Archives for category: Screenshots

regalia
Little more than two weeks before the release of Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix released the third and final demo for their ambitious open world adventure. First there was Episode Duscae, our first proper look at Final Fantasy XV that released more than 18 months ago, as a bonus for those purchasing Final Fantasy Type 0. Then, as the company held a lavish event this past March to announce the (now missed) original release date for the game, we were, ahem, ‘treated’ to the Platinum Demo. With each demo, there has been as much to complain about as there has been cause for celebration, but this time the good massively outweighs the bad; this latest taster, Judgment Disc, shows not only that the game has come along in leaps and bounds, but that the two months Hajime Tabata’s team bought themselves back in September have been wisely spent indeed.

Of course, before we get into the gameplay and technical details of Judgment Disc, it’s important to note that it is a Japan-only demo. As such, if you want to play it, you’ll need to either change your Xbox region to Japan, or create a Japanese PSN account. As there’s no English text or speech, you could also do with some working knowledge of spoken and written Japanese. I have neither, but managed to stumble through the demo regardless (though not without a couple of issues, as I’ll get into later).

Getting into the demo itself, the first thing you’ll note is that it both looks and performs much better than either of the previous releases; offering nice clean image quality and steady frame rates, Judgment Disc shows Final Fantasy XV looking and feeling better than it ever has before. It’s even noticeably improved from the Gold Master footage Square Enix made available in the days after the delay announcement, so there’s no doubt that pushing back the release was absolutely worth it. The chunk of the game we’re given picks up right from the start, with the unexplained (and somewhat bewildering) chapter 0 flash-forward giving way to the present day as Noctis and chums must push their broken down car along a sun-baked highway to Hammerhead, before moving onto Galdin Quay in hopes of catching a boat to Altissia so that the prince can make it to his wedding in time.

Before long, you’re set free and out into the sandy region of Leide, to hunt monsters as payment for your car repairs, and it becomes immediately obvious that the chunk of world we’re given to run around in is absolutely vast, the generous demo recalling memories of Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s entire first disc being given away on the cover of Sega Saturn Magazine back in May ’98 (I still have that disc!). Indeed, it’s a shame that this demo hasn’t been made available to everyone, such is the positive impression it leaves; few will have played the promising Episode Duscae, tethered as it was to first print purchases of Type 0, and Platinum Demo really wasn’t something that deserved to be most people’s first point of contact with the game. Granted, it’s easy enough to get your hands on Judgment Disc – especially on Xbox One – but the fact that all text and voice is in Japanese will be off-putting to some.

If there’s one concern I do have at the moment, it’s that, at this admittedly very early point in the game, I think I preferred the combat in Episode Duscae – well, certain aspects of it at least. The systems are broadly similar of course, with Noctis switching between four weapons, stringing together combos as he goes, all the while dodging enemy attacks with an MP-draining defense stance or a more traditional dodge-roll. What’s different here is that, rather than building your combo by placing weapons in specific spots, influencing when and how they’ll show up in your ongoing assault, you now have the ability to switch weapons in real-time, a change originally seen in the Platinum Demo. This is absolutely A Good Thing. What’s less welcome, however, is the absence of Duscae‘s weapon-specific Techniques. In that first demo, each weapon in Noctis’ armoury had a powerful ability attached to it – his Blood Sword, for instance, offered Drain Blade which, after a short wind-up would hit the enemy and transfer some of it’s vitality to Noctis, while his Dragon Lance would grant you access to that iconic Final Fantasy Jump command. While we’ve known about this change for a while – they were also missing from the adult Noctis battle at the end of Platinum Demo, for instance – it’s still a rather disappointing change, and can serve to make combat feel a little more one-note than it previously did; while the game still isn’t a case of ‘hold circle to win’, as many detractors would claim around Duscae‘s release, it does now feel a little closer to that than it previously did. That being said, these Techniques do have a replacement here, of a sort. They’ve been given to your allies.

Well, kind of. You see, above your weapon UI, there’s a green bar with a few notches along it that fills as you battle enemies. Attaining a notch on this metre allows you to perform a party attack, ordering one of your entourage to carry out a specific ability. For instance, Gladio, Noctis’ beefy bodyguard, will perform Tempest, a wide-sweeping sword attack that pulls enemies together and was last seen attached to Noctis’ Engine Blade in Duscae. Ignis and Prompto have their own abilities of course, with Prompto firing a piercing shot at the targeted enemy and Ignis throwing his daggers out to mark a number of enemies, which Noctis will then warp between. These actions are always enjoyable to use, and successfully landing one triggers a QTE which allows Noctis to follow up with a tap of a button. And while they are definitely an addition I like, as they make the otherwise-uncontrollable members of your party feel a bit more involved and under your control, I must question whether they had to come at the cost of Noctis’ own weapon techniques, which were, more often than not, a risk/reward mechanic in Duscae, as they needed both a long wind-up and a good chunk of MP. Without this mechanic, the rhythm of battle has changed from one where you’d constantly be looking for a bit of time and space to slip in a damaging technique to one where you just attack until you build enough meter to trigger a party member into action, which then takes you out of the fight for a few seconds. Again, it’s very early in the game at this point, and I’m sure there’ll be later additions to the core combat system that shake up that rhythm somewhat.

gladio

What’s a little more concerning is the somewhat unresponsive nature of your button presses. There’s a noticeable delay between pressing a button and having a command carried out; running through the world and jumping over obstacles will see you needing to press jump before you actually reach that obstacle, for instance. While this is something you’ll get used to fairly quickly, it’s exacerbated by the combat system’s reliance on animation priority, making it very easy to get stuck in the middle of a sword swing – especially with a slow weapon like the Engine Blade – and then take a hit despite holding down the defend button while you wait for the animation to finish. Animation priority alone would make the combat a little more ponderous, as you wait for an opening before committing to an attack (think The Witcher 2‘s sword combat) but marrying this to unresponsive button presses can and will cause frustration. Enemies are weak to specific weapons, so if you’re fighting a monster that requires you to use a heavy sword – like the crabs near Galdin Quay you can see in this article’s second video – you’ll probably end up getting knocked about before you land a hit. I’m hoping that the responsiveness will be improved for release (we will still be getting a day one patch, of course), but otherwise it’s something I’ll have to adapt to by playing much more cautiously, watching enemies for an opening rather than just wading in with a massive sword.

There is actually a mechanic in the battle system which seems to exist to give you a bit of breathing space, however: link attacks. Should you land a parry or a back attack while standing next to an ally, you might trigger a cool, cinematic co-operative attack with that party member. These segments always look fantastic – witness Gladio throwing Noctis into the air from the point of his sword, before the prince comes crashing down to earth with his spear – and like the aforementioned party actions, these also take you out of the action for a second or two. I can imagine that attempting to manoeuver yourself into a position to make link strikes happen as often as possible will be a big part of your combat strategy, giving enemies less of a chance to attack.

We got a brief look at magic usage in the Platinum Demo, and Judgment Disc gives us an opportunity to try out the game’s new spell-crafting system. Gathering magic is somewhat reminiscent of FFVIII‘s draw system, as throughout the world you’ll find naturally occurring deposits of elemental energy that you can absorb and then use to craft magic spells. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the crafting mechanics, whereby you select an equippable magic bottle, an amount of elemental energy and then modifying items from your inventory to create spells with differing effects, such as a fire spell that will also poison your target. As I couldn’t read the text prompts, I had to settle for pressing all the buttons in hopes of making something happen but sadly, elemental mastery eluded me. It’s a system that should help add a few wrinkles to combat, and I can’t wait to get to grips with in the full game, but Judgment Disc does at least gift us a few uses of the base fire spell partway through the demo. Try not to throw it at your team mates. Or do, if you want to see them panic a bit, as magical friendly fire is a thing that exists in Final Fantasy XV.

Another aspect of the game that I look forward to finding out more about is sidequests. In the chunk of game offered here, you can take on hunts at local diners before heading out into the open world to exterminate troublesome mobs, but other than that side content seems a little thin on the ground. Again, not being able to understand the language puts me at a disadvantage here – for all I know, it’s possible to pick up additional quests simply by overhearing NPCs or reading in-game items – I’ll find out for sure when I have an English copy of the game. We’ve also seen some side content in the material Square Enix and various press outlets have put out in the last couple of months, it just remains to be seen how impactful that content will be; will it boil down to fetch quests and monster hunts, or is there something more interesting in there?

What is interesting is that we finally get to play with the Regalia this time. We came tantalisingly close in Episode Duscae, with the demo ending just as we were ready to get behind the wheel, but here we get to finally take our flash set of wheels for a spin. You can choose either to drive manually or let Ignis take control, and this mode is surprisingly enjoyable, as you’re left free to spin the camera around and enjoy the scenery, all the while listening to classic Final Fantasy tunes on the car radio. I can see myself driving all over just to enjoy some old school Uematsu magic, though if I have one piece of advice, it is this: do not forget to fill up on fuel!

Story remains my biggest interest, though. In a sense, I’m quite glad I can’t understand any of the text or dialogue in this demo – though I have seen all of this content in English, thanks to Square-Enix’s aggressive video policy post-delay, the language barrier has kept me from getting too interested in the goings-on of Noctis and his retinue, allowing me to focus solely on the gameplay. But this has always been one of the biggest draws for me in a Final Fantasy – following the narrative beats, getting to know the characters, and losing myself in the world – and having avoided all spoilers, I know just enough to be very interested in where things go from here. One thing I had been worried about was the absence of the imperial invasion of Insomnia – originally slated for the game and now only appearing in Kingsglaive – fearing that the events of the game might feel a bit disconnected from that really quite important story detail. Thankfully, the day one ‘Crown Update‘ will add scenes from the film (as well as the excellent Omen trailer) to flesh out the current state of the world, so that should help. As I mentioned in my Kingsglaive review, I am a little sad we’ll never see the Insomnia invasion in-game, but I’m ready to see where this version of the story takes us, and I can’t wait to join Noctis and crew on the road. After ten years of waiting, I can’t believe its merely days away.

Faith
I love Mirror’s Edge. It’s one of my favourite games of the last console generation. Thanks to some fantastic controls, its immersive viewpoint and that now-famous sense of movement and flow, it allowed me some vicarious sense of free-running across a beautiful-yet-sterile cityscape, all without having to worry about smashing my precious knees.

So when a sequel/prequel/reimagining/whatever was announced back at E3 in 2013, it was immediately a day one buy for me. Since that unveiling, we’ve learnt about the game’s open world setting, which has been a source of consternation for some; was the game set in an open environment simply to tick a box? What kinds of things would we be doing in this world? Would it subsequently suffer from the open world bloat that blights so many videogame worlds? With last week’s short, three-day closed beta now over, we can answer some of those questions.

The beta afforded us a decent-sized chunk of the City of Glass to run around in, and featured a small handful of story missions – including the climb through the Elysium building we saw at Gamescom last year – to get us oriented in this reimagined world. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot of sorts, though the broad strokes seem to be the same; Faith is of course still a ‘runner’ in this near-future dystopia, essentially a punkishly rebellious courier, and once again her parents were outspoken critics of the borderline-totalitarian establishment. Some unspecified trauma in Faith’s past has led her to become a runner, and as we begin the beta she’s just out of juvie after a two-year stint. What we have here is a younger, more cocksure rendition of Faith, taking risks and defying authority almost as soon as she’s let out of her perspex prison. I wonder if in the full game we’ll get a playable prologue explaining quite how she got there.

It’s an effective start, and the beta is pretty quick to give us control and let us run. The first thing to note is how familiar it all feels: essentially, we’ve got one button for up (jump), and one button for down (crouch), just as in the original game, and wall-runs, springboards and everything else all feel the same as they did back in 2008. This is a very good thing indeed; Dice nailed Faith’s movement on the first try, and traversal isn’t where they needed to innovate. That’s where the move to an open world comes in, and while the City of Glass does feel rather empty at the moment, how much of that is down to this being merely a small slice of the full product remains to be seen.

Restless

Of course, there is a decent amount of ‘stuff’ to be done in the beta, but how compelling it is will come down to the individual. There are time trials – called Dashes here – and rooftop delivery runs, and a number of data bundles and security chips littered across the rooftops waiting for an agile runner to pilfer, but I can’t quite escape the feeling that it’s all stuff I’ve done a thousand times before in a hundred other worlds. However, that the core traversal feels so damn good elevates these tasks somewhat; it’s just fun getting to and from each mission, and I think they’re a more than acceptable trade-off if it means we get this gameplay loop in an open setting.

Getting around the city can be made even better by simply turning off Runner Vision. In the first game, Runner Vision picked out a path for you by highlighting navigable terrain in bright red – unnecessary as that was in such a linear game. Here, you can either have ‘classic’ Runner Vision, which does much the same thing, ‘full’, which basically gives you a ghost to follow, or ‘off’. The latter is the best way to play the game, especially here in an open setting where there’s more than one path – there’s a whole lot of fun to be had simply picking a point on your map, setting a waypoint, and then just finding your own way there, turning something as simple as getting to a mission into a challenging climbing and navigation puzzle as you find your own way over, under and across the City of Glass.

There’s another staple of gaming in the 21st century that has found its way into Mirror’s Edge, and this one I’m not entirely sold on. In the menus, you’ll find three skill trees for movement, combat and gear, each with a broad array of abilities to unlock. As a big RPG fan, I’m certainly not against the inclusion of skill trees, but one thing about the system implemented here that irks me somewhat is that skills that were a core part of your repertoire in the original game are now locked behind an XP system – things like that quick 180-turn, tucking your legs while jumping to clear higher obstacles, or even the skill roll that allows you to maintain your momentum after a long drop. All abilities that you’d use frequently in the original Mirror’s Edge, and all abilities that would be very useful to have in the early stages of this beta, when you have to do without them. With the move to an open world, I can understand that there is some need for gating; allowing the player to get anywhere in the game world right from the off would probably give the mission designers massive headaches, but in a game built entirely around movement, I’d prefer to have everything available from the start and have areas gated by gear, instead. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst seems to have both, and obviously the game is going to be designed around having to unlock stuff, so in practice it shouldn’t be an issue. It still chafes somewhat though, knowing that the full repertoire of Faith’s traversal skills aren’t available from the off, as they were in the original.

Skill tree

Where I can see the skill trees working well is with combat, which has seen something of an overhaul for Catalyst. While gunplay was a very minor part of the original game, it’s now been excised completely in favour of bolstering hand-to-hand combat. Weaker strikes with Faith’s hands are mapped to the X button and can be used while running to knock foes out of the way without slowing down, while kicks are on Y and can cause enemies to stagger. Kicking an enemy with a left or right directional input will knock the enemy sideways, often into an ally, causing both to stumble and giving Faith an opening, while the right trigger in combination with the movement stick grants a directional dodge. This can even be used to circle strafe enemies, and it’s endlessly entertaining to swing ’round the back of an enemy and kick him in the butt, sending him stumbling off the edge of a building to certain doom. It’s enjoyable to play around with and far more than the necessary evil that combat often was in the original game. Additional, unlockable skills should help to keep it fresh and fun.

But for all that’s new, the crucial thing to take away is that this looks, sounds and feels like Mirror’s Edge. How all those additional systems of progression and questing will shake out, we can only wait for the full game to discover, but Dice have absolutely nailed that same sense of immersive flow that made the first game so great, and allowed me to keep my knees in one piece.

Kait and JD
It’s more than two years since Microsoft acquired the Gears of War IP from Epic, and a good nine months since The Coalition unveiled their newest title in the third-person shooter franchise at E3 last year. But for all the familiar elements – the chunky armour, the chainsaw bayonets, the destroyed beauty and the waist-high walls – that reveal didn’t really tell us much. Who were these new characters? Where were they, and what were they doing? Were we even on Sera anymore?

Now, new details have emerged in a Game Informer cover feature. Set 25 years after the climactic events of Gears of War 3, Sera is a very different place. Though it is a time of unprecedented peace, the remnants of humanity now live in walled cities, while violent windstorms batter the planet, an effect of the Imulsion bomb set off at the end of Gears 3. A community of Outsiders – think Stranded, but not nearly so downtrodden – live apart from the COG in their own villages, preferring a freer existence. Into this strange new world come our three protagonists, JD Fenix, Delmont ‘Del’ Walker, and Kait Diaz. The son of the original trilogy’s Marcus Fenix, JD has gone AWOL at the start of the game for reasons unknown, followed by his fiercely loyal childhood friend Del. Taking refuge in an Outsider community, they meet Kait, daughter of the village’s leader Reyna, and described as a capable survivalist who offers a different perspective on the world. When all of Kait’s people are kidnapped, dragged off into the night, the trio set out into the deep, dark woods to look for them, and uncover the mystery behind the Outsiders’ disappearance and the arrival of a grave new threat to the people of Sera.

gears4cast

Rod Fergusson tells Game Informer that the goal for Gears 4 is to return to that darker, more intimate feeling the first game had, which often felt like four soldiers standing against the night. “It felt like, as the series progressed, we lost some of the intimacy,” said Fergusson. “The first Gears was a little bit darker and spookier, a little bit more bogeyman under the bed. But as you went through two and three, especially three, Gears became more of a World War II game where the Locust essentially became Nazis in a way. Because the scale had grown, you had gone from this sort of incursion behind enemy lines to a war at a planetary level. Even though we were trying to make the stakes greater, on a personal level, it actually felt like the stakes were lessened.” To get back some of that feel, The Coalition settled on a story featuring three protagonists that stretched over a single span of 24 hours. Getting closer to their characters has allowed the studio more time to focus on their development, as well as the theme of lineage, something that will no doubt be an important thread in the narrative of Gears of War 4.

But that’s not to say that Gears 4 is looking to be a retread of the 2006 original. While The Coalition don’t want to reinvent the wheel, there will be plenty of new stuff to look forward to. First off, the eradication of the Locust Horde means our heroes need an all-new threat to combat, and we now know they’ll be called The Swarm. We’ve already seen one example of this mysterious new force, the agile Pouncer from the E3 gameplay demo, and there’ll also be at least two new creatures to go along with them. The first are Juvies, fast, agile pale humanoids that rush you down to force you out of cover, and are capable of evolving into another new enemy type, the Drone. Named for their counterpart in the Locust army, these hulking monsters are capable of using guns and will likely make up the bulk of The Swarm’s forces. Hopefully they won’t be too similar to the old Drones we all know so well.

Gears of War 4 Juvie

Our protagonists have a few new moves up their sleeves as well, mostly focussed around close-quarters combat. “One of the problems we’ve always had was with close cover,” Fergusson told Game Informer. ” Occasionally you’ll get into that situation where two people come onto the same piece of cover and it looks kind of silly. It’s kind of The Naked Gun moment where the two people are throwing their pistols at each other. One of our big things in Gears was never make the avatar look stupid, so we started to talk about how we could improve players’ ability to move over cover.” To achieve this, The Coalition reworked the mantle kick system from the third game, making it easier to clear obstacles in one smooth motion. If an enemy happens to be hunkered down on the other side, they’ll be staggered briefly, allowing the player to use another new feature – the combat knife. This can be used in close-quarters situations to quickly execute stunned enemies, and to that end, you’ll even be able to drag your prey out of cover to finish them quickly or, if you’re out in the open, use a new short-range shoulder charge (which can be seen in the E3 demo) to knock your foes off balance.

Those violent windstorms mentioned earlier – called windflares – will also play a part in changing up how you use cover. More than just ominous background elements, the wind can affect projectile trajectory, hinder your movement through the environment, and even tear pieces of it away. Game Informer describes a scenario where you could shoot out support struts during an intense windflare, sending a piece of heavy machinery barrelling across the battlefield, killing everything in its path, and The Coalition intends for the weather to heavily alter a play space, so much so that after you’ve moved through it’s almost a different environment. Additionally, these windflares are separated into four categories, with a category 4 also bringing with it lightning strikes. Thankfully, you won’t have to fight off The Swarm while you struggle to survive these intense moments: “Our original idea was that categories one through four would always involve enemies,” said Fergusson. “But when we started playing around with the wind, we realized that just trying to survive in a category four – just trying to do that rock-climbing-like movement to get from cover to cover – was exciting. I was like, ‘I don’t think we need enemies in a four, but we need something else.’ That’s where the ideas for those lightning flurries came up. I wanted to feel like we were swimming through jellyfish, like we were surrounded by danger on all sides and it was beautiful.”

windflare

With Gears vet Rod Fergusson heading the studio, and with The Coalition’s sterling work on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition under their belts, it feels like Gears of War 4 is in the right hands. “We have to do it right before we do it different,” said Fergusson. “That’s the message I came to The Coalition with. We were new stewards to the franchise, and we had to show that we respected the franchise and that we knew the franchise before we went off and did something crazy.” From what we know of Gears of War 4 so far, it’s sounding like it’ll be an exciting mix of the familiar and the crazy – exactly what we need for the return of one of the last generation’s classics.

Gravity Rush's Kat
A quick (mildly passive-aggressive) heads-up for the PS4 owners among you: Gravity Rush Remastered hits UK shop shelves today, and you should absolutely go and buy a copy.

Originally released on PlayStation Vita back in 2012, Gravity Rush has since become a cult favourite for fans of the under-appreciated handheld, and now it’s coming to a wider audience, fans are hoping it can attract a whole new fanbase on home console. Honestly, it’s a miracle we’re getting a sequel, which is coming to PS4 sometime this year, so if you never had access to a Vita, now’s the time to play this unique, wonderful game from Sony’s Japan Studio.

The Vita game had a wonderful effect where the horizon became a sort of abstract sketch to mask the draw distance. Thankfully, Bluepoint have retained the effect on PS4. I loved it then and I love it now.

The Vita game had a wonderful effect where the horizon became a sort of abstract sketch to mask the draw distance. Thankfully, Bluepoint have retained the effect on PS4. I loved it then and I love it now.

So what is Gravity Rush, exactly? I’m glad you asked. It’s a mission-based open world game, though it’s different from any you’ve played before. Well, maybe Crackdown is the closest thing to it – certainly in the way that collecting gems to power up Kat is just as addictive as hunting down Crackdown‘s agility orbs – but even then the two games aren’t particularly alike. It’s effectively a superhero origin story, starring a teenage amnesiac, and you’re already beginning to roll your eyes and groan, imagining lots of attitude and a dark backstory. Well, it’s the opposite of that. Gravity Rush‘s protagonist, Kat, has no backstory. And she doesn’t have much of an attitude, either. She wakes up one day in the city of Hekseville with no memory of who or where she is, finds she has the power to manipulate gravity through a mysterious cat she names Dusty, and then she promptly sets out to cheerfully help the people of the city as they find themselves under attack from strange monsters called Nevi.

I said Kat can control gravity, remember? Well, the whole game is built around that. With the tap of a button, you can untether her from gravity altogether, and then decide at will which direction you want to ‘fall’. The city is one huge playground for your to fling yourself around – through, over and under, as Hekseville rather strangely just floats in a void. The ability to realign gravity means Kat can walk on walls, drop horizontally to travel at speed, or simply just fall into the sky. You can see what I mean in the video below, which shows ten minutes of early-game play, as our heroine sets up a home for herself.

I love games that make it a joy just simply getting around the world and exploring, and in that respect, Gravity Rush is one of the best. Add to that beautiful art, a soundtrack with serious earworm potential and a likeable, engaging lead and you’ve got something really special. The conversion has been masterfully handled by remaster specialists Bluepoint, who have done a wonderful job bringing the game up to PS4 standards while respecting the art and aesthetic of the Vita original, and at just half the price of a standard new game, how can you say no?

Well, don’t. Go and grab a copy and maybe we can all make sure that Gravity Rush 2 is a smashing success. Sony may have sent this game out to die with no marketing, but we can show them that unique games like this have a place in the market.

Dancin' to tha Beat
I don’t remember the first time I saw Jet Set Radio, but I certainly remember my reaction: “Holy crap, that looks cool.”

It was probably a feature in the dearly-departed Dreamcast Magazine, some time after the game’s TGS ’99 reveal, and from the moment I saw it, I knew I had to play Jet Set Radio. From the incredible cel-shaded art-style that exuded that street-punk attitude that serves as its thematic foundation, to the central conceit of the game – namely, tagging graffiti to mark your gang’s territory – to the saturated colours of the Tokyo streets against that trademark Sega blue sky. Everything about this game arrested my attention. I couldn’t wait to play it.

And then, months later, thanks to a demo disc attached to the cover of the aforementioned publication, I got my chance. And I hated it. I couldn’t get my head around the controls for a start, which meant I had trouble getting around the environment, which meant I couldn’t escape the rampaging police, which meant I couldn’t find the time to paint. And on the off-chance that I actually managed to get to a tag site, I couldn’t seem to get to grips with the graffiti mechanics, either. But I had been so looking forward to the game that I decided I had to try it again. And again. And again and again. And all of a sudden, it just clicked. Everything came into sharp focus; I knew what the game expected of me, and I understood how to make it happen. Get some speed behind you, grind that rail, make that jump, ride that wall. The floor is lava.

Smilebit’s 2000 Dreamcast title has since become a cult classic, leading to Sega and BlitWorks releasing an excellent HD version on literally everything back in 2012. Jet Set Radio presents a colourful, stylised representation of Tokyo, including iconic areas like the Shibuya bus terminal, and stars a cast of punky inline skaters out to grab territory for their respective street gangs. How do you go about this? By tagging the crap out of everything you see, of course! You’ll mark your territory on buses, cop cars, advertising hoardings and storefronts as you claim turf from rival gangs the Love Shockers, Noise Tanks and Poison Jam. Naturally, the police, led by the hard-boiled Captain Onishima and backed by the shadowy Rokkaku Group, don’t take kindly to your urban artwork. These crazy keisatsu will do anything, including calling in helicopter gunships, to put an end to your adolescent fun.

Gum taggin'

Right from the off, Jet Set Radio demands that you get good. Just as the controls take a little time to puzzle out, so do the level layouts; very early on, you’ll learn to prioritise the larger, more time-consuming tags before the police escalate their presence, bringing in tear gas troopers, assassins armed with electric whips and black-suited knife-wielding goons, all of whom make it a very bad idea to stand still and tag. You’ll soon realise it’s best to leave the simple, one-hit tags ’til the very end of the level so that you can grind, trick and race past your aggressors, tagging as you go. This means that you’ll ideally spend the first minute or so just skating around, getting the lay of the land and collecting spray paint cans, before launching your carefully-planned graffiti assault on the streets of Tokyo-to.

Let’s look at the funk

The first thing you’ll notice – and indeed, the thing the game is probably still best known for – are those striking, pioneering cel-shaded graphics that make Jet Set Radio look like a Gainax anime come to life. We see the technique a fair bit these days, and 2002’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker arguably brought it to more mainstream attention, but back in 2000 it was absolutely state of the art; really, it had only been seen in the character models of Fear Effect, which came out only months before Jet Set Radio. Chief graphics designer Ryuta Ueda wanted to create a snapshot of what he saw as Tokyo’s youth culture at the time, something that reflected the eclectic, high-energy, vibrantly colourful scene he saw around him.

It’s not just about those beautiful, flat, shaded polygons though. The game is brought to life by all the little incidental details; the fact that Garam’s necklace looks like it just might be Sonic’s skull, Tab poking his tongue out at you every now and then for no good reason, DJ Professor K’s funky hair that pulses in time to the beat, and the fact that nobody ever stands still. Every character is in constant motion – even leaving your skater idle causes them to dance to their own rhythm, like a way cooler version of Spaced‘s Tires. Touches like this create a tangible, kinetic connection between gameplay and presentation, tying them together with the audio in such a way that every element comes together to create a solid, cohesive whole where every little touch just feels right.

These guys mean business

The visual presentation is beautifully mirrored by an eclectic, borderline-manic soundtrack from Hideki Naganuma that remains one of the best in gaming. Representing every facet of Ueda’s vision of late-nineties Tokyo street culture, Naganuma’s work takes in hip hop, funk and even acid jazz, interspersing it with odd looped samples (“Will you stop playing with that radio of yours? I’m trying to get to sleep!”). Meanwhile the varied licensed tracklist mixes in the kooky rock of Guitar Vader, the alternative hip hop of Jurassic 5, and even finds space for a track from fellow Sega veteran Richard Jacques (yes, the man behind the indisputably awesome Sonic R soundtrack contributed to Jet Set Radio).

Understand, understand

While Jet Set Radio didn’t exactly set sales alight, a sequel of sorts was released for the Xbox in 2002. Jet Set Radio Future, as the name suggests, transposed the GGs and their rivals to a near-future vision of Tokyo-to. Characters were redesigned, the plot was shuffled about a bit, and the colour palette was more muted, but the biggest differences were in how the game played. Conventional wisdom holds that you either like one game or the other, and you can’t possibly like both. While this isn’t really true at all, Jet Set Radio Future did do a fair bit to put off fans of the previous game.

Future exists almost as a reimagining of the concept, simplifying some things while expanding others. The most immediate changes are the removal of the time limit in each level and a ‘streamlining’ of the way you execute graffiti; whereas you’d copy analogue stick movements in Jet Set Radio, corresponding to broad strokes of paint, in Future you simply pull the trigger as you race past and it all just happens for you. I absolutely hated these changes at the time. Coming from a challenging game where it’s vital to set your priorities and then create the space needed to get things done in the allotted time, Future just felt like it lacked pace, challenge and focus.

The differences weren’t all for the bad, however, and the removal of these mechanics makes a lot of sense when you look at what Jet Set Radio Future is, rather than what it isn’t. The size, scale and complexity of the environments have been massively enlarged, with multiple large, vertical spaces leading to and from one another; a time limit would have been a real drag in levels this huge, and its absence lends Future a much more exploratory feel than the original. The level design is also pushed to its limits to accommodate this expanded sense of freedom: larger spaces mean far more routes over, under, through and around the game’s crazed urban landscapes. Where Jet Set Radio was a tight, focussed time-attack game as its heart, Future is more like a playground for you to jump, grind, trick and tag through.

Jet Set Radio may have been absent for over a decade now, but its influence can still occasionally be felt. Insomniac’s Ted Price has spoken about how the Sega classic informed Sunset Overdrive‘s traversal system, and that game also has a knack of making you feel like a sucker if you so much as deign to touch the ground. Meanwhile, the recent Splatoon will give gamers of a certain age serious JSR vibes, as, like Sunset Overdrive, the game’s visual presentation clearly owes a debt to Jet Set‘s colourful, anarchic sense of fun. How fitting that a project led by a new generation of talent at Nintendo’s famed EAD division should echo a game that looked to celebrate Tokyo’s youth culture in the final days of the 1990s.

And what of the team that brought JSR into the world? Well, sadly, we all know about Sega’s troubles since going third-party in the aftermath of the Dreamcast’s premature death, an upheaval that led to internal teams being reshuffled, reorganized and renamed, as well as something of a talent exodus. Both Ryuta Ueda and director Masayoshi Kikuchi went on to work on the Ryu Ga Gotoku series (where they even managed to include a short cameo for JSR bad guy Rokkaku Gouji, later joking that this meant the games existed in the same universe). Ueda has since left the company, along with Hideki Naganuma, who recently suggested that Sega has no interest in reviving the series.

Still, with new Sega Games CEO Haruki Satomi recently indicating that Sega want to win back their fanbase, perhaps we will see something done with all those classic IP that are just sitting in a vault somewhere in Tokyo, gathering dust. At the very least, perhaps we can hope for Sega to give us some more of the HD remasters they were offering just a few short years ago, and make Future available for a new audience. Perhaps things are looking up, after all.

The first thing you notice upon starting up Episode Duscae is ‘Somnus’. That beautiful old theme we’ve been hearing since the game’s very first reveal as Versus XIII plays over the title screen, yet something’s different. The vocals have been replaced by a violin, in a subtle move that seems to suggest that, while this is indeed the game we’ve all been waiting the better part of a decade to play, there are going to be some changes.

Of course, the most obvious of these changes, bar the name, is the shift in platform from PS3 to PS4 and Xbox One. The game was spectacularly thrust back into the limelight when it was announced for the new-gen platforms back at E3 2013 with an action-packed trailer that caused some to worry that their beloved jRPG franchise had gone all Uncharted. Episode Duscae then, is clearly a statement of intent.

Final Fantasy XV is set to be something of a shake up for the long-running series. After waking up to a phone alarm (this is a fantasy based on reality, after all), Noctis and his retinue stumble from the confines of their tent into the bright sunlight to see a huge, wide-open expanse laid before them. With the restrictive corridors of Final Fantasy XIII still fresh in our minds, it’s certainly something of a wow moment, and perhaps a sign from Square Enix that they’ve taken fan criticism over the last few years to heart.

Characters, too, seem to be offering something a bit different; while many found Lightning and co somewhat overbearing and melodramatic, Noctis and his friends – royal advisor Ignis, bodyguard Gladiolus and childhood friend Prompto – are all a little more restrained, at least in this playable slice. Rather than being a group of heroes thrust together through circumstance, these are people that are comfortable in each other’s company, and though some of the incidental dialogue borders on the inane (“What’s your plan if your glasses break?”, Noctis asks Ignis, who replies in his cut-glass accent, “I’ve got another pair.”), it helps to sell the idea of a group of friends on a road trip.

FFXV party Duscae garage

Quite why they’re on that road trip isn’t made clear in Episode Duscae. It’s suggested that they’re searching for Titan, the iconic Earth-elemental summon, but before the episode starts the prince’s flash car breaks down and the party are forced to make camp in the wilds of Duscae while confusingly-underdressed mechanic Cindy repairs it. Of course, they’re going to have to pay their way, to the tune of 25,000 gil, and what better way than to take a bounty on an enormous behemoth called Deadeye? Unfortunately, Deadeye is not so easily slain. After searching the wilderness for signs of his passing, Noctis and his friends finally discover where the beast makes his lair, and set a plan to take him down. A plan that spectacularly fails, because of course it does. You’re going to need a bigger stick. Fortunately, you can find one, and the bearded man that wields it, in a deep, dark cavern in the woods.

Final Fantasy XV is only the second game in the main, single-player series not to use the Active Time Battle system since it was introduced in 1991’s Final Fantasy IV. Instead, what we have here is a real-time action-based system with configurable combos and switchable weapons. If that sounds like it’s closer to a button-mashing fighting game or character-action title, well, it’s not. In battle, you’ll generally be doing a whole lot of holding one button (X on Xbox One). This will perform a combo that you can personalise to a decent extent; Noctis has five blades and five different slots to put them in, and shifting them around will change up the combo that Noctis perfoms. The first slot is your opener, the weapon you start your combo with, while the next is Ravage. This will form the core of your attack combo, contributing most of your hits, and it’s here that you’ll find much of the flexibility; if you’re about to wade into a large, tightly-knit group of enemies, it might be a good idea to switch in the enormous Zweihander to hit multiple targets with wide-arcing sweeps, whereas if you’re facing off against a powerful single target, the spear Partisan is probably a better choice, with its higher damage and MP-leeching abilities.

You also have slots for Vanquish, which is what Noctis will perfom against a low-HP enemy on the brink of death, Counter, which determines the weapon used to hit back after a successful parry, and the last slot is reserved for jumping attacks – something you are unlikely to even use in Episode Duscae.

Each weapon also allows access to a special Technique, switchable via the d-pad and executed by the Y button, which consume a fairly large chunk of MP. These need to be used sparingly then, but offer an array of useful effects: the Buster Sword-like Zweihander allows you to use Tempest, hitting and flooring multiple targets, while Noctis’ Blood Sword offers Drain Blade, letting you leech some HP from a target – useful if you need a quick hit of health – soaking the prince in a fine mist of claret in the process. Partisan’s unique skill is Full Thrust, an absolutely beastly single-target, multiple-hit spear thrust, while the Dragon Lance will of course allow you to Jump, just like Kain Highwind or Freya Crescent. Most of these abilities require a bit of a time to spool up, meaning it’s easy to miss your target if you haven’t planned for its use. A big part of using Techniques is knowing when to throw one out; winding up a Full Thrust on a stunned opponent is always a good idea.

On paper, this all sounds a little ‘hold A to awesome’, but that’s a touch unfair in practise; there’s a fair bit more to think about than simply holding X to attack, and considering that, unlike the vast majority of games in the series, Final Fantasy XV gives you control over your own movement and positioning, you’re going to have to actively defend and evade enemy attacks – both those you’re going one-on-one with and any of their buddies nearby, who will absolutely not wait for you to finish what you’re doing before lunging in. Assassin’s Creed this is not. You’ve probably seen plenty of video of Noctis nimbly dodging and sidestepping out of the way of enemy attacks, and this is achieved by holding down a button to enter a defensive state. While defending, Noctis will auto-dodge most enemy strikes while also being able to parry and counter certain big attacks.

Remaining in this state isn’t an effective long-term strategy however, as your MP pool will continue to drain while you defend, and dropping to zero MP puts Noctis into ‘Stasis’, leaving him unable to defend, dodge or perform weapon techniques. It’s here where the ability to take cover begins to make sense; drop behind a nearby rock and both your HP and MP will begin to climb back up (and Ignis, loyal retainer that he is, will run over to guard you and try to keep enemies at bay). A more effective use of Noctis’ defensive abilities is to use his manual dodge, enabled by pressing the jump button while defending. This will also spend MP – ten per dodge – but, combined with the slightly-shonky lock-on, it’ll get you out of harm’s way and right where you need to be to continue your assault while also allowing you finer control over your MP resources.

Noctis FFXV Episode Duscae

Even if you’re a dodging ninja, you are going to take damage occasionally, and there’s a mechanic at work here reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s wound damage. If a party member loses all HP, it’s not the end of the world; other members can run over and revive them as they stumble around, putting themselves at risk for a couple of seconds while the animation plays out. But should that character take another hit while in this state their total HP will be diminished, leaving them at a permanent disadvantage. It’s possible to get your HP bar shortened multiple times if you’re really unlucky (or just plain bad), and, at least in Episode Duscae, there’s no way to remedy this handicap – like XIII-2‘s wound potions – without resting at a campsite.

There are a couple of other things notable by their absence too, such as magic and party AI management – as things stand, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto will all just take care of themselves. For the final game, director Hajime Tabata and his team have promised both usable magic and something akin to Final Fantasy XII‘s gambits to enable fine control over the party’s actions – a welcome addition, considering that Noctis is now the only controllable character.

That’s not to say that Episode Duscae doesn’t offer some surprises though, and the first of these are the hidden Armiger weapons, old blades found throughout the region – one embedded in a rock, Excalibur-style, another deep within a cavern in the woods, and one more jammed into Deadeye’s shoulder. These blades unlock new functionality for Noctis; when we first gain control, he already holds one that allows him to manually dodge, as well as perform that nifty warpstrike we’ve seen in all the trailers, whereby Noctis flings his blade like a spear, teleporting to wherever it sticks a moment later. Other blades offer the ability to dramatically increase Noctis’ damage output and movement speed, swipe at enemies with those iconic ‘phantom swords’ while warping from target to target or sheath himself in a spinning shield of ghostly blades – all at the expense of rapidly draining mana, and all things we’ve seen teased in trailers going way back to that first 2006 reveal.

There’s a bigger, altogether more awe-inspiring surprise awaiting those that venture into the forests of Duscae, however. We’ve known for a while that summons are going to appear in some form – witness Titan’s appearance in the Jump Festa 2015 trailer, for instance – but in case you didn’t get the memo, Final Fantasy XV‘s summons are going to be insane. In case you’re in any doubt, after trekking through the aforementioned deep, dark cave, you’ll be able to summon Ramuh and rain lightning down on that pesky behemoth. Because, although it’s thrilling to go toe-to-toe with such an iconic Final Fantasy monster, facing up against Deadeye is like fighting one of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s High Dragons, except with double HP. You’re going to need help. And that help is glorious.

It’s rare that we get such a deep look at a big upcoming title, and while that’s exciting, there are caveats to this optimism. Combat is a huge part of a Final Fantasy game, and though it takes a couple of hours to really get a good feel for, it never really evolves from the start of the demo to the end – you’ll still be doing the same things at level forty that you were at level four, you’ll just be better at it. What happens instead is that as you become more familiar with enemy movements and attacks, you start to learn the best way to approach each combat situation. Your weapons play into this too; with Partisan in the main Ravage slot, you’ll tend towards separating enemies out and taking them on in single combat, whereas with Zweihander you can push your luck a bit more in a group. The battle system remained satisfying even after ten hours, but whether it will keep players captivated for the dozens of hours a Final Fantasy adventure tends to last remains to be seen. Hopefully, the addition of magic, new Techniques, party management and a wider pantheon of summons to call down should help to keep it fresh throughout.

And then there’s that open world. As liberating as it feels after the painfully linear Final Fantasy XIII, Duscae itself feels a little empty. It’s somewhat reminiscent of The Calm Lands or Archylte Steppe, a vast, verdant area of natural beauty, and though it leans towards realism, with its gas station, it’s smattering of shacks, roads and transmission towers, there are more fantastical touches, like the enormous rock arches and the now almost-iconic astral shard that pierces the land in the distance. As you explore, party members will point out things that may lead to a new sidequest, though these seem to be a bit lightweight at the moment; passing near a lakeside hut, Gladio called attention to something that began a quest to find the ‘Jewel of Alstor’. Following the waypoint, the party discovered a piece of ‘glacial magicite’ lying on the ground, and that was it: quest complete. No dialogue, no explanation. No context. What was the point of this quest, or indeed the magicite itself? No answer is forthcoming. With Episode Duscae being a taster of the full game however, it feels like these quests have been included simply to make the point that the final game will indeed have more to do than fight from point A to point B. Given the paucity of additional activities in the last single-player, numbered series title, that’s got to be a plus.

By the time Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto drive off into the sunset, you’re left feeling that Episode Duscae isn’t really a demo after all. And though it offers a representative look at what Square Enix want the final game to be like, it’d be unkind to call it a proof of concept; character animations are up there with the best, and what systems are present are highly playable and surprisingly polished. So it’s more of a sneak peek then, a promise of what to look forward to when Final Fantasy XV finally arrives. And now I’ve had glimpse, I can’t wait to see more. Please be excited.

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.