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Two years after it first debuted on PC and PS4, Frictional’s latest slice of terror finally arrives on Xbox One. Rather than the interdimensional gothic horror of Amnesia, however, Soma opts for a near-future science fiction setting, and looks to ask questions about what it means to be human.

You awake in a Toronto apartment in 2015, in the body of Simon Jarrett, a poor sod who’s recently suffered a traumatic accident. As a result, he’s off to have a brain scan as part of an experimental trial; a pair of scientists have come up with a way to model the brain, allowing them to test out different treatments in a virtual setting before applying a working therapy plan on a living patient. Simon travels to the lab, takes a seat to begin the scan, and a helmet is lowered over his face before his vision fades to white.

He wakes up a hundred years later.

Clearly things didn’t go to plan. Simon awakens to find himself in a dilapidated, decaying industrial area, seemingly devoid of life, with no explanation for this sudden shift. Exploring our surroundings, we discover Simon has somehow been transported to an undersea research complex in a post-apocalyptic earth; after a comet struck the surface, the members of the PATHOS-II facility became the last remnants of mankind, and set about a plan to preserve humanity. And yet, at least to begin with, we can’t seem to find any people here, just murderous robots that seem intent on stalking poor Simon through darkened corridors at the bottom of the sea. On top of that, there’s some strange growth infecting everything in the station and its surrounding environs, apparently reanimating and controlling organisms for its own ends. Soma‘s vision of our near-future is a reassuringly chunky, almost retro-futuristic one, which makes its setting, and by extension its fiction, broadly believable, and at this point you’d be forgiven for being reminded as much of Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation as anything from Frictional’s back catalogue.

Nothing good happened here.

While you’ll spend a fair amount of your time in SOMA creeping around creepy abandoned facilities by yourself, Simon isn’t alone during his journey through the thermal plants, factories and research labs that make up the PATHOS-II Initiative’s clutch of facilities. Fairly early on, you’ll meet Catherine Chun, a former member of the team that guides you toward your objectives and engages in frequent debates on the nature of the self. You see, while Soma can be a terrifyingly visceral experience at times, especially when being chased by the awful victims of the aforementioned infection, its true horror is more existential in nature. I really don’t want to spoil the story – which is interesting, thought-provoking, and genuinely gripping, and should definitely be experienced first-hand – but much of the thrust of Soma rests in exploring what makes us human, and where our sense of self – our very consciousness – resides. There are some genuinely chilling and unsettling moments in Soma that have nothing to do with creepy monsters or jump scares (though there’s plenty of those, too), and it’s all the more effective for its undersea setting, the pressure of the unfathomable depths pressing down on you and reminding you you’re almost alone in the world, often with nothing but your own thoughts for company.

Crucial to the horror experience is pacing, and Soma is excellent in this regard, too. You’re never in one place doing one thing for too long, and as soon as you start to think you might be getting a little too comfortable in any one location, you’ll be whisked off to another part of the North Atlantic shelf to do something else. Like Frictional’s other games, and increasingly common to the genre, you’ll spend a lot of your time simply exploring the environment and hiding from ungodly terrors (you’ve no means to defend yourself, of course), while also solving a decent amount of puzzles. These won’t tax your grey matter too hard, but you will at least need to engage your brain for a minute or two, and most are enjoyable.

You’ll also spend a significant amount of time out on the sea floor, often trudging between stations. At first, being surrounded by vast, fathomless nothing feels oppressive, with your vision and hearing severely curtailed by the deep, dark depths. This feeling never really goes away, but after a while you’ll start to appreciate the relative freedom, and there’s a sense of (again, relative) serenity to these sections, especially as you come to realise you’re rarely in any mortal danger when out in the water. Of course, there’s still that sense of foreboding, that crushing dread that the game has been instilling right from the start, when Simon awoke in his apartment in 2015 and you had a sense that things weren’t quite right, and it’s to the game’s credit that it manages to keep that tone throughout. It’s never less than unsettling, and the fact that Soma manages to offer an ending that can leave you both horrified and elated is quite something indeed.

See, now isn’t this much nicer?

There’s also dozens of documents to read and audio recordings to find that will flesh out the lives and experiences of the now-absent PATHOS-II team if you care to explore. Aiding that is a new gameplay experience called Safe Mode, which allows you to play through the game immune to its various monsters. Before playing, this sounded like an odd addition for a horror game, but having now experienced Soma – and again, I’d like to stress that its horror is more rooted in existential dread than monster closets – it makes perfect sense. This is a world you will want to explore, and sometimes you just can’t – if a monster’s patrolling an area, you will have to sneak past, or maybe even try running and see where that gets you. My natural inclination in narrative-heavy games is to explore every inch of the world, and I couldn’t quite do that in Soma. I’m seriously considering another playthrough to experience Safe Mode for myself.

It’s a world you should experience for yourself, too. If a mix of Amnesia, Alien Isolation and System Shock sounds like sweet, terrifying manna from heaven (hell?), well, why haven’t you played it already?

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You know a game takes its scares seriously when the first thing it asks you to do is turn off all the lights and refrain from tearing your gaze from the screen. Yomawari: Midnight Shadows even implores you to promise not to break these rules. You might wish you did.

Much like last year’s Yomawari: Night Alone, Midnight Shadows begins with a little girl and her dog. While we, unfortunately, had to witness the demise of the former protagonist’s cute little pup Poro, here we’re introduced to Yui, who has headed up into the mountains near her quiet little town to bury her beloved pet. I think Nippon Ichi might have something against dogs.

If you’re new to the Yomawari games, you might find yourself somewhat mollified by the cutesy chibi character designs and beautiful hand-drawn art. Do not be fooled. This is a bleak world where bad things happen. Much like the first game, that charming art gives way to an oppressive atmosphere, exaggerated by some incredibly minimalist audio – which frequently uses nothing but natural sounds like the rush of a river or the wind through the boughs of a tree – and some severe vignetting that darkens the periphery of your vision, forcing your focus to the centre of the screen, and hiding the terrors of the night in deep shadow. This is not a relaxing game to play. Even before you’ve seen anything out of the ordinary it’s put you on edge.

Of course, you’ll discover very early on that things are not normal in this town. The opening of Yomawari: Midnight Shadows – which I don’t want to spoil – might be the bleakest thing I’ve seen in a video game, and I honestly still don’t quite know how to feel about it. Dressing this segment up as the opening tutorial amplifies its effect substantially; “Ok,” you think, “the game’s teaching me how to play. I just hold X to pick this up. I push this over there. There were go. Aaaand… Oh. Oh God.” You’re lulled into a false sense of security, because you’re just being taught the controls, right? Nothing bad can happen in a tutorial. Yet with a few simple button presses, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows makes you complicit in a genuinely shocking act. And you’re only ten minutes in.

Returning players will note many similarities beyond just a little girl and her dog. Indeed, Midnight Shadows both looks and plays almost identically to the 2015 original, and that’s not a bad thing. What we have here is kind of an isometric 2D Silent Hill, where you’re tasked to explore an apparently-normal town where things have somehow gone very wrong. After the opening segment, we’re re-introduced to Yui, who has come to the mountain overlooking town with her friend Haru to watch a fireworks display. It turns out Haru is moving away and the girls are saddened that they will soon be separated. Haru, of course, doesn’t want to leave her friend, and declares that she’s not going anywhere. She’s going to stay with Yui forever.

As darkness falls and the girls head home through the woods, they begin to hear strange noises. Eerie apparitions flitter in the corners of their vision, and finally they hear a voice. Armed with a torch, Yui volunteers to go and take a look, and instructs Haru to hide in the bushes. Heading through the woods alone, she comes across something lying in the middle of the path. Bending to pick it up, she realises it’s the red leash she had used to walk her dog. We’re instructed to jump into the inventory to view it, so we do just that, reading the little text description and OH GOD WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!

Christ. You’re not even safe in the menus.

We cut back to Haru, who emerges from the bush to find Yui gone, her discarded torch lying on the ground nearby. She sets off through the night to find her friend.

As you make your way around town, investigating points of interest for useful clues, you’ll note the cues Yomawari: Midnight Shadows takes from the earlier Silent Hill games. The inspiration is apparent too in that bleak, oppressive atmosphere, and there’s the roaming monsters and spirits that appear to block your path and chase you down. In Yomawari however, you feel more vulnerable than in, well, the vast majority of games, to be honest. It’s not just because you’re a little kid that can’t fight back, seemingly abandoned and alone in a town with no friends, no adults, no signs of normal life. Yomawari uses the children’s innocence to underscore just how miserable all this is; there are no adults around, strange spirits are roaming the streets, and yet for all that, the town looks normal, and Haru doesn’t even question it, doesn’t wonder where her parents are. She just wants to find Yui again.

The foreboding mood is fostered by that crushing sense of creeping dread that the best of Japanese horror cinema does so well, where even mundane, every day things will set your teeth to chattering, like the rustling of litter or the buzzing of a sodium streetlight. And of course there’s the scares. The majority tend to consist of jump scares, and I’m usually pretty immune to those, but there’s something about this game, something that makes me jump out of my skin whenever some multi-limbed grinning horror bursts from a seemingly-innocent little alleyway and chases me down a dark street when all I want to do is get back to the safety of home.

Luckily, Haru can hide in some of the scenery around town. If you see a bush or an A-board, you can duck behind it to escape the night, and you’ll see your chosen hiding place illuminated in the centre of a black background, the roving terrors that are following you picked out in red as they near your hiding place. You’ll hear Haru’s heartbeat pounding in your ears as they get closer, and even though you’re sure they can’t pull you from safety, your already-frayed nerves will be at breaking point until they start to move away, and you think it might be safe to emerge and continue your journey.

When you do, you’re just back out in the night, with the monsters, the dark, and the rushing of the wind.


Like many games, the first thing Jettomero asks you to do is walk. Few games can make you smile through this simple interaction, but as your huge stompy robot begins to clumsily clomp across the surface of a tiny planetoid, you can’t help but have a little giggle to yourself. 
 
Jettomero: Hero of the Universe is a game about a kind-of-cute-I-guess gargantuan robot who believes he’s probably the saviour of the universe. Drawn in a comic book style, all thick black outlines and flat cel-shading, we join our big robot pal as he hunts down some fuel crystals to escape the barren rock he finds himself on, and as he blasts off, booster smoke erupting from his frisbee-feet, the scope is immediately pushed out. Jettomero pops into orbit around his tiny planetoid and just floats, an enormous sun framing his now tiny form, as he wonders if there’s any other life out there. We send out a ping, locate a wormhole, and with a tug of the right trigger we’re off, zooming through the starry night like some kind of giant robo-Superman, in search of new friends. 
 
It immediately feels great to wheel about the stars, making great loops in the sky and leaving behind trails in the inky blackness, like the contrails of an airplane, as we hurtle toward a new planet.  

 
Touching down on a new world, Jettomero notes that there are lots of tiny people about, and that he should watch his step. I concur and gingerly maneuver him over to a point of interest next to some buildings that are dwarfed by our robotic hero. Something appears to be buried in the ground, and Jettomero thinks he can shake it loose by stomping on it. 
 
He stomps. A nearby tower explodes. For fuck’s sake, Jettomero. 
 
Jettomero shows the tiniest scrap of remorse before examining his find: it’s a new head for him to try on! As you make your way from system to system, trying not to destroy the civilisations you find while stomping on all the points of interest you see, Jettomero will turn up new body parts – heads, torsos, arms and legs – to try on. These are just cosmetic, and while it’s nice to mess about with them – Dark Cape, Top Hat and Lobster Hands is a strong look, after all – it feels like sole developer Gabriel Koenig may have missed a trick with Jettomero’s customisation options.

You see, our robo-pal moves slowly. Really slowly. After twenty minutes or so, that clompy walk that immediately endeared me to Jettomero had begun to grate just a little. Though he picks up a bit of momentum when walking in a straight line, he stumbles around these planetoids so slowly that it takes too long to properly explore, and the worlds aren’t particularly large to begin with. I’m also conscious of how close I come to settlements, for fear of becoming some kind of legend of intergalactic doom to future generations; perhaps that’s half the fun and I’m doing it wrong? I don’t know. It’s somewhat endearing to be a clumsy oaf that wants to save everyone but accidentally tramples them, but I do actually want to be careful! Perhaps new legs could change his movement speed, or new feet make him stomp more accurately? Perhaps I’m missing the point entirely.

 
After finding a couple of body parts on the first world, Jettomero decides there’s nothing left to do there. For a being solely interested in finding out whether there’s anyone else out there, he seems remarkably uninterested in the life he stumbled upon within the first five minutes of his journey. We blast off, presumably never to return to this miraculous find. 
 
Luckily, on the second planet, we come across an enormous (well, relatively; it’s about the same gargantuan size as us) green alien-robot-monster-thing. Jettomero, of course, being of sound mind and judgment, tries to make friends with this titanic mute horror, which of course decides to attack him instead. This is when we find out we’re actually equipped with eye lasers! Of course we’ve got eye lasers, we’re a space-faring robo-giant! The two lock eye beams, and a battle ensues in which we have to copy a series of button prompts – which sounds like a QTE segment but actually reminded me far more of dialling in Zell’s limit breaks in Final Fantasy VIII – to push back the enemy’s energy blast and blow it up in a shower of sparks. I realise I’m smiling again. 
 
Defeating these bosses unlocks a text log in Jettomero’s mind, a clue to his origins and what has become of the human race, but first we have to decipher it. The first log is so easy to solve it may as well be done for you, though later ones can provide more of a challenge, and having done so, we’re treated to a comic book panel where we learn that the Earth was attacked by an extra-terrestrial threat that wiped out every major city on the planet, resulting in four billion deaths.  

Oh. And I was having such whimsical fun with Jettomero and his big clompy space-robot feet. 

 
After a few planets (that often feel like the same planet in a different colour, which is perhaps to be expected with procedural generation), you might start to feel like you’ve seen it all; you’ll stomp around, turn up a new body part, maybe have another face off with another giant laser-eyed space monster, and then move on to the nearest wormhole to find another recoloured world to do the same all over again. What’s left is the hunt for those cosmetic body parts and the lingering mystery of those encrypted text logs. Perhaps there’s a secondary micro-objective on the odd planet, like clearing a storm or knocking rubble out of the way to check for survivors, but in reality, all this really comes down to is yet more stomping.

And yet, despite all that, I kept playing Jettomero. It’s just a very relaxing game to play, and there’s something to be said for that repetition which, coupled with the excellent, soothing electronic soundtrack, manages to become kind of hypnotic over time. With no real challenge (perhaps save later ciphers, which will require you to at least think a bit), it’s just a very simple, undemanding game to play, that’s both pleasant to look at and listen to, and offers a nice dose of charm into the bargain. And it really is quite something to whirl about the star-studded firmament, leaving trails in your wake to the sound of soothing sci-fi synthesizers.

Luna
Back in March, Square Enix’s grand event to finally, finally announce a release date for the long-in-development Final Fantasy XV came with a number of surprises. The Japanese publisher appeared to be incredibly bullish about the upcoming RPG, and unveiled a catalogue of cross-media projects to compliment it. There was a five-part anime series to give us the background on the main characters and their relationships. There was the obligatory mobile game tie-in. And then there was Kingsglaive. Easily the most exciting part of the extended media offering, here was a beautiful CG movie in the vein of Final Fantasy VII‘s Advent Children, and it came completely out of nowhere.

Of course, the game’s release date has since slipped, even as all the marketing has remained on target. And that includes Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, now available to buy on a handful of digital platforms. What was once a mouth-watering starter to the main course of Final Fantasy XV must now span a two month gap until the long-awaited title is in our hands. But does it slake our thirst for Final Fantasy or leave us unsatisfied?

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV effectively acts as a visually-spectacular two-hour cutscene intro to the full game, setting the scene for Noctis and friends’ world-spanning road trip. It introduces us to the conflict between the magical kingdom of Lucis, empowered by an enormous crystal, and the military empire of Niflheim, which uses its magitek creations and enormous ‘demons’ to conquer and subjugate other nations. King Regis of Lucis assembles a group of elite warriors empowered by the crystal, dubbed the Kingsglaive, and though they are able to wield powerful magic, they are unable to turn the tide. After years of war, the empire sends its chancellor, Ardyn Izunia, to initiate peace talks to be held in Insomnia, the capital of Lucis. Of course, there is an ulterior motive, and as both sides scheme around the talks, each takes the opportunity to end the war in their favour.

Which begs the question: why would the Lucians agree to hold the talks in their capital city, inviting their enemies right into the heart of their land? Why not a neutral location? Because Kingsglaive doesn’t really make a lot of sense, that’s why. It’s entertaining enough in its big, flashy action setpieces, and there’s a ton of fan service in here for those looking (including monsters like the behemoth, summons, and even an appearance by a curious character from Final Fantasy VI), but the thrust of the story isn’t particularly engaging thanks to implausible decisions made by literally every character in play.

regisclarus

There’s a curious subplot about immigration threaded through much of Kingsglaive‘s narrative. As Niflheim marches through Lucis, conquering the outer reaches of its territory in the process, its citizens are driven toward the capital city of Insomnia, to take shelter beyond its magical wall. It’s a thread that’s never really developed or explored beyond a few jibes and uses of the word immigrant; even our protagonist Nyx, Kingsglaive member and so-called immigrant himself, is unable to give us any real insight into what life was like for him before he came to Insomnia. And then there’s the fact that these people are still Lucians, they’re just not from the nation’s capital, which makes the whole thing feel a little forced. Perhaps ‘refugee’ would have been a better word to use, and it may have even enabled Kingsglaive to say something interesting about people fleeing conflict.

Instead, it’s used as a basic plot device to provide justification to characters who don’t quite get the development they need, despite a relatively small core cast and a two hour runtime. These are pretty digital avatars that exist to look cool and do awesome things, rather than believable people with their own needs and desires, and as such it’s hard to develop much of an attachment to them. We’re told what these people are fighting for, but never shown, so we never really get a real feel for their motivations. And when we see a character die, we’re not sad for the loss of someone we had become interested in, but rather disappointed that we likely won’t see them in the game, where we might have learned more about them and actually come to care for them.

There’s also the issue of Luna. The female lead in both the game and the film, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret is the princess of the conquered kingdom of Tenebrae, and we’ve long been assured that she’ll be a strong character – necessarily so, to balance out the all-male core cast of the game. Yet she spends almost the entirety of the film being dragged around by men who either seek to use her or need to protect her. Telling the audience, repeatedly, that she’s not afraid to die if it means accomplishing her mission doesn’t really count as strength when she repeatedly throws herself into peril that she needs to be saved from. Here’s hoping there’s more to her in the full game, rather than just being a device to enable Noctis’ destiny.

And yet for all that, Kingsglaive still manages to engage and entertain in a handful of ways. Of course, part of the attraction is the astonishing animation work on show; if you thought Advent Children Complete looked amazing, Kingsglaive is on another level altogether – it simply appears photoreal at times. The illusion is tarnished somewhat by the widespread use of ADR, but the film is just incredible to look at, whether you’re gazing at its characters, locations or flashy special effects. Fight scenes are big, brash and full of carnage, well choreographed even if the director sometimes forgets to frame the action appropriately, though the latter stages of the film can hew a little too close to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel for comfort. And while much of the supporting cast are a little overwrought, the core trio of Sean Bean, Lena Headey and Aaron Paul turn in good, naturalistic performances – at least, as far as the material they’re given allows.

etro

Of course, the other big draw Kingsglaive has is that it allows us a look into that enigmatic universe that so many of us have been dying to get to know for a decade now, and that the film finally cracks open a window that we might peek inside is genuinely exciting. That fantasy based on reality is now a little closer to being real and in our hands, and Kingsglaive even has something for those that have been following every trailer since the first one back in 2006, delivering its own take on that now-iconic party/invasion scene that fans had been obsessively watching as they hung on for news, this time playing host to a meeting between Nyx and Luna, rather than Noctis and Stella.

It’s clear to see that some material excised from the game in the switch from Versus XIII to XV has been repurposed for this film, and the fact that we’ll now never experience the invasion of Insomnia in-game genuinely saddens me. As such, Kingsglaive ultimately leaves me with mixed feelings; though I’m more excited for the game having seen the film, I’m simultaneously a bit sad for what might have been. Since its re-reveal back at E3 2013, fans have been digging into every detail in an attempt to pick apart the differences between Tetsuya Nomura’s vision of Versus XIII and Hajime Tabata’s Final Fantasy XV. As a preamble to the game, Kingsglaive doesn’t give us much to go on, other than adapting the invasion of Insomnia and contriving a reason for Noctis’ absence, but there’s still the nagging sense that maybe this isn’t quite the same world we’ve spent a decade pining for, even if the nouns remain the same.

But ten years later, this is the world we’re getting, and the journey begins with Kingsglaive. As an introduction to Final Fantasy XV‘s world and lore, it works – just about – and there’s plenty for series fans to salivate over. It’s also gratifying to see just how much fantasy there actually is in this newest incarnation of the veteran series, despite the glossy modern city setting and trappings thereof. As a standalone film? Not so much. But then it was always going to be one for the fans, a gateway into Square Enix’s next grandiose adventure.

lismaxmain
Have you ever wanted to turn back time? Sure you have. We all make mistakes after all, wishing at times that the ground would open up and swallow us, embarrassments and all. And during the cautious, nervous years of adolescence, as we’re trying to understand the world and our place in it, these slip-ups seem all the more important.

But what if you could go back, rewind time to find a better outcome, or better yet, make sure you never stuck your foot in your mouth to begin with? This is the situation that Maxine “Max” Caulfield finds herself in at the start of episode one of Life is Strange, the new title from DONTNOD. The Parisian studio seems to have something of an obsession with our perception of time, first allowing us to mess with people’s memories in 2013’s Remember Me, and following that up by empowering us, through Max, to directly affect their actions by learning from them, and then rewinding to exploit them.

Comparisons have been made to Quantic Dream’s output, but in truth Life is Strange is something of an amalgamation of Gone Home and Telltale’s recent output seen through the lens of a lo-fi indie flick. For the most part, we’re on fairly familiar ground in gameplay terms; as Max, you’ll explore her environment, examining everything you see and talking to everyone who will talk to you, all the while moving from one small objective to the next, each a step along the path to a larger goal. You’ll also be making a number of choices as you go, and you’re encouraged to rewind and try again to see what might have happened under different circumstances.

Life is Strange's Max

This means that you can easily see the immediate outcome of each choice and then go with the one that seems to be the ‘best’, but while this sounds like it could have an adverse effect on the consequences of your actions, DONTNOD alleviates this concern by forcing you to accept your choices before moving on. These decisions will no doubt come back to haunt you later in the series, as well; already, there are some that seem right at the time, but by the end of the episode have you wondering whether that’s really true. An early decision offers you a choice between capturing photographic evidence of a friend being harassed, or to just step in and stop it right there and then, and one option certainly seems more valid in that moment. But maybe that photograph could come in handy down the line when you’re trying to prove someone’s wrongdoing?

The tone is quite far removed from the creeping dread and suffocating tension of the likes of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, too. Max’s adventure is possessed of a more gentle, autumnal feel, as she returns to her bucolic pacific-northwest hometown of Arcadia Bay after five years away to begin her studies at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, and this first episode is infused with a lazy, ‘school days’ vibe, the pacing deliberately and appropriately slow as Max explores her surroundings, her new abilities and herself, making observations about fellow students as she goes. That’s not to say Life is Strange is particularly light-hearted. There’s a dark thread of small-town alienation threaded through the entire episode, and while there are moments of tension, a couple of which are tantalisingly front-loaded and tied into Max’s newly-awakened powers, after these passages are over we’re returned to that languid, measured pace as we venture out onto the school grounds to immerse ourselves in Max’s new surroundings.

Max is something of a socially-awkward, unsure lead. She’s the quiet nerd in all of us, and as she struggles to find her place in the world, and subsequently understand her new gift, we get to experience it through her interactions and her playfully sardonic internal monologue. It’s a great way to anchor the player in the setting, and while we may not all be as shy as Max, we can surely all relate to being new to some thing or some place. She’s not much more settled in this environment than the player, so it makes sense that her inner thoughts are mostly centred around trying to make sense of her world, a design decision that does as much to inform the player as it does to reinforce Max’s character.

Life is Strange, Nerd cred,

Nerd culture references come thick and fast, and can sometimes be a bit overbearing, but they mostly work. The writers clearly know their audience, and it’s in these moments that the game delivers most of its humour.

Max also keeps a diary that gets updated as events pass, but go back a few pages and you’ll find there’s plenty to read that leads up to the start of the game, too. You can (and should) take a few minutes to read these earlier entries right from the off, and they serve as a good foundation for Max’s character, expressing her love of photography, her excitement at being accepted into Blackwell as well as her hesitance at starting a new chapter of her life. Some of the writing in Max’s diary can hew a little close to being obviously written by someone outside of their teenage years trying to think like a teenager, but it mostly holds up. In fact, Max is actually a pretty well-written character in general: while she loves her area of study, she’s also a proponent of the ‘why do today what you can put off ’til tomorrow’ school of thought; she hates the rich-kid cliques that enable and encourage bullying, but she’s not above rifling through a fellow student’s belongings or rearranging a photo wall to resemble an upturned middle finger; she’s somewhat unsure of who she really wants to be, but she’s also hesitant to find out. Basically, she’s a teenager, and her flaws and her contradictions make her all the more believable.

Then there’s Chloe. Max’s old “BFF” is almost unrecognisable to our heroine when their paths finally cross, and she’s very far from the girl Max remembers. Loud, brash, tattooed and blue of hair, she’s a good foil for our introverted, reserved heroine, quick to act where Max is more deliberate, and it’s immediately obvious that she hasn’t had an easy time since Max left. As Max and Chloe begin to rediscover themselves, their friendship and each other, their interactions are at first awkward and strained, and here we’re afforded another big choice: do we step in and help her out, strengthening the bond between the two young women, or do we stand aside and put our own interests first? It should be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the course of the series, and to what extent our decisions affect it, and it’s obvious by this first episode’s end that Max and Chloe’s friendship will form the core that the rest of the narrative revolves around.

Which is quite handy really, as the rest of the cast is filled out by a group of fairly typical high-schoolers; there’s the nerdy guy who’s clearly interested in our lead, the distant, troubled girl, the bitchy rich girl and a whole group of meathead jocks. And of course, every school setting needs at least one unstable psychopath to ratchet up the tension. While they’re clearly drawn from a bunch of archetypes, it’s a little early to label them stereotypes from one episode alone, and already there are a few characters whose arcs should hopefully be interesting to watch unravel as the episodes continue.

But at the heart of all that sits the mystery of Max’s new powers and the reveal at the episode’s climax of a looming threat to the small town, though we are of course none-the-wiser about what it will be that causes this unnatural catastrophe – only that Max, through her powers, is the only one that knows it’s coming. If future episodes of Life is Strange can deliver on the promises teased in this opening chapter, it’s sure to provide an interesting mystery story wrapped up in a poignant coming-of-age tale.

WW1Do you remember that Spaceworld 2000 Zelda demo? I certainly do. Coming off the back of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, it was exactly the kind of next-gen Zelda I was looking forward to on Nintendo’s then-unnamed Gamecube. But a year later, at 2001’s Spaceworld, this happened. And I wasn’t happy about it.

It wasn’t the cel-shading (after all, I was already a huge fan of Jet Set Radio, the game that pioneered the technique). It wasn’t even the kiddy, cartoon-in-motion aesthetic. My issue was very simple: after a year of looking forward to something, I was handed the sudden realisation that it didn’t even exist. I was disappointed, and while I wasn’t one of those people decrying the game all over the internet, it did mean that I walked away from the franchise for about a decade.

Upon its 2003 release, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker received massive critical acclaim, yet even this reception, backed up with positive reactions from friends whose gaming opinions I trusted, couldn’t bring me around. I had simply moved on to other games. Or so I thought.

The Zelda series has always held a special place in my heart though (Ocarina and Awakening in particular, the former easily sitting in my top five games of all time), and 2011’s excellent Skyward Sword eventually brought me back into the fold. It was as much the time of year as it was the game; Christmas just feels like a great time to play through one of Link’s adventures, and this past Christmas, it was the Wii U and its HD remake of Wind Waker that was grabbing all my attention. And so, despite having just bought an Xbox One, I ordered a Wii U Wind Waker HD bundle. And I’m glad I did.

The Wind Waker begins on Outset Island, where a young boy has just come of age. The islanders have a tradition of dressing young boys in the image of a legendary hero, hoping to instill that hero’s courage and bravery in them. That boy is Link and his big day is about to be ruined. A monstrous bird soaring high over Outset Island breaks the sleepy day-to-day existence Link has always known, and hot on it’s talons is a pirate ship, aiming its cannons directly at the huge invader. In its clutches is that ship’s captain, a young blonde girl by the name of Tetra, and when the bird is struck by a cannonball, dropping her into the dark, forbidding forest at the summit of the island Link, like any hero worth his salt, sets off to help. Unfortunately for him, having saved Tetra, the huge bird sets its sights on his younger sister Aryll, mistaking her for its prey. She is snatched away before his eyes.

Link hears from Quill, an inter-island flying postman, that the bird has been searching out blonde girls with pointy ears and taking them to the Forsaken Fortress in the far north. The bird is doing the bidding of some dark force that has made the fortress his base of operations and so, joining up with the pirates, Link leaves his island, setting off to save his sister.

What follows will be no surprise to fans of the series; these games have long been married to a certain formula of field exploration, dungeon-puzzling and item acquisition and as a newcomer to a game that many first experienced a decade ago, I found it striking just how similar the game feels to Ocarina of Time. Granted, you sail from location to location across an expansive sea, and yes, there are new gadgets to get to grips with (the grappling hook being a particular favourite, used not only to traverse the environment but also to stun or steal items from enemies), but the core gameplay is identical. You move in the same way, you get around dungeons in the same way, you target and, save for a new button-prompt dodge/counter system, attack enemies in the same way.

Granted, this isn’t really a negative as Ocarina still feels remarkably playable today, some fifteen years after its release. Like Bungie with the first Halo title, Nintendo absolutely nailed 3D Zelda on their first go, and so it’s difficult to begrudge the similarities in game design between the two. It’s also worth pointing out that most people would have played Wind Waker five years after Ocarina; until recently, the only Zelda I’d played since that 1998 masterpiece had been Skyward Sword which, with its motion-controlled swordplay, felt like a different take on the series.

But again, it’s hardly a bad thing that Wind Waker plays so similarly to what may be the greatest game ever made, and there’s plenty here to enjoy over the forty-or-so hours you’ll spend in Link’s company. The Great Sea is dotted with memorable environments, charming characters, satisfying puzzles and epic boss battles; the Tower of the Gods in particular, coming at about the halfway-point in the game, is an almost-perfect distillation of everything that Wind Waker is. And then of course there’s those visuals.

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Nintendo’s choice of graphical style has certainly been vindicated with the passage of time. The game just hasn’t aged visually at all. Like the aforementioned Jet Set Radio it’s still strikingly beautiful, and if you didn’t know any better you could easily mistake this HD remastering for a new-for-2013 release. Eiji Aonuma’s team have attempted to give Wind Waker HD the same respectful makeover that Grezzo afforded the 2011 3DS release of Ocarina – that game looked much as you remember it, until you saw comparison shots side by side, and that’s much the same for this re-release. Slightly dampening that intended goal is a new lighting system that, while giving the game a more modern sheen, can occasionally take away from the flat, cartoon-y look the original release sought to create, sometimes highlighting contours and gradients on character models that make them appear like small figurines in a diorama. The effect is not enough to diminish the enhancements elsewhere in the production however, as Wind Waker HD is a stunningly clean, sharp and colourful presentation.

This aesthetic direction also affords Wind Waker the most expressive incarnation of the legendary hero we’ve ever seen. Link has always been a silent character, essentially a cipher for the player to project themselves into his adventures throughout Hyrule. While that’s still the case here, Link’s character design makes his emotions easy to read, his big, expressive eyes telegraphing everything from bold courage, fear, exhaustion and sadness all the way through to delight. And his facial expression in his ‘sidle’ animation is enough to melt the heart of anyone still decrying the choice of art style.

The developers also managed to absolutely nail the tone of the game, every aspect of the production coming together to deliver a playful, almost childlike experience. From the sunny, colourful visuals to the memorable supporting cast (Tetra, Medli and Makar being my personal favourites) to the excellent soundtrack, it all combines to create a sense of whimsical adventure. The story and setting even manage to leave some room for a bit of gentle shading later on, as Link delves beneath the Great Sea and learns the truth behind the ancient civilization that secretly lies far below the surface in a sequence that ties the events of this game to Ocarina of Time. Even the despotic villain Ganon is afforded a bit of humanity, with the writers giving him some motivation for his acts of evil.

Over the years, I’ve seen claims that Wind Waker is a better Zelda than Ocarina, and though I absolutely loved my time with it I can’t agree. For a start, the pacing is nowhere near as tight as the older game. I can count on one finger the amount of times I felt Ocarina was becoming fatiguing (and I don’t mean the Water Temple), but the last couple of hours of Wind Waker felt poorly paced to me. The infamous Triforce Hunt has in this version been toned down, yet I feel they could have halved it again as much of it just felt like busy work – especially the horrid ‘savage labyrinth’ area on Outset Island. Thirty floors of combat isn’t so much fun as it is somewhat wearying.

Secondly, sailing across the sea from island to island can be a bit tedious – often, I’d set my direction, hoist my sail and then read something until I reached my destination (a habit which can prove dangerous if you’re sailing near to the Forsaken Fortress and head straight into a mine). I’d imagine ten years ago the sheer scale of the Great Sea would have been impressive, the promise of hoisting your sail and heading off in any direction imparting a sense of freedom rarely felt in its contemporaries. In the here and now, when more games than not seem to feature an open world, it feels a bit empty. Granted, the Great Sea is divided into 49 squares, and every tile on the map is home to an island or some other feature to discover and explore, but the distances between them (and the slow nature of travel until you can get the new fast sail) make travelling a bit tedious. I managed to completely fill out my map more through a completist’s compulsion than a desire to see what else the ocean had to offer.

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But that’s a handful of dull hours out of forty excellent ones, and when you’re deep in the bowels of a multi-level dungeon, using your latest piece of gear in a novel way to get past a meticulously crafted puzzle, or methodically taking down an enormous screen-filling boss monster, none of that matters. The Zelda series has always been about those dungeons, and here they’re as good as they’ve always been. It speaks volumes about Nintendo’s almost-timeless game design sensibilities that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD can be re-released ten years later and still be one of the best games I played in 2013.

Ryse-Son-of-Rome-4Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome came in for a lot of flack before it was even available to buy. Firstly, it was an Xbox One exclusive, and that was enough to tarnish the game in the eyes of many. Secondly, it was from Crytek, a development studio that some feel prioritise graphics over all else, while others believe the team don’t know how to end a game.

And then there was that E3 reveal that saddled the game with the reputation of being a QTE fest. While not entirely undeserved, it seemed clear to me at the time that these quick time events were simply finishing moves, so I found the uproar a little difficult to take seriously. Still, I had no idea how the game would turn out and early previews were less than glowing – one even likened the game to dialling in numbers on a phone.

I decided to add Ryse to my pre-order list after a short demo of the multiplayer gladiator mode at a GAME lock-in, and having just finished the single player campaign today, I’m glad I did.

Ryse is the tale of Roman soldier Marius Titus, who returns home just in time to see his family butchered by barbarians rampaging throughout the Eternal City. Marius is taken under the wing of Commander Vitallion of the XIV legion, an old friend of his father who is leading the assault on the barbarians’ point of origin – our fair isle of Britain. Suffice it to say, not everything goes to plan, and Marius stumbles upon a realisation that will eventually lead him back to Rome to exact his bloody vengeance on the true architects behind his family’s demise.

The story is pretty standard revenge-tale fare, though it’s handled well with likeable characters and excellent performance-captured acting. Lip-synching is up there with the best and facial animation isn’t just for cutscenes; if you happen to catch Marius’ face in the middle of an attack, you’ll see his teeth clenched, his face tensed in the moment, and you can frequently see full lip-syncing in dialogue that pops up while you’re playing.

If you’re looking for a title to show off your shiny new next-generation Xbox, Ryse is the one. It’s the richest, most lavishly produced video game my eyes have ever borne witness too. Marius’ arms and armour glint convincingly in the equally convincing sunlight that bathes Rome’s marble courtyards in golden shafts. Verdant forests are packed with lush green vegetation that moves underfoot, and real-time reflections in a dingy puddle genuinely stop you in your tracks – I lost count of the number of times I stopped just to pan the camera and gawp at my surroundings. Throughout the campaign I saw no dodgy textures, no clipping, nothing to destroy the perfectly-polished sense of place – everything was solid, pristine. Ryse really is an outrageously pretty game.

Crytek’s stated ambition with Ryse was to create the best sword-and-shield game they could, and in mechanical terms they’ve done pretty well. Controls are simple: ‘X’ to slash with your gladius, ‘Y’ to shield bash, ‘B’ to dodge-roll and ‘A’ to deflect incoming attacks, and if you have a stock of spears in your back pocket, you can aim and throw these with the triggers. Combat is strongly timing-based; if you see an attack coming, hit ‘A’ to deflect your assailant’s blade and you open them up to your own attacks, timing your next sword slash or shield bash as the previous one lands to chain your combo together. Once you’ve done enough damage, a skull icon will appear above your enemy’s head – a sign that you can pull on the right trigger to begin the execution animation.

These are the QTE kills that we saw in that E3 reveal, though thankfully without the intrusive button prompts. Instead, as the world slows around Marius, the enemy is quickly outlined in colour – yellow for the ‘Y’ button, blue for ‘X’ – and hitting the correct button will grant you perks selected via the d-pad – extra health or xp, for instance. Rather controversially, these QTEs cannot be failed – you can ignore the button prompts altogether and your enemy will die all the same. But you’ll miss out on those perks. It’s a curious choice, but at least if you screw up you still get to see the excellent animations at play.

In gameplay terms, it often feels like Ryse is action gaming boiled down to its absolute basics – certainly when you’re one on one with a single enemy. There’s not really anything else to do besides fight hordes of barbarians or fire the odd arrow-turret, and while you often get a chance to form a phalanx and advance on archers, or order soldiers to hold a certain point while you defend another, it still generally ends up in third-person combat. Levels are linear in the extreme, and while that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, the environments are so beautifully-crafted and inviting that you’ll often want to go off-grid and explore a bit. All you can do is keep barrelling forward through the level. There are a number of collectibles hidden in alcoves or dead ends to find, however.

Ryse‘s combat really comes alive when you’re battling against a number of enemies at once. They don’t patiently wait for you to dispatch their comrades, instead lurching in while you’re busy trying to thin out their numbers. You’ll often find yourself surrounded, having to watch out for signs of attack from every side, and if you should happen to weaken two enemies and place yourself between them before pulling on ‘RT’, you’ll perform one of the game’s almost-balletic double-executions. The fluidity of animation helps here; no matter what you’re doing, you can always bail out with a dodge-roll, or throw in a hasty shield bash to throw an enemy off balance. It’s a fantastically responsive system.

In my seven or eight hours with Ryse, I was constantly reminded of three games. The first of these is Final Fantasy XIII, which is another game that distilled its genre down to the barest essence. As with that game, I enjoyed it for what it was, but wouldn’t necessarily want the next instalment to follow the same design paths. Secondly, combat reminded me of a stripped down version of The Witcher 2‘s sword-play system, as in that game you also had to know not only when to attack, defend and evade but when not to do these things, risking punishment if you read the situation wrong (also, a number of environments reminded me quite strongly of Geralt’s medieval fantasy world).

Finally, I was most often reminded of one of the big hitters from the Xbox 360. It feels to me as if Crytek wanted to create the Xbox One’s Gears of War, but with a sword and shield rather than a chainsaw gun. It’s got the same all-out action feel, the same rule-of-thirds camera, the same focus on cinematic storytelling, and that same occasionally bleak tone. Granted, these aren’t elements that are particularly rare in modern gaming, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that Crytek want to be to Xbox One what Epic Games were to the 360.

A few days before release, I read a review that likened Ryse: Son of Rome to the first Assassin’s Creed – a title that was a decent foundation for an excellent sequel. I hope Crytek take another shot at Ryse; I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it and I’d like to see the concept reach its full potential. As long as it isn’t simply more of the same, I’d be very happy to see a continuation.