This piece marks quite a landmark for me. It’s the first time someone else has wanted to publish an article I’ve written, and because of that I’m incredibly proud of it.
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There’s a moment at the start of Tearaway that will cause even the most cynical player to smile. A scene where the sheer charm of the world will win over even the blackest of hearts. Well, there are many, but the first is so simple that its effect is surprising.
High above the papery world, gazing down from its heavenly orbit, is the sun; and in the sun sits your face. It’s wonderfully subtle, a snapshot of your world reflected in theirs. This isn’t the garish grab of a camera feed, reinforcing that you’re holding a device overflowing with ways to interact, but a sneaky nod that you are not only playing the game but part of it.
And you smile. What else can you do?
To some that may sound like a cheap trick to win you over, but within the story Media Molecule tells, it feels completely natural. The “You”, as your presence in the world is described, is part of the very fabric of reality. A being with almost godlike powers aiding those below you, including a young, green Messenger tasked with delivering to you a tale. The pair of you are inextricably linked and so it’s only right that you should gaze down from on high and take in their adventures as he battles his way to you.
Though You may be present in the sky, you – lower case – are handed direct control of Iota (or Atoi, should you prefer a more feminine touch). Initially he lacks the ability to do little else other than wander around and distract the locals with idle chitchat, and it’s only through your own intervention that he become more. Patches decked out in patterns similar to that on the Vita’s rear touchpad appear all over the world. Tap them when Iota’s close and you’ll either send him flying into the sky or see your finger rip through the back of the Vita and appear in the world. The latter’s an extremely silly moment the first time it crops up as a giant rendered finger emerges from nowhere to stand tall in this paper land.
At its simplest it functions as his jump button; with the right placement of pads and a good sense of timing you’ll send the Messenger merrily bounding up cliffs to the accompanying sound of bongos. It’s a lovely tactile experience, reinforcing that you are a giant interacting with these tiny origami beings and that a mere tap of your mighty hand can send them flying. Similarly your powers can manipulate the world itself as platforms and mechanisms can be pushed and prodded into position with your immense digit. None are too mind-bending but the challenge comes from controlling both Iota with an analogue stick and directing objects on the rear touchscreen at the same time. Operating on both sides of the Vita can at times be a little tricky – the videogame equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy – but equally so, as you manage to coordinate your hands it all becomes rather satisfying.
With such wonderful foundations it’s then quite disappointing that rather than focus on a world full of paper puzzles the Designers felt the need to introduce bad guys. The scraps, as they are known, are adorable enough in their mumblings and with their single giant eye, but combat with them is routine. Dodge out the way until the scraps stun themselves, then leap in, grab them, cast them against a wall and you’re done. It’s harmless enough but the arena-nature puts too much emphasis on Tearaway’s weakest feature.
Where its strength can be found is in every aspect of the world you walk through. Media Molecule have bought into the papercraft concept completely with every single tree, creature, and building created as though it were folded out of real paper. No exceptions. Each new area is treated with awe as you gaze about taking in the sights, and be it a giant elk or a rapidly flowing waterfall the effect is completed by them all moving as if captured in stop-frame animation. It’s such a delicate touch but gives the further impression that everything is crafted by hand.
Within each elaborate level, whether a coastal town or forest glade, a handful of mask-wearing locals can be found. Speaking like 80s Plasticine hero Morph, they’ll welcome you and most likely ask you for help to retrieve their football from a bunch of hooligan squirrels or maybe to run off and find them a pet rock. They’re simple enough tasks and a great excuse to immerse yourself further and explore the area, but occasionally they’ll ask more of you.
The best publicised one is an early run-in with the King of Squirrels, or at least that’s what the squat, orange chap claims to be as he’s no crown to prove his title. To help him the Vita swishes away to a cutting mat surrounded by brightly coloured craft paper. By marking outlines with your fingers you can cut out shapes and through pulling together your imagination and the colours on offer, a glorious crown can be made. It’s a very simple and rough tool but the effects can be amazing if you give it a chance. And those that do will be rewarded with the sight of the squirrel proudly wearing your creation throughout the rest of the game.
Tearaway is littered with instances like this where you can affect the world. There are snowflakes to make and moustaches to draw, and even if you aren’t overly confident in your Blue Peter skills there are a host of predefined shapes waiting for you. What matters is that you are shaping the story about You to your liking, embellishing the crafting that’s already obviously taken place, and it only serves to make you more and more attached to this delightful place.
Being brutal for a moment and brushing aside the gorgeous aesthetics, the raw mechanics don’t necessarily hold up their side of proceedings. Any platforming or questing is fairly rudimental and even at its most taxing late on it hesitates from presenting any really challenge. Thankfully the controls are far tighter than the irritatingly floaty Little Big Planet, but if you’re looking for a more expansive adventure in the same vein then you will be disappointed.
Those, however, who accept Tearaway for what it is will not care as the beauty is in the experience, in taking in the unique surroundings. The puzzles you discover along the way are a good as a showcase for the Vita’s abilities as there is, and contorting your fingers as you slide, poke, and cut your way through the papery land is just joyful. Come the end you’ll look back at the photos Iota’s taken through his camera and think on them as fondly as though they were your own holiday snaps. Your adventure may have started with a grin as you stared down from the sky but come the end that expression won’t be because of a single scene, it will be at the thought of every character you’ve met and every elaborate hat you’ve made.
With some considering the enthusiasm for motion-controllers to be past its peak, it’s surprising that anyone new would enter that field. Yet the recently released Leap Motion approaches gesture-driven gameplay slightly differently. Rather than watching for sweeping hand actions or full-body motion, the tiny device sits atop your desk and seeks out only your fingers. The rest of you can be as lethargic as you like but as your digits move above the sensor’s beams they’ll be tracked to a fraction of a millimetre and with no perceivable lag.
It’s an impressive piece of technology but new devices are nothing without the games built to show off their strengths. Step forward Hesaw, a French developer based only a short walk from Notre Dame, who are looking to take Leap Motion’s finger flapping fidelity and convince us all that we need yet another input device in our lives.
Set in the world of Viktor Kalvachev’s mature graphic novels, Blue Estate attempts to capture the spirit of the series whilst blending it with an on-the-rails shooter. That spirit is very much that of pulpy crime stories that tend to involve a private eye; busty dames, a lot of violence, and very little pre-watershed language. Within the opening scene you’ll know if you’ll engage with the tone as our lead, a sleazy Mafioso named Tony Luciano, walks into a strip club owned by Korean gangsters, greets the door staff with a few choice racial slurs and is kicked in the head for his troubles. At that point he unsheathes his Desert Eagle and the body count begins to rack up.
You’re led on a merry chase around the strip club, tearing through kitchens and back offices as you hunt for Tony’s kidnapped girlfriend. All the time your hand hovers over the Leap Motion, directing the barrel of your gun with a single outstretched finger, and taking down the constant stream of armed reinforcements that pour from every door. The initial sensation of controlling the reticle as though you were miming a shootout was an odd one. I found myself waving frantically, constantly over compensating as I came to grips with the surprising level of both sensitivity and accuracy. After only a few minutes though it began to feel very intuitive and with my hand travelling just a few inches I could to target any point on screen with confidence.
And targeting is the primary skill as there is no fire gesture; hover over a target for only a fraction of a second and bullets will fly towards the poor sap. The responsive Leap Motion lets you to whip from target to target with nary a second thought and whole rooms’ worth of gangsters can be taken down in a matter of moments if you’ve a steady hand. This proves satisfying at first but after even just a moderate stretch the automation leads to a sense of detachment. As slick as the controls are I couldn’t help but feel I was merely a spotter for a sniper situated permanently behind me, my pointing indicating which fellow should die next. I never felt as though I was firing the gun.
That said, I’ve always considered the actions of aiming and firing in gesture games far more complex than they appear at face value. So often the fire mechanism, if poorly implemented, can be a misconstrued twitch or a swift movement to the other side of the screen. The two are so delicately interwoven that it’s easy to put the player in the situation where there are a large number of false positives. This is evident in the likes of Child of Eden and Gunstringer and how they choose to “paint” targets before a definite flick indicates the shot. That approach however would feel out of place in Blue Estate given the speed and tone and so whilst this auto fire may take away some of the involvement it at least prevents layering further issues on top.
Still, the game needs to be more than just a gesture and Hesaw has interspersed your impromptu tour of the strip joint with little diversions to keep your fingers busy. For one the lead’s hair seems inappropriately groomed for his line of work and on occasion needs brushing from your eyes; on-rushing foes can be punched if they stray too close; and doors can be slammed into the faces of your enemies before they open fire. They are but fleeting distractions however and add little, instead coming off in most situations as forced. The continual interruption of the hair may possibly be canonical but it only ever serves to be an irritation rather than bolstering the experience.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the action came thick and fast but the enemies fly at you in waves, their numbers always manageable and the delays between them fractionally too long to maintain any flow of excitement or a sense of pressure. This is exacerbated by large, colourful circles informing you just which of the onrushing fools will be shooting you first. Whilst this scripted behaviour may be clearly intended to promote score-driven play – enabling players to learn patterns and exploit them for points – it instead practically automates yet another aspect of the game as it’s patently obvious which order you have to paint your targets if you want to survive.
All the time Tony and the narrator crack bad jokes and witter on about how much of an embarrassment Tony is to his father. Though both are voice-acted well and the narrator’s lines are passable, Tony’s sense of humour ranges from poor to racist. This again could be how the character comes across when in the medium of pen and ink but as I had to sit through the umpteenth bad fish pun I cared little for it. The humour as a whole is one of the poorer presentation aspects, and along with the setting could easily alienate players. The pity is that elsewhere the consistently pulpy tone of the dialogue, menus and music ties the rest of Blue Estate together into an interesting package.
But interesting is not enough. Building off of seemingly great foundations with a wonderfully smooth shooting experience and compelling tonality, it stumbles. In the first instance let down by a lack of connection, excitement and flow, and in the second appearing crass without redeeming humour.
Blue Estate seems to have been put together as style over substance. Any minute-long section played in isolation would convey great excitement as you bust you way through waves of grunts, your finger aiming death as you travel, but with little worthwhile variety it’s a missed opportunity.
Over the previous three games Saints Row has evolved from an unashamed GTA clone into a sandbox flagship in its own right. No matter how absurd or twisted you may consider its path, it has forged its own way in the world and has swiftly distanced itself from Rockstar’s opus. It has its own identity now, decked out in purple and supremely confident in its skin.
However, if the previous two courted success with septic tank spray guns, dildo bats and petting tigers, IV takes a somewhat different approach. Though by no means subdued, it instead focuses on ruining all other open world games. Once upon a time driving through a bustling city and causing chaos was the pinnacle of gaming, but since then being stuck in a car for long distances or persevering through shootouts with limp mechanics has become very wearing. Volition hands you an alternative; they hand you superpowers.
Within an hour of stepping back into Stillwater – albeit a digital simulation of Stillwater – I was dashing through the streets at supersonic speed, outpacing any vehicle that I might have been churlish enough to jack. Covering vast distances in seconds, buildings flashed by and pedestrians barreled out the way as I streaked past, yet it wasn’t just the speed that was most welcome. Unshackling such potential from a car removes you from the whim of physics. As such, control is far more reactive, making navigation a breeze; it’s a world away from forcing a bulky van to corner at pace.
Alongside travelling at such a lick that it would make Usain Bolt weep, your reprogrammed legs are also capable of sending you soaring to the rooftops. With huge, exaggerated leaps the Saints navigate the skyline, taking them where no road could lead and causing me to grin with the freedom it offered. Brazenly, the biggest draw up there are glowing clusters – definitely not orbs – that can be collected to enhance you powers. Their glow stands out against the dusk skyline and caused me all manner of detours as I sought to hoover them up. With some avid kleptomania soon I could run up the side of buildings and glide through the city skies, making the world not only more easily navigable but turning it into a playground through which I could skip without hindrance.
Distances of a couple of kilometres aren’t uncommon between mission checkpoints, and in other games this may have caused irritation. That’s a long way to drive, and even a well decorated world will only go so far. With Saints Row it was an exercise in extreme parkour, dashing headlong down the street through heavy traffic, scattering anything I touched, before leaping majestically across the river. Hitting a skyscraper on the opposite bank causes only a momentary pause before I’d be off again, this time vertically, pelting it to the roof from where I’d hurl myself off and glide towards my target. Time and time again I’d do it, not once getting bored as not only is it fluid but each leap throw you so far that the mini-map lights up with a whole host of trinkets and side missions.
Most are staples of the series, even if under new names. There are turf wars where you have to battle the simulation’s defenders to reclaim a portion of the city, assassinations that throw a series of tough rivals against you, and, my personal favourite, insurance frauds that see you throw yourself into oncoming traffic and then bounce off as many cars as possible. They’re twisted but with so many on offer it’s easy to pick and choose which, if any, you want to partake in. Each is an interesting distraction and introduced in turn along the main story arc too, meaning you’ll get to try each one at least once. As The Saints battle to escape the simulation there are myriad tenuous reasons quite why you have to, for instance, take part in a race against the clock or hijack a car and bring it back to base, though generally it boils down to your resident hacker insisting she “wants to see how the system reacts” as you unleash havoc upon it.
The main story missions are far meatier and revolve around rescuing your crew from their own corner of this imaginary creation. They also allow the designers to stretch beyond simply plotting missions round Stillwater. The joy of setting a game inside a bizarre computer simulation is that the levels can take you anywhere, and when you combine that with Volition’s devilish sense of humour there’s a potent combination. In the opening act there’s a recreation of a 1950s Stillwater, complete with all its bygone sensibilities, whilst at the other end of the scale worlds consisting of nothing but a series of floating, metallic platforms exist solely to test your speed and platforming prowess. Along the way parodies of Call of Duty and Metal Gear appear, poking fun at them with a beautiful selection of well-constructed jibes and often inappropriate soundtracks, whilst everything from 200-foot tall soda cans to bobble-headed cats are thrown against you. You may still be wielding a gun in a robust if uninspiring third-person shooter but with a combination of a good script and a continual change of set dressing the missions don’t feel as repetitive as it might otherwise be.
More so than that, however, it was there where the real challenge was offered. Out in the open of the main simulation superpowers soon include icy blasts and fiery explosions, both of which make short work of any group out to stop The Saints. Toss in a few fire balls, hoover up the health left behind, rinse and repeat, and the only real challenge was how quickly the grunts could be mopped up. Very soon only truly massed ranks or complacency cause issues. Strangely though the powers verge so close to feeling exploitative that there’s a sly glee about using them, as if you’ve somehow found a loophole and that the devs never meant you to be so dominant. Together with the verticality made possible by your superjump and the myriad ridiculous weapons, the focus switches more to that of a toy box and exploring what it has to offer rather than any hardcore test of your combat prowess. It grants a sense of power, one that is often taken away during primary missions, forcing you to remember what it’s like to have to find and use cover or, even more shockingly, something as primitive as a gun.
The story itself peeks into each Saint’s own personal idea of hell and is strangely nostalgic. For a game well-known for featuring porn stars and Burt Reynolds it demonstrates a sentimentality about its cast that I wasn’t expecting. Much is made of the past of the characters, harking right back to the almost unrecognisable original, the journeys they’ve been on and how they found themselves running the United States of America. It never strays into schmaltz, preferring rather to pull back with a heavy dose of crudity or violence should it every edge too close.
Saints Row IV isn’t revolutionary but a continued refinement of its brand. Originally slated as an expansion pack for the previous game before THQ went bust, this strong footing has helped greatly as it has afforded it the time to be polished and honed, which is evident by how quickly you get into the meat of the game and the lack of bugs that usually plague its kind. There’s a focus on instant fun as opposed to depth, and whilst this may hamper longevity while the spark’s still there it’s a hoot.
At its core there is still a traditional sandbox adventure full of potential chaos and passable mechanics, but – more so than ever – this is greater than the sum of its parts. Continually throwing variety at you in every possible aspect and backed by a strong sense of humour, Saints Row IV provides a definite alternative to a certain rival. It might not have the level of polish or finesse of a GTA, but the Saints have upped their game in other areas. It has ruined open world gaming for me, and the prospect of just driving around town or just entering a shootout now seems horribly mundane.
With many point-and-click adventures opting to use humour as a key selling point, I have often found that they undersell one of their genre’s greatest strengths. With the emphasis on jokes their ability to tell a story and weave you into its heart often goes begging. In first-person shooters you may be in the centre of the action but you’re usually a mere passenger being funnelled from checkpoint to checkpoint; with point-and-click you are there unpicking the tale and at the crux of each twist and turn.
Set in the Dark Eye world – a German series of pen-and-paper RPGs – Memoria plays it relatively straight, with characters only pulling out the jokes when in keeping with their role and situation. It’s a world that would seem familiar to anyone who has played a Western RPG before, full of magic, mythical races, and hideous beasts, and the tone is well suited. With such a rich lore to draw on it makes sense that Daedelic have chosen to focus on telling the tale of an adventurer, even if our hero is not your typical sword-wielding dragon-slayer.
We open on Geron, a supposed bird catcher, searching the woods for a merchant who he has heard can cure his ailing friend. Geron is no ordinary bird catcher however, and it transpires that in recent times he saved the kingdom of Anderghast from assured destruction. Not through great physical or magical prowess mind you, but by his wits and a few basic spells.
Upon finding the merchant, the jolly traveller shares with him a vision from the past, promising Geron that if he can solve the mystery within it he will help him. He sees a young Princess, Sadji, setting out to turn back a demon invasion. Geron witnesses her break into an ancient tomb hoping to find an ancient weapon that will turn the war in their favour, only to see her become trapped deep underground. However, this is no cutscene. Although you controlled Geron up to and into the merchant’s tent, as soon as he begins his vision you take control of Sadji, complete with her own unique inventory and talents.
What proceeds is a tale of a tale, as our bird catcher begins obsessing over this long forgotten princess and the riddles connected to her. Being the only way by which he’ll cure his friend, we find ourselves in one timeline investigating our own actions in another. What this allows is not only a clever way by which to tell a story but provides a good explanation as to why our locations flit about. As we skip ahead in the princess’ story so do our surroundings, offering new places for us to explore and puzzle in.
With each of these new sections your world is conveniently restricted to only a handful of screens. Though it may sound limiting there can be an awful lot to achieve in each area and these well-defined boundaries help cap potential frustration. Knowing that a solution lies within four or five screens travel offers a reassurance that you don’t have to wander halfway across town trying object X on everything that proves interactive. Any such frustration is also eased by an inventory that never grows too large, plus easy access to all of your objects via the mouse wheel: a lovely touch that can save the monotony of continual returning to your inventory when experimenting with solutions.
The puzzles themselves are on the whole good. Many rely on the traditional art of combining objects, though there’s a lot of variety as there are also riddles and logic tests tucked away too. They have a touch of devilishness about them but during my time with Memoria I only found myself truly stuck on a small number of occasions. Most of the trickier ones can be cracked simply by paying attention to the world about you and to what those you speak to say. There are some quite charming double-bluffs at times however for those requiring help there are hints offered in the pause screen should you need nudging in the right direction.
The most interesting feature of the puzzles for me were the magical powers that Geron and Sadji possessed. A mix of breaking charms, petrification spells, and the ability to send visions into other’s heads had to be used throughout the adventure. This extra twist allowed you to break away from merely acting on everything clickable and instead gives you pause to think if you had to alter something or someone before proceeding.
Thankfully there were only two ludicrously frustrating mysteries in the entire game, and I think the designers eventually realised both. The first is a tedious maze segment that after a period of blindly fumbling in the dark I was given the option to tskip. The other saw the answer given directly when I asked for a hint, almost proving it was a guessing game and not a solvable by any logical means.
Everything is tied together by a lovely art style that mixes hand-painted 2D backgrounds and textures with more dynamic 3D figures. The combination of styles was quite unnerving at first as I initially thought I was looking at just a series of sprites, but the painterly textures on the 3D characters allow them to blend seamlessly with the whole; you can no longer tell what’s interactive simply because it doesn’t fit against the background. The only jarring aspect are the inconsistencies with certain animations; facial close-ups look cheap as the mouth moves in weird ways, and people stand as though they were mannequins. When they move and interact on screen you forget about it all but all too often it looks a little stilted.
Given the budget of a title this size it’s easy to see why such details weren’t possible and they do little to distract from the strength of the story and the puzzles. The latter mostly trod the line between challenging and frustration very well but it was the former that captivated me most. The longer it went on the more I became wrapped in this dual tale and how it unfolded: Geron simultaneously trying to save his friend and learn more about Sadji; and Sadji proving to the world that even a supposedly fragile princess can turn enter the battlefield and leave her mark on history. By the end there was a momentum to it and I chewed through the last two hours of brain teasers just to see the story’s conclusion.
The cast may not go down in videogame folklore but their bittersweet tale is full of surprises. In a genre where those with the laughs have made the biggest impact, it might be worth taking a pause from the puns and explore the wonderfully modest Memoria.
During the three weeks since its release, I’ve thought of little else. In body I may be at work yet my mind continually drifts back to Buneaton; to its colourful residents, its sandy beaches, and to the community that I’m building there. I think of the circle of trees I’m nurturing around the standing stone we recently unearthed, the letters I need to write to thank my kind neighbours, and the projects I should execute as Mayor to move the town forward. It is all consuming.
All consuming, and yet unassuming. When it welcomes you in with its bright colours and big heads it’s easy for the uninitiated to wonder where the draw could possibly be. How could a game that looks like it could be a candidate for a CBBC show see grown men and women setup whole Facebook groups dedicated to what fruit each other are growing in their back garden?
Well, it begins with a train journey to a far off town.
Upon arrival you’re welcomed by the townsfolk, an enthusiastic collection of colourful creatures, they crowd around you excited to greet their new mayor. There’s been a case of mistaken identity but they won’t hear your protests, such is their eagerness to make you feel at home. But before you can take it all in, your new mayoral assistant Isabelle has whisked you away to Town Hall for a meeting with property mogul Tom Nook to break ground on your official residence.
A whirlwind introduction to the town sees you scurry back and forth between your home, the shops, and your office, catching fleeting glimpses of meandering rivers and groves of fruit trees as you rush by. They at least hint at the sense for the idyllic country life you’d originally signed up for. Thankfully the last piece of paperwork is soon signed and you’re left on your own. From the solitude of your tent it feels a lot like being on holiday; despite an exhausting journey there’s a sense that you should be out doing something but you’re not sure what.
A quick stroll, maybe, round down to the beach, possibly with a touch of shell collecting. Turn those in at the local shop for some bells – the local currency – and you get a fishing rod, leading to a trip to the riverbank. There you may pick some fruit so plant a few trees, discovering a world of insects in the process. But what’s that, a fossil? Scamper off to the museum to get it checked out. And now the curator suggests you donate one of everything you find to him, better get fishing again… it’s a series of constant distractions.
Such is the aimlessness of it all some could wander around and lose interest, but equally the discovery can easily draw you in. A few inquisitive paces in one direction or another could be all it takes as you start to unearth your village’s treasures. Shaking a tree here or talking to a fellow resident there, this is where Animal Crossing starts to bite. I envy those discovering strange marks in the earth or floating presents for the first time as there’s a wealth – quite literally in some cases – of distractions that can pull you this way and that. It may not be the fully realised world of a Fallout or Oblivion but there are just as many treats that will cause you to forget where you were running to and pull out a fishing rod.
Those who do wish for a more directed sense of progression can look towards their Mayoral duties. Up until this point in the series Nintendo has let you simply live in the world, enjoying all it offers but with minimal ability to guide it. In New Leaf you can now direct how the village grows. This may be as minor as installing a park bench, as useful as building a new bridge to cross the river, or as fulfilling as constructing a new wing to the town’s museum, and with each opportunity it feels a far more personable experience. Many of the stalwarts of the series are hidden behind this urban renewal too, causing you to squeal with glee as names from the past are hinted at by Isabelle as she hands you the proposed list of projects. This already has caused Animal Crossing to have a far longer tail than before. The need to work for old friends – or even discover new ones – is a huge draw, and keeps you playing the turnip market in the hope of a huge profit and the ability to pay for the coffee shop that you know will herald your favourite pigeon’s return.
Be it a beverage serving bird or the red tree frog who lives next door, the characters you meet play their part in keeping you hooked. They may be dim enough to continuously try and walk through trees but the personality their little AI possesses causes you to remember them, to seek them out for conversation or even to wish they’d leave you in peace. It’s like true village life as you hope for gossip and exchange pleasantries, even if the undercurrent of all your interactions is secretly hoping your “friends” will hand over presents if you’re nice enough.
Large portions of Animal Crossing are wrapped up in the ideal of community and conversation. Even basic operations such as character creation and heading online are disguised as normal chats, the latter hidden behind a train journey metaphor. At times this wordy approach can be draining as you just want to get things done speedily, but to reduce it down to a simple menu wouldn’t be half as charming. It’s part of the Nintendo ideal and here the clunky nature pays dividends.
What is also surprising is how fluidly the online integration works as four villagers can meet together for fun and frolics. An area set aside from the main town is dedicated to simple mini-games based around day to day activities, and if that’s too much you can all just potter round one another’s houses, critiquing the décor, and hitting each other with spades. It’s the epitomy of New Leaf as you’re as much the creators of the entertainment as Nintendo.
In a world of Dark Souls and The Last of Us, this is the ultimate retreat. A casual affair that allows you to dip in and spend some time cleansing your mind of demons and the collapse of mankind as you stand on the beach fishing as the sun sets behind you. Cynics may look too deep, past its charm and relaxing nature and question it, but not everything has to be a mentally taxing or rewarding feat.
As ever, it’s easy to dip in short stints during the train ride to work, but it also rewards those that want to put the time in and invest in their town. The rewards may not always be immediate but they’re subtle and plenty. New Leaf will coax you in and encourages you to stay.
Within my profession there’s a certain movement known as “programmer art”. This is usually identified as something created in Paint, taking results from a Google image search, or by use of very simple shapes. For the most part it plays its role as a placeholder until the real professionals breeze in, knock something gorgeous out in a matter of hours, and make me wish I’d never boastfully mentioned my A-level in art.
In the right setting, however, this look thrives. Listening to Mike Bithell’s director’s commentary for Thomas Was Alone, the simple shapes forming the core aesthetic came about because they were easy to work with. Couple that with a striking approach to shadowing that developed due to a wish to get something up and running quickly, and you have a game that is not only built on programmer art but defined by it.
It does nothing to diminish the game’s qualities, however. In fact it enhances what’s on show as the lack of high polygon models or master-crafted sprites highlight the heart of the experience, that of platforming and that of Thomas.
Each of the hundred-or-so levels are simply constructed, built from solid black lines where geometric design is key. There are no gentle slopes or undulating plains, everything is at 90 degrees to one another creating a world of floors, staircases and floating platforms. Strip away the tile editor from the old-school Mario or Megaman games and you’d probably find a very similar aesthetic, it’s just that Thomas Was Alone is not afraid to show you behind the curtain.
What this achieves is a distilled platformer. There are no trappings to distract here, leaving you to focus on traversing the levels with nothing but the jump button to rely upon. Stripped of everything it puts a lot of pressure on the core mechanics but happily there is a subtle brilliance to the control you have over your cube and his friends.
With each dab of the stick the movement feels solid and as you leap through the air your momentum is predictable. With so few – in fact zero – visible cues from your characters it would have been easy to feel detached, as if you were merely guiding rather than commanding their path through the world. Yet the controls are tight and responsive and are a joy to play with. This isn’t the floaty feeling in LittleBigPlanet but a far more measured approach where you have utter confidence about when and where you can jump and exactly where you’ll land.
This foundation is built upon with each shape having different talents. Initially you’ll meet Thomas who is a rectangle of average height and possesses a relatively good jump, whilst Chris is a small, stocky cube who fails to jump anywhere near the height of Thomas. Levels that were easy for Thomas are now slightly tougher with a short-arse in tow, and so cooperation is required. All the characters at one point or another will become extra platforms for their less able chums to clamber up, though, not to be heightist, the smaller ones will be able to sneak through low gaps to trigger switches. It’s all about choosing the right shape for the job and then ensuring they can get there.
As well as mere size and reach, further shapes are introduced which add extra complexity to levels. Some can be used as trampolines, others float in water, though the best physics defying cuboids are left for later in the game. These in particular add a sense of experimentation and come about at just the right point to reinvigorate proceedings.
Left here Thomas Was Alone would go down as a very elegant and well-executed platformer. It reduces the genre down to a base set of components and then builds up a stead degree of challenge. However there is more, as surprisingly the developer manages to inject personality into these simple shapes, causing you to care about them more than most polygonal game leads you’ll meet.
As the various quads are introduced, so are their characters. Our friend Thomas turns out to be an optimistic chap, fascinated with the world, and yet Chris is a dour, grumpy sod. He gets along with Thomas, but more because he has to rather than as a willing companion. It may seem a little contrived initially but as your time in this Flatland-variant continues you forget you’re puppeting faceless shapes. They turn rather into abstracted personalities and are very well suited to the form and its properties.
I remember back during the era of Worms and Cannon Fodder that my hapless soldiers would always develop their own traits, be it the coward always hiding at the back or the grumpy bugger that continually whinged because he had to carry the heavy rocket launcher. The same is true here, with Chris who always seems to need that extra helping hand due to his diminutive stature very believably having a chip on his shoulder. Then there’s the lean athlete who quite fittingly has the cocky attitude that he’s carrying the rest along, right through to the very self-conscious larger lady. I may be committed after this next sentence, but each shape is perfectly cast.
These personalities are all brought to life through the narration of Danny Wallace who at the start of each level reads an insight into the minds of one of our party. From the personal struggles of each through to the larger team dynamic, this storytelling makes the whole experience feel far more compelling than just a well-crafted platformer. It becomes the tale of personal struggle as a misfit bunch try and come to terms with not only the world about them but their own personal demons.
It’s a surprising outcome for a game primarily focused on getting you to jump from left to right but proves almost more rewarding because of it. Your motions are analogous with the shape’s journey and your reward for reaching your goal is helping them towards theirs.
You, Juan, stand in the middle of a village staring at the brickwork in front. The walls of the houses are covered in posters showing off Mexico’s favourite wrestlers, whilst the billboards above you announce their upcoming bouts. Yet, despite being completely fictitious, they all have a familiar ring to them. El Destructo vs La Bomba? Something about a business cat? El Casa Crashers?
To flesh out their imaginary corner of Mexico, developer Drink Box have turned to the web for inspiration. You’ll spend time peering at each image wondering if you get the reference they were intending, or possibly reading far more meaning into the stone statues than was intended. It’s a delightful aesthetic and one that comes across a humorous without being overwhelming. These aren’t the grating tooltips of Blood Dragon that push the knowing nod and a wink references too far, here they are woven into the background without disturbing the core of the game.
And Guacamelee is more than a collection of memes; there’s a village to save from the skeletal lord of the Land of the Dead and only a noble luchador like yourself can handle such a task. Behind the bright posters paying homage to all the Internet has to offer is an accomplished platformer-come-brawler. Bouncing your masked wrestler around in the opening act may seem no more testing than a simple walk to the ring. He jumps, he punches, and occasionally he jumps and punches for good measure, laying into the reanimated skeletons blocking his path. It’s easy fare that will barely trouble the even novice players, but soon the complexity grows.
Along the way you meet up with a goat. Bear with me as this is no ordinary farmyard animal; he’s a warrior trainer who just happens to be able to transform himself into a bleating beast. Though the whole game could be considered absurd, this portion of proceedings is particularly loopy as he only appears when you smash any of his Predator-looking statues. At which point he’ll amble out, complain, probably hit on your mum, and then reward you with a new move. Ranging from the battle-ready suplex to thunderous uppercuts, they turn your encounters with the undead from a street fight into a brawl worthy of the main event.
A combination of devastating uppercuts, powerful charges, and impressive frog splashes will send most foes reeling as their potency scythes through their ranks. They are by far and away your most effective weapon, balanced by a stamina metre that drains with each special move executed. As you wait for your gauge to recharge it’s back to the fists but by now a few of your opponents may be left dazed and open. Get close and Juan can pull them into a grapple before dispatching them with a quick hip-toss or a very satisfying suplex.
This is no WWE licensed game with wrestlers queuing up to take their turn at laying down some smack and tucking you into the perfect finisher animation. Here there may be a screen full of chaos as multiple attackers try to bring you down at once. With the large radius of effect on most attacks button mashing will get you out of a few scrapes but there’s a very satisfying feeling when you learn to control the battle, chaining special attacks together before relying on grappling to slow things down and allowing your stamina to refill.
Such control is definitely required later on, as more and more modifiers are placed on a fight. Opponents will exist in either the land of the living or the land of the dead, appearing as silhouettes against the background. Mid-fight you’ll have to toggle between the two worlds in an effort to avoid the invulnerable ghosts from the alternate realm whilst defeating those in the one in which you’re present. It’s initially confusing, but layer on shields that require specific moves to crack and by the end the gentle brawler you thought you were playing seems a world away.
In line with combat, the platforming also causes the veins on your forehead to throb with stress. The more special moves you learn from the goatman the more they are incorporated in traversing the increasingly difficult levels. With the Rooster Uppercut doubling as an extra jump and the Dashing Derpderp a warp forward, they grant access to higher and further ledges. By the time you reach the final temple it won’t be uncommon to be asked to string together multiple of these along with double jumps and wall jumps just to cross a single gap. On paper it may sounds contrived but in practice the ease of execution and the well-weighted controls cause it to be a challenge rather than a frustration. The level design is such that there tends to be a reasonable margin of error and the very generous restart system – popping you right back on the last piece of solid ground you were touching – means a failed jump is not the end of the world.
There is the odd exception however and a handful of areas lack any clear signposting as to just what set of moves you’re supposed to do to overcome them. Time and time you’ll try and, though eased by the efficient restart, it’ll feel like you’re headbutting a brick wall.
Your special moves also have a third use as they’re equally adept at opening doors as they are skulls. Each is tied to a different coloured stone that litter Mexico’s pathways and it is these which gate your movement. Very much in a Metroid-vania style, Guacamelee presents you with an open world – albeit limited in where you can actually access. It’s an incentive to return to find every last scrap of treasure and powerup, usually hidden along with a tricky platforming section that put me in mind of the tombs in Assassin’s Creed II that rewarded your skill in navigating their testing environments. Conveniently, each stone is marked boldly on your map and so with each additional power you’ll already have an idea of just where you can explore further.
It’s a tried and tested formula and one that works very well in this setting. If the adventure took place solely in scrolling levels, much of the joy that comes from returning to marvel at the village or wandering back to look at the ruined presidential palace would have been lost. There is a world worth exploring to unpick all of the pop-culture references and to eke out all the secrets from the villagers.
Drink Box have produced yet another visually stunning title, one that somehow manages to meld together worlds as diverse as Central American wrestling and the tangled web that is Internet humour. In many games this branding would have been its crux, the sales feature, but here that is only one facet. Alongside that stands a skilful platformer tied in with an extremely engaging brawler that will test many. In the full spirit of Lucha Libre, this is high flying style.
I may be the exception to the norm when I say I prefer Luigi to Mario. If given the choice I’ll pick the green over the red, the lanky over the stout, and the underrated over the show-off. To me Mario is full of himself. Talented he may be, but he knows it, and that’s not an attractive quality in anyone. So when it was announced that Luigi would once again be starring in his own ghost-busting adventure, I was overjoyed. It was time once again for the younger brother to take his turn in the spotlight.
Little has changed in his decade away, too. So little in fact that the setup for Luigi’s Mansion 2 tries to carry directly on from the GameCube original: simply put, Professor E. Gadd is again experiencing paranormal issues and abruptly teleports Luigi into his lab to help. As plot contrivances go it’s not subtle, and it sets the standard for a rather perfunctory tale. Citing a mysterious crystal only known as the Dark Moon, the usually friendly ghosts are now running amok. Having amassed a sizable property portfolio since you last met, the professor insists on sending you in to each of his mansions in turn to rid them of the squatting ghosts and to unravel the crystal’s secrets.
However the story presents itself, the upside is that there are now multiple haunted houses to explore. Though Luigi may have tentatively explored just one originally, now he can tiptoe through old clock factories, icy retreats and flourishing greenhouses. The separation allows far more exploration of the different themes and at points our hero will be slipping up a snow-covered drive or examining a botanical garden surrounding a swimming pool, all showing off the graphical muscle of the diminutive handheld. Though it’s not just the special rooms that get all the attention, as each comparatively mundane area is filled with incidental items. The inclusion of dressers topped with knickknacks and workbenches covered in tools presents each room as being as important as the last, and ties together a mansion’s feel.
All the time we’re admiring the surroundings my favourite plumber bumbles about, giving the distinct impression he’d rather be anywhere but there. Given that you’ll be staring at him for great periods of time, Nintendo have rightly spent a great deal of care and attention on his animation and he’s full of surprises and exudes as much character as his surroundings. From nervous glances when first entering a room to chattering to the professor on DS, or even humming his own theme tune, he takes full advantage of his turn in the limelight. Nowhere is this more obvious than when he’s taken unawares by secret passages. On more than one occasion the poor fellow takes a moment out to sit on a plush chair or lean on against an innocent wall only to trigger a rotating door that sends him crashing to somewhere new.
Be it treasure or hidden passages, most of the rooms hide a secret and the majority are unearthed by your trusty Poltergust 5000 (vacuum cleaner) and stroboscope (torch). It’s amazing what you can do with a Dyson strapped to your back as canvases are sucked from frames and curtains are ripped from their runners; no material is apparently safe from your nozzle. Conversely to that destruction, your torch can reveal items that were otherwise hidden, patching pipework and repairing bridges.
The controls are simple enough but the lack of a second analogue stick means that paying attention to anything above or below your normal arc is a tad awkward. Holding down X will cause Luigi to tilt back, which may sound simple enough but marry that with pressing A to shine your light and the right trigger to vacuum and you have the makings of cramp. Whilst serviceable, it’s awkward and frequent enough that it desperately cries out for a right stick to replace the buttons.
Not everything you discover when sucking and blowing your way around the houses is treasure, however, and many times you’ll disturb the ghostly residents who don’t react kindly to your intrusion. Though not quite as varied in size and shape as in the Gamecube outing, what they lack in diversity they make up for with props. Often you can spy them through holes in the wall having pillow fights or caught painting portraits of one another, and when cornered they’ll be surprisingly resourceful. Some may don sunglasses to protect themselves from your stunning torch or carry makeshift shields to resist the Poltergust. All have their little patterns that you can break through relatively easy, and once you do it’s just a case of grabbing on, hoovering, and then pulling in the opposite direction until you’ve worn them down enough to be reeled in. Imagine a paranormal Sega Bass Fishing.
Despite their best efforts none prove particularly challenging, though it’s easy enough to fall if outnumbered and cornered as the tight rooms mean it can be hard to dodge successive attacks. When you do, the first of the chinks in its haunted armour begins to show. Luigi’s Mansion has a very old school approach to death and it’ll dump you right back at the beginning of the level. For a game that is relatively casual for the most part this seems like an extreme punishment as levels average at between 20 and 30 minutes long.
The level structure as a whole sits uneasily as for a portable game, such relatively lengthy slices – with no mid-level save – seems odd. A far better option would have been a more open and flexible mansion. As it is each level resets the respective mansions to a specific set of locked doors and primed monster closets, but I feel it would have been a far more enjoyable game if the whole mansion was available to explore from the off and E. Gadd just directed you about from afar. Currently the continued return to his lab for some mindless wittering simply breaks the flow of your ghost-busting. Especially early on the staccato nature of your missions almost undermines the strengths of the game, with the strong draws of the exploration and glorious originality in each room dampened by the repeat visits and restrictive objectives.
The balance is that this regimented structure is perfectly suited to the online mode. An enjoyable affair where four players head off about a set a rooms to rid them of ghosts before heading to the exit. It’s surprisingly easy to play given Nintendo’s track record with online, though sadly lacks the voice chat required for proper coordination.
For a game that I have waited a decade for, it leaves me with mixed feelings. Though overall the game is a light-hearted, enjoyable, and charming affair that keeps the spirit of the original alive, it has moved backwards in other areas. Namely the open mansion being replaced by levels, and the uniquely themed ghosts giving way to a series of generic spectres with novelty hats.
That may be the weight of my expectations speaking, yet what is evident is the charm and character that both Luigi and the environments bring to every aspect of Dark Moon. More so than any other character in the Mario series, Luigi in this setting is given a chance to display his distinct personality. The continual vacuuming of abandoned cupboards and dusty corners may grow a little repetitive by the end, but to see what is in the next room and how Luigi will bumble through it will always bring a smile to your face.
Lego games have steadily been getting larger. A long time ago in a game far, far away we were once blessed with a tiny cantina that formed our mini-fig’s hub world. Ever since then Traveller’s Tales have slowly but surely been growing their ambition: Indiana Jones had his museum; Harry Potter ran around Hogwarts and its grounds; and more recently the Hobbits toiled through a scaled Middle Earth to a blocky Mount Doom. All were impressive in their time but what Undercover achieves sets a new Lego standard.
To call Lego City a hub world would be doing it a great injustice; it’s a world in its own right. Streets filled with traffic criss-cross the map, flanked by towering buildings and minifigs out for a midday stroll. Residential areas filled with gardens and driveways give way to industrial docks on one side and a forest covered mountain the other. All the time all manner of cars, boats and trains make their way about town as you stand grinning like a buffoon in the centre wondering just what you can break first.
Though Grand Theft Auto may have done something similar over a decade ago, the childlike glee I find in watching these Lego folks stroll about town is unrivalled. It may be because I’m so used to branded experiences that seeing a “normal” Lego game is a novelty, but the charm that exudes from a city made of Lego can be seen built into every corner. Be it the tiny shop window displays, the snippets of dialogue you catch as you walk past others, or the comedy posters pasted onto billboards, each has a huge amount of care and attention lavish upon them truly flesh out the world.
This is helped further by the inclusion of some very large personalities. Until now the humour has always come from parodies on specific films, often giving sombre or dramatic moments a flippant retelling. Here there’s nowhere to hide as they tell their own tale of how you, Chase McCain, track down master criminal Rex Fury, but even before the end of the opening titles you know it’s going to be ok. Pulling in references from countless movies and mixing it with their own comedic writing they had me chortling before I even took control of Chase.
It’s a theme that continues throughout and takes full advantage of being unshackled from a specific IP. Undercover plunders the archives of cop shows and cult films for sneaky references and gags, liberally sprinkling them about whilst managing not to alienate anyone who isn’t old enough to have seen the likes of Dirty Harry or Starsky & Hutch. It walks that fine Pixar-esque line, throwing in as much for adults as it does for kids and rarely fails. Where it does falter however is when its patently trying too hard, as a very tired Arnie homage proves later in the game.
Away from the cutscenes, it’s traditional Lego platforming fare, though split between the open world and the tighter, more controlled levels synonymous with the series. The latter unfold as you progress through the main story charting Chase’s pursuit of Rex, and it’s not long before circumstances have you swapping your police badge for miner’s overalls, fireman’s helmets, and an astronaut space suit as Traveller’s Tales take full advantage of all the Lego sets they can find. Whilst they fall into the usual Lego trope of each offering a unique talent, such as using dynamite or hacking down doors with a fire axe, the greatest relief is they’ve finally moved away from sending small children through hatchways.
However, although polished and up to their usual high standard, these self-contained levels do little to excite me as their formula is exceedingly well rehearsed. To a certain extent I feel I know exactly what’s coming and am going through the motions. Instead, where Undercover begins to sing is when you’re out in the open.
The city isn’t just well built but also chocked full of secrets. Stroll down any street and you’ll see ladders or disguise-specific actions trying to tempt you off of your current course. Some may be as simple as donning your thief outfit to break into a garage to steal a car, triggering a race back to the hideout before the police get you. Others may see you chain through most of Chase’s alter egos, taking you high above the streets collecting extra disguises, unlockable vehicles or mega-bricks. These rooftop detours are probably the most interesting as they lead you up and away from the city streets and allow you take in just how large and well laid out the city is. They’re a lovely piece of design too as one unlockable might lead onto the path of another, and another, and before you know it you’re a mile away from where you started.
Embracing this unrestricted sense of platforming, free running is introduced to the series for the first time. Indicated by a smattering of blue and white blocks, they regularly appear on walls and fences across the land and encourage you to see where they might lead. Though effectively a rooftop time-trial, they show off some very slick animations, and if timed right you’ll be forgiven to thinking it’s Lego Mirror’s Edge as you fly around the city, bouncing off walls and sliding down zip wires.
With such a plethora of options – each disguise has a number of unique collectibles or activities on top of the car chases and foot races – it would be easy to miss things, but here the Wii U’s gamepad comes to the fore. Lego City’s police force are also issued a pad and holding it up in scanner mode will see Chase scan the area for secrets, marking them on the map for further investigation. Though not crucial to proceedings, it’s a nice added extra alongside the traditional map view that makes Undercover feel at home on Nintendo’s dual screen platform.
With so much going in its favour it’s a shame that I still have one large complaint. The Lego games are famous for their consistently well-executed co-op experience but here I’m left wanting. The technical pressures of rendering a full metropolis is far too much to have another viewport lobbed into the mix, and so whilst understandable it is a comparatively lonely experience.
Nevertheless, that shouldn’t detract from what has been achieved. For a long time, though amused by their takes on pop-culture, the formula was getting too stale for my liking. What Lego City does is blow that wide open. For the purists there are still the core missions, but away from those there’s whole world to explore. Take a sports car for a drive down to the harbour, run over rooftops in search of treasure, or just walk the streets and admire the mini-architecture on show.
There was a risk that such a venture would be style over substance but this is no lazy façade. The only thing lacking when compared to Grand Theft Auto are the guns. Yet what it has in spades over its more mature counterpart is so much charm that you’d wish Liberty City was made out of studs.