Reviews

Point-and-Wick: A puzzling adventure with Candle

#candle #review

Candle continues a trend of mine recently in playing through a game and then discovering at the end that it was a delayed Kickstarter project. In this case, the game was originally pitched as being ready for January 2014 but actually launched in November 2016. It had been on my wishlist for a while as the handmade visuals grabbed me instantly and the indie-developed "adventure with challenging puzzles" is one of my favourite genres.

You play as Teku, an apprentice shaman who goes on a journey to rescue his master after his village is razed by an opposing tribe. During the process, you'll uncover a fairly creepy backstory as you go through a couple of differently themed areas such as a swamp, aztec temple, and city.

The interesting mechanic for Teku is that one of his hands is the titular candle; you use this candle in several places to solve puzzles by transporting fire although you can't just summon a flame when you want it, you have to light it from another source first. Whilst this seems similar to using a Deku stick during the early levels of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the difficulty increases over time with things like rain to contend with in later stages. There is also a light burst that can be performed when your candle is lit which affords you a quick burst of light that is necessary to complete some puzzles; I'd forgotten this action was available after the brief tutorial and wound up getting stuck for a long time during an early part of the game.

The movement system has garnered some negative reviews on Steam with a lack of good mouse and keyboard controls being particularly onerous. I played using my Xbox One Elite controller but I did find that jumping was not as easy as it could be. Holding a direction and pressing "a" will jump in that direction whilst just pressing "a" will jump upwards; if you hold the right trigger and move then press "a" you'll do a running jump. This is a fine scheme in theory but in practice I'd often end up jumping too far or too short (or not at all in some odd cases). Needless to say there are some tricky timed platformer elements and so a jump button that doesn't always act as you expect it to can be frustrating. This is doubly frustrating when there are only fixed save points so you'll often find yourself going back quite a ways should you fall and die.

The other slightly odd movement choice is that there are several areas of the game where you have to press "x" to walk to an area as the movement system doesn't really support going backwards or forwards, only left and right. Whilst this is fair enough for some of the more complex bits of scenery (such as walking up a spiral staircase where you would be hidden from view), it is a little peculiar in places where there is just a slight ramp. Some of the scenery also looks like it should be navigable but it isn't leading to a little bit of time walking back and forth in front of it thinking that the button prompt might show up.

There are minigame-style puzzles throughout
There are minigame-style puzzles throughout

At its heart, Candle is a hybrid of a point-and-click and a platforming game, think something like Abe's Odyssey meets Machinarium. There are plenty of head-scratching moments and these are tempered with timed platform jumps or traversal mechanics such as jumping up and down on a surface to break it. There is a basic inventory system that lets you pick up items but unlike a point-and-click you don't get to arbitrarily use them; instead there are specific prompts that let you pick an item from your inventory making it fairly obvious that you need to use an item at this point. There aren't any "red herring" items that I found so again it tends to be obvious what needs to go where.

In addition to puzzles and platforming, there are numerous minigames that need to be played in a similar vein to Machinarium. These vary from an interesting play on the Jacob's Ladder puzzle with a toy box featuring a dragon and a warrior to a pipe dream style game that requires you to rotate and place tiles of pipes in a specific order to allow water to flow. Aside from the Jacob's Ladder, none of them were particularly taxing instead being more time consuming. This isn't necessarily a negative though as it was a nice change of pace from other puzzles throughout the game.

The animation on this character is quite something...
The animation on this character is quite something...

One of the key things that attracted me to Candle was the handmade art style they had gone for. It is highly reminiscent of Machinarium but the lengths they went to in order to get that style are extraordinary:

"We paint the entire graphics of the game with watercolors and ink, and then we scan all that stuff in order to build the sprites of the environments, items, menus, etc. Also, the animations of every character and animal in the game are not digital, instead we draw and paint them frame-by-frame, then we scan every single image and build the spritesheets for the animations. Once we have all this working in Unity 4, we set up each level, each scene and each character and so we get a nice handmade look for the visuals"Candle Kickstarter page

This looks like a painstaking process but it really pays off with a beautiful art style that is unmatched by other games that fake this digitally. It is well worth watching the short video they put together to show off how they produce this style.

You'll notice that I've bought up the point-and-click genre several times despite there being no actual pointing and clicking within Candle. The reason I've done this is because of the feeling the game evokes, not just from its puzzle-based roots but due to the music that has been composed by Pascual Gállego. Due to budget, an orchestra wasn't used so everything was synthesised with MIDI leading to a soundscape that is highly reminiscent of the point-and-click games of the '80s and '90s. There were several sections which took me straight back to Discworld II to the extent that I thought it might be the same composer (it isn't).

Another area where my ears reminded me of another game was with the narrator who sounded an awful lot like the narrator in the Trine series. In this instance, this is more than just a similarity as it is the same voice artist, Terry Wilton. His narration is spot on with a great voice for telling the increasingly unsettling story.

I don't think I want to milk that...
I don't think I want to milk that...

There were a few areas of Candle that I felt could be improved. First of all, the resolution setting didn't stick between play sessions and defaulted to a low 1280x720 on my ultrawide monitor. It wasn't a huge hardship to switch it to 2560x1440 after opening the game but it was mildly irritating. I also noticed a lot of the UI was fuzzy at 1440p as it looked like some buttons or assets had been designed only at 720p or were being stuck at that resolution. Whilst the majority of the game ran at a smooth 60fps, there were a few juddery instances when transitioning between scenes, especially in one complex transition early on where you go through a cave and the background zooms into the foreground.

I've mentioned a similarity to Machinarium several times and this extends to dialogue in the game which is generally conveyed through thought bubbles that show concepts in the form of icons. For example, a character you are speaking with may appear in a bubble with a question mark next to an item that they need. This works well from a user point of view but is also clever from a developer perspective as it means you don't need to localise the content. Except, after these nice little vignettes the narrator then pops in and basically tells you what you've just watched which is very odd and makes me wonder why they didn't just go for one or the other. This sort of thing also bleeds into the cutscenes which are far too long and can't be skipped leading to large amounts of time being shown the slowly unfolding story rather than discovering it through play. This isn't a huge problem in the grand scheme of things as the narration and the story are excellent but there are times when you do just want to get on with the game.

The biggest problem for me is that some of the puzzles required you to find completely hidden areas which are almost impossible to see. There were two points in the game where I spent ages trying to work out what to do before turning to a guide and finding out that going behind a particular bush would then reveal an item I needed. This is massively frustrating as it isn't relying on you working out a puzzle, it is just hiding things in an art style which already heavily blurs the difference between something that can be interacted with and something that is just scenery. I hate having to use a guide in games like this but I especially hate it when the solution is due to a flaw in the design rather than being an obtuse head-scratcher.

The final thing to mention is that the game has been announced as coming to the Wii U:

"Also, we have recently been approved as official Wii U developers, so we are designing exclusive features for Candle on that platform. We love Nintendo platforms since our childhood has been full of them, so it was natural for us to go for it. We are already thinking about dedicated gameplay on Wii U - we are not doing any kind of quick port. We will design specific gameplay features for its gamepad: all the menus, inventory and minigames will be tactile-controled on the touchscreen, as well as other unique actions concerning Teku's candle." — Candle Kickstarter page

Obviously the Kickstarter was formed in 2013 but the premise of having a slightly different version of the game that is optimised for the Wii U's second screen experience is really interesting to me. As of May 2016 the development team said that it had been put on hold in favour of the PC version but they'd be working on it after release. I haven't seen any more communication on that front but I would assume they would be ditching the Wii U version for the Switch instead. If that were the case, I can definitely see myself playing this again on the Switch in future.

I massively enjoyed the 7-8 hours I spent playing Candle even though some of the timed jumps and hidden puzzle areas caused frustration. I normally consider around 3 hours of game time from a £15 indie title to be good so to get almost 8 hours from an £11 game is exceptional. Pairing this with the delightful soundtrack, professional narration, interesting story, and a beautifully crafted art style and I can throughly recommend this to anybody who enjoys platformers and puzzles.

Candle is available on PC, Mac, and Linux. Whilst a Wii U version is meant to be in development I think it likely this will be ditched for the Switch. I played on my PC with an Xbox One Elite Controller.

Going through Hell with Ted, Mr Pinstripe, and Pissy the Piss Snake

#pinstripe #review

Last year I recorded an episode of The Divide in which we discussed crowdfunding, a modern phenomenon I equated with begging (and which I still don't really like). Whilst preparing for some follow-up in the next episode, I went through some games on Kickstarter and ended up backing quite a few including Pinstripe which was described as a "bizarre and beautiful 2D adventure about a minister in Hell made by a one-man team". Whilst it was slightly delayed from its ambitious release schedule, the game did arrive in April and I had a pleasant evening playing through it three times.

Yes, three times. This is not a long game by any stretch but one that almost demands multiple playthroughs so you can fully appreciate the bizarre world that Thomas Brush has created.

No reason you can't have a little fun during this dark adventure
No reason you can't have a little fun during this dark adventure

You play as Ted, an ex-Minister who begins the game on a train with his daughter Bo before she is kidnapped by the shadowy Mr Pinstripe. You are then dropped into a snowy fantasy world to explore, solve puzzles, and try and find out why your daughter has been taken and how you can get her back. Throughout the short story you'll come across a myriad of characters (who will either try and help or remain ambivalent to your plight. There are also a few enemies to take care of although these are relatively easy to dispatch once you find a slingshot that will serve as your primary weapon. Killing an enemy will reward you with currency that is required for an item half way through the game; whilst it was a bit of a grind to reach that first milestone, your currency is maintained in subsequent playthroughs instantly shaving 20 minutes or so from your second run.

The primary driving force for the game is definitely its puzzles which aren't terribly difficult but remain enjoyable. These vary from basic button pressing and timed platform jumps to physics based hoop games and a shooting gallery. One interesting type of puzzle that was used frequently (and isn't usual in a platformer) was "spot the difference" in which you needed to select the areas where something was different between two paintings. Whilst my initial thought was that it was a little odd and far too easy, later versions did become much more difficult; the downside, of course, is that they are only small screens so you could spam the reveal button over the entire area until you got through. It also doesn't really make sense in the world as why would this be a mechanic to open a door?

I wasn't expecting
I wasn't expecting "spot the difference" puzzles

The real draw of the game isn't so much the story or its puzzles, but the story of its development. The entire game has been built over a 5 year period by one person, Thomas Brush, in which he has developed every aspect on his own. This extends not only to the graphics and game engine, but also to the soundtrack which he recorded himself and that he discussed in a fascinating article on Gamasutra. As a backer, I was always impressed with his timely updates on progress and the care and attention he took to each aspect of the development which can clearly be seen from the meticulously crafted visuals. On a personal note, he also seemed like a nice person with frequent shout outs to other Kickstarter projects of which I backed a few (such as Knights and Bikes and A Place for the Unwilling). I have had many bad experiences with Kickstarter and I disagree with many developers who use it to fund their development, but this was a case in which it worked really well.

Whilst the majority of the game was a solo effort, special mention must be made of the voice actors who lended their talents to Pinstripe, especially those that voiced Bo and Mr Pinstripe. One of the interesting aspects of this is that the majority aren't professional voice actors but Youtubers such as Pewdiepie, Jacksepticeye, Dan Avidan, and (my personal favourite) Egoraptor. Regardless, they really help sell the world especially when it is coupled with the beautiful "Tim Burton-esque" art style and haunting soundtrack.

Welcome to... wait... what?!?!
Welcome to... wait... what?!?!

I massively enjoyed my time with Pinstripe but I did have a couple of issues. Firstly, ultra widescreen monitors are not supported but it looks like they are when you start the game. The resolution can be selected and things don't seem off until you get to the forest level and you realise that everything on the left and right is clippings and off-screen content you shouldn't see. Interestingly, the physicality of the world is correct so whilst there might be a pit or a cliff in those side areas, when you get to them you continue to climb or descend the rolling scenery as you would if the proper level was being displayed. This was a minor issue and easily remedied by switching to a 4:3 resolution (leading to black bars) but it did confuse me for my first 20 minutes or so.

Another issue is the achievements. There are only 12 of them (including one for speed running the game in under an hour which is actually surprisingly easy) but none of them unlocked for me on my first or second runthrough. I eventually remedied the problem by verifying the integrity of the game in Steam but it was a shame to miss out on them as you really need two or three runthroughs to collect all of them and it is unlikely I'll play that many times again.

The final issue is related and is that the game is incredibly short, even by indie game standards. My first run through was completed in just under 2 hours and that included a fairly substantial grind for currency; subsequent run throughs took around 45 minutes each and I'm really not the speed running type! Whilst I'd hate for something like this to be ruined by unnecessary padding, it did feel a little short compared with other indie titles especially as there isn't a huge amount of new things to find on subsequent playthroughs beyond some special Kickstarter credit areas and an alternative ending based on how you respond to people throughout the world.

That's a little bit creepy
That's a little bit creepy

Overall, I really enjoyed my time playing Pinstripe and the final few seconds of my first play got me right in the feels. Thomas Brush has managed to build a believable world with some imaginative characters and an interesting story whilst also building and designing everything himself. Whilst it could have been slightly longer, the amount of love and effort that has gone into this project is worth the entrance fee alone. If anything, this is a motivational project that shows just how much a single person can do.

Pinstripe is available on PC, Mac, and Linux. It has recently been announced that it will be coming to PS4 later this year and a mobile version is being worked on as per one of the Kickstarter stretch goals that was reached. I played on my PC with an Xbox One Elite Controller.

The Rare-vival of the 3D platformer: A review of Yooka-Laylee

#review #yookalaylee #yookalayleetoybox

Back in the '90s, you couldn't move for 3D platformers that featured colourful characters, tricky jump mechanics, and tons of collectibles. The best games of this genre were all made by Rare and included one of my all time favourites; Banjo-Kazooie. By the late '00s, nobody really made those games anymore apart from Nintendo with its series of 3D Mario games. Banjo and Kazooie were still around in the form of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, a completely new style of game (which I also loved) developed exclusively for the Xbox 360, but I'd still go back to playing the HD remakes of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie when I wanted an old-school 3D platforming fix.

Fast forward to 2015 and Playtonic Games (made up from Rare staffers) put up a Kickstarter for a modern version of these games entitled Yooka-Laylee. It was the fastest game to reach $1m and ended up with almost 12x more money than they originally asked for netting just over £2m. After being delayed from an October 2016 launch, Yooka-Laylee launched earlier this month and I've managed to get to 100% completion after 24 hours of gameplay.

The Banjo-Kazooie similarities are pretty clear...
The Banjo-Kazooie similarities are pretty clear...

The first thing to note is that this follows the trend of Kickstarter games being called "spiritual successor" when they actually mean "walking a very fine line of copyright infringement". If the characters were a bear and a bird instead of a chameleon and a bat, this would just be a new Banjo-Kazooie game. That isn't a complaint — it's exactly why I backed the game! — but don't go into this thinking that it is a new fresh IP with a completely different style; this is almost a carbon-copy of those mechanics just written in a modern gaming engine rather than for the N64.

You have your buddy duo, a hub world which requires collectibles to unlock each new world, a quiz to get to the boss fight, and characters that talk in grunts and gurgles as the text scrolls across the screen. You also have a wonderful soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that really sells the fact this is a Banjo-Kazooie game in all but name. Rather than a witch that has stolen your sister, the main villain is Capital B, a bumble-bee who slightly resembles Gru from Dispicable Me who has stolen a magic book that you had for some reason. Your quest is to go through the five different worlds to collect enough missing pages from the book so that you can then fight him and stop him from stealing all the books from the world (the reason for which is never fully explained but looks like it is building up to a sequel).

The hub world is vast and contains a number of its own collectibles. The main game, though, is contained within five worlds that range from tropical ruins to a massive casino. Each world contains 25 'pagies' (rather than jiggies) that you need to collect in order to open further worlds. An interesting new mechanic is that each world can also be upgraded (for a pagie price) which adds more detail and more quests; its a fun way to make you go back and forth between worlds although I ended up pretty much doing each world in sequence and upgrading them before even entering. The quests are pretty much what you expect from a 3D platformer with basic fetching, puzzle solving, and racing with nearly all of them given by the bizarre characters of the world from talking shopping trolleys to racing clouds.

There are many colourful characters in the various worlds. This is an urban trolley.
There are many colourful characters in the various worlds. This is an urban trolley.

The real bread-and-butter of the game is in collecting and there are no shortage of shiny items to pick up as you traverse through the large open worlds. Quills are the new notes and there are 200 to collect in each world; you'll use these later to purchase moves from Trowzer the snake (ah that '90s humour) and they are often the hardest item to collect as they can be so easily hidden on little platforms and the various nooks and crannies of the worlds. Each world also contains both a heart and an energy extender which take the place of the unified honeycomb pieces from the previous games. More interesting are the 'ghost writers', five ghosts that appear on each level and require different methods to catch; one might require you to feed it first whilst another requires a sonar move to reveal it. Finally, there is secret pirate treasure hidden on every level that will net you an achievement although they don't show up in the totals screens for each world.

The other two items to collect relate directly to quests that happen on every world. The first of these is a play token for Rextro's arcade, a mini-game that you need to complete to earn a pagie, and then complete again beating a specific high score to earn another. These mini games range from a top down racing game to an infuriating Flappy Bird clone and the one thing that all share is that they outstay their welcome. The games from worlds four and five are particularly long and frustrating with the added requirement of having to complete them a minimum of twice making them more a chore than fun. It would been nicer had the games been half the length and if you could have earned two pagies by beating the high score on your first playthrough.

The second item is a 'mollycool' that acts much like the mumbo tokens from Banjo-Kazooie with the difference being that these power Dr Puzz's DN Ray rather than Mumbo Jumbo's shaman magic. Each world will have one of these tokens that allows the Dr to transform you into something that will help solve some quests be it a pollentating flower or a pirate ship. One disappointment I had is that there were no quests that required you to take your new form out to the hub world or a different world and the number of quests that related to each transform was fairly minimal (especially on world three).

Some of Rextro's arcade games are frustratingly difficult
Some of Rextro's arcade games are frustratingly difficult

In order to earn all of these collectibles, you will need a range of moves that can be purchased from Trowzer both in the hub world and in each of the worlds. Many quests and items can only be earned from moves you'll pick up later in the game so sometimes you have to evaluate a puzzle and wonder if you are being stupid or whether you need something later on. The moves begin in fairly standard form with the ability to ground pound, glide, roll, etc but later develop into more powerful techniques such as flight, sonar explosions, and higher jumps. A particular favourite of mine is the ability to use Yooka's tongue to eat various items that will give you a projectile or environmental effect for a short period of time; for example, you might eat a small bomb to gain the power to fire wall-smashing projectiles or you could lick a honey pot to gain the ability to stick to slippery surfaces. This seems better than the ammo collection that was prevelant in Banjo-Tooie whereby you had to collect various different eggs and feathers to use as projectiles but it does also mean that it is fairly obvious when you need to use each ability (i.e. a tree with frozen berries on it probably means you need to freeze something nearby). Most of the abilities will require a certain amount of energy taken from a stamina bar that refills slowly over time or can be filled by touching pink butterflies that permeate the worlds. I was pleased that the rate at which you earn moves is fairly steady resulting in a genuine sense of excitement as you realise what areas of previous worlds you can now access thanks to your new abilities; it is exactly the same experience I praised in Hollow Knight.

In addition to the moves you can also visit Vendi, a '50s looking vending machine who dishes out special tonics when you reach certain milestones such as killing 10 enemies or collecting a certain number of pagies. These tonics act as an always-on buff and you can only swap them when you are with Vendi similar to the charms in Hollow Knight although you are limited to having just one active at a time. The tonics generally fall into the camp of giving you a bit of extra health, letting you use a move more frequently, or some minor tweak to the game such as helium voices for characters or giving Yooka a pair of blue shorts. The most useful is definitely the 'hunter' tonic that causes a small whistle (I'm convinced it is the Jinjo sound effect) whenever you are near a sufficiently difficult collectible such as the mollycool or one of the last few quills in a world. It is just enough of a boost to stop you going to a walkthrough guide when searching for the last few collectibles on each level.

Yooka-Laylee is definitely one of the best looking Unity games
Yooka-Laylee is definitely one of the best looking Unity games

I didn't have any major problems or breaking issues with the game but there were a few minor frustrations:

  • One of the quests put me in a room that was filled with fog but it was so thick I could barely see anything including the way out; I spent 10 minutes trying to escape before just massively increasing the brightness on my monitor to see the wall edges.
  • Rextro's games, as I mentioned earlier, were a major frustration especially as you had to beat them twice.
  • There is no clear delineation between what quests require a particular move and which ones don't. This was far more like the open world of Banjo-Tooie than the more "one world at a time" methodology of Banjo-Kazooie.
  • Whilst some dialogue could be skipped, a lot of it (including during the boss fight) couldn't.
  • The game would always crash when quitting using the GameStream with the NVIDIA Shield TV (a minor issue but meant I had to always go back to my PC to turn it all off properly).
  • The entire game worked perfectly on my 21:9 monitor (aside from cut-scenes having black bars at the sides) but when purchasing from Trowzer it wouldn't show me how many quills I currently had as it had been cut off at the bottom of the screen.
  • Much like Thimbleweed Park, there were a few too many knowing jokes about it being a game and little winks to the user about things that would come in the sequel. Once or twice is fine; doing it more than that becomes tiresome.

All of these are fairly minor issues and I didn't have any problems with the camera or the controls as some earlier reviewers experienced although a lot of this was fixed by the day one patch.

There is still quite a lot of content that has yet to arrive as it was postponed in order that they didn't need to delay the game further. This includes a 64-bit retro mode which will be available as a tonic, an orchestral soundtrack (more like Nuts and Bolts which was fantastic), and a developer commentary. There was also an intriuging clue about a secret if you reached 100% in the Kickstarter-backer exclusive Toy Box that was released last year; I followed that clue once I'd reached 100% completion in the game and it unfortunately results in the INEPT robot telling you to be more patient. I expect this will arrive in the same patch as the other content above.

It took me exactly 24 hours to get 100% completion
It took me exactly 24 hours to get 100% completion

I had fairly low expectations for Yooka-Laylee prior to launch. I didn't really enjoy the Toy Box that much and felt it looked a little bit too much like it was made from stock Unity objects. The pre-release reviews were also fairly mixed and so I figured I'd play it for a bit and then move onto something else.

Instead, it has turned out to be one of my favourite 3D platformers of all time probably because it doesn't stray far from what made those games great; it took me around 24 hours to reach 100% completion and it never felt like a grind. Those that were looking for something more modern or that played in a different way would be better served by Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts or by the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey. This is a truly modern take on the old classics in that it is just updating the graphics, not changing the gameplay in any major way. Whilst I didn't like the look of the Toy Box, I can honestly say this is one of the best looking Unity games I've played with some absolutely beautiful texture and lighting work running at a smooth 60fps; I'll be very impressed if it retains that when it launches on the Switch later this year.

If you are not a fan of collectibles and 3D platforming or if you wanted a modern take on Banjo-Kazooie with some huge gameplay twist, this game is not for you. For fans of the '90s 3D platformer though, you'll be hard pressed to find anything better. I didn't like the characters going on about appearing in future games, but I really hope to see Yooka, Laylee, and even Trowzer again in the near future.

Yooka-Laylee is available on PC, Mac, Xbox One, and PS4 with a Switch version arriving later in the year. I played on my gaming PC on a 21:9 monitor with an Xbox One Elite controller and also using GameStream to my NVIDIA Shield TV.

The Deformers Disappointment

#deformers #review

Deformers is a game I raved about in my preview earlier this month. A simple physics-based brawler similar to one of the Mario Party minigames, it charmed me with its polished graphics, fun gameplay, and the unique rendering of Pug butts.

This is pretty accurate
This is pretty accurate

I mentioned that the launch price was £23 and specifically said:

The bigger potential problem is what I have come to call "the VIDEOBALL effect". As John and I discussed on the last episode of Connecting to Host, an online competitive game is nothing if nobody is playing. It's difficult for me to say Deformers is charging a high price at £23 when it is much cheaper than AAA online shooters on PC or something like Splatoon 2 on Switch; however, its closest real comparison is probably the Rocket League type PC games which are priced around the £15 mark and this is where I expected Deformers to land. Time will tell if this sticks or if a permanent price drop will occur but my feeling is that it would be better to price low and have more players (who you can monetise via the workshop) than to price higher than your closest competitors.

Also, I predicted that In-App Purchases would be used for gold strips alone:

The Steam store page description lists "In-App Purchases" so I'm going to assume that there will be a way to buy the gold strips so you can instantly unlock whatever forms you want (the presence of a gold strip to silver coins conversion suggests that only the strips will be available for purchase).

The game launched last week and on all accounts appears to have utterly failed. I tried to play it for almost 2 hours over the 24 hour launch period and ended up with just under five matches of which four were with the same person.

Yes, person singular.

There was hardly anybody online to play the game and if you ended up with 2v2 (which is half the size it should be if there were more players) inevitably people would drop out leaving it as a 1v1 which is not a great experience. With nobody online, it was disturbing to have server issues and big lag warnings emerging on the left hand side especially when three open beta weekends and a two month launch delay should have ironed out those teething issues. This may have been a consequence of few people being online though as it was almost forcing me to user servers in Russia as they were the only ones with players available.

The launch price was £23 which was definitely too high and that coupled with In-App Purchases coming in at £2.34, £7.80, and £15.61 obviously spooked people who wondered what you could possibly be purchasing. I was correct that those purchases were for the gold strips (for purchasing forms) and that they could be used to convert to silver coins (for purchasing outfits and accessories). Unfortunately the purchases were using the typical psychological trick of an intermediate currency to disguise the price you are paying; for example, the pug form costs 15 strips which means either earning 5 and paying for 10 or buying 40 strips for more money and having change. A better strategy would have been to have all the forms unlocked and then monetise by buying unique forms separately (without an intermediate currency) in a similar way to Rocket League's car packs.

After constant server issues and bad 1v1 matches, I decided that as I'd played for just shy of 2 hours I'd request a refund from Steam as £22.99 is above my threshold for "wait and see if this improves". The refund was granted pretty quickly and will likely go towards something in the next inevitable Steam sale.

Inexplicably, the developers increased the price to £30 just a few hours after the launch. I can only imagine this is to maintain parity with the Xbox One and PS4 versions but it seems a ridiculous price for what is actually a very shallow game. It is very easy for me to say "it should be half the price" as it isn't my money; however, one has to imagine there would be much better reviews and more players online had they gone with a lower price. Instead there are server issues and no players leading to what can only be described as a massively disappointing launch, at least on PC. The Steam Store page is awash with negative reviews mainly around pricing and server issues although the lack of a tutorial system (aside from some YouTube videos) is also called out.

I can honestly say that this has been the most disappointing launch for me as a gamer. I loved the game during the preview period and was prepared to pay the original asking price as I wanted to support the developers for what seemed a very polished brawler. The online issues and lack of players caused that opinion to change but the price increase means it isn't something I'd even try again in the future. I really don't want to see Deformers fail but something is going to have to give; either they need to drop the price (which will outrage those that paid in full) or they are going to be doomed to the VIDEOBALL effect. Perhaps they'll find enough players to sustain it from a free release on Humble Monthly; that will likely be the only way I'll pick it up again.

UPDATE: SteamSpy is showing that the peak number of concurrent users is around 17 per day and that the number of copies sold is going down as more people request refunds. It seems to be doing slightly better on Xbox One and PS4 although this is an absolute disaster on the PC.

Deformers is available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. I played on my gaming PC with an Xbox One Elite controller.

There's indium, silicon, thorium, and thallium: a review of Fast RMX

#fastrmx #review

The Nintendo Switch launched with what could be described as a microscopic number of launch titles; Zelda, 1-2-Switch, and Snipperclips were at the top of the list direct from Nintendo whilst other titles such as Super Bomberman R, Just Dance 2017 and I Am Setsuna rounded out the lineup from 3rd parties. However, buried inexplicably at the bottom of the eShop (underneath all the shitty NeoGeo games) is Fast RMX, a racing game in the mold of F-Zero series that serves as the only racing game available until Mario Kart 8 Deluxe appears next week.

The weather effects are both beautiful and massively distracting
The weather effects are both beautiful and massively distracting

The comparison with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a good one as this too is a Wii U game with all the DLC included plus some extra courses and a bit of polish applied. Specifically, this is an expanded version of Fast Racing Neo with 6 additional courses. It is also capable of running at 60fps in both 1080p (console mode) and 720p (handheld mode).

The controls were slightly peculiar to me coming from more traditional racing games on the PC and Xbox. To accelerate and decelerate you use the A and B buttons respectively rather than the triggers; these are instead used for strafing a short distance to the left or right with the smaller right hand trigger being used for boosting. Motion controls are available if you prefer and there is full support for HD Rumble although I disabled this in handheld mode as it was far too powerful.

The unique feature for this game is the ability to shift (with the X button) between two 'phases' denoted by having your car glow in orange or blue. These phases line up with coloured strips on the ground that will give you a boost if you enter them in the correct colour but will slow you down otherwise. This gets more complex later on when there are jumps that require a specific colour; going over these in the wrong phase will inevitably lead to you missing the jump and your vehicle being destroyed.

Of course, you don't leave the race if your vehicle is destroyed but are instead placed back a little ways and have to resume from a standing start. This is fortunate as later courses have plenty of hazards from giant sand worms and rotating fans to death defying jumps and rock slides.

You'd better use the blue phase when going through that tunnel...
You'd better use the blue phase when going through that tunnel...

The main meat of the game is a 10 cup championship spread over 30 courses. Each cup is named after a metal and consists of 3 courses with the winner being the driver who accrues the most points over the races. There are also 3 difficulty levels for the championship — subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic — which have the same cups but tougher opponents and even faster speeds.

As you race through the championship, you'll unlock extra vehicles (with 15 in total) and, if you rank in the top 3, further cups and courses. These courses also open up in the Hero Mode (with similar difficulty levels) which lets you do single races with the caveat that you must come 1st and that your boost meter also acts as a shield similar to games like F-Zero X.

Whilst there is a huge amount of content within the single player, the game really shines in multiplayer thanks to the large array of supported modes. You can race online with 2-8 players and in split-screen with up to 4 players. You can also race with up to 8 players using local communication with multiple Switch's with 1-2 people per console. I've tried all three modes and came away impressed with how quick and easy they were to set up with minimal lag in the case of the online and local communication modes. Particularly notable was the ability to use multiple Switch consoles even when there was no WiFi network available.

Multiplayer is easy to set up, either online or with local Switch consoles
Multiplayer is easy to set up, either online or with local Switch consoles

During my time playing the game, I've encountered very few issues. Occasionally there are issues with the re-spawning placing me further in the race than it should and the AI for the championship means I can sometimes still win despite ranking maybe 3rd or 4th in each race. These are minor issues though and could be fixed in the various free updates which are scheduled; the first of these updates arrived this week including a new Time Attack mode (in all 3 difficulties and all 30 courses) and some improvements to the multiplayer mode when joining your Switch friends online.

Whilst the soundtrack isn't as catchy as anything from the F-Zero series, the announcer certainly is; this is no coincidence as it is voiced by Jack Merluzzi, the announcer in F-Zero GX.

Being a Nintendo Switch game, there are unfortunately no achievements or leaderboards. I say this in nearly every review I write for a Switch game but it frustrates me that such a basic system has yet to be implemented.

There are lots of fatal hazards on these tracks!
There are lots of fatal hazards on these tracks!

It would be easy to joke that this is the best racing game on the Switch (being the only one) but that would be a disservice to Fast RMX. It is a great racing game, period. The variation in the courses and the amount of animation and depth in the backgrounds of each race shows a level of polish that is rarely seen. That they have managed to get such an insanely fast racer to run smoothly at 60fps and 1080p is impressive, especially when you consider the various particle effects that have been layered throughout. It is the best looking game on the Switch so far.

Add to all of this a tight racing game full of challenge, additional modes, and the wonderful ability to switch seamlessly between console and handheld mode and you find an easy recommendation, especially at the bargain price of £18. I expect that the number of players online will dwindle when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe appears but this will certainly scratch that F-Zero itch in single player for the foreseeable future.

Fast RMX is available on the Switch as a download-only title. I played in console mode with a pro controller and in handheld mode with the joy-cons.

Some people use thimbles, others miss the point (and click)

#review

I've been a sucker for a good point and click adventure game since the release of Discworld II in 1996. Whilst I came to the genre at the end of its heyday, I eagerly went back and tried some of the classics like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, and Simon the Sorcerer. This, then, is a return to the genre by Ron Gilbert, creator of some of the most beloved LucasArts adventures.

The first thing to note is that whilst some of the mechanics have been modernised slightly, the art style is decidedly retro to fit in with the '80s setting. Some concessions have been made to those new to the genre with a choice between "casual" and "hard" modes, the latter including a few extra puzzles and red herrings. Whilst other modern point and clicks such as Kelvin and the Infamous Machine give casual players a heat map to show what things in a scene can be interacted with, there is nothing like that within this game.

The controls are much the same as the LucasArts games of old including the beloved action wall featuring 9 different ways your character can interact with their surroundings. New to Thimbleweed Park is a highlight on the most appropriate action; if you are pointing at a person, the "talk to" action will be selected. There is also a completely different set of non-standard actions for one of the characters...

Each character has an inventory and items can be picked up, given to other characters, looked at, and used. Some of them are just red herrings intended to throw you off a puzzle solution whereas some really need you to look at them to catch some detail you might otherwise miss.

Movement is controlled with the mouse via a single click but a double click will increase movement speed. Early on in the game you'll find enough maps for all of your characters at which point they can use this to fast travel to locations around the fairly vast town.

You start the game with two characters that you can switch between; Detectives Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes who bear a striking similarity to Mulder and Scully. Later on, you'll unlock the ability to play as three other characters; Delores the aspiring adventure game developer, Ransome the offensive clown, and Franklin the ghost. There are points throughout the game where you may be locked to a subset of the full character roster but usually you can switch between them at any point with a character picker in the top right hand corner (at which point you are instantly transported to their location).

Each character has their own inventory and whilst you can give items to other characters who are stood next to you there are some items they refuse to part with. There are also certain things or people that can only be interacted with by a specific character. Whilst a nice mechanic, it can quickly become irritating if you are trying to solve an obtuse puzzle and you need to cycle through every character to do it (especially as it can be difficult to get them to the same location or have access to similar items).

One of the more interesting pieces about the characters is that each one has "to do" list that clearly shows what their current objectives are. I felt this was too much hand holding and should have been limited to the casual mode especially as later in the game it doesn't really serve much of a purpose as you already know what you are working towards.

The story finds the two detectives coming to the town of Thimbleweed Park in order to solve a murder but quickly derails into investigating some of the mystery surrounding the pillow factory and its charismatic founder and hero of the town, Chuck. This story is told through 8 different chapters which have a specific goal that needs to be reached before they will end (i.e. "solve the murder"). There is often an amount of time that has passed between chapters so you'll need to revisit locations to make sure that nothing has changed significantly.

In addition to the main story, each character has their own reason for being in the town which is generally explored through a flashback sequence before you unlock them as a character.

I felt that the story started to drag a little towards the end and the final resolution wasn't what I had hoped for. That said, the bulk of the game has excellent writing with a number of amusing moments. Whilst I didn't roar with laughter as I did whilst playing Kelvin and the Infamous Machine recently, I did enjoy some of the more bizarre moments and the slapstick style that is employed in these kinds of games.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent voice acting throughout Thimbleweed Park. Every piece of dialogue has been recorded and this adds up, especially as every item can be looked at and tried with the various actions by every character. Special mention should be given to both Delores and Ransome who really sell their characters through the voices. Whilst you can turn this off and enable text for the more classic feel, I preferred to enable both allowing me to skip dialogue after reading it if I wanted to.

In terms of extras, Thimbleweed Park has 8 collectible Steam trading cards and a number of achievements split between milestones in the story and interactions with specific items in the game. It was a shame that completing the game in "hard" mode didn't unlock the "completed in casual mode" achievement as most other games tend to, especially as I missed a few hard achievements so I'll need to reply in both modes if I want to get everything.

Whilst there wasn't support for my 21:9 widescreen, this is generally expected in these kinds of games. There is full support for controllers mainly due to the game being available on Xbox One; I didn't use one as it would seem to be a much slower experience than using the mouse (and the single button on the keyboard to skip dialogue).

I've purposefully tried to avoid talking about the puzzles in the game as even a slight mention of an item, location, or character could be enough to reveal a puzzle solution; case in point, I was stuck at a particular point and then listening to a review of the game on the PC Gamer UK podcast unfortunately, and inadvertently, gave me the solution. The puzzles are fantastic mainly striking a good difficulty balance; there wasn't anything massively obtuse but the fact that some characters won't do basic things with an item (so you assume it isn't possible) can be infuriating when you needed to use a specific character all along.

My issue with characters extends slightly deeper as whilst I really like the mechanic it has been implemented a little sloppily. There is no reason for most of the characters to talk to each other yet (to take a random example) Ransome the clown can happily give an item he has found to Delores to hold and use for no reason whatsoever. This could have been improved simply by letting characters use the "talk to" action on each other in order to tease out more backstory and reasons for them to work together; instead you have an odd situation of characters helping each other with no dialogue.

The only other negative I had was the sheer amount of adventure game jokes. Whilst Rob Gilbert games have always broken the fourth wall, this one goes a little too far for my tastes with near constant talking about adventure game puzzles and design. In many ways this is a symptom of it being a Kickstarter project — fans want this kind of fan service after all — but it felt gratuitous by the end.

I really enjoyed my time in Thimbleweed Park over the course of 14 hours and whilst I'm not desperate to replay it immediately to get all of the achievements it is definitely something I can see myself returning to. If you loved the adventure games of the '80s and '90s then it is a no-brainer; if you found them to be too obtuse and obsessed with themselves, then you'll find that little will have changed to improve things.

Thimbleweed Park is available on PC, Mac, and Xbox One but is coming to iOS, Android, and "other platforms" (read PS4 / Switch) in the future. I played on my PC using the mouse and keyboard.

Snipperclips: a cut below the rest?

#review #snipperclips

Snipperclips fills an interesting role in the Nintendo Switch lineup; originally meant to be launched towards the end of March, it was bumped up to a launch title likely in response to some of the negative first impressions of the expensive 1-2-Switch which was the only other multiplayer Nintendo game.

You play as two characters (allegedly named Snip and Clip) who can cut each other into different shapes to solve puzzles. Whilst originally in a shape reminiscent of a Bullet Bill, intersecting with the other character will allow you to either cut the exact intersection out of them or them out of you. The only other mechanics are the option to rotate, jump, and control your height in a manner similar to the robot in Machinarium (with a low squat on the floor or standing on tip toes).

Cogs and indentations will allow you to capture the fish
Cogs and indentations will allow you to capture the fish

Each of the 66 levels is locked to a single frame and will have a specific goal to achieve; get a pencil to a sharpener, put a fish in a box, or stop liquid from touching some screaming single-celled organisms (that's a weird one).

Solving each puzzle requires a bit of experimentation as you discover buttons that will cause things to reset, find cogs or screws that need specific shapes to rotate, or as you try to discover what you actually need to do. There is no text within the game so doodles on the background will try and point you to your goal but these can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.

If you are playing in co-op mode, there will now be a discussion about how you are going to cut each other which will invariably lead to you both cutting at the same time in different places. If you cut out the majority of a character, they'll disappear and then respawn in the level usually leading to a game of chase as you try and cut each other up. Fortunately there is a reset mechanism whereby you can hold down the left button on the joy-con to restore yourself to your former glory. Tapping this button also allows you to toggle between your full state and your cut state which is absolutely crucial in later levels when you may need to be cut to a certain shape and then go back to your original self to cut your partner.

The cuts and rotation of your characters correspond to the birds beneath
The cuts and rotation of your characters correspond to the birds beneath

The game has three separate modes that have specific player requirements: the main campaign world can be played with 1-2 players and is spread across 45 levels split into 3 thematically different notebooks. The party mode and blitz modes, however, require 2-4 players so you'll need some friends or to hold a joy-con in each hand.

The party mode is pretty much exactly the same as the campaign world albeit with 21 unique levels and you have 4 characters instead of 2. This is particularly interesting as the puzzles are the same layout regardless of if you have 2, 3, or 4 players; there are always 4 characters but some or all of you will control multiple characters by tapping the top button on the joy-con to switch between them. This is the same mechanic that is used to control 2 characters if you choose to play the main campaign solo.

Blitz mode is a completely different experience with three different minigames; basketball, hockey, and dojo. The rules are the same when it comes to movement and cutting but you'll be either playing basketball or hockey in the way you'd expect or trying to cut the other person out completely in dojo mode which really comes down to who can tap the cut button quickest, just like any other fighting game (*Ha!*). This is the mode that I spent the least time in as it doesn't have enough depth or skill to make it more than a 2 minute play to make sure you aren't missing anything.

The liquid puzzles can be incredibly difficult
The liquid puzzles can be incredibly difficult

The art style and graphics are simple but charming; it is probably the sort of thing the word twee was created for. Despite this simplicity, I did notice some considerable lag in console mode on one particular level involving strands of DNA. This was peculiar as it should have been less taxing than some of the levels involving real time movement of liquids but the entire puzzle felt like it was running at around 10fps. Thankfully this was not a recurring problem.

The real fun of Snipperclips is in the characters and their expressions. As you cut each other up, they'll make approving or disapproving noises, sometimes laughing at the gaping hole you've just cut into your friend. When you cut too far, a little cry is heard before they unfold like origami out of the ether. As you squat, their eyebrows raise and pushing heavy objects leads to squinting. This makes it an amusing experience, especially with friends, and the catchy background music adds to this by being unobtrusive yet memorable.

My biggest gripe is that you are limited to the joy-cons even if you have other controllers. For example, you wouldn't be able to have someone use a pro controller whilst the other uses a joy-con and this is particularly frustrating if, like me, you have the pro controller and you thought you could play with 3 people; you'll need a new set of joy-cons if you want to play with more than 2. It should also come as no surprise that Snipperclips is a couch co-op only title; there is no online multiplayer nor local multiplayer with multiple switch devices.

Four player mode requires a fair amount of patience
Four player mode requires a fair amount of patience

My general rule of thumb is that I want to get an hour of gameplay for every £2 spent; this increases to £5 with indie titles that tend to be shorter. I finished Snipperclips (with a friend) in just under 3 hours so it falls short of both metrics at a price of £18; I personally would have expected slightly more from a first party launch title especially as the game isn't really replayable. It feels like this could have been either a bit smaller and bundled with the console for free or that it should be a lot larger.

That said, if you have a friend nearby who wants to play then Snipperclips is a great example of how every Switch is automatically equipped to do local co-op thanks to its 2-in-1 controller design. It is the only game on the Switch currently to have a free downloadable demo so I'd definitely recommend you give that a try to see if it is something you want to actually purchase; alternatively, you could wait for them to... wait for it... cut the price.

Snipperclips is available on the Switch as a download-only title and I played using the joy-cons as I had no choice. A free demo is available on the eShop. We recorded episode #13 of Connecting to Host on the co-op and multiplayer elements of Snipperclips.

Zelda's Creed: Breath of the Open World

#review #zeldabreathofthewild

I don't usually write reviews of AAA titles as you can generally find something more in-depth from one of the bigger sites that have spent tons of hours playing the game before launch. I'm making an exception for the latest game in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, as it has taken such a dramatic turn from the previous games in the series and has attracted a very high overall review score currently ranking as the fourth best video game of all time. I'm not going to go in-depth into every aspect of the game having only played for around 20 hours, but instead pick out a few areas in which it has changed the series. I've tried to keep spoilers to a minimum and for that reason will not mention specifics about the story nor discuss how you solve certain shrines, find certain weapons, or anything else like that.

The most obvious change is that Breath of the Wild is a truly "open world" game complete with all the trappings that entails; towers you must climb to unlock the map, inventory management, stamina meters, side quests, fast travel, etc. Where previous games played more like a metroid-vania with gated areas that required specific items — i.e. needing bombs from Dodongo's Cavern before you could get into Zora's Domain — Breath of the Wild has no such limitation giving you the full freedom to go anywhere in the world including climbing up nearly any surface (subject to your stamina). Instead, you are limited by powerful enemies who will kill you in one fell swoop should you enter an area you are not suited for. This can be massively frustrating as some play sessions may leave you spending an hour travelling in one direction only to find that you have no hope of making it much further.

There is a full day and night cycle with differences in enemies such as the traditional skeleton fighters emerging out of the ground at night. There is also a weather system which alternates between sunny and cloudy weather along with rain and thunderstorms. These are particularly interesting as rain will make climbing much harder and prevent you using things like fire arrows. Thunderstorms, on the other hand, will kill you if you have anything metallic equipped. Many times you'll need to just sit out and wait for bad weather to pass; this would make for an interesting challenge but it is all too easy to simply fast travel back to a village where you can sit out the storm by a fire pit.

I have several horses all named Epona
I have several horses all named Epona

One of the interesting design choices is that you get pretty much all of the things you would generally unlock by completing a dungeon in previous Zelda games right at the start of the game. You have a "Shiekah Slate" that gives you the power to stop time on a single object temporarily, produce unlimited bombs (with a cooldown timer), move metallic objects around with a magnet, and create ice pillars out of water. As is traditional for an open world game, these powers can be upgraded with collectibles you'll find around the place.

Later on you receive some more abilities but these are tied to cooldown timers based on the real world; for example, you might have to wait 20 minutes before you can use it again. This frustrates me as it kills the immersion; it isn't that Link can't use the item again but that the player can't. I understand why this is the case (as otherwise sitting by a fire pit for 5 seconds could reset the timer) but it still doesn't feel right.

Weaponry has also seen a change with an inventory management system and breakable items. Every weapon has a damage statistic and you'll pick up and switch out hundreds of melee weapons and bows throughout the course of a game. When it comes to melee weapons, there are a whole host of choices from swords, lances, and hammers, and then things required for puzzle solving such as torches and Korok leaves (which allows you to generate blasts of air similar to Wind Waker). Once you've used an item a certain amount, you'll get a warning that it is going to break soon and then using it further will cause it to smash and disappear. You can throw melee weapons for additional damage so a good tactic is to throw a breaking sword at someone before switching to a new weapon.

There is no crafting system that I've found nor a way to stop items from breaking. Whilst this can be slightly annoying, it does lend itself to exploration and adaptability as you are constantly using new weapons and trying new tactics in fights. Your initial inventory slots for melee weapons, bows, and shields are limited but early on in the game you'll find a helpful chap with "the power of inventory expansion" who will give you more slots if you bring him some collectibles.

Some ingredients just don't mix well
Some ingredients just don't mix well

Cooking is a new addition to Breath of the Wild and basically allows you to mix items you find to try and generate something better than the sum of its parts. You will find plenty of ingredients in the wild such as apples you can pluck from trees or meat that you can collect by killing the wild animals and these will restore a certain number of hearts. Cooking them on their own will generally boost this restorative power in order to make you plan ahead slightly. The big boost comes from mixing ingredients together, especially with plants or critters that will then not only give you a heart restoration but also other abilities such as improved movement speed, sneaking, or temporary boosts to attack or defence.

You'll have to discover recipes for yourself although a few sidequests will point you in the right direction for some decent staple foods. You can also investigate the recipe for any cooked food or elixir you purchase from the various traders in the world. A minor annoyance is that there is no recipe book functionality that logs the recipes you've uncovered so it feels like constant trial and error is required. It also leads to a fair amount of gameplay time dedicated to sitting and cooking; not necessarily a bad thing, but not what springs to mind when you think of taking on Ganon!

Yes, there are Great Fairies. Yes, they still look like elderly prostitutes.
Yes, there are Great Fairies. Yes, they still look like elderly prostitutes.

My major concern with the new direction of Breath of the Wild is in an area where it has removed something from the traditional Zelda experience rather than adding to it; music. Previous games in the series would see you learning some form of song in order to access certain abilities; Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask had the ocarina, Wind Waker had the baton, Twilight Princess had wolf howling, and Skyward Sword had a harp.

Breath of the Wild has nothing.

To make this worse, there is actually very little music throughout the game. There is background music whilst riding a horse and when fighting enemies but the rest of the time is pretty much incidental or atmospheric background (like the Dodongo's Cavern track from Ocarina of Time). An exception is at Great Fairy fountains which retain there regular music and in Zora's Domain where they nearly committed to the normal soundtrack but didn't quite make it.

Conversely, more audio has been added to the game in the form of voice acting. Terrible voice acting. Link still doesn't speak which is good but is at the same time rather awkward, especially when voice-acted characters are responding to a text option you've selected. The voice acting also isn't consistent with only cut scenes and some bits of dialogue voiced; at other times you'll just get grunts and gurgles from the person whilst their dialogue is shown. I don't really have an issue with voice acting in general but if you are going to add it then it should be of a high quality and it should be used throughout rather than intermittently.

Everyone loves a motion control challenge...
Everyone loves a motion control challenge...

The aspect where Breath of the Wild feels the most like a traditional Zelda game is in its many "Shrine Challenges", miniature dungeons that feel almost like Portal testing chambers. The first challenge is in finding these shrines which are sometimes well hidden or require something specific to access; you might need fire and if you haven't got any fire arrows or flint on you then you'll need to come back. Once inside, you'll then have either a puzzle to solve or some form of enemy to defeat in combat. At the end of the shrine, you'll be granted a Spirit Orb which can be used to upgrade either your health or your stamina at certain locations in the world.

The majority of these trials are incredibly well laid out and give you a good mental workout as you put to use the abilities of your Shiekah Slate to manipulate the room you are in. Most of the shrines will have a few treasure chests littered around and accessing some of these is generally a harder challenge than completing the shrine itself. Being able to solve a more complex puzzle to access rarer loot is a great mechanic and makes you feel great when you crack it.

Unfortunately there are some trials which are not so great; combat-based trials which you have no chance of beating without significantly better equipment and gyroscope trials which rely on wonky motion controls to manipulate the room you are in. You can disable motion controls for aiming with your bow and arrow in the game, but you can't turn them off for the trials which is a real shame.

Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, there are some much bigger dungeon-like areas within the main quest line that are absolutely fantastic. I was feeling a little deflated around 15 hours into the game until I got to the first of these areas which took around 45 minutes to solve. It was the first time it felt like a proper Zelda experience and really got me back into the game. My advice if you feel the same is to keep pressing on until you hit one of those areas.

There are a lot of amusingly weird interactions as one would expect
There are a lot of amusingly weird interactions as one would expect

In the end, does Breath of the Wild feel like a Zelda game and does it deserve the high praise and almost universal 10/10 review scores it has garnered? In my opinion, the answer to both is no. I'm enjoying the game and it does deserve praise for some of the ways it has moved the series forward, but there are too many things that just don't sit right with me to give it anything above an 8/10. The weird motion controls in some of the shrines, the frustration when you enter an area that is too overpowered for you, the way in which some boss fights are too easy if you lucked out and got a good weapon, the inventory management in terms of both cooking and constant weapon replacement, the massive framerate drops whilst in console mode; these are all concerns. The biggest one for me though is that the music has taken such a back seat. Music was without a doubt my favourite thing of the Zelda franchise since Ocarina of Time and it kills me that this game is mostly ambient noise. I can cope with Nintendo taking music out of the eShop; I can't cope with them taking it from Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is available on Wii U and Switch. I played on the Switch (using a physical cartridge) in a mixture of handheld and console modes with both the joy-cons and a pro controller.

Nintendo Switch Review

#review

I received my Nintendo Switch preorder on Friday along with a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and a pro controller. I wasn't planning on writing a review but I've ended up with a lot of thoughts and observations.

Console

First of all, the Switch is smaller than I was expecting with the usable display being roughly the size of my entire iPhone 7 Plus. This is astonishingly small for a console although the thickness (about the same as a DVD case) and weight make it feel comfortable in the hand. I'll come to the Joy-Cons shortly but they weigh very little so don't add anything to the overall console apart from the ability to grip it without covering the screen (and, you know, actually use it). One thing that amuses me after years of iPads and iPhones is that it has an actual spinning fan in it with an exhaust at the top; sometimes you can here it spinning up...

The build quality is very good, especially from Nintendo who have a habit of making everything feel cheap and plasticy. The reason I mentioned the comfortable weight earlier is because it is in stark contrast to the Wii U gamepad which is much bigger (with a smaller screen) but feels lighter as it was essentially cheap plastic and air.

I've been switching happily between console and handheld mode whilst playing Zelda and the process is utterly seamless. I originally thought that switching modes may require a restart or something similar but you literally take it out of the dock and you continue exactly as you were on the small screen. I also thought I wouldn't use the Switch in handheld mode but that opinion has changed now that I can play in my living room but then carry on playing in bed without needing to buy another dock.

In terms of battery life, the longest I've played handheld was around 3 hours and I didn't receive any battery warnings so seems like you could easily get 4 hours or so out of it. Whilst it isn't going to last for continuous play on a transatlantic flight, the inclusion of USB-C for charging is very useful as I already have battery packs and charging cables to suit (although you may need a pack with a higher voltage).

The game cartridges are absolutely tiny to the point that I think I'll be buying a carrying case for them so they don't get mislaid. It is wonderful to be able to start a game pretty much instantly and with no installation time.

Controllers

The Joy-Cons are very clever and easy to use with a detachment mechanism similar to swapping Apple Watch bands. They are a little bit cheap feeling, especially in the analogue sticks and triggers when compared to the Xbox One or PS4 controllers. They also have the A/B and X/Y buttons reversed (or the right way depending on perspective) as per all previous Nintendo consoles which means switching between an Xbox and the Switch is an utter pain.

The rumble feature is something that received a lot of press but I haven't found it to be that impressive. So far I've only been playing Zelda so it may just be that it isn't implemented as well there as it is in 1-2-Switch but to me it just feels like normal rumble, nowhere near as precise as something like the Taptic Engine of the iPhone 7.

Ergonomically, they work well enough when attached to the Switch although some button combos can require re-gripping due to the overall width; this is a minor concern for the benefit they offer though. When used on their own (i.e. for a two player game) you do need to channel the hand movements of a crab as they are very small but they should be fine for a short game of Snipperclips; I don't think I'd want to use them for playing several games of Mario Kart though.

I haven't used the controllers with the grip much as I have the pro controller but it is much more comfortable and usable than I thought it might be. The benefit of having the grip included and purchasing a pro controller is that for a two player game I can have two "full" controllers rather than using the individual Joy-Cons.

The pro controller is probably a necessity if you are going to play games on your TV for long periods of time but it is a begrudging one. At an RRP of £65, it is way more expensive than the Xbox One or PS4 controllers both of which are very good. The pro controller feels cheap comparatively especially in the triggers which are buttons rather than gradual pressure increasers. It isn't the worst controller I've used (that honour belongs to the Steam Controller) but it is very poor for the price.

My favourite thing about the controllers is the inclusion of a screenshot button. Being able to quickly snap a screenshot is a godsend, especially compared to the janky implementation on the Xbox One. However, the software for dealing with those screenshots is less than ideal as I'll come to shortly.

Software / UI

The software is where things go downhill for the Switch. On the positive side, the UI is clean and it is incredibly fast, especially compared to the 3DS and Wii U. A notable improvement over the 3DS is that opening up an app like the eShop or settings doesn't kill your game. You can also switch between a light and dark theme and the Mii customisation is much improved...

I resisted the urge to have my Mii wink
I resisted the urge to have my Mii wink

However, there are several things that I would deem as "missing".

First of all, there is no way to export screenshots apart from posting to Facebook / Twitter or copying to a micro SD card. With the 3DS you can post to Miiverse but that isn't an option as there is no social network for the Switch yet. I was hoping that plugging the Switch into a Mac or PC might make the internal storage show up like a digital camera but you get nothing. Nintendo have said they are going to improve this in future but it is a letdown to have such a great screenshot feature built into every controller and then have no easy way to export them without using social media or purchasing additional hardware.

Whilst this is annoying, save files are even worse as they can't be transferred between devices at all. Steam, Xbox, and PlayStation all have cloud saves which are a blessing if your console dies or if you have multiple systems but no such facility exists for the Switch. You can't even copy save files to an SD card for moving over to a console in the event of malfunction which seems short-sighted. If I lost my Zelda save, I'd be gutted.

There is no "Activity Log" app on the Switch which means you can't see how long you've played games for. This isn't necessarily a big issue for most people but I use this feature on the 3DS and Wii U in order to keep my Gaming Time page up to date. I expect this to be fixed in a software update; I'm also hoping this information will be available on some online Switch profile page in keeping with Xbox and Steam.

I wasn't really expecting it but a part of me was hoping the day one patch would activate an achievement system for the Switch. I love achievements on the Xbox and Steam as they can add extra challenge to a completed game by providing recognition for finding hidden secrets or gaining 100% completion. It is quite sad, but it means that when games are available on multiple systems I will be genuinely torn; do I want Sonic Mania on PC or Xbox where I have achievements or do I want it on the Switch so I can play it in handheld mode. Tricky.

My biggest issue is the lack of support for Bluetooth headphones. There is a Bluetooth chip in there for communicating with the controllers so this is definitely a software issue that could be patched but it is a glaring omission at launch. It isn't good enough to say, as other commentators have, that the Xbox One and PS4 don't support Bluetooth headphones as they are working in a very different context where you can pair headphones with the controller or the TV. The 3DS similarly doesn't have Bluetooth headphone support but that isn't excusable either. Wired headphones are a complete pain and I'd rather take a slight hit on battery life in order to use my headphones than have to put up with a wire which necessitates packing wired headphones if I'm travelling.

Conclusion

Overall the Switch is a wonderful console but it feels slightly hampered by the software. Fortunately, this is something that can be fixed later but it does feel like we're paying the cost of having the console rushed to market. Despite the cost vs quality, I'd still recommend the pro controller if you are going to be playing in console mode for any period of time. I've only played Zelda for 10 hours at this point (split evenly between handheld and console mode) so I'll likely post some observations about that after I've got a little further; one thing I'll say so far is that the game is better in handheld mode as the frame rate suffers slightly in console mode.

It is probably too early to say but I think Nintendo may have dodged bankruptcy for the time being. The Wii U was an utter disaster but the Switch seems to have put things back on track. The real test will be the holiday season but I expect Nintendo will do rather well if they time the Super Mario Odyssey release with a discounted hardware bundle.

Hollow Knight Review: The very opposite of 'hollow'

#hollowknight #review

Hollow Knight is a metroidvania-style game with a gothic aesthetic that evokes memories of Don't Starve, Child of Light, and Machinarium. I wrote an initial preview after playing a beta version but I have now completed the main portion of the game after almost 20 hours.

Before I get into the gameplay, I'm going to get my single dislike out of the way; the story. I had very little idea throughout what the actual motivation or story was beyond dungeoneering. There is a temple protected by three spirits that you need to vanquish before you can take on the Hollow Knight himself but I never really understood what he was or why I was fighting him. You can pick up little clues and obtuse texts that relate to the plot but it washed over me and I kept feeling like I'd missed a crucial cutscene or piece of information. That said, it never really detracted from the game as Hollow Knight is all about the exploration rather than exposition.

And boy is there a lot to explore! I was not prepared for how vast the labyrinth of Hallownest would be nor how varied its different areas. There are lush gardens, rocky peaks, crystal mines, acid lakes, and beautiful gothic spires. There is also a huge nest filled with creepy crawlies which did nothing for my delicate sensibilities (especially as your visibility is dramatically reduced).

Well that isn't disconcerting at all...
Well that isn't disconcerting at all...

To help navigate, you are able to purchase maps of each area from Conifer the cartographer but you have to actually find him in each area first. You can purchase a quill for extending his limited maps as you explore (although these only get filled in when you rest on a bench) and a compass which pinpoints exactly where you are. There are also various pins available for purchase which highlight shops, fast travel points, and more.

Whilst the overall map is huge, you are initially limited in where you can go based on your abilities. As you play, you'll unlock new abilities that give you new ways to explore further. For example, fairly early on you will find a Mantis Claw which allows you to scale walls unlocking previously inaccessible areas. There is no sign of how many abilities there are so each time you find a new one is a genuinely exciting moment followed by the daunting task of trying to backtrack to places where you think you can now make use of it.

Speaking of backtracking, it can be fairly arduous to navigate across the map and whilst there are fast travel points in the form of stag stations and trams, these are spaced out a bit too far apart in my opinion.

It took me ages to find the necessary key for this tram
It took me ages to find the necessary key for this tram

In addition to abilities, there are a whole host of upgrades and collectibles to find. There are shards and fragments to help you increase your total life and soul meters respectively and you can upgrade your sword at a specific shop if you have enough currency and some requisite rare items. New fighting techniques (such as a circular spin) can also be found by seeking out the old masters who are particularly tricky to find but they don't make much of an improvement.

The main collectibles are charms which are a good way to add buffs to your character. You only have a certain number of slots available to you and you can only swap your active charms when you are resting on a bench so you have to choose carefully what upgrades you want. I nearly always used a compass (for seeing myself on the map), a charm that basically made currency magnetic to me, and a charm for extending the length of my sword making it slightly easier to hit enemies. There are 30 different charms available with varying powers and whilst some can be purchased, the majority need to be found.

Rounding out the collectibles are grubs, catapillar-like creatures in glass balls that cry when you are near them. If you release them, they'll return to their nest and give you a reward (which is usually money but sometimes a charm or shard).

This boss fight was a real highlight for me
This boss fight was a real highlight for me

Aside from exploration, the other activity you'll be engaging in is combat. Nearly every screen will have enemies of some type be they tiny flying insects that can be killed with a single hit or large soldier bugs that require a lot more work. There are over 130 unique enemy units each of which can be logged in a hunters journal with a special reward if you manage to collect all of them. I was massively impressed with the vast array of enemies and how they weren't just minor reskins between areas but fully realised enemies with different attacks and movements. I didn't find the combat to be too tricky although I focussed on upgrading my sword as often as possible.

Boss fights, however, are a very different beast. There are 30 different bosses in the game that each have a unique look and feel. They are nearly all exceptionally difficult to fight and you will likely end up dying several times before you decipher their movements and finally beat them. In some cases, you will need to go away and gain new abilities or upgrades before trying to tackle them again. I particularly enjoyed fighting the Mantis Lords due to a distinct increase in difficulty as you go from fighting one to fighting two at the same time. There was a distinct sense of satisfaction after beating each boss as they are genuinely difficult fights. It is worth pointing out that there is no difficulty setting so it isn't possible to simply dial down the pressure.

As well as the boss fights, there is a colosseum later in the game that allows you to fight loads of different enemies at once in an arena setting with some rare items as rewards. I managed to complete the first trial but I need to improve significantly if I'm going to complete the other two. If that doesn't sound difficult enough, Hollow Knight also has a Steel Soul mode (unlocked when you complete the game) that features no self-healing via soul power and permanent death. I don't think I'd get very far!

As you would expect, Hollow Knight features a number of achievements mostly based around its collection mechanics and beating some of the bigger bosses. It also has achievements for certain speed run targets (5 and 10 hours respectively) as well as completing the Steel Soul mode. Most reviewers on Steam seem to have taken between 40 and 50 hours to achieve a 100% completion rating so there are definitely significant extensions to gameplay once the main quest is completed.

The only other thing to mention is the soundtrack by Christopher Larkin that does an excellent job of depicting the despair around you. Whilst you would expect it to be all melancholy piano and haunting strings, there is actually a huge variety to the score. A particular favourite of mine is the track used for the Mantis Lords boss fight which features a harpsichord and accompany strings to make the action feel even more frenetic. The soundtrack is available for purchase on Steam (separately or as part of a deluxe game package) but it can also be streamed on Apple Music and Spotify. Similarly, the sound effects and minimal voice acting (mainly grunts, gurgles, and encouraging noises) are top notch and really make this feel like it is from a AAA game studio rather than a Kickstarter-back indie developer.

Hollow Knight is an absolute gem (or should that be charm?) of a game with a price tag that is far too low for the quality and quantity of game on offer. Whilst many indie titles go for a short and sweet dose of gameplay, Hollow Knight keeps impressing with more and more layers of complexity, rewarding combat, and an ever-growing labyrinth to explore. Throw in the ridiculously difficult Steel Soul mode and achievements for 100% completion and this will keep explorers happy for a very long time.

Hollow Knight is currently available on PC but will be available on Mac and Nintendo Switch later in the year. I played on my PC with an Xbox One Elite Controller. Unfortunately 21:9 monitors are not supported.