square Enix’s) strategy. Over the coming years, the Japanese developer and publisher would release eight-through-eleven on a yearly schedule, like Call of Duty, FIFA, or Assassin’s Creed. It boggles the mind.

What also came as shock to western audiences, on the release of Final Fantasy VIII, was just how different mainline Final Fantasy games could be. While Final Fantasy IV and VI are outwardly similar in terms of structure, gameplay and fixed character classes, the game in the middle, Final Fantasy V, was a massive departure, with its flexible, interchangeable job system. Final Fantasy VIII is as different to the games either side of it as the fifth entry was, seven years earlier. And that wasn’t always a positive.

After a somewhat weird opening cinematic (comprised of a supercut of clips from later in the game, like the opening credits from a TV sitcom), Final Fantasy VIII starts off strong. From a visual design perspective, it demonstrates Squaresoft at the height of its pomp and ambition. The characters no longer look like chibi homunculi, for starters. They were a bit irregular in the original release, as a result of hardware and resolution limitations of the time. But the remaster, on which this review is based, has cleaned them up, sanding off all the rough edges.

Final Fantasy VIII remaster best looking guy here

The heroes – with the entire party present on the screen for the first time in the series – may be impressive, and the game’s hand-painted backdrops look as pretty as ever, but the interplay between controllable characters and FMV is where Final Fantasy VIII shines. Often, it’s restricted to a mundane trucking shot as the characters stroll through the campus of their boarding school-cum-military academy. But on sequences like the chase through Dollet, where you’re running into the foreground while a giant robot spider is smashing through the scenery behind you? It’s scintillating stuff.

While these spectacle sequences frequently punctuate Final Fantasy VIII, and they always stand out as a highlight, the story they help to tell is often cheesy, occasionally baffling, and rarely as impactful as the writers intended. It’s a melting pot of fairy tales and sci-fi gibberish, where our heroes fight to save the world from an evil sorceress and her knight who want to compress time, for some reason. Along the way, you’ll run into so many tropes – manifest destiny, convenient amnesia, deus ex machina, manic pixie dream girl – that Final Fantasy VIII feels like a patchwork quilt of RPG stereotypes.

And then there are the time-bending elements. Specifically, the flashback/dream sequence elements with Laguna Loire. Before playing the Final Fantasy VIII remaster, it had been almost 20 years since the last time I met Laguna. But the moment Squall, Zell and Selphie started clutching their heads and falling asleep, my heart sank. And on playing through it all again, sadly, that element of the game hasn’t improved with age. At all. Even a little bit.

Final Fantasy VIII remaster Laguna Loire

Laguna may be the poster boy for everything that’s wrong with Final Fantasy VIII, but it was the game’s mechanics that caused consternation among players back in 1999. Gone are the traditions of learned spells and magic points, replaced instead with the twin concepts of the draw and the junction.

The heroes “junction” Guardian Forces – companion monsters, somewhere between series staple summons and Pokémon – that allow them to wield their power. That includes summoning the GFs to assist in battle, but also, grants the power to draw, store, cast, and junction magic.

Players draw magic from enemies, or from draw points found around the world, then junction magic to their stats to improve them. Junction magic to your stats and those numbers will go up; junction magic to your attack or defence to deal or defend those elements. It’s an opportunity to customise your characters, who – aside from their differing limit breaks – are basically empty vessels, but it’s also a mechanic that lends itself to grinding. You will spend hours upon hours drawing low-level magic from enemy fodder, refining it into higher-level magic, hooking that magic up to your stats, then doing it all over again. If you have to rely on those Guardian Forces in combat, you’ll spend countless more hours watching overlong summon monster cinematics.

Final Fantasy VIII remaster Bahamut Guardian Force

Final Fantasy VIII may have incredible presentation and a (mostly) fun story, but the level of grind involved in something so simple as stocking spells sucks all the fun out of it. And if you really want to max out everything, including all the Guardian Forces, magic, and weapons, you’ll need to play Triple Triad (Final Fantasy VIII’s card minigame) against nearly every NPC in the game. Triple Triad is almost as maddening monotonous as drawing magic. It’s like playing a grind-heavy modern MMO. On your own.

Thankfully, the Final Fantasy VIII remaster – reviewed here on Nintendo Switch, but also available on PS4 and Xbox One – redresses these issues with some much-needed quality of life improvements. There are cheatier enhancements, like boosts to HP and limit gauges, but it is the speed boost that makes all the difference. A simple click of the left thumbstick speeds gameplay up threefold. Drawing magic, summing GFs, and playing Triple Triad whiz past in a flash, while cleverly, Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliant score plays at regular speed.

Final Fantasy VIII may still be deeply flawed, but the speed boost makes the worst bits bearable. Then, and only then, is the game’s ridiculius brilliance allowed to shine through. I still hate Laguna, though. Even 20 years apart won’t change my mind on that.

Final Fantasy VIII
4

Summary


Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Developer: Square Enix, DotEmu
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: September 3, 2019


Final Fantasy VIII isn’t without its flaws, and it spreads them fairly evenly across story, mechanics, and pacing. Happily, the speed boost on offer in the remaster fixes the pacing, which effectively papers over the cracks in the grind-heavy mechanics. What you’re left with is a fun, somewhat silly, and beautiful RPG. And on Nintendo Switch, you can play it anywhere. This really is the best way to play Final Fantasy VIII.

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