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Rock Band Blitz

It’s been tough for Harmonix since the great plastic instrument crash of twenty-ten. Despite the superb Rock Band 3, demand for clacking guitars and Fisher Price drum kits dried up and first week sales of the flagship title did not even break five-figures. It was a far cry from their billion-dollar Guitar Hero days when the sound of friends and families clicking along to Kiss filled living rooms across the land. The craze disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived and not even a keytar could prevent it. Not long after, Harmonix and Viacom parted company and it looked an uncertain future.

They have, however, put out the consistent and well received Dance Central for Kinect. Although this may have scratched a musical itch for the developers, it was a departure from the games that made their name and you could always tell that something else was brewing. That something was Rock Band Blitz.

Blending their more recent gameplay stylings with the track swapping and score chasing of their earlier work, Amplitude and Frequency, it carries on the Rock Band brand without the need for half-sized guitars.

For those, like myself, who possibly overdosed on Rock Band in recent years, what is presented is something that’s very familiar but utterly confusing. On screen are up to five highways – the streams of colourful buttons that represent notes and indicate when you should press buttons – one for each of the instruments in your band. Drums, bass, lead guitar, vocals and keyboard each have their place, and in a different era this would mean there were five people playing along together. In Blitz, however, you play everything yourself; you are the ultimate one-man band.

As the notes rattle towards you, there’s only two buttons to worry about as you tap out the rhythm in time to the song; left or right is all there is. Layered on top of that is the ability to swap tracks. If the drums have grown a little slow or the singer’s nipped to the back of the stage to grab a drink, a tap on the triggers will switch focus to a more involving instrument. Similarly, if the guitar solo’s getting a little too hot for your fingers, flick over to the bass to ensure your combo remains unbroken. With each run of notes your multipliers tick up and you feed your Blitz meter. When that fills the camera drops low, the sense of speed picks up and points are positively hurled at you like knickers at a Tom Jones gig for as long as you can keep the chain going.

It’s all about the high score. There’s no longer the ability to fail mid-song when you reach the twiddly bit and your sense of rhythm collapses under the pressure of syncopated off-beats, your only penalty is that you will score nothing. That, strangely, is a feature I’ve often wished for in the main Rock Band career.

Initial forays will be mini adventures as you get used to the new format, experimenting, and wrapping your head around the focus on scoring. There’s always been points, but not like this, as the keen designers drag you left and right with the introduction of a gated multiplier. Each track must be built up evenly, spreading your focus across each instrument to gain the maximum benefit. Neglect the keyboards and even if you’ve topped out the other highways until they glow like Blackpool seafront you won’t see the caps increased as you pass through various checkpoints scattered throughout the songs.

It introduces a level of strategy I’ve never encountered before in music games. It’s easy enough to play through a song but to master and balance each instrument to know that you’ve played enough notes to unlock higher and higher multipliers needs you to truly know that song. Knowing when the vocals fades out can be the difference between a high score and a wasted run. At this point it goes past the point of simply playing along, as you flit back and forth between the highways, it’s a manic display of finger dexterity.

And it’s compelling. Leaderboards are rampant throughout and the constant comparison to friends is an undeniable draw to giving that song just one more go. And then one more. Maybe third time lucky. A situation only made worse by Harmonix’s Score War feature where you slap your online friends round the face with a digital white glove and call them to duel with you, giving you both three days to set the highest score. There’s in-game currency to win but being called out and showed up is a high incentive to eke out every point from a song.

Adding a further twist are the power-ups that can be equipped before every try. Star Power no longer fuels increased multipliers, it launches bottle rockets, sets off explosions, or calls to your aid a virtual bandmate. With three different types of power-ups, all possibly heavily affecting the way you approach play, it furthers experimentation with each one unlocked. Already around the office tips and tricks are being passed about as new techniques and combinations lead to higher and higher scores.

No matter what has changed, below it all is still Rock Band. The gems still glow as they did before as they glide down the highway, and either side that rock city motif scrolls by with the odd recognisable character briefly flitting into view. It’s a reassuring constant, especially as it imports all your previous Rock Band content. The track list built into Blitz is incredibly solid, with a range from Lady Gaga to Foo Fighters, but the instant expansion gave it a lease of life I find very rarely in score attack games.

For those of you who miss a traditional Rock Band experience, this will go some way to alleviating that pain. It may be reimagined but it shows all the design genius and subtlety that made Harmonix’s name. Where Blitz has its focus however is entirely on competition. Anyone who is alone amongst their friends in downloading this will enjoy it but see very little of its incredible depth. Bobbing your head and floating your way through a song is one thing but when pressed by the knowledge that that bastard Ben has just knocked More Than a Feeling out of the park, that smile will be replaced with gritty determination as you flick tracks like a man possessed.

That high score? She will be me mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.

Kirby’s Adventure

For the first time in a long time I’ve pulled my NES down for the loft. Although this time it hasn’t been for a quick retro kick before returning it to its dusty abode, I’m actually sitting down and playing the games that I remember fondly from my early and informative years. Too often over the last two decade has it been brought down as a novelty but my latest apathy for home consoles has meant I’m sitting down and enjoying my past.

Having said that, Kirby’s Adventure is not a game I actually owned at the point when the Nintendo Entertainment System was considered cutting edge. Like many games with prices tags beyond the reach of a child’s pocket money, it was one I coveted, alongside the likes of Digger T Rock and Mega Man. So when it arrived on my desk, sat next to my foot-tall, cuddly Kirby, I felt like it was an early 1990’s Christmas.

Kirby’s Adventure featured surprisingly late in the NES’s life having launched in 1993, long past the release of the SNES. Though it was not the first Kirby game, it set in place a lot of what makes the pink vacuum what he is today. His previous Game Boy outing did not include his ability to absorb the powers of others, and so that and his trademark colour were both seen for the first time here on this his only outing of the generation.

So, for what was effectively his debut I found it interesting how synonymous Kirby’s Adventure is to the how the rest of his “career” has unfolded. It is definitely a platformer, there’s no doubt about that, but the combination of his ability to fly and absorb enemies, taking on their powers, makes much of the actual platforming redundant. I’ve often wondered if it was just the modern iterations of my favourite Nintendo character that found him floundering when it came to slotting him into a role but it turns out he struggled right from the start; his powers well surpassed that of a basic platformer and yet was asked to play that part.

To compound matters the level design is pretty uninspiring. Whether this was down to the designers being fully aware that intricate jumps and fiendish mazes would be wasted on a character that could easily short cut them by hovering out the trouble, or simply because the player feels no inclination in testing it out, it’s hard to say. Either way, each world is there to provide a setting for fun but little challenge.

Stages are filled with strange foes, from whirling dervishes through to what appears to be a sentient witch’s hat replete a broom. Hoover them up and the wonder unfolds as Kirby goes from being an average guy to someone who can morph into a wheel, wield a sword, become a bolt of pure electricity, or cause the entire screen to detonate, wiping all sentient life from it in the process. For the shortcomings in the level setup, the sheer variety of forms that the pink blob can take on is staggering and the main reason he has probably endured now into his third decade.

My personal favourites are probably his least practical. Inhale one dozy looking character and you find you have the power of “sleep”. Dab the B button and sure enough he’ll start snoozing, no matter what manner of danger is around him. It’s ridiculous, useless, and also highly amusing. Also the stone, which will cause him to transform into a slab of rock and plummet straight down, a huge frown upon his now geological face.

With each new power his playful charm comes across thanks to the animators who added such expressions on his small, chubby face. There’s no recycling of frames here either; each ability will stretch Kirby in new ways, and the way he reacts gives him a sense of character that 8bit Mario could only have dreamed of. Whatever Kirby lacked in basic challenge it made up for with its leading man.

Where the challenge lies is within the mini-boss battles that crop up here and there, and with the larger bosses that blocked each world’s exit. These are the only times players will probably be troubled. Initially this is probably from the sheer shock of not being able to waltz through to the end of each level but, although they each have common elements, it will also be down to figuring out the weaknesses and just how to crack them.

If you’re able to fire lasers or turning into a cracking ball of sparks then most will prove a second thought as you whittle down the poor soul’s life bar. At some point, possibly on the third boss that I had sat back and sniped, I realise I was almost doing myself out of the adventure. Effectively fast-forwarding through the best bits. At that point the memories of tough but rewarding boss battles that epitomised the era came flooding back. Timing jumps to avoid the pouncing lion, standing just close enough to the angry clock to suck up and spit out his music notes, or the endurance of the final fight with King Dedede returned me to the good old days.

It was a proud moment to complete a game twenty-years after its release, and that achievement alone should prove Kirby’s Adventure still contains an appeal. Though most of the content is joyful fluff that you waltz through, toying with all the powers at your disposal as you go, it has more to it than that. The charm and flexibility of the lead character mixed with a batch of much needed and more testing fights against now cult characters means it stands up moderately well despite its age.

They may be rose-tinted glasses, but through them Kirby is pinker than ever.

Sound Shapes

In the hustle and bustle of the Gamescom floor I found a sanctuary in Sound Shapes. Sat upon one of the many beanbags strewn across the PlayStation booth, I bolted the headphones firmly to my head and lost myself in the boldly-coloured platformer. The strong shapes and enchanting beats shut out the frenzy of thousands upon thousands of folk pushing past the stand. Back at home and away from the masses, I may have significantly less to shut out but it’s just as easy to lose yourself in Queasy Games’ beat-centric platformer.

Conceptually it’s as simple as you get. You control a “blob” moving through a series of very surreal or abstract worlds. Some surfaces you can stick to, allowing you to roll across the ceiling for example, and some you can’t; the only critical rules is that touching red objects will send you straight back to the previous checkpoint. No one could ever accuse Sound Shapes of being overly complex.

There are elements of N+ in the way the initial tutorial levels offer supremely reduced worlds, as you jump and stick your way across highly geometric scenes. But that comparison stretches further as the very simple core set of rules mean that you always know exactly what is possible from the very start. Complexity never comes from throwing in a strange mechanic but by taking what you have known and stretching it until you operate on a level of faith that you can make that jump and there’s no skulduggery other than your mistimed button presses.

Sound Shapes is never overly tough, however. Most levels are a procession, leading you through the game’s strongest suits: its visuals and its soundtrack. Do not fear, we’re not heading back to the kind of reviewing that was deemed acceptable in the mid-90s where graphics were weighted as highly as gameplay. Instead, this charming little adventure places a huge emphasis on taking on you on a trip that will wow the eyes and the ears. The lack of difficulty spikes, generously placed checkpoints and gentle progression reinforces that the developers are keen for its players never to become frustrated and always to see their experience through to an end.

Of the five “albums” – their way of describing a selection of levels – included, each one is set in very different worlds and with equally different music. One pulls heavily from the history of gaming and offers very pixelated worlds, packed with spinning meteors, robot sentries and disappearing Breakaway blocks; another feels reminiscent of Twisted Shadow Planet as its high-contrast foliage and caverns draw on onwards; and yet another will show a tiny office block as a backdrop as your scurry in and out of boardrooms and server farms. A far cry from the stereotypical lands found in many platformers across the years.

Although the surreal natures of the settings are definitely intriguing in terms of their sheer variety in theme and art style, the music is what ties the whole experience together. Each album also features a distinctive sound and Sony has brought in the likes of Deadmau5 and Beck to provide the soundtrack. They don’t just play though; you have to build them up. As coins are collected from across the screens, tracks will form and grow a note at a time until they are a fully realised song. This in itself proves fascinating as your actions effectively grow the momentum for the level, starting out with nothing but adding coin by coin you grow your musical accompaniment to a crescendo.

Each level seems alive with the beat, too. Enemies move and fire in time to the rhythm, certain background objects will sing along, and if you can hold a beat yourself it will help you with timing tricky jumps as the world pulses with music.

So interwoven is the audible experience that you can tell when you’ve missed a coin. A tune will feel unfulfilled and offers the best incentive I’ve ever come across in a game to make sure that you hoover up all the collectibles in any given level. Of course it is possible just to rush through a level, but anyone who does will have missed the point of Sound Shapes.

With only five albums, each offering a maximum of five tracks each, it’s easy enough to plough through the initial content relatively speedily. Some may want more for their tenner but in balance what you get are of such a high level of quality that I would easily opt for that over quantity. Making up for this in some respect is the Editor mode where users can upload their own levels to the Community.

This is considered such a core feature that it’s included in the initial tutorial and creating a level is very easy, as you’d expect with a system that has more touch screens than it knows what to do with. With each level completed the reams of templates and items you can place grows massively and to see what can be achieved you only have to download a couple of the higher-rated Community levels to bear witness to people’s imagination. A murder mystery comic that unfolds as you roll from screen to screen, a take on Jack and the Beanstalk, and a large number solely concentrating on the musical nature of the editor. Of course there’s a lot of chaff but the wheat can be very much worth taking in.

For those who do want more further challenge levels can be unlocked, but for me they lost some of the magic of Sound Shapes’ premise. Whereas the main levels take you on a journey, the challenges are far more arcade-like and pit you against a tricky setup and time limit.

The whole package captivated me, with each album tying perfectly together the choice of looks with the style of the music chosen to back it. It has to be said that this audio-visual presentation layer is required to elevate an otherwise just-above-average-platformer, but I also feel that making the actual gameplay any more complex or pernickety would have been to the detriment of the experience as a whole. Worrying about pixel perfect jumps or extra powers would have distracted from beat that was building or the bizarre scenery you past on your journey. This is for anyone who enjoyed Rez or delighted at Child of Eden.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013

This isn’t the first Duels of the Planeswalkers and I’m pretty certain it won’t be the last. Since Magic: The Gathering has taken a leaf out of EA’s book and started producing annual updates, they hit a rich vein of form and brought the hugely successful card game to the digital masses.

With each release the core has sensibly remained unchanged. This is seen in the continuing Duels tagline that singles out this particular branch of Wizard’s empire and the faithful recreation of the physical game itself. Not wishing to pander to a more casual audience or to try and make themselves more appealing to the console generation, it is unchanged. Not only is it unchanged, however, but it’s also wonderfully adapted for the joypad. Ample consideration has been paid to allow both experienced players to play swiftly and yet the novices to have full information on cards and abilities easily without diving through reams of menus.

And it is needed to begin with, for as quick and intuitive as Magic can become once you get a feel for you deck, it can prove a little overwhelming initially. Magic is a card game in which you battle another player – a Planeswalker – by playing the monsters and spells in your decks against theirs. Such powerful fiends need to be paid for though, and your deck also contains resource cards that are required for casting. Success is then a blend of having the best cards at home in your deck and hoping that luck will present you with the right cards at the right time. Though that may sound as though your success is in the lap of the gods, Magic is just as much about calculated risks and tactics as it is praying for the right card at the right time.

The basic rules are about as simple as can be. Starting with seven cards, each turn you draw another and then are able to play a single resource card and as many spells or creatures are you are able to pay for with your resources (which are refreshed each go). Most typical cards are soldiers, animals or supernatural beings with a damage and defensive value, any of which already in play can then be targeted at your opponent. In return however they may block with their own cards, allowing them to absorb the attack in order to protect themselves. The clash may wipe out one of both cards and so often a game of cat and mouse ensues as players seek to gain the upper hand without risking their assembled forces. Striking too early can often see both sides constantly scratching around with few options on the table whilst the more cautious games can see dozens of cards in play and waiting for their moment.

Knowing what is contained within your deck is key to everything. Initial games will no doubt see spells cast to see what they do as much as anything else, but as time goes on you begin to get a feel for what is possible. At that point the real depth of Magic becomes apparent. Knowing which cards to play early, what monsters are more effective when, which spells compliment others, all take it from a game of snap to a far more tactical one.

The sheer range of opponents you are pitted against really show this strength off. There are those who prefer vicious flying monsters, others focus on destroying your cards before going for the kill, whilst further still favour hitting hard and fast. Each will most definitely provide a challenge, and in the same way it takes a few games to get used to your own deck the same can be said with theirs. Knowing just what they are capable of and knowing how to counter them is almost as important as the offensive strength of your own cards.

Those who have played previous years’ offerings will definitely notice the increase in difficulty. This can lead to frustration at times, but the rewards for each victory sees new cards for your decks unlocked, increasing your potential. It’s a clever mechanism to slowly keep you hooked, pulling you further down the otherwise rudimentary campaign trail. Basically animated Planeswalkers will introduce themselves during each major battle but otherwise presentation is limited and perfunctory.

On balance, this is a reasonable sacrifice. Once I did wish for fully animated combat, even if it were only of a Pokemon Stadium level, but the level of interruption that would introduce would soon become untenable. Developers Stainless Games have done a fantastic job of creating a frictionless experience, understanding the balance between presentation and the flow of a general game.

They also include an interesting variety of games to tickle your fancy, too. Away from the traditional one-on-one there are also specialised challenges and a bizarre four-way battle. The latter is sadly a little too much, introducing locations and random dice events that sees chains of events happen with very little involvement from yourself. It’s an interesting addition but removes the strategy that I found so compelling in the other modes.

That in itself proves what has been Magic’s strength. The reason it has been so successful over the years can be put down to its core gameplay which is extremely simple. The depth and strategy comes from the cards themselves and the order in which they arrive, the random nature of which mean that no two games are the same.

Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013 is a must for fans of the series, providing a large array of decks for comparatively next to nothing compared to the price of their physical counterparts. For those new to the world then don’t dismiss it; for a small investment a very moreish world of strategy games could open up to you.

Diablo III

It could be very easy to see how Diablo III could be described as monotonous.

Click click click click click click.

Hours are spent roaming maze-like dungeons with your sole purpose being to massacre anything you find down there.

Click click click click click click.

With only a limited set of powers, fights begin to form into a series of well-rehearsed and predictable phases.

Click click click click click click.

The backdrops may change, but over the many hours your actions remain the same. Namely…

Click click click click click click.

And yet all I want to do is to keep on clicking. The design wizards at Blizzard have once again taken what the world expects to be a well-worn and predictable formula and put their twist on it to make it shine. Not content with setting the standard in MMOs, or recapturing the RTS market, they have resurrected an almost decade-old franchise and breathed fresh life into it.

At its heart it’s still the same third-person dungeon crawler that almost personifies adventure games. The difference here though is that large portions of the once action-RPG are now more focused on the action rather than RPG. Formerly rigid talent trees whereby you pick certain skills at the expense of others as you level up are forgotten and instead level progression is greeted by a series of unlocks that ever expand the possibilities but never restrict.

Purists have already cried on the forums at this perceived dumbing down, but for the more silent majority this is a wondrous thing. As you progress, powers are slowly opened up to you, sitting in one of six possible slots. Each level brings a new trinket, be it the ability to summon zombie dogs to fight alongside you, or the skill to rain acid down upon your foes. Compared to more traditional RPGs where levelling may mean the excitement of a new stat point to spend in this area of self-improvement or that, the guarantee of a new talent or power is far more rewarding. Almost without fail, just like a child on Christmas day, you’ll be rejigging your loadout to try the new toy.

As is life, not all these gifts are Transformers; some turn out to be Gobots. Although even then that’s not to say you won’t revisit it later on as these powers are modified by a further series of unlockables known as Runes. All will keep the same core ability but, returning to our zombie dogs, they could become poisonous, or highly explosive, even leave life orbs behind as they die. They have the potential to turn a previously considered useless ability and tweak it oh so slightly so it fits perfectly with your character’s build.

Indeed, though a certain flavour has run consistently through my Witch Doctor throughout our time together, the ability to wholescale switch play style, knowing that I’ve not committed myself to anything, has allowed me to experiment and come up with setups that have ranged from the disastrous to variations that have made with cackle with the sheer stupidity of the power at my disposal. My most favourite of which being when I summon a field of undead hands from the earth to tie them in place, send a Frankenstein-esque Gollum to show them what for, before finally summoning a familiar that would turn them into a chicken. Now you tell me seeing an eight-foot, undead servant wailing on a piece of confused looking poultry isn’t delightful.

Diablo however is more than just how you kill things; it’s about the loot they drop. And as ever they drop it in spades. Following a skirmish, the floor can be covered in weapons and armour, most of which can be ignored. Even on normal difficulty all but magic blues and rare yellows can be ignored, the abundance of low value items simply not worth your time ferrying them back to town to sell. Yet still they are critical to proceedings if just to show the value of the rarer items.

Most players will be able to adequately equip themselves with just what they find on the bodies of their victims. Slowly you’ll build up a set of armour and weapons that will mean you have no need of the vendors in town, and indeed money proves irrelevant for the most part except to dabble on the auction house or to level your blacksmith and jeweller. Each is probably the most important person in the village, being able to breakdown unwanted items and craft specifically to your needs, and probably at far a cheaper price than through Diablo’s own eBay.

Given the sheer quantity of items available, it’s unsurprising to see that visually they tend to fall into certain camps, though all are impressive. Indeed, the latest in the series is wonderfully rendered, with an eye for detail and the grand. Most levels will see you trawl the underground lairs of one area of the world or another, but the hard work placed into making each varied is plain to see. Gloomy tombs under the desert that see sand building up in corners are worlds away from the sewers under a royal palace. Gritty, peasants’ basements give way to castle barracks, and all see their own flavour of bad guy, too. In a game so long, it would have been easy to give in to temptation and recycle characters and models but with each passing portion of the narrative comes its own unique set of impressive monsters to squash.

Visually they range from skeletons to large, elephant-sized demons wielding equally large clubs, but disappointingly most of them offer no real intelligence or challenge. Some may show obvious signs of an attack that you can then dodge, but overall some of my perceived monotony stems from the onrushing charge that varies little. Only when it comes to the infrequent boss battles or higher difficulty settings does it actually feel as though you are being offered a challenge, be it in attack patterns or actual resistance.

Almost knowingly, Blizzard seem to realise this to and have built in rewards to toast the warrior that crushes these waves under foot. Bonus XP is awarded for chaining kills, massacring large numbers, and taking out multiple demons in a single attack. It’s a pleasant carrot to draw you forward into the heat of battle as you aim to beat your previous best.

With touches like that it’s easy to see how Diablo has taken over so many lives in the past fortnight. Based upon an addictive formula whereby you wield unyielding strength through blade or magic, you are then rewarded heavily; large quantities of treasure, further strange powers, and a strong storyline that ticks over readily whisking you from plague-ridden streets to royal houses. It is simple and yet packed with variety through five character classes and a staggering number of combinations of talents.

Reservation over its repetitiveness remains, but so does something else: click click click click click click.

Minecraft

I once listened to a radio phone-in about the greatest ever toys. Transformers, Barbie and other staples from across the generations were mentioned and lauded, until the show was completely derailed by one irate caller who had particular beef with Denmark’s finest ever export. Lego, he proclaimed, was rubbish. “Well,” he continued over the hoots of derision, “once you’ve built what it tells you to build, what’s there left to do!?”

At that point you could only feel sorry for him. So devoid of imagination was he that he had worked himself up into such a rage over his building blocks and their limited potential that he was forced to ring into a national radio show. Heaven only know what he’d be pushed to with Minecraft.

The PC phenomenon has crept its way onto the Xbox, and although it may be a slightly stripped down version it offers a world full of sandbox fun. It’s a game powered by the user’s imagination, that can see whole worlds spring forth if they only have the time and inclination to commit to it. You can turn a meadow into a village, a bare seascape into Atlantis, or fill the skies with a recreation of the Death Star.

Though I fear I am getting ahead of myself; at the beginning such possibilities seem a long way off. Dropped into a land made of cubes with nothing but the ability to hit things until they break, you must build yourself up a toolset to make life easier. Collecting (read: punching) wood from trees and stone from rocks allows you to create at first a workbench and then spades and pickaxes with which to more easily mine the world about you.

You first hour or so is spent simply harvesting, replacing blades when they dull and break, but mainly gathering resources simply because you can. No tree is safe or rock out of the question from this early frenzy and soon you’ll no doubt survey the environmental damage you have wreaked and decide a little more focus is needed.

That is ably handed to you by the monsters that come out at night. As square as the world about them, they aim to put a stop to your ways and so the only reasonable course to take is to build a house and hide until morning. At first it’s a necessity, a place to cower only to prevent yourself from losing all the inventory you’ve built up, probably no more than some dirt thrown together in a high-sided square. The second night, however, is where the magic of Minecraft gets you. A dull square is no longer good enough; you’ve foraged more materials and maybe you have grand design for a sloped roof? If you extend it a little out back, maybe you can create a mineshaft so the night is as productive as the day? Or how about a castle? If you’re still happy with a dirt hovel, you’re playing the wrong game.

With elements from glass bricks to stairs, working switches to rudimentary water, there are enough bits and pieces to fill any young architect with glee. With enough planning and resources the world is your highly angular oyster.

And so unfolds the other great facet of Notch’s wondrous creation: the world itself. Each land is different, randomly generated and brought into life for you to then mine to destruction. But it’s huge, genuinely vast, and hides some true natural wonders. Above ground the hills rolls out as far as the eye can see, whilst the coastlines teem with sea caves. By sheer chance however, towering cliffs, dramatic valleys and cracks splitting the land also form before your eyes, and all warranting further exploration. For a game based on giant cubes and a random number generator the landscape can prove stunning, and yet it is below ground the true treasures wait.

To build up enough resources for your 1:1 recreation of Hogwarts you’ll need to head through the bedrock, deep into the bowels of the earth. Choose a cliff face or dip in the floor and head down and you’ll gather enough rock to start building those magical walls, but every now and again you’ll chance upon a hidden underground cavern offering possible ores and precious stones, items needed for the more advanced pieces. More than that though, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a maze of caves, looming of into the darkness just teasing you to explore them.

From tiny pot holes to vast caverns that you could fit a cathedral into, poking about and seeing what natural wonder hides round the next corner was a huge draw to me. Collecting essential stones became secondary as I longed for the next underground river or cracking through a rock to be met with the subtle glow of a lava flow. By this point I’d turned the monsters off, I wanted nothing to get in the way of my subterranean adventure.

Objectively, Minecraft seems at the same time nothing and everything. You’re plonked in the world with next to nothing and an objective to survive. There is no narrative, no grand story to “complete.” It is a sandbox where they stories write themselves, be it tunnelling in a cave alone or building a grand structure over Xbox Live with friends, it will be the telling of the stories that is most likely to draw people in.

Like the time my brother and I built a floating castle and tried to create a lava flow from the top turret, only to realise that doing so with wooden flooring might be a mistake, but tried it anyway with hilarious/catastrophic results. Or the time I was struggling blindly through a cave, having run out of torches, only to burst through a wall and find sunlight streaming down on me through a natural opening that ran 100m dead-straight up to the blue sky. The cave of chickens my brother found, or the pub my boss hid under his friend’s cathedral, or the squid that swam into my kitchen, or the cow that stole a minecart, the giant fire-filled floating arrow someone made for their brother who kept getting lost, or the countless other tales that are created by handing us a simple set of tools and letting our imagination and little random luck from the world take its course.

So, to the man on the radio: think. If you could build anything, what would it be?

Risen 2

The world is divided into two camps: those who like to speak like a pirate and those deluded chaps who prefer sneaking as though they were ninjas. The former is obviously the correct choice that all hearty sea dogs should chose, leaving the land lubbers that are fond of tight fitting black suits to never know the joy of a good sea shanty or the wonders of ham night.

Piranha Bytes understands this joy and returns with a sequel to 2009’s swashbuckling adventure with a more piratical focus. Within minutes of the start your nameless character has thrown away the eloquent uniform and privileges he’s earned through service with the Inquisition to don a tricorn and begin whittling a replacement leg. He may be undercover to thwart the threat of titans but this new avenue for adventure opens up a colourful world for the designers to plunder.

This isn’t your usual set of Caribbean islands, either. Though pirates and imperial forces may inhabit the numerous islands dotted around your sea chart, it’s very much a world of magic and fantasy. Rowing boat sized crabs roam the beach, ghouls hide in caves and huge sea monsters lie in wait to tug naïve boats under to a watery grave. With the ultimate aim being that you find a weapon to destroy this kraken, our hero wanders the islands, finding allies, sharing in adventures and turning himself from a cabin boy to a feared and legendary captain.

But to do so, the first task is gaining the pirates’ trust. From the very first island you land upon it’s all about cosying up to your new friends, helping them escape from jail and seeing off a giant termite invasion. Once on speaking terms your involvement opens up, sorting out supplies, searching for treasure and overthrowing rival captains.

Most of these tasks are found out through talking to the locals, with each island having one or two little villages. There gunsmiths and general deckhands will happily talk to you and reveal titbits about island life, passing on any quests they have – but chat is very little more than perfunctory. Once in a while someone you meet might spin an interesting yarn filling in a backstory or expanding on the lore of the titans but quickly you realise only a handful of main characters are worth listening to. Everyone else falls into the categories of being pickpocket targets, salesmen or skip-text-until-I-give-you-a-quest givers. The shame is that the dialogue that was given the attention seems to have a good humour and substance about it.

As with the villagers, the quests also vary wildly in substance. At times where you’ve your captain and ship’s hand by your side and wading in to kill giant lizards, it feels like a proper Saturday matinee as blades are flying and the three of you set to storm the stronghold, or my personal favourite: following orienteering symbols placed by a scout to find out his whereabouts, which showed a lovely change of pace. At those points, when you’re handed motive and direction, Risen 2 does flow nicely as you push proceedings onward, though in equal measures there are stilted and vague tasks that can lead you wandering in circles scratching your head as to what you have to achieve let alone how.

At such points the linearity of the adventure becomes very apparent. For all the lush and wide expanse of environment you can explore through on each island, you realise just how narrowly progression is funnelled. It’s a similar setup to last month’s Witcher 2 but there you never felt quite so enclosed because of the richness of the world. Here the villages never feel alive and the great expanses between homesteads are rarely filled with anything more interesting that the odd pack of boar. Key points take place in only a few areas and the rest of the island seems wasted given the effort obviously put in to creating such a tableaux for your adventure to unfold against.

If this is sounding harsh then it is possibly overly so. I did enjoy and lap up the chance to wander through a pirate’s life, battling giant crabs and making peace with the natives who previously had thrown spears at me. The shortcomings of the quests and conversations were ultimately only tiny drawbacks that just took the shine off an otherwise involving experience. This is all however, heavily tainted by my character’s ability with a cutlass.

Being a pirate adventure game, a lot hinges on its ability to portray and execute on swashbuckling. Although rather than excel and allow us to feel as though we can live out Hollywood moments of dancing along the deck with blades flashing in a deadly dance before us, Risen 2 descends into a mix of random chance and rapid mouse clicks. There seems little skill and no finesse at all, as although you’re able to kick opposing duellists away and parry neither seemingly make a difference. They’ll block the majority of your strokes and kicking seems incapable of breaking them out of their own swing, leaving you even more vulnerable. Early on I thought it was because my character was underpowered or inexperienced, but after over a dozen hours to get used to my sabre, I still dread combat.

Success with a sword appears to come down to a number of factors: firstly, hoping you catch them in a recoil animation so you can swing again without reprisal; next, keep enough health potions to hand so you can out last your foe; or finally, hope you’re with a party and let them kick his arse for you. It’s a sorry state to be in and ultimately one that caused more than one or two pounds of the desk in sheer frustration.

Regardless, there are a lot of redeeming factors to this digital journey on the high seas. From the beautifully created islands to the various factions you meet on each of them, there is a core to the world that is worth persevering with. Yet it’s a slow burner: an RPG that on the face of it has a lot of potential and ticks a lot of boxes, but just fails to push on to reach the heights of its fantasy brethren we’ve been so spoiled with recently.

Nevertheless, we return to the combat. Everything you do on the adventure relies on the sword in your hand, and when it’s as unreliable and frustrating as any combat mechanic I have ever come across, Risen 2 is hard to recommend.

Fez

It could easily be assumed that Fez has had a free ride. Despite being lost in development for five years, turning up at conference after conference, there was a feeling that everyone wanted it to succeed. With a quirky, small dev team flying the Indie-darling flag on a major console and a retro 8-bit style it was tugging at the romantic side of every gamer. But Fez is more than that. Beyond the takes of extended development lies a platformer that is equally charming and clever.

Yet on the surface sits what is apparently is a basic platform adventure. Though with one quite literal twist.

Our hero Gomez lives in a 2D world; his picturesque villages sitting on a single plane. Made up of traditional blocks, house tiles and vines, he’s nimbly able to traverse and climb its full breadth and height though forever locked in the X and Y. Out of the blue, as if the videogame adaptation of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland, a shape with a third-dimension arrives and shows unto the village the meaning of depth. It’s a revelation. Suddenly the classrooms are filled with new promise and the townsfolk are excited about what else this arrival could mean.

For Gomez it means a lot. Granted a magical hat – you can probably guess what sort – he has been gifted the power to turn the world on its axis. Though still only able to move in his native two-dimensions, the hat allows the world to shift 90 degrees bringing the depth to be his width. What previously were dead ends can now be turned to reveal further pathways and extra routes.

Initially this seems like a novel way of hiding secrets about a relatively normal platformer; spin the door to reveal a door/chest/cube. Exit the village however and you’ll see it’s more than that as you craft stairways from pillars previously separated by the width of the screen, or uncover a series of vines that thanks to the flattening of perspective join to allow you to climb to new heights. The opening hour is full of a series of eureka moments as the possibilities cement themselves in your mind.

At that point Fez is for exploring. The world map opens up a warren of routes, taking you up, over and round Gomez’s village and taking him far from home. The main reason for this jaunt is that you promised the visiting cube that, in traditional genre fare, you would collect smaller, golden cubes, which in turn open up further areas and further small, golden cubes.

After a while the world-turning becomes second nature. No matter where you find yourself you know a dab on the triggers left or right will bring, spinning into place, your escape route. A certain amount of variety is injected with switches that alter water levels or set in motion a series of time-crucial routes but at this point it becomes about the journey. Not even with their addition is Fez overly tricky, but rather a means to take in and appreciate the 8-bit landscape and the themes Polytron have daubed their world with. Collecting the cubes may have been the initial motivation, but that dwindles for the wanton need to see what is behind every door. Navigating across lighthouses sitting proud on a blue sea or haunted houses lit by angular lighting, you’ll find everything from pixelated bunnies lolloping about through to Tetris-shaped clouds floating by, all the while supported by a stunning chiptune soundtrack completing the experience.

If it were that alone, Fez would still have proven to be an incredibly lovely game. Full of quaint nods to the platformers and styles of yesteryear whilst packing in a novel mechanic it would have received clucks of approval throughout for the warm glow that such nostalgia-with-a-twist brings.

However, as you unearth the second layer, the realisation dawns that the platforming is not even close to being the main reason for Fez’s existence. Underneath is a fiendish puzzler, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of the games it so stylishly tips its Moroccan hat to. The cute graphics, the nifty rotation mechanic and the world as a whole are merely a delivery mechanism to house further homage to a bygone age, and mysteries that are amongst the toughest I’ve ever come across.

Easier challenges involve shifting blocks and replicating patterns; more advanced examples may hinge upon your observation skills; and by the time you have reached the puzzle summit you will have partaken in levels of cryptography that could seal you a place at MI5. At times I sat surrounded by piles of paper, each covered with scribbles and patterns as I tried to make sense of it all, but come the moment of success it felt a mix of blessed relief and delight, especially given what was found behind the previously locked doors.

To reveal any of their substance would be to ruin them for you, but the level of dedication and service put in by the team to pull off not just the individual puzzles but weave them and their rewads into the world at large is testament to their talents. Strange glyphs and tablets will have littered your path on route to the initial conclusion, but only upon a second play-through does it become apparent just how deep Fez goes.

Though possibly too deep. Many of the puzzles are utterly unsolvable until you complete your first pass. Whereas Metroid has its weapon-coded doors, Fez has its cyphers. They’ll sit there and taunt you and occasionally pull you in, forcing you to try and crack it believing you hold enough facts when truth be told what you have is nothing. Though it pays respect to the single-screen platformers of the Spectrum, not everything on its bite-sized levels must be completed on the first visit and a good adventurer needs to know when to avoid frustration and come back later.

That in itself is an art, and has sadly been the cause of a large amount of grief on my behalf, made worse by the cross-world navigation. Scattered throughout the land are hints to secrets and puzzles on the other side of the world, and yet getting from A to B is painful. The map itself has to be seen to be believed; a vast spider’s web of doors and warps that ties together the dozens and dozens of rooms Gomez explores. From the confusion of orientating yourself against it to small, arbitrary black holes that open up on your return to certain rooms, retracing your steps is not half as gleeful as your initial forays. It’s a shame to say this back-tracking is necessary and at the detriment to the game as a whole.

Fez is a game of two parts, the first being a bright, joyful skip down memory lane that will attempt to please as many of your senses as possible. It is there to serve you with whimsy by the screenful and does everything it can to please you, from offering small, manageable levels for those with little time to punishing a missed jump by doing no more than resetting you to where you launched from. Almost cruelly you find yourself brought into the second half where what you were doing previously is a by-product. Here the grey cells get tested and tested hard, but the more you put in the more you will definitely get out.

Though whilst some may accept the unabashed difficulty as a challenge, I found the unguarded nature by which it interfered with my time spent in the first half distracting. With little gating, frustration is easy to come by. That, in of itself, is not the disappointment; that it may cause players to walk away before they have seen all the wonders that Fez offers, is.

Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings

If you go down to the woods today you’ll be sure of a big surprise. Creep amongst the undergrowth or peek between the bracken and you may just glimpse someone picking daisies who you wouldn’t automatically pin as your traditional botanist. A huge mountain of a man, he fills his pockets with petals of this and cuttings of that.

A rustle in the bushes causes him to turn and pause. Out from the leaves steps a vast, purple monster, rearing up to hint that this might be his turf that the flower collector has wandered into.

He is no David Bellamy, however. This is Geralt of Rivia, Witcher. Calmly he unsheathes his silver sword and proceeds to go to work. Sorry, monsters.

Gathering supplies for potions and gadgets can be risky business in the lands of the Pontar valley. Such drinks and tools can save your life, but in a world populated with monstrosities, guerrilla elves, and an abundance of irked undead then it could also cost you.

Already it may appear to have all you need for a traditional fantasty RPG, but the world of our Witcher is atypical. Dwarves, trolls and elves all exist here, with the shorter ones working in mines, those with pointed ears living in trees and the others under bridges, but there’s more than a hint of political rumblings behind the scenes to add spice to the mix. The non-humans are oppressed, living in ghettos about the men who now control the lands. They live as servants and smiths, looked down upon and abused by the ruling humans.

This discontent has lead a band of Elves to become alleged terrorists, living out of the woods and attacking towns and villages in the name of freedom. As a result of their actions Geralt has been framed for a crime he did not commit, and so our tale begins with our Witcher in irons and on a course that will see him try to clear his name.

Throughout, CD Projekt paint a wonderful picture of the land as a whole. Though only broadly hinted at above, they flesh out the kingdoms, history and people that turn the towns upon the way into more than simple quest hubs. It’s there if you wish to explore it, through extra dialogue options, conversations in the street and books from vendors. Though almost expected nowadays in large scale RPGs, Witcher’s world is fleshed out to the point where it feels solid and not like an exhaustive attempt to out-lore its rivals.

Where this comes together nicely is through the questing, which brings the lore and the towns together. Apart from the main story quests, other trials and tasks can be picked up throughout your journey, and each will weave in and about one another. Bit part characters in one thread could become major players in another, and all feed together to provide rewards for others. With a passing resemblance to the original Deus Ex, in that you could achieve the same result multiple ways, the same is true here; although here it is the more questing you do, then the more trinkets you will be given to complete others. It may be all well and good to buy a certain ritual ingredient or beat the face of a dozen elves to possess a mystical spearhead, but chances are that picking up the right quest line will lead you to a more rewarding conclusion.

Even your conversational choices can influence them, too. There are no arbitrary cutscene thrown in with optional dialogue to make you feel involved. Large portions of adventure can open or close to you, affecting how other quests resolve also, as you smooth talk, intimidate or appease those you meet along the way. They range from the trivial, such as fighting a commander one-on-one or having his whole squad join in, to the more dramatic where a tortured soul is murdered and a quest line abruptly terminated should you insinuate falsehoods about him to others.

Each setting feels like a large scale dramatic cast production, like a fantasy East Enders. The whole town exists, lives and breathes, with acquaintances and rivalries coming out as Geralt ingratiates himself with the locals. Snippets of what could be throwaway dialogue hints at a life unseen by your eyes, but could easily name drop a character you met but a minute ago. A great deal of work has gone into making each location bustle and feel lived in.

Still, it’s not all socialising, and out in the world our Witcher earns his crust with his talents as a monster hunter. Local contracts to remove verminous Nekkers, slaying cathedral-sized reptiles or banishing a battlefield full of spectres, all keep our man supplied with a fine range of gardening gloves.

As with the nature of his work, the combat system is not for the feint hearted. Never before have I died so much in a game and yet never felt cheated. The mechanics superbly capture the essence of Gerlat’s task at hand; each monster must be treated with respect, for rushing in flailing a blade – no matter how silver – will get yourself killed. Patience is the key as groups must be managed and windows of opportunities looked for, striking in for a counter attack wherever possible. It’s very cat and mouse, and at times it’s hard to say which role you embody most.

Flexibility comes with addition of spells and gadgets. Blessed with magical talents, shield charms and fireballs can be conjured from this air. Similarly, his hunting talents bestow traps and explosives that can turn the tide, or even just buy time to regroup.

Flash yourself with a protective bubble before wading into a mass of the undead. One touches your shield, causing a shock wave to blast them back. With the extra space you wield your sword, downing two in the confusion before throwing an incendiary at a third, leaving it burning where it stands. Gadgets spent, you roll under the incoming attack of another, placing a magical trap as you move. It holds the final wraith in place allowing some good old cathartic wailing as you take it to task with your silver blade. It could easily go horribly wrong, but when it comes off you know you’ve done well.

Thankfully a freshly built interface allows such hot-swapping. Porting from PC and being full of options, it was always going to be a concern just how well one of Poland’s finest exports was to arrive on the home consoles, but it behaves admirably. Time slows when you pull up the radial menu mid-battle, your enemies moving as though in treacle behind it. A quick flick and you’ve retooled.

Though not quite on the same scale as a Skyrim, this sequel offers an inordinate amount of quality content. Each of the main areas that our merry band visit on their way to seek the truth can easily see you spend hours and hours taking contracts, fighting in tournaments and generally bringing the place to order. In a fashion it’s far more manageable than Bethesda’s epic, and benefits because of it. Connections can be made and communities invested in, both causing an investment beyond trying to level up just to upgrade your pyromancy.

Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings arrives as yet another entry in an impressive procession of console RPGs, each offering their subtle twists on a classic genre. Skyrim wowed us with its size and scope, with Amalur recently taking that and pulling back to a more combat driven experience. Witcher, taking its lead from neither, sits astride the pair. With a wonderful series of questlines, a world full of life and history, and a combat system that could have merrily survived as part of a separate action game, we may have saved the best to last.

Silent Hill: Downpour

Downpour and I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. When the first thing a new game asks you to do is brutally murder a stranger in a prison shower with no attempt to offer rhyme nor reason as to why, I must question what it is I have gotten myself in to. In one swift stroke, a misjudged attempt at a tutorial left me despising the character I was then left to play for the remainder of my adventure in Silent Hill. Not a great start.

There was no salvation found in the opening couple of hours, either. Reluctantly taking control of the convict Murphy, you have to guide him from the scene of a coach crash through the outlying countryside and canyons surrounding the town of Silent Hill. Though a nice use of fog mixed with spookily placed light sources were the basis for setting the right atmosphere, everything seemed quite brown and textures flat. Given that this my first experience with this particular survival horror series, the highly linear experience that met me was disappointing. Though the woods about me were vast and dense, a channel was predetermined, ushering you through.

If this had lead me through a series of scares – I’d have settled for merely unnerving – then I may have forgiven it. Instead a procession of laborious encounters with wailing women was all it offered. Should you wish to engage, combat is mainly melee focused, with the street and rooms of this corner of America veritably littered with iron bars, bricks and axes that can be picked up and lobbed or slashed at the supernatural. Combat, however, is also highly repetitive, being simply a case of holding Y to block and then tapping X to counter attack when your opponent falls back into their rest animation. There are none of the subtleties or flared offered by an Assassin’s Creed or Batman, and after a while I could see why the loading screens tips suggested that running away was an equally valid course of action.

Had this course continued for the duration, then I may have been reaching around for some of the lower number available to me. Yet, whilst the combat never improved beyond the perfunctory, having navigated his way into town Murphy is met with an open world that he can explore and try and piece together the mysteries that appear to be keeping him there.

It’s a complete change. Suddenly the monsters are no longer something you must endure, but another factor in the city that’s out to get you. Dark, haunted police cars patrol the streets and even the weather is against you as regular downpours limit your already fogged vision and bring further freaks onto the streets. All the time you’re scouring the properties looking for a clue as to what to do next.

Most can’t be entered, although those that can provide not just shelter from the elements but side quests and further mysteries away from the threat of being attacked. Cinemas hide secrets in their films; apartment blocks full of unrest need appeasing; and shops scattered throughout contains health aid packs and firearms for you to plunder.

Certain buildings are key to your progression and hopefully your eventual escape. Enter these and you’ll enter a place that tries to test your mind and your resolve, as they mix puzzles and scares. They are sprawling structures, usually over a number of floors each with containing many rooms, and all putting the opening levels to shame. In each your feel as though you’re exploring a haunted house, the run down rooms and the eerily pitched audio causing you to peer nervously into each new room.

Indeed, Silent Hill’s strengths are borne out each and every time it puts on a true horror set piece. A fantastic combination of sound, lighting and camera work all come together to at times leaving me wishing that I wasn’t sat up near midnight playing the game alone. Walls can melt away transporting you to a nasty, alternate dimension full of blood-spitting corpses and cages full of monsters. The environment artists go to town here and provide the highlight of the adventure as you peer into the realisation of what is quite a dark corner of their warped minds.

With the gauntlet run in the alternate reality, you come back down to earth with a mental bump as the puzzles that block Murphy’s route are at times unashamedly hard. There’s very little in the way of rummaging through desks for the all-important keycard; Silent Hill prefers to paint numbers on walls and hope you notice them, hide glyphs in books, and at times be as obtuse as possible.

You may carry a journal about with you that has notes scrawled in it regarding objectives and the odd press clipping, but the developers were resolute it seems that only the nosiest and eagle eyed adventures would be able to unlock all the town’s secrets. While it may be quite refreshing that there is next to no hand holding and rewarding when you do crack the code it has been delicately hinting at, it can border on frustration given the amount of back tracking that is involved. This carries over into simple things like the map and again the journal as important points and key places are never marked and there is no way of even setting a personal waypoint to act as a reminder. It is as if Konami had slipped back into the design philosophy of the 90s.

Ultimately, Silent Hill: Downpour proves to be a game of extremes. To the left we have an appalling opening, miserable combat and an old school design mentality; on the right there sits a series of wonderfully explorable haunted houses, fantastic audio and a series of puzzles that Layton himself would be proud of. The marriage of them all is at times messy and jarring leading it to become disjointed.

With Alan Wake the new pretender on the block, some had hoped that Silent Hill would step up and prove why it has garnered its reputation. Inclusion of an open world packed with mysteries and potential could have seen it topple Microsoft’s survival horror exclusive, but too much of Downpour is stuck in the past.