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Pillars of Eternity review

When the review code came through for Pillars of Eternity, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited.

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Pillars of Eternity

When the review code came through for Pillars of Eternity, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited.

While some sites will go out of their way to review everything that lands on their doorstep (in an admirable attempt to catalogue everything under the sun) at Thumbsticks we take a somewhat different, more feature-like approach. You won’t find any percentages or marks out of ten here – we dropped review scores before it was cool – but you might find a qualitative assessment of the title’s place in the world, why it’s important, and if you’re really lucky we might even tell you if (in our humble opinion) it’s worth playing.

That also means we do get plenty of review codes through that we unfortunately don’t get around to playing, or if we do, we don’t get around to featuring on the site because we simply don’t have enough to say on the matter without resorting to quantitative assessments of graphics and sound and lifespan and…

Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity is very different. Where ordinarily Daniel and I will offer review codes up to the rest of the team first, by way of a small reward for writing for Thumbsticks, on this occasion you couldn’t have prised the Pillars of Eternity code from me if you were pointing a crossbow to my head. Ordinarily a professional sort, I was snarling ferociously and swinging a flail around my head (metaphorically speaking) and the team knew very well to step back, because this one was visibly important to me – I’ve been waiting a long time for a spiritual successor to the remarkable Infinity Engine role-playing games from the turn of the century – and now here it is.

Not your average review

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet finished Pillars of Eternity. Ordinarily that would be a capital offence, admitting that you were reviewing a game without finishing it, but we’re not indexing every game under the sun and this isn’t your average review. Do keep up.

Right about now, I can see from Twitter that other journos have been scrambling furiously to complete Pillars of Eternity before the review embargo is lifted at 13:00 GMT today (the day of release). I see triumphant messages that some of them have done so, cramming sixty plus hours of a monster title into less than a week, which is no mean feat and I heartily commend them for their efforts. Unfortunately I don’t have the time available to dedicate to such an almighty undertaking, with other projects and responsibilities to juggle – especially when the review code only lands a week before release – but I’ve done my best to get through as much as I physically could, so I’ve at least got plenty to talk about.

Pillars of Eternity

Interestingly, there are also nearly a hundred user ratings on Metacritic and the game doesn’t unlock for another four hours at the time of writing. I’m not exactly sure what that tells us about the gaming public and the incessant need to score and rank everything, but I certainly find it strange to say the least.

So in summary:

  1. If you do want a traditional review of Pillars of Eternity then head over to somewhere like PC Gamer or Rock Paper Shotgun – I know I will do when their reviews drop – but there’s always room for a little bit of extra analysis.
  2. You can’t always believe what you read on Metacritic.

The foundations of Pillars of Eternity

Baldur’s Gate was something of a big deal in my life, and in the computer role-playing game world on the whole. There had been great role-playing games for PC before, and there had been Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games too, but Baldur’s Gate was the first legitimately massive smash hit in the centre of that venn diagram. Role-playing games were always my jam, and I would seek out any variant I could lay my hands on – J-RPG, Action, Tactical – it didn’t matter; but as a table-top gamer in my youth I was always partial to a spot of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Baldur’s Gate was the first time I felt it had really been done right.

And I played it a lot. I played it to absolute death, in fact, and I still loved every second of it. Sure, I knew when the bandit attacks and the double-crosses were coming, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised by the developments of the frankly excellent plot after the first playthrough, but that’s the beauty of a game where your character is a blank canvas – if you get tired of where you’re up to, or you just fancy trying it again from a different angle, with an alternate skillset or siding with a different faction – then just hit ‘new game’ and roll right through it.

Pillars of Eternity

Sometimes you needed to do that. One of the biggest issues with Dungeons & Dragons as a whole, and therefore role-playing games with rulesets derived from it, is that it’s incredibly easy to back yourself into a corner from whence you can’t escape. You might have chosen to play through the title as a warrior, for example, and have a party built around you with other skillsets – healing, archery, offensive magic, lockpicking – but the party member resource is a finite thing and permadeath in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a very real threat. If there are only three rogues in the entire world who can join your party and you’ve lost them all to permadeath just before you really need one to be able to unlock something/pickpocket someone/sneak past a near-unbeatable monster, then you could be a bit stuffed. You may well have other options – perhaps you can teach your mage a spell to overcome the issue, or you can grind to absurdly level your character against their own skill tree and traits to achieve the thing you need – but more often than not, you’ll throw your hands in the air and start again as a rogue yourself.

Sometimes you don’t mind, if you really love a game and are happy to play through every moment again, but sometimes it’s just a painful nuisance and can lead to games remaining unfinished in backlogs. Obsidian, the developers behind Pillars of Eternity, told Polygon how they’d rewritten the ruleset to prevent this from happening, which is remarkably bold for a development ambition. Pillars of Eternity is unequivocally not a Dungeons & Dragons title, then. It might look like one, and feel like one, and most of the rules and mechanics and background lore may be derived from it, but Obsidian have been very careful to rewrite the machinations of the entire universe from the ground up based on decades of experience.

A question of timeliness

The time is 13:00 GMT. Everyone else’s reviews of Pillars of Eternity are about to drop, and not only did I not finish the game before writing about it, I also haven’t finished my article before the embargo lifted. Oh well.

I’m currently trying very hard to resist the temptation to read the reviews that are springing up around me, as I don’t want to interfere with my own judgement by reading the opinions of people of whom I greatly admire and respect the judgment. Luckily I rolled higher than a nineteen on two D12s, which was a saving roll against my concentration statistic, and the article continues unfettered.

Let’s get back to what’s changed, and perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t.

Casting a resurrection spell on a genre

When Pillars of Eternity was crowdfunded on Kickstarter – where over seventy thousand backers pledged just shy of four million US dollars – the message from the backing public was apparently very clear: we very much love this style of role-playing game (that has inexplicably been somewhat out of fashion for almost fifteen years) and we’d like to see the genre come back, please. Obsidian understandably heard that as ‘we would like Baldur’s Gate 3, please’ and they kindly obliged.

Pillars of Eternity

There’s a lot of conflict in my mind when I think of Kickstarter as a medium for funding the development and (hopefully) eventual release of games. Quite aside of the risk of paying upfront for vapourware (or even sliding deadlines and partial completion as we saw with Broken Age) there is a reliance on a mutual understanding between developer and backer. Developers will of course produce videos and promotional material to support their case, engender themselves to the potential backing public, and ultimately try to raise as much cash as possible for their cause. The backing public have to make their assessment of whether to back a project or not based on this information. Sometimes, this doesn’t always play out as it should.

More disclosure: I didn’t actually back Pillars of Eternity on Kickstarter, either. As much as I love the genre and wanted to see it revived, and have adored the work of the team behind Pillars of Eternity in the past, for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to get behind the project. That doesn’t mean I was any less excited that it did smash its funding targets and the game was being made, but when the stretch goals started to appear for ‘bottomless dungeons’ and ‘bigger cities’ I had some niggling doubts creep in about what the title would turn into. Judging by my excitement when the review code came through, I had successfully buried these concerns deep down in the anticipation, but they are now resurfacing as I play through the game (slower than everyone else, it seems).

So how does it play?

One thing that was always going to be assured, with the team behind Pillars of Eternity, is that it would be an amazing story. It starts off in traditional Infinity Engine style, with a ‘hot’ start – an unsuspecting young person is minding their own business, on a journey somewhere, then all hell breaks loose and you’re thrown into a dangerous situation with a few helpers as a bit of a tutorial – before you know it you’re caught up in a twisty plot with multiple factions and a weird prophecy you seem to be at the centre of. No complaints there – the writing is sublime.

At the risk of straying into ‘actual review’ territory here, the game also looks and sounds fantastic, and the team have essentially brought the original Infinity Engine – with all its hand drawn storybook charm and atmospheric audio qualities – into a more modern era. It’s as simple as that. Resolutions are better than they ever were, the locales look fantastic and the textures are superb. Imagine following Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring from about a hundred yards overhead by a drone for the duration of the movie, and you’ll get an idea of the effect.

Pillars of Eternity

Combat looks amazing too and the bigger monsters, frenetic crowd-control moments and higher-level spells really take your breath away, but It’s not perfect. I have witnessed a few strange artefacts and animations during combat for example, where one of my characters is attacking a monster at range, but the blood and gore effects from the monster are appearing directly in front of the character, as if they were fighting toe-to-toe. Another example would be when one of my characters can’t quite decide what final direction it wants to face, so flits about like its suffering some sort of seizure, until I move it an extra step or two and it settles down.

These are minor irritations, and while graphical imperfections aren’t specifically what I was worried about when I didn’t back the Kickstarter, they did get the gears in my mind working back to those niggles. I fear some of them may have come to pass, in some form or another.

The risk of the spiritual successor

When you think back about the effort the team were going to, to rewrite the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset to make it the very best mechanism it can be for a computer role-playing game in addition to actually developing the game itself, you can see where the time and effort has gone. Building a role-playing game is a mammoth undertaking at the best of times, even if you are working atop a pre-existing framework and prescribed lore, but to do the whole thing from scratch? The mind boggles as to how they did it. That’s why it was an unprecedented financial ask for a video game project on Kickstarter (at the time) and the team were acutely aware of that that fact – they even highlighted it themselves during their original pitch:

“We need to raise $1.1 million to fund an experienced team to do this right. We are asking for more than a lot of the other Kickstarter projects and that’s because we are not only making a game, we are creating a whole new world. That means a new RPG system, entirely new art, new characters and animation and whole lot of lore and dialogue.”

So what we have – as a result of the Kickstarter – is a backing public who want a role-playing game the way mamma used to make, and a development team who want to move heaven and earth to do that in the cleverest way possible. I cannot argue with the logic, and I can in no way dispute that what Obsidian have delivered with Pillars of Eternity meets this fundamental pitch with style and aplomb. They have delivered a truly great game, to the specifications outlined above, and if we’re measuring it as a successor to Baldur’s Gate based on that criteria alone then it’s a massive win.

Pillars of Eternity

But that’s not what I wanted from a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate – I didn’t back it, precisely because of these concerns – and I’m sure there must be other people out there who feel the same way; that nagging sense of disappointment that while it is great, it could have been so much more.

Take, for example, how Fallout became the spiritual successor to Wasteland. Wasteland was a wonderful game (and you could reasonably argue it was superior to Fallout in many ways) but it was very much of its time, and in 1997 Interplay made every effort to not only produce a great game in their own right, but to move the genre forward in a productive and forward-thinking manner for the greater good of the genre. Look at where the Fallout series has travelled, and what it has become as a result of being brave.

System Shock is another great example. You won’t find me advocating that BioShock is in any way superior to the original System Shock, as they are very different games that simply share a common spirit – and Beta Grove still gives me far more nightmares than Rapture ever could – but as a spiritual successor and an evolution in the storytelling medium BioShock was a revelation, and totally worthy of carrying System Shock’s legacy forward.

Pillars of Eternity
3

Summary

Secretly, then, I was hoping that Pillars of Eternity was going to be more than it is. I was hoping for a complete revolution of the genre, not just an incredibly clever evolution of the mechanics. It’s a remarkable game and absolutely the finest example of what it is, but after waiting nearly fifteen years, I wanted it to be so much more.

It’s still really, really great. Buy it. Play it. You’ll love it.

But if – like me – you’ve been waiting all this time for it, you might just find your heart filled with an almost intangible twang of disappointment, as you silently lament what Pillars of Eternity could have been.

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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

Lair of the Clockwork God review

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

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Lair of the Clockwork God review
Size Five Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lair of the Clockwork God piggy back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You clever little bastards.

Lair of the Clockwork God
4.5

Summary


Platform: PC
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games
Release Date: February 21, 2019


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

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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 10, 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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