Archives for posts with tag: Playstation 3

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a massive Sega fan. Of course, the company makes it difficult for us diehards these days, having abandoned seemingly all of their incredible franchises of yore. No more Shining Force, no more Outrun or Daytona, no more Jet Set or Panzer Dragoon. No more Shenmue.

One series that rose from the ashes of Sega’s descent into third party publisherdom (if that’s not a word, it should be) is Toshihiro Nagoshi’s Yakuza series. While the franchise has struggled to find its feet in the West, it does well enough in its home territory to be heading towards its eleventh release with the upcoming Yakuza 6. It’s also often held up by fans as something of a spiritual successor to Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, and for that reason it’s a series that’s been on my radar for some time, but one which I’ve for some reason or other never gotten around to. As I patiently (not really) wait for the Shenmue 3 that I kicked $250 into to reach my grubby paws however, it seems like a good time to address that.

Only I didn’t start at the beginning. That would have made too much sense. Also, it would have cost me too much cash, as Yakuza 2 is pretty damned expensive these days. But I’ve had the PS3 titles, Yakuzas 3 and 4, sitting on my shelf unplayed since their respective UK release dates, so I jumped in at the third game. Handily, sitting in the main menu are recaps for the first two games that aim to catch any latecomers up on the overarching story of the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu.

Kazuma Kiryu

Having watched them, I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened in Yakuza 1 or 2. Something about ten billion yen going missing, and I think there was a gang of triads, or Korean gangsters, former friends turned enemy then back to friends, and there was a little girl and a big building. Point is, the catch ups don’t do a great job of communicating those stories to someone with zero prior knowledge. They delight in throwing names of people, organizations, alliances and events at you, and in such a condensed format, they just don’t stick in your brain. But that’s ok, because what they do manage to achieve is to give you a good feel for the kind of guy Kiryu is, and that’s really important. He’s a hard man, but an honourable one, and he’ll put himself on the line for his friends without hesitation. Clichéd? Perhaps, but there’s a lot more to Kiryu than stereotypes. He’s a fantastic, nuanced character, multi-layered yet easy to understand, and Yakuza 3 might just be the best place to see that for yourself.

We begin in Okinawa, at a beach-side orphanage run by Kazuma, ably assisted by a mature beyond her years Haruka – the aforementioned little girl who is now effectively Kazuma’s adoptive daughter. The start of the game is lengthy and rather slow-paced, taking a fair while to pick up a head of steam. Much of the early game is spent focusing on the relationships between Kiryu and the kids in his charge, and the game takes its time to introduce new characters, like the members of the local Ryudo Yakuza family. Returning players could understandably find themselves a little bored by the languid pacing, wanting to get stuck into the meat of the game, but for someone coming to the series fresh, I thought it managed to lay down an entertaining foundation, establishing Kiryu’s character as this stoic, erstwhile Yakuza chairman runs around tending to his kids, making sure they have everything they need, solving the odd dispute between them, and cooking them curry (again) for dinner.

Of course, it’s not long before Kiryu gets caught up in a complex plot involving a military expansion bill, a proposed resort complex, the land his orphanage stands on, and a grand conspiracy encompassing members of Kamurocho’s Tojo Clan, a man that looks an awful lot like Kazuma’s dead foster father, and even the CIA. Yeah. I told you it was complex, didn’t I? Again, there are a lot of names, organisations and titles thrown at you over the course of the 20-odd hour story, but in such a dense, plot- and character-driven game, you’ll end up remembering them all. Nagoshi’s team really excels in selling the relationships between Yakuza 3’s cast of characters, and there are bonds here that you will really see develop over the course of the story. Some are already ingrained from the start, like when you’re strolling down Tenkaichi street and Haruka hurries to catch up, taking Kazuma’s hand as she does. Others you will see grow over the course of the story, such as the fantastic friendship between Kazuma and the fiercely loyal Rikiya Shimabukuro, who may well be the ultimate bro.

Rikiya's a bit too into this

Though the series is often thought of as a sort of Japanese GTA, Yakuza 3 is structured much like a jRPG; you have your main plot thread, plenty of side quests, levelling up, which affords you new skills, and even random encounters, which, as ever, can get annoying when you’re just trying to get to the next plot point. Of course, combat isn’t exactly your standard jRPG fare, as fights in Yakuza are settled by brawling in the streets. You’ll punch with Square, throw in combo-ending kicks with triangle, and use the same button to activate powerful Heat Moves when you have enough meter; these do massive damage and, if you’re holding a weapon – which can be anything you pick up on the streets, from bicycles and signage to stun guns and even swords – you’ll get a bespoke animation for each when using a heat move. As previously mentioned, you can unlock new fighting skills as you level up, giving you access to new techniques, and best of all, you can learn new, elaborate heat moves by turning voyeur and videoing odd people doing crazy things in public – like watching a drunken salaryman try to pole dance on a lamppost – and then blogging the results with a hilariously dramatic flourish. It’s completely, wonderfully bizarre.

Of course, there’s more to Yakuza than the main story objectives, and that’s where the comparisons to Shenmue come in. If you fancy a break from all the brooding and brawling, you can head on down to the batting cages and hit a few home runs. Or maybe go bowling or sing your heart out at karaoke with Haruka. Then there’s darts, pool, golf, arcade and UFO catcher machines and tons more besides. Like Shenmue, Yakuza gives you a ton of different distractions and ways to waste time, and like Shenmue, while none of this is compulsory to drive the story forward, it does serve to enrich the world you inhabit. Yakuza is often labelled as an open-world game, and it’s a tag that ill fits the series in my opinion; the game’s two locations of Ryukyu and Kamurocho aren’t the sprawling landmasses you’d expect to find in a GTA or an Assassin’s Creed – they’re maybe the size of a single district in one of those games – but they are absolutely packed with things to do should you feel like you need a breather. Seriously, I finished the game in 24 hours and only achieved 12% completion!

Ultimately, how much Yakuza feels like a replacement for Shenmue comes down to what you take from that long-absent series. There are certainly similarities in the way you can choose to ‘waste’ time doing lots of extraneous yet fun activities, and also in the way that you’ll be fighting lots of goons in the streets (though Shenmue is more tied to the Virtua Fighter combat engine than the more arcade-y feel of Yakuza). However, if what captivated you about Shenmue was the setting, the atmosphere, the detailed slice-of-life portrayal of a Japanese teenager in the mid-80s, well, you won’t get that here. The tone of the two games can often be wildly different, too; while ostensibly a ‘serious’ yakuza/crime drama, Yakuza 3 isn’t afraid to suddenly turn incredibly gamey, often to the point of gleeful absurdity. Of course, Shenmue had a handful of goofier moments, like racing forklifts around Yokosuka Harbour or anything involving Chai, but there’s nothing that matches two guys tearing off their suits in one motion as their fighting spirit literally erupts from their bodies before they do battle on top of a skyscraper. It’s a game with a great sense of humour, that never lets its setting and subject matter get in the way of glorying in its nature as a videogame. For my money, Yakuza feels like Nagoshi’s team wanted to make an amalgamation of Shenmue and a 3D take on Streets of Rage, and dress it up in an elaborate yakuza-focused soap opera.

And that’s ok. Yakuza doesn’t need to ape Shenmue to justify its existence. For my part, while I didn’t manage to find a stand-in for Shenmue, I did manage to discover another Sega franchise to obsess over. Now I just need to find the time to play 4 and 5 before the next couple of instalments arrive on western PS4s.

Advertisements

Though it has since become the embodiment of the term ‘cult classic’ for the PS3/360 generation, NieR had something of an inauspicious start. Released a mere month after the hotly-anticipated Final Fantasy XIII to a middling critical reception, the game was hamstrung before it even hit store shelves. The fact that NieR was a spin-off of the already-niche Drakengard series that followed on from the first game’s ending E – where a giant statue and a red dragon faced off over the Tokyo skyline before being shot down by fighter jets – certainly didn’t help.

Things aren’t made much clearer when we get into the game itself, which opens in the summer of a post-apocalyptic 2049 as a desperate father strives to defend his sick daughter from strange, ethereal monsters. Realising he can’t beat the massed horde before him, he reaches for a strange book that seems to grant him magical powers. And then we spend about half an hour in a car park beating the crap out of monsters with a length of pipe. It’s not a great start, admittedly.

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY LENGTH OF PIPE!

Things get even weirder as we abruptly jump 1312 years into the future. Far removed from whatever ravaged the world in the past, mankind now lives a more feudal existence, inhabiting small villages in and around the ruins of civilization. In one of these villages, a peaceful, green, walled settlement surrounded by vast, empty plains, live an oddly-familiar man and his sick daughter. In fact, they look exactly like that same pair from thirteen-hundred years ago. There’s absolutely no acknowledgement of this, of course. With a short voiceover, Nier tells us that his world is slowly winding down, once thriving populations now ravaged by disease, while strange monsters known as Shades roam the land, killing all those in their path. But Nier doesn’t care about any of that; his personal struggle is to save his daughter Yonah, and to hell with everything else. At the same time the player is on a parallel, and at times opposite, quest to discover just what happened in this strange world. Why do two people from 2049 appear to be alive in 3361? What was it that destroyed human civilization in the past? And just what are these Shades? Maybe Nier doesn’t care what’s going on, but you certainly will.

While many fans feel the game was given short shrift, it’s kind of understandable that critics were a bit mixed. NieR is a difficult game to review; on the face of it, it doesn’t really excel at much. It’s a game of competent design in graphical and gameplay terms, feeling something like a knock-off 3D Zelda to begin with, as you start in a small village hub, before journeying out onto a vast green plain and beyond. It’s fair to say that the graphics aren’t going to wow you, with much of the world being made up of blandly textured, low-poly environments, but despite the low-budget looks there is some really memorable design work to be found.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

These are not your average jRPG companions.

Nier isn’t alone in his quest to save Yonah, of course; he’s joined by an interesting cast of characters in Grimoire Weiss, a talking book that grants him magical abilities (wonderfully brought to life by Liam O’Brien channelling the dearly-departed Alan Rickman), Kaine, a foulmouthed female warrior that likes to kill things first and ask questions never, and Emil, a young boy whose eyes can petrify anyone they look at. Your party members all see a lot of growth over the course of the story, especially Kaine, who, despite her rough edges, almost ends up being the heart of the game. Each of them also has a fantastic, memorable look to them, and while it’s unfortunate that the player character is rather bland looking, the same issue actually works in the enemies’ favour; the game’s oddly-intangible Shade enemies are barely recognisable as anything other than wispy, vaguely-humanoid shapes, and considering we aren’t supposed to know what they are or where they come from, it’s a smart way for both narrative and design to work together to help mitigate such visual shortcomings.

Likewise, there are some fantastic locations to be found. If the starting village is a touch underwhelming, and the Northern Plains nothing more than an expanse to be raced across from one plot point to another, you absolutely will not forget the Aerie, a suitably-eerie village suspended over a seemingly bottomless canyon that has shut itself off from the world, or the desert city of Façade, whose masked inhabitants must adhere to tens of thousands of arcane rules that govern every aspect of their lives and decree that no two buildings can be built on the same level. And the first time you see the Lost Shrine, an ancient sanctuary built atop a spire of rock that rises out of the mist in the centre of a cavernous valley, you’ll be left a little breathless despite yourself. NieR‘s world may not be rendered in the highest detail, but it has a tremendous sense of place.

Similarly, combat isn’t going to win any awards, being fairly workmanlike for the most part. There is a decent degree of depth there for those who care to look, with three different weapon classes to get to grips with and upgrade, a handful of magic spells, as well as words, equippable modifiers that will boost stats or add status effects to your arsenal. But in all likelihood you’ll stick to a single weapon and two or three of Grimoire Weiss’ spells for much of the game – there’s just not much of a reason to mix things up. Boss fights are another story entirely though. Huge, multi-part encounters that are half-RPG boss, and half-bullet hell shooter, these are fantastically imaginative moments that will live long in the memory – especially the two set in the Aerie that see the fighting span the entire town, forcing you to run, jump and climb all over its bridges and walkways to vanquish these enormous beasts.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Yes. You will have to fight this guy.

Happily, average graphics and competent combat isn’t all that NieR has to offer. If there’s one game in recent memory that truly is more than the sum of its parts, this is it. The game excels in characters, story and music, all of which lend the whole a deeply mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere. On the narrative side, though much of the game is framed as a simple tale of a father striving to save his daughter, there’s far more going on than that – as should already be evident from that initially-baffling time-jump at the start of the adventure. Though you’ll get some resolution by journey’s end, there’s still much left unexplained, and it’s a decidedly muted ending; sure, you achieve your goal of saving Yonah, but at what cost to the rest of the world? Nier frequently reminds us that he cares only for his daughter and his friends, and his actions reinforce this. But more often than not, he’s acting out of complete ignorance of the bigger picture.

It’s almost like the apparent simplicity of the narrative seeks to mislead the player, and this same disregard for convention can be seen in gameplay, too. While structurally NieR is an action RPG, it doesn’t take long for the game to start messing with your expectations; enter a creepy mansion and you’ll find yourself in a Resident Evil game, complete with fixed camera angles and arcane key systems. Dive into an underground research lab and suddenly you’re in an isometric dungeon crawler. Need to ascend a series of scaffolds to reach a higher vantage point? Now you’re in a 2D platformer. Best of all is the section in the Forest of Myth where the game transforms itself into a text adventure for a short while, capped off with a few simple logic puzzles. Director Taro Yoko has said that this genre-hopping is something of a response to modern games that give up all their systems in the first thirty minutes, leaving little new to look forward to, and while it does give NieR something of a ‘master of none’ feel, it is genuinely refreshing to mix things up every now and then.

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

It’s like Cave made a 3D action RPG, and it is glorious!

Topped off with a stunningly melancholic soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe that mixes haunting choral pieces with gentle piano-led compositions and rousing, vocal-led battle themes, it all comes together to create a package that is far greater than the sum of its parts. NieR is mechanically solid, graphically average, and yet utterly, utterly unforgettable.

Taro Yoko is often asked where the ideas come from for his “dark, insane” stories, and answering this question in a fantastic sock-puppet video interview for Drakengard 3 – called Philosophies of Violence – he explained that certain things he does are reactions to gaming tropes that he sees as crazy. Describing the thoughts that led to the original Drakengard, he said: “I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like, “You’ve defeated 100 enemies!” or “Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!” in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane.” These ideas informed the twisted, unhinged world of Drakengard, “where everyone’s wrong and unjust.”

It’s of course something many have touched on in recent years, that we seemingly have little input in many of the games we play, save for killing, and that these murderous sprees are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the characters we embody or those around them. It’s not really something Yoko’s games strive to change, as such – Drakengard and NieR are action RPGs where you kill lots of enemies, of course – but he often uses the characters and narratives of his works to make players at least question this act and what it means for these worlds and the people that inhabit them. In the same interview, Yoko explains how his views shifted post-9/11, as the rise of terrorism and ideological conflict changed the vibe he got from the world at large.

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

“What the hell are these things?! Ah, who cares, let’s just kill ’em all!”

Now the world seemed to be saying that you don’t necessarily have to be insane to kill someone, you just have to think you’re right. This thinking heavily influenced NieR, where the player character willingly slaughters his monster-like enemies without even knowing what they are and why they might be hostile. Indeed, he doesn’t even care, at one point responding to the insinuation that these are intelligent, sentient beings with the retort, “I don’t care if they can tap dance and play the fiddle.” What begins as one of Nier’s defining, positive characteristics – his desire and willingness to do anything to save his daughter – is turned on its head later on as players are made to wonder if it isn’t Nier, and by extension the player, that’s the real monster, the true danger to the world.

Those famous – or perhaps infamous – multiple endings play into this turnaround quite wonderfully, giving us new perspectives on events we’ve only seen through the rather blinkered, misled eyes of our protagonist, whether that be understanding the strikingly-familiar motivations of the apparent villain of the piece, or being able to understand the speech of the Shades you’ve spent twenty hours slaughtering. The game doesn’t allow you to deviate from the path, even with this knowledge, and it’s actually stronger and more affecting for that; at one point, you’re made to realise that a seemingly powerful boss you might have struggled to vanquish earlier was actually a defenceless child that you’re made to kill. Armed with that knowledge, it’s genuinely unnerving to be forced to do so. And should you make it to the fourth ending, you’re rewarded with a bit of quite brilliant fourth-wall breaking that is almost painful to watch. It’s absolutely worth seeing.

Looking back at his body of work, it’s clear that Yoko has ambitions that frequently outstrip his means, so it’s incredibly surprising to see a Platinum Games-developed sequel on the way. That’s certainly a team that understands gameplay, and with Yoko and Producer Yosuke Saito returning at the top, character designs by Akihiko Yoshida (of Ivalice fame) and another astounding soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe, Nier Automata is shaping up to be one of the most exciting games coming out this year.

Steins Gate

Steins;Gate, PS3, PS Vita

Originally released on Xbox 360 in Japan back in 2009, this wonderful visual novel finally made it to the UK this year on Vita and PS3. Steins;Gate stars teenage student Okabe Rintaro, the self-proclaimed insane mad scientist of Akihabara, as he sets out to create the world’s first working time machine in the summer of 2010. Of course, things don’t exactly go to plan.

Okabe is a wonderfully nutty eccentric. Going by the pseudonym Hououin Kyouma, he founds the Future Gadget Laboratory to further his mad scientist dreams of bringing chaos to the world, telling anyone who’ll listen of his apparent paranoid delusion of being chased by ‘The Organisation’. In reality, he’s got a really bad case chuunibyou. Although, you know what they say, just because you’re paranoid…

He finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy through space and time, doing all he can to fix the timeline he inadvertently messed with, and he’s joined by an equally engrossing cast of characters, including his childhood friend Mayuri Shiina, his right-hand man Itaru Hashida, and the new girl in town, aloof overachiever Kurisu Makise. Then there’s Suzuha, the mysterious ‘part-time warrior’, the cat-eared maid café waitress Faris NyanNyan, the quiet, unassuming Luka and the ‘mail demon’ Moeka Kiryu, nicknamed Shining Finger by Okabe for her prodigious emailing talent.

Tutturu

On the surface, these characters might sound like archetypes, but they’re far more than that; each has their own opinions, desires and beliefs, and each of them is more important to Okabe than perhaps even he will admit. Steins;Gate is a lengthy game, with a single playthrough taking upwards of twenty hours, as well as six endings to see, so it helps that the cast are such an engaging lot. When you finally put the game down, you’ll feel like you’ve lost a group of friends.

Though it seems like pretty standard anime fare on first blush, Steins;Gate can be pretty heavy-going, both emotionally and conceptually. This is a science fiction story, and while it takes plenty of liberties, it certainly doesn’t skimp on the theoretical physics, with plenty of lengthy discussions about the theoretical possibilities of time travel, or theological ruminations on the existence of the human soul. And of course, being set in Akihabara, it has its fair share of nerd-culture callouts, even if some of them are purposely obscure or camouflaged (I’m sure everyone can figure out what ‘Gunbam’ is, however).

Steins;Gate also goes to some seriously dark places, especially in some of the endings, which can be incredibly bleak. There’s also a lengthy section about halfway through the game that almost feels designed to emotionally break the player, but the game would be weaker without such inclusions. Steins;Gate spends hours building up its characters and getting you to care for them, before savagely deconstructing them in front of your eyes, only to offer possible salvation by jumping back in time and trying again. It might be a cliché to say that the experience is an emotional rollercoaster, but you’ll certainly want to get everyone to some semblance of a happy ending.

Kurisu

Put in the time, and you will. It can be pretty hard going at times, but Steins;Gate offers a compelling story and a fantastic cast of characters, and it’ll make you laugh, cry, cringe and smile. Sometimes all at once.

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.

inqgroup
It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.

Dragon Age Keep has finally emerged from closed beta, and is now open for all to get to grips with.

The Keep is a web-based tool that allows you to tailor your experience for next month’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. As save files from previous games can not be imported into Inquisition (mainly due to an engine shift from Eclipse to Frostbite 3), the Keep gives players the opportunity to go through the main story beats of Dragon Age: Origins, 2, and associated DLC and set the decisions they made throughout the course of those games. The resultant ‘world state’ can then be imported into the upcoming sequel when it launches next month.

Best of all, because it’s web-based, it’s cross-platform; maybe you’ve played the series on PS3 until now, but fancy playing Inquisition on PC? You can do that with Dragon Age Keep. You will, of course, need an Origin account and that account will have to be attached to your Xbox Live or PSN ID if you want to import your world state to either console version.

After logging into the Keep, you can first sync your progress from previous games. This won’t carry over your saves, but will bring in your heroes and collect various accomplishments from across the games and their DLC. It’s worth remembering that the Keep is still in beta, and the first sync did not find my custom Warden from Origins. My version of Dragon Age 2‘s Hawke popped up right away, and a second sync a few hours later managed to fetch my Dalish Elf from the ether.

Dragon Age Keep Varric Narration

After syncing, you can watch an animated retelling of the saga leading up to Inquisition narrated by Dragon Age 2/Inquisition party member Varric, and at any point you can stop it to edit your choices, changing the course of the story as you go. A better idea, however, is to exit out of the narration and go directly to the Tapestry, a colourful timeline that allows you to detail your story more directly. After doing this, you can come back and watch as Varric conveys your personalised tale.

The choices you can make are pleasingly granular, offering the full range of states for the major decisions, such as what happens to Loghain near the climax of the first game, but oddly, some choices that seemed almost meaningless at the time have made their way into the Keep; did you save Elora’s halla in the Dalish camp? What happened to Bella, the tavern girl from Redcliffe? The Keep wants to know, and I’m not entirely sure why. BioWare has said that not every choice you make here will carry across to Inquisition and that they plan for the Keep to be used for future Dragon Age titles as well. Beyond that, perhaps it’s just nice to have a more complete record of the mark your characters left upon the land of Thedas.

Dragon Age Keep Tapestry

The Keep is an excellent way of ensuring your Dragon Age history can follow you across generations, and of course you don’t even have to stick to the choices you made when in the previous games. But if I have one complaint, it’s that there is little context for the decisions you’re asked to make; if it’s been a while since your last playthrough, good luck remembering some of the more minor choices from the scant text provided, and heaven help any newcomers looking to tailor their world for Inquisition. Even having recently replayed Origins, I had to flick over to the wiki a few times to jog my memory. Newbies would be better served heading straight to the Varric narration and editing from there.

But as a means to bring your game history with you without the benefit of save game importing, the Keep is excellent, and with Varric narrating your past, more than just a compromise.