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Tearaway: Review

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.

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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.
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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.

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Thomas Was Alone ::: Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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Thomas Was Alone ::: Hands On

A stripped down and refined platformer, Thomas Was Alone somehow managed to inject personality into a series of four-sided shapes. It’s a feat, so join Ali, James, Claire, Thomas, Steve (or Chris) and Laura as we run from the evil pixel cloud.

Guacamelee ::: Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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Guacamelee ::: Hands On

Pull on your wrestling masks and jump into the ring of Guacamelee. Drink Box’s follow up to Mutant Blobs, it continues to show the studio’s bold, colourful style. You’re not rolling around this time, though; you’re saving a Mexican village from the undead through your patented brand of piledrivers and justice.

Look out for lots of nods to other videogames in the background.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation

It could have been the same. Ubisoft could have quite happily pared down a version of Assassin’s Creed III and squeezed it on to the Vita. A little draw distance trimming here, a drop in polygons there, and it may not have been the prettiest looking adventure but it would have no doubt kept the punters happy.

So it is to their massive credit that Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is a completely fresh and different take on Assassin-Templar universe. A game that plays to the series’ strengths, utilises the console in a couple of interesting ways, and comes up with its own unique approach. The most prominent of which is Liberation’s protagonist.

Aveline de Grandpré is a former slave in New Orleans, taken in as a youngster by a well-to-do couple and raised as their own as a Lady. Though this chance at a better existence sees her hobnobbing with the town’s high society, she eventually chooses to lead a double life; out in the Bayou another former slave has taken her under wing and taught her the ways of the Brotherhood.

Looking back at previous assassins they have all been somewhat one-dimensional, but here the social and political setup of Aveline’s situation opens up layers to explore. It’s a potential that, whilst not fully utilised, lends itself to a twisting story and a does come across heavily in the gameplay. You no longer run around town exclusively in your peaked hoody like some homicidal adolescent, there’s scope to meander through the streets dressed in your best frock, creep through the worker districts with barely a glance in your direction disguised as a slave, or go balls out – so to speak – with her assassin’s outfit.

What this leads to is a unique approach to taking on missions, whereby picking the right outfit tailors you either for a covert mission or an all-out assault. Early on you’re asked to sneak into a ball. Dressing as the respectable Aveline will see you able to enter through the front door; your slave persona will be able to enter through the servant’s quarters. The third option of course requires a more stealthly approach, silencing witnesses as you go, but the concept is a great one, opening up Assassin’s Creed to be so much more than a series of dramatic kills from rooftops with your hidden blades. It adds a freshness that the annual franchise has, in my mind, been needing for a couple of years now.

The core of the series is still intact however. Missions still revolve around either tracking down a person or some evidence or disposing of them. Though there seems a reduction in the amount of killing our Assassin partakes in. Most of the sequences end up in one large hit at the end but many of the preceding missions are about building up the tale of the continent, about the new Spanish Governors and the slave trade, fleshing out the world a great deal and bringing out the unrest of the period

Between the main quest and the numerous sidelines available, bloodlust will be satisfied. Informers and business rivals have to be eliminated. Though how is generally up to you and what outfit you’ve a penchant for, a new subtle subgoal for each mission helps add diversity. A kill is a kill, but it may suggest you kill them through an exploding barrel, or that you dispose of them with not a soul setting eyes upon you. It’s a little addition but one that help demonstrate the number of ways a single task can be approached and the relative richness of the world.

And nothing has been lost of that richness in packing it onto a Vita with each of the three main hubs taking up a sizeable piece of land. New Orleans has houses, shops and dock fronts, all there to free-run over or meander through, pick pocketing the unwitting. The Bayou is a murky swampland dotted with homesteads, through which you’ll find the trees your fastest route from A to B. In both, the free-running is still as accomplished as ever, and navigating the initially disorientating system of trunks and branches soon proves easy as your eye picks out certain landmarks. At times it’s almost too simple, as you scale a synchronisation point with barely a second thought, but it’s a balance that has to be struck and it’s clear that the studio opted for elegance in movement over anything else.

At ground level you’ll find the streets bustling with people. Most are there just to add character to the city, nonetheless there are also guards and mercenaries that pay you close attention if your notoriety level is high enough. Once upon a time, this series set the benchmark for cinematic combat, now, post-Batman, the scuffles you enter into never feel as though they have a sense of jeopardy. Assailants will queue up one by one to attack you, and the counter is so simple to execute that execute you will and even the supposedly weak Lady persona has little trouble in seeing off large mobs. It’s not bad by any stretch, but by current standards it promotes stealth on the pure basis of not wanting to be engaged again in another melee battle.

It’s only one of a few missteps Liberation takes. There’s a poorly thought-out trading game that takes far too much time and investment for relatively poor payouts, a distinct lack of replay or freeplay options, but they do little to tarnish an otherwise solid portable outing. Even the Vita specific controls, that of pick pocketing through touch screens, unearthing secrets by shining light through classified documents, and marking targets for your pistol, are all welcome additions rather than forced mechanics.

Assassin’s Creed fanatics will find everything they expect from series packed into Liberation. Practicing parkour over the rooftops of New Orleans, silencing elevated guards before plunging down to street level to send their target to parley with their maker. Those wanting a departure from the formula will find it with Aveline’s alter egos, the interesting historical settings, and the distinct lack of Desmond.

The apparent freedom offered to Ubisoft Sofia to create an entry in the series that continues to carry the torch and yet make their own mark has paid dividends. Liberation has emerged and instantly become one of the flagship titles for the system.

Losing Progress

In our hobby I think there is little that compares to the pain of losing a save game. I’m not talking about a freezing game or a glitch that sends you back to the previous checkpoint – though this is irksome – but of the teeth grinding frustration that comes from a corrupt file or broken hard drive.

In recent years this has thankfully happened to me very infrequently, the last time being when my original Xbox 360’s hard drive felt it had given enough to the cause and shuffled off to silicon heaven. With it went some sterling work in Dead Rising, my Legendary run on Halo 3 and, worst of all, 85-hours’ progress in Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise.

I may have spent five-years of my professional life surrounded by papery critters but I honestly enjoyed it so much that I sank a vast amount of time into it post-launch. Visiting friend’s gardens, achievement whoring, and co-oping with my wife, all of it totted up. And in an instant it was gone; Snowball the wildcard Goobaa would never be seen again.

Except it wasn’t over in any of those games. Dead Rising’s structure, reliving the same three days over and over, meant I had merely lost my wrestling outfit; by that point, Halo 3 was a primarily multiplayer affair; and as for VP:TiP, lots of lovely people sent me crates stocked full of replacement Piñatas.

Where it really hurts is in sandbox games where progress is the equivalent of access. In GTA this comes in the form of new islands, in Fallout 3 it’s questlines, and in Crackdown it’s those lovely toys that your Agent gets a hold of. Losing these can, for me, make or break whether I ever want to pick the game up again.

Of course, losing these involuntarily is one thing, but when purposefully they are taken away I feel I have a right to seethe.

This last week I’ve been away on holiday, taking with me my Vita and its version of Assassin’s Creed III. Showing a different thread from the universe of assassins and Templars it removed the tedious Desmond sections, added some interesting variations, and ultimately puts itself in contention as the finest purchase available on the Vita.

That was until the credits rolled.

At this point there’s no returning to the world to round up the last few collectibles, tie up loose ends, or explore those niches you were saving for later. No, upon the final credits your save game is all but wiped, denying you continuing to creed some more.

From a design point of view I find this action quite bizarre. Here’s an open world game that I invested many hours in and then you feel the right to take that away from me. The time put into New Orleans and its surrounding area, spent building up a knowledge and skill set of the world and my character respectively seem to be wasted as there is not even a mission replay option to fall back on. It’s start from scratch or nothing. I understand that maybe narratively speaking it may seem odd to rewind time to before the final, climactic mission but I’d settle for that incongruity over an arbitrary deletion of my game state.

More than anything, however, as with the loss of any savegame, I feel slightly hollow. Choosing to restart is one thing, but forced into treading those first fledgling steps in any game world where once you soared is painful. In an age where developers strive to make their games more than expensive, interactive, one-shot movies, I am shocked that Ubisoft failed in such basic premises. Bravo to them on creating a unique, flagship Vita title, but sacrebleu… what could have been a game I continually returned to has instantly been relegated to trade-in fodder.

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.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

The Vita is not short of ways to interact with a game. Microphone, rear camera, front camera, front multi-touch screen, rear multi-touch screen, tilt sensor, accelerometer, twin analogue sticks, Bluetooth, and lest we forget the good old fashion button. You could be forgiven for thinking that hardware designers had decided they were not going to compromise on anything, they wanted it all.

You have to then feel sorry for the first party developers. Those poor souls who, to show off all the various platform’s bells and whistles, are told they have to incorporate all of those particular input methods into a single game. The look on their faces when that particular email surfaced must have been one to behold.

With so many bases to cover, this shoehorning could have become the death knell for any semblance of consistency or flow for Uncharted. Skipping back and forward from touch screen to sticks may well have seemed contrived, but for the vast majority of their inclusions they complement or even enhance the experience.

Despite being shrunk down, the Uncharted formula remains unchanged as Drake continues to roam through Incan jungles and statue-lined caverns, hoping that he’ll strike it rich. As always though he’s also managed to team up with a less than salubrious partner and, to complete the picture, he’s joined by a quick witted female co-star. The setup may be a well worn prospect but it is one that sets up the Saturday afternoon matinee approach that the treasure hunting adventures take and that gives them so much appeal.

Much of the gameplay comes ported as-is from the home console too, with next to nothing left out due to the Vita’s parity with the six-axis. For the first time ever I felt as though I was playing a full action game rather than a stripped down port full of concessions for the portable platform. Our hero can run and gun, jump, swing from ledges and pan the camera as well as if you were sitting on your sofa at home directing him.

In fact, the climbing is probably distinctly improved on the Vita. Operated by analogue stick and buttons it still handles as expected, but I’ve never found the act of climbing in games such as these challenging. Having removed the frustration of pixel perfect jumping a generation ago, adventures now-a-days are more about picking routes and with Golden Abyss you can paint said route on the screen with your finger, Drake following along the path you trace. I found this far more satisfying as his motions were far smoother as he picked his way around the rock face, obeying your commands, whilst you effectively scouted ahead. With extra little details of allowing him to lean with a tilt of the machine, leap to a higher handhold with a flick up, or drop down with the opposite motion made me think that maybe the whole game could be controlled in such a manner.

Boots back on the ground though and it’s a fair bet that this generally means you’re not too far away from being shot at. Sadly, gunplay is once again a disappointment. The feel and flow of a fire fight has never been something that Naughty Dog had managed to nail down and here it again feels floaty and unreliable as the cross hairs meander across the screen. The enemy AI makes the best of the situation though, sticking to cover, poking up in an unpredictable fashion, attempting to make more of the shoot-out, but it is by no means Golden’s Abyss’ strongest suit. The further the adventure progresses the more emphasis is placed on your ability with a gun, which was disappointing. It may help to ratchet up the tension and the settings for some of the situations maybe spectacular but a proportion just felt like padding.

Though most of your time is spent climbing and shooting, the touch controls do offer a host of distractions that act as a series of nice little intervals to the main proceedings. Rubbings must be taken off rocks, vines chopped down to access secret areas, and photographs snapped to chart the journey. In isolation none are anything special, but each add a drop of exploration and discovery to Drake’s trip. Be it uncovering an important symbol from a grave stone or rearranging fragments of paper to create a map, every tiny extra goes to build a more cohesive experience. They allow us to fill in the blanks where previously a cutscene may have been presented.

There are a couple of turkeys in there though, including the traditional balance scenario when edging over gaps on logs, but these for the most part are outweighed by clever uses, such as dragging grenades about to show their arc and using the rear touchpad to zoom snipers and cameras.

A lot of this could be completely ignored by those happy with a stick under one thumb and buttons under the other. It feels and looks as any of the previous Uncharteds have done and so shows off the power of the Vita probably better than any other of the launch line up. Treasure hunting lends itself to stunning vistas and locations and they’re brought out in stunning colour and clarity right in the palm of your hands.

It’s a surprisingly lengthy and faithful addition to the series that continues to see some great performance capture continue to make Nathan Drake into the Indiana Jones of this generation. From navigating cliff faces to unearthing secrets in darkened tombs he leads on an impressive journey. The gunplay may still bring down the overall package, but you ask GTA if that’s ever harmed its success.

How I Came To Own A Vita

Sitting before me now is a Vita. It is very shiny. Two weeks ago I didn’t know I even wanted one, but then the GAME Group’s little financial problem happened.

You see over the course of the last two years I’ve been saving up in preparation for the next generation of consoles, whenever they may be. This saving hasn’t taken the form of a mattress stuffed with used notes however, mine has been in the form of a Gamestation trade-in card. Every time I was done with a game, I’d trot down to the store, trade it in for whatever I could get for it, and keep it stashed away on their loyalty card hoping that when the Xbox Next and PlayStation 4 arrived I’d have enough for one or the other.

As of Saturday morning, I had £250 sitting on that Gamestation card. Not an inconsiderable amount. And not a stable one, if you heed talk of the Administrators being called in as appeared on MCV’s website late on Friday afternoon.

At this point they became my Northern Rock: I needed to get my cash out whilst I could.

I’m not the kind of man who can have a pile of games sitting there waiting to be played – I just don’t have the time – so getting half-a-dozen or more new releases wasn’t a financially sound way to go. I have all the home consoles, it didn’t look like they were going to stock the iPad 3 any time soon and so only one viable avenue was left open to me.

Around the office I have actively pooh-poohed the Vita in recent weeks, ridiculing Sony’s latest over-priced memory cards, the kitchen sink approach to input devices and the lack of eye catching software. And yet there I was in the middle of Birmingham trying to figure out how to get the best for my cash.

After a large amount of (hasty) research and digesting all the permutations of offers Gamestation had up, I not only ended up walking out of the store with a Vita (complete with FIFA and Uncharted) but with a surprising sense of glee. Whether or not this is my subconscious trying to reassure me that what I was doing was right, I feel I had actually been sold on what I was getting. This was no longer a desperate purchase to get something for those dozens of trade ins over the last couple of years, but a device I was actually looking forward to embracing.

It’s been in my possession less than a day and, to reiterate my opening line, it’s very shiny. And I mean that in a Firefly sort of way. The graphics are stunning, the input responsive and it just feels so nice; and best of all they’ve gotten rid of that ridiculous cross-media bar that leads me to hate my PS3 so.

Of course it comes down to the games and merely peaking at what is on the PlayStation Network Store has me hopeful; Sony’s online marketplace has to me always provided greater variety and quality than Microsoft’s solid but generally uninspiring offerings. If the likes of Escape Plan and Super Stardust Delta can be backed up by output from studios in the vein of Pixel Junk and ThatGameCompany then I’m going to be a very happy panic purchaser.