Terra Nil

The Power Is Yours

Visually resplendent eco-strategy Terra Nil kicks things off with a dry and infertile patch of land and a limited selection of high-tech equipment, and tasks players with creating thriving and varied ecosystems through both natural and artificial means. Wind turbines power soil scrubbers, and specialist buildings distribute grasslands, fynbos (which is a new word I learned that seems to refer to a biome found specifically in South Africa), and forests across the healing land.

The multiple rivers criss-crossing those woods are the result of me trying to attract beavers.

Matters are complicated by certain factors like soil fertility and humidity levels, and would-be terraformers are tasked with figuring out how to achieve specific conditions in order for specific biome types to flourish. For example, temperate forests need ashy soil, which requires the use of a special building to start and manage a fire. Once the inferno has done its job, lush pine forests can spring up from the ashes, and once those are established, you might be lucky enough to spot a bear or two beneath the canopy.

The ultimate goal of Terra Nil is to achieve full, natural reformation over four distinct environments, cause animals to return, and achieve various environmental goals that will cause beneficial effects such as rains returning or ferns growing along the sides of rivers. The reward for all this is the ability to watch adorable, cel-shaded critters explore your picturesque islands and valleys as you sit back and celebrate a job well done.

The island maps give you the chance to create beaches, reefs and rainforests. If you’re lucky you might even see some jellyfish.

Terra Nil’s visuals do a decent job of portraying nature at its most vibrant, while still maintaining a simple, grid-based style. As you progress through the building tiers your small patch of land will become rich with meandering rivers, lush wetlands, and flowering meadows. Later environments offer island rain forests, rocky, lichen-covered tundra and even reclaimed cities as rewards, and each environment type has a second map where you’ll have to figure out how to achieve the same eco-miracles using a different set of buildings and equipment.

The game’s goals and blocky visual style actually remind me of an extremely obscure, Japanese environment-’em-up that I picked up, tried, and traded in many years ago, named Birthdays The Beginning. That particular effort failed to grab me thanks to some obtuse gameplay and strict campaign rules. Terra Nil undoubtedly does a better job of easing you in and then making you feel comfortable for your stay, but currently falls down a bit in one of the areas where Birthdays actually excelled – its wealth of content.

Sometimes you have to make things worse before you make them better.

As mentioned, Terra Nil offers four environment types with two maps each. Each environment has a handful of challenges based on humidity and temperature that unlock various effects, and six animal species that can be introduced, and that’s it. Once you’ve ticked all these boxes your only reason for continued play is to redo the various map types and see if you can achieve your goals in different ways.

I’d love a huge map that I can just take my time with, terraforming as I see fit and finding ways to overcome challenges offered by the terrain. I’d also like more animals to introduce, with some requiring extremely specific conditions that require a lot of work, making them all the more rewarding. I want these things because Terra Nil is really, really good, but a little too short. It’s a great game to pass some time with, and even with its after-the-end setting and global climate crisis message, it has a peaceful and uplifting vibe. It gives you time to think, and rewards your strategic building placement with instant swathes of colourful flora.

There’s nothing like some ideal lichen to warm you up on a cold day.

The highlight of the game, though, is the way each scenario ends. Once every building is placed and the desired utopia is achieved, the final step is to remove and recycle every trace of technology. Strategic use of terrain is required to place recycling buildings around the map, and then a recycling drone or hovercraft will start the hugely satisfying process of gradually removing any sign that you were ever there at all. Once the last building has been removed, your quadcopter will pack up and fly away, and only a burgeoning, natural landscape will remain.

It’s a beautiful moment that delivers the game’s message in a tremendously uplifting way. It’s artfully done, and considering the developer’s other works include Broforce and Genital Jousting, it’s quite a departure in tone. You’ve got to respect the versatility. 

Into the Breach

Live, Blast Kaiju, Repeat

As someone who’s eyes light up at the sight of a grid-based battlefield populated with adorable 2D combatants, I was predisposed to give Into the Breach a chance. If you’re not like me, and don’t instantly fall in love with anything that bears even a passing resemblance to Shining Force III or Final Fantasy Tactics, you might glance at the relatively small battlefields and limited number of units on show and decide to give this one a miss. I’m here to politely request that you reconsider that decision, as you’re missing out on a gem! A bastard-hard and thoroughly depressing gem, but a gem nonetheless.

Despite this guy’s confidence, you won’t be able to save everyone.

This indie-developed, mech-on-kaiju strategy game has been around since 2018, but I recently picked up the physical copy on Switch, and have found myself thoroughly absorbed into its time-bending, apocalyptic world. Your job in Into the Breach is to command a small squad of mechs as they attempt to defend the world’s population and infrastructure from an onslaught of giant bugs known as the Vek. Already on its last legs due to various natural catastrophes, civilisation has been brought to the brink of destruction by the marauding kaiju, and humanity’s last hope comes in the form of a group of time-hopping mech pilots.

The main aim of the game is to protect buildings and facilities from monster attacks, as these locations provide power to your power grid, and if your power grid fails, the timeline you’re in is fucked and it’s time to bail out. If this happens, your pilots will use their timey-wimey powers to zap themselves to a different timeline and try again. Each pilot is scattered across different timelines, too, so you can only keep one of them, and if you mess up and one of your mechs gets destroyed, the pilot is (usually) gone for good. Just don’t get too attached to these guys, okay?

While Into the Breach has a lot of the gameplay and strategy you’d expect from comparable modern retro tactical games like Triangle Strategy and Wargroove, there are a few mechanics that handily set it apart. One is the previously-mentioned timeline shenanigans, which lends itself to roguelike-style progression where repeated failures result in you being slightly better-equipped to take on the next timeline. Another mechanic that sets Into the Breach apart is the fact that it will clearly tell you exactly what the monstrous Vek are planning to do in the next turn, and will allow you to plan and manipulate them appropriately.

Chemical pools and conveyor belts are just a couple of the environmental hazards you’ll be dealing with. Oh, and see that knobbly squid thing in the bottom row? Take that out first.

It may sound like being able to accurately predict the AI’s every move would make a game like this pretty easy, but this is not the case. In fact, it’s this mechanic that takes Into the Breach further into board game or puzzle game territory. This removal of random chance or behind-the-scenes calculations makes Into the Breach pure strategy, akin to Chess, and will lead to difficult decisions aplenty. Expect to find yourself staring at the screen for minutes on end, sighing and rubbing your chin as you attempt to run through sequences of moves in your head to get out of a seemingly impossible situation you’ve found yourself in. You’ll often find yourself played into a corner where you’re forced to sacrifice something, and making the difficult choice between the mission objective or one of your experienced pilots is sure to produce lots of curse words and require a cup of tea or two. You’ll need a strong stomach, thick skin, and a really, really big brain to master this one.

The final goal of the game is to defeat the Vek at their hive, which is an area that opens up after liberating two of the four available islands. The difficulty scales as you progress through the islands, so taking the Vek hive out after island number two is your easiest option, but successfully completing a four-island run is a much more difficult goal. It’s a tough ask, and only letting you take one pilot with you to the next timeline feels harsh to the point of being insurmountable. Perseverance, experimentation, and the ability to stay calm and look for options under pressure are your best weapons to get there.

It’s often better to let your mech take a hit, rather than lose some of your power grid. Even if a pilot is killed, the mech’s AI will bring it back for the next mission. You’ll probably feel bad, though.

Once you’re up and running, understanding and upgrading your mech’s abilities, manipulating the Vek into harming each other, and successfully shielding civilians from kaiju attack becomes extremely satisfying. You’ll feel like a legendary commander when you pull it off, and you’ll become more confident as you start to understand the game’s way of thinking. However, Into the Breach is always capable of surprising you, and a power grid failure that results in hordes of titanic bugs burrowing out of the Earth’s crust to overwhelm the planet’s last defenders is always only a mistake away.

As alluded to earlier, Into the Breach can initially seem limited. The maps are small, you’re usually in charge of only three units at a time, and there are only five different environment types to do battle in. However, its difficulty, ingenious mechanics, variety of environmental effects and open-ended nature make for an incredibly deep experience that will keep throwing up new problems for as long as you’re willing to solve them.

The game does its best to make you remember that there are lives at stake. Try to focus on the mission, okay?

Tough, tense, and hugely atmospheric, Into the Breach is a strategy game for big time players. Great pixel art and some fantastically appropriate musical pieces all add to a high quality strategy experience, with unlockable mech squads and pilots, and additional, advanced options allowing experienced players to tweak gameplay to their heart’s content.

Climb into your mech, steel yourself for the horrors you’re about to witness, and give this strategy gem the chance it deserves. After all, you can always abandon this timeline and jump to the next if things don’t work out.

Video Game Covers

Wanna Talk Box Art? I’ve Got You Covered

One of the many reasons I fear the day when digital distribution replaces the physical game entirely, is that we’ll lose the establishment that is video game box art. I’ve been thinking a lot about video game cover art lately, and have indeed been looking at a lot of video game cover art, too. I’m looking at the cover of Fantasy World Dizzy right now, in fact. This timeless piece of artwork shows an egg in boxing gloves, wearing a safari hat and holding a telescope, while dragons and dinosaurs loom threateningly in the background. It’s a completely normal cover for a completely normal game, and it’s just the tip of the box art iceberg. From Wipeout to Alan Wake to Gravity Rush to Double Dragon, there’s a huge variety of great cover art out there, and I’m going to put on my world-renowned art critic shoes and talk about some now.

I’m also going to highlight a few that I really dislike. Then I’ll probably get called out on it and feel bad about it, but that’s just the kind of thing that us world-renowned art critics have to deal with every day. Let’s just look at some covers, shall we?   

GOOD – Deus Ex

The box art of Deus Ex pleases me. There are a few aspects that come together to give an unmistakable dystopian, cyberpunk feel, but it’s that ambiguous beam of light that really peaks my interest. Has JC Denton been picked out by a spotlight? Or is he ascending into some higher state of cybernetically-enhanced existence? The grid and stream of numbers overlaying the sky could be a representation of the all-encompassing grasp of technology, or could hint that this whole world is a simulation. Either way, with its black helicopter, bleak cityscape, shades-at-night-time vibe, this box art has all the ingredients needed to get you into the conspiracy mindset. Corporate subterfuge, government cover-ups and dehumanising body modification are surely just around the corner.

GOOD – Sonic & Knuckles

Before Sonic’s video game world was filled with superfluous bats, cats, bees, and miscellaneous additional residuary hedgehogs, a new character was a big deal that people looked forward to. Tails’ introduction in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a serious event, as was Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s unveiling of the mysterious, antagonistic echidna, Knuckles. When Sonic & Knuckles hit the shelves, and people knew that they were finally going to be able to play as the prickly, pink anti-hero, this minimal box art did all it needed to do. An elegant logo on a black background, depicting Sonic and his new frenemy. It’s simple, it’s pretty, and it works. This is graphic design, people. I’m surprised I never see it on hoodies.

BAD – Days Gone

Days Gone has a stupid box art. This thing was designed by a committee, or some kind of cover-designing computer program. The “cover-o-matic”, if you will. Someone typed “zombie horde, brooding protagonist, 42% Sons of Anarchy, 58% The Walking Dead” into the algorithm and this is what came out. No one noticed that the computer didn’t understand that the lead wouldn’t be sitting and brooding handsomely next to his bike while a horde of infected looms only a few metres away. It’s a dumb and meaningless cover that just ticks all the triple-A, cinematic, gritty Netflix series-inspired boxes of its era. Don’t blame the cover-o-matic, though. It just does what it’s told. 

BAD – Eternal Ring

Look, I don’t want to knock a developing artist, but I also think that a certain level of refinement should be required when producing the cover art for an officially-released video game. Eternal Ring is FromSoftware’s original ring-based action RPG that a lot of people don’t know about, and honestly, I don’t think I’d know anything about it either if its cover art hadn’t stuck with me for all the wrong reasons. There’s nothing wrong with the image choice of a guy contemplating a ring for a game that presumably features a ring that’s worth contemplating, but why the hell wasn’t I producing covers for worldwide video game releases in the year 2000? I possessed a similar level of anatomical drawing understanding, and I’m pretty sure I was better at hands. 

GOOD – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (NA Cover)

Historically, the Zelda franchise has gone for a prominent logo on a plain or minimal background for its box art, and I’ve seen folks online identifying these as both the best and worst things ever. I like them, but I like this one more. The logo is right there, looking lovely as ever, but it’s backed up by an image that embodies impending adventure. Link, wearing a brand new, blue tunic, stands on a rocky outcrop like someone’s expertly-painted Warhammer miniature, and a world of opportunity awaits before him. This cover represents an exciting new era for one of the world’s premier video game franchises, and invites you along for the ride.

BAD – Planescape: Torment

I love Planescape: Torment. I do. It’s got the greatest story ever told in gaming and I’ll die on that hill all day. Not many people experienced said yarn, however, and while its status as a cult classic PC RPG that sits in the shadow of the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Fallout 2 definitely had something to do with this, this super-weird front cover surely contributed to its obscurity. I mean, what were players supposed to expect when they laid eyes on it? It looks like an alien from a voodoo magic-inspired episode of some obscure, ’90s sci-fi, which I guess would have its charm if that’s the kind of vibe Planescape: Torment was going for, but it really isn’t. The ’90s sci-fi makeup job, the blue scaling, the picked-out gold on the dreadlock beads, it’s all so weird and off-putting. Great game, though. Honestly. 

GOOD – The NewZealand Story

My pick of the bunch when it comes to cutesy platformer box art is the adorable and mysterious The NewZealand Story. Let’s have a look at some of the characters arrayed on this cover, shall we? You’ve got Tiki the kiwi himself, looking adorably heroic in his trainers, then there’s a whole host of critters standing in opposition. There’s a thing in a floating UFO tank, there’s a kind of sinister-looking, fire-breathing tortoise, there’s a cat-like creature with bat wings, and there’s an absolutely beautiful little bat-mouse thing in the bottom corner, standing there looking like some kind of proto-Gengar. It’s a cuddly yet action-packed composition, and thankfully, that creepy, pink whale boss is nowhere to be seen. 

GOOD – Streets of Rage

I love a side-scrolling beat-’em-up, and the genre has provided some epic cover art over the years, from the various ports of 1986’s Renegade, right up to the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. The original Streets of Rage has to be the pinnacle, though. A perfect example of ’90s action movie-style, illustrated box art, this expertly-composed picture has it all. It’s not entirely representational of the game, though. I don’t know why Blaze and Axel have changed their outfits, and no bad guys carry Uzis, wear hockey masks, snipe from windows or emerge from beneath sewer covers (not until the second game, anyway), but who cares when the image is so awesome? I own a cushion with this artwork on it. No word of a lie. I’m leaning on it now, in fact.

BAD – The Last of Us Part II

Sony’s big exclusives really do run the gamut of cover quality. Horizon Zero Dawn is great, God of War is alright, Days Gone can get in the bin, and then you have this. “Close up of grumpy face”. I don’t know what else to say, really, it’s just another meaningless cover that ticks market research boxes but in an even less interesting way. I totally get it, The Last of Us Part II cover designer, your game is gritty and violent and harsh. It’s basically misery porn and I understand that some people like that, but I really don’t want “close up of grumpy face” on my gaming shelf. Take your blood-soaked, angry teenagers and ludonarrative dissonance elsewhere, please. Can I look at something else now? 

GOOD – Cisco Heat

Now, this is more like it! I used to pick up Commodore 64 magazines when I was younger, and I always loved seeing the cover art and advertisements for Cisco Heat in said periodicals. It embodies my childhood idea of what America was like; sun and skyscrapers and cool police chases. When I look at this image, I think of summer, I think of rolling my Micro Machines around my bedroom floor, I think of watching Police Academy on video. Look at that subtitle – “All American Police Car Race”. That’s the stuff that my young, Beverly Hills Cop-inspired dreams were made of. And yes, I do also like the photo of the cop leaning on the cop car arcade machine. Who wouldn’t like that? Criminals, that’s who. 

GOOD – Halo 3

You could say, if you were so inclined, that the Halo 3 cover represents everything that’s wrong with big budget game covers from its era and beyond. It’s just the main character kind of standing there with a gun, it’s got that whole orange and teal, generic movie poster thing going on, but none of that matters, this is a masterpiece. Every subtle nuance combines to form a piece of box art that’s so inspiring it should be made into a 100 foot stained glass window and installed into a magnificent cathedral so that the morning sun can shine through it, reminding us of the trials and sacrifices of our saviour, Master Chief. The light, the shadows, the perfectly-poised, pre-action pose. This cover isn’t just epic, it’s transcendent. It depicts the precise moment that the ultimate hero of mankind steps into the light, ready to save us all.

GOOD – Secret of Mana

Hiro Isono was an incredible artist. His illustrations of otherworldly groves and mystical glades capture the complexity and detail of nature as well as its mysterious, sweeping majesty. When the lads at SquareSoft hit him up for a bit of cover art back in the early ’90s, it was an inspired move. After all, the driving force behind the lore of Secret of Mana is a giant, magical tree, and Isono is giant, magical trees. The result is a beautiful, somehow eerie, contemplative piece of art that details an event later in the game in a way that doesn’t spoil the story. It has the three leads, it has the roots of an enormous tree, it has some cool birds, and it’s so much more affecting than a picture of the protagonist posing with a sword (or an extreme close up of their grumpy face). The PS4 remake has more room on the cover to feature more of the illustration, so I should probably have displayed that one, but the SNES box presses all my nostalgia buttons. It’s my favourite box art, and I can’t see it being uprooted any time soon.

Donald in Maui Mallard – Retro Review

A Duck Pretending to be a Duck Pretending to be Another Duck

This is the second and last review I wrote for Sega Mania Issue 8, and as such is written from a 90’s perspective. This one had a couple of boxouts as well, which I’ve presented as best I can with any knowledge as to how to do layout properly.

Donald’s back, put possibly not quite how you remember him. Eschewing his usual, fashionably questionable sailor outfit, he’s arrived for his next action-packed platformer in a much more agreeable Hawaiian shirt and cap ensemble. That’s right, this is Maui Mallard, Donald Duck’s medium-boiled, crime-fighting alter-ego. The identity swapping doesn’t stop there, either. Maui Mallard has an alter-ego of his own. Cold Shadow is a black-clad ninja, a master of bo staff combat, and a proponent of nimbly leaping up narrow shafts. This explains the confusing situation of the game’s alternative title, Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow. Really, if we’re being accurate here, the game should be called Donald Duck in Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow, but I guess they would have run out of space on the spine. Whichever way you look at it, you’re going three-deep in Donald Duck personalities during the ninja sections, which is an experience in itself regardless of how good the game actually is.

Luckily, the game is really good. Donald in Maui Mallard is a platformer in the same vein as the cantankerous mallard’s previous Mega Drive escapades. However, Donald seems to have been doing some cross-fit training since the QuackShot days, as he has a much sleeker sprite, moves much faster, and controls a little bit looser. Where QuackShot (and indeed the Illusion series of Disney platformers) had a very considered pace with tight controls and forgiving platforming. Donald in Maui Mallard has a much more frantic feel, with enemies coming from all angles, more haphazard jumping controls, and platforms whose edges aren’t always clearly identifiable.

This screams Aladdin to me. You know, apart from with a ninja duck. There were no ninja ducks in Aladdin. Just an angry parrot.

In this way, it feels like it inhabits the lane between the “traditional” Disney platformers like the Illusion series, and the more modern Disney platformers based on the big, box office movies such as Aladdin and Lion King. This crossover can be seen in the art-style and the gameplay, as well as the mild jump in difficulty, and it could well be exactly what many Mega Drive owners are looking for.

Leaving his plunger gun at home, Donald as Maui is armed with a bug-launcher that fires insects that can be collected throughout the stages. The basic ammo has a fairly short range and takes a few shots to defeat most enemies, but upgraded invertebrates can be collected and even combined to form powerful, boss-bothering bullets or handy homing projectiles. The enemy designs are imaginative and in-fitting with the tropical, voodoo vibe, ranging from juicy-looking spiders to wild natives to zombie ducks. Maui has plenty of health to survive numerous enemy encounters, and there is a generous sprinkling of health-restoring power-ups to be found throughout the stages, but this generosity is offset by some devious level design and a fair few tricky platforming sections suspended over instant-death drops.

From the second stage onwards, Donald as Maui can take on the form of Cold Shadow. This feathered ninja warrior can take out most enemies with one thwack of his stick, and is a lot more manoeuvrable with a plethora of staff-based options to traverse the expansive levels in interesting ways. He can attach himself to various outcroppings and swing to higher platforms, and can wedge his stick in narrow shafts to gain the leverage he needs to leap higher. For the most part, you’ll want to play as Cold Shadow as much as you can, but there are times when Maui Mallard’s ranged attacks and bungee jumping abilities are preferable (or even necessary). In order to stay in his Cold Shadow form, Donald must collect symbols to stop a meter from ticking down. Luckily, these collectibles tend to respawn near tricky jumps that require Cold Shadow’s specific skills to negotiate, so you’ll never find yourself in a situation where you’re unable to progress, even if it can occasionally feel that way.

Both the Maui and Cold Shadow sprites are smooth and full of character, and have plenty of amusing idle animations to entertain you while you’re having a breather. The environment graphics are top notch, too, with sinister voodoo mansions, clandestine ninja hideouts and savage, moonlit savannahs all looking suitably atmospheric. The game has a dark and mysterious ambience, with later levels even taking on a bit of a Lovecraftian vibe, consisting of maddening death-worlds with bizarre architecture and gigantic, floating eyeballs. It’s not the kind of location you’d expect to be exploring in a Disney title, but I guess kids have to face up to the concept of hell dimensions at some point.

That’s right children, it’s always watching.

The music befits the tropical and occasionally occult vibe, usually taking the form of ambient accompaniment in lieu of catchy tunes that you’ll be whistling while you take the dog for a walk. Most of the tracks feature a pleasing and thematic beat to match the game’s quick and occasionally frantic pace, and you’ll probably find that your toes are tapping throughout. You’ll also hear plenty of sampled martial arts cries and grunts, artfully representing Donald’s new-found ninja skills.

As a platforming experience, Donald in Maui Mallard gets the basics right, and then takes you on a weird and wild journey of new ideas and unusual themes. Donald’s two distinct personalities offer different gameplay styles, and the levels that allow you to jump between the ninja and detective personas give you the freedom to take on enemies and obstacles however you please. The boss fights provide another layer of variety. Whether you’re unloading special bug ammo into the metallic spider boss of the first stage, or battering a floating lava-duck head around with your bo staff in the volcano level, the bosses are wacky, unique and appropriately challenging.

Remember Darkwing Duck? What about Count Duckula? Hey, remember that penguin from Wallace and Gromit?

The game isn’t without its frustrations. Platforming sections can occasionally be fiddly and unsatisfying, and there are moments when the way forward is unclear, but on the whole the challenge is well balanced between being accessible to kids and newbies and giving platforming pros and gaming veterans something to think about for a week or so. Donald in Maui Mallard feels like a modern Disney game. Whereas QuackShot was like playing an episode of Duck Tales and The Lucky Dime Caper was reminiscent of classic Donald cartoons or comic strips, the animation style and dark undertones on offer here exude that new and edgy ’90s style. It’s not quite as comfortable as the previous Disney mascot titles, but it’s not trying to be. This one is trying to get your heart pounding and act as your gateway to the concepts of dark magic, the risen dead and tribal sacrificial practices, rather than take you on a wistfully whimsical journey through wistful whimsy.

Donald in Maui Mallard is a glimpse into Disney’s darker side, but more importantly, it’s a very competent platformer with loads of personality. It won’t replace the likes of QuackShot and World of Illusion in my heart, but it will definitely sit proudly alongside them on my shelf. I suggest you find a place for it on yours.

Donald, P.I.

I mentioned in the main part of the review that Donald in Maui Mallard is a very modern-feeling Disney title, but there’s a hefty dose of the 1980s mixed in that makes that claim come across as a little tenuous. Maui Mallard, self-described “medium boiled” detective, is this game’s take on Tom Selleck’s Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, the lead character in ’80s detective thriller series Magnum, P.I.

The similarities are plain to see – both are pistol-toting, Hawaiian-shirted heroes with action star qualities and effortless cool. Donald doesn’t have a well-groomed, bristly decoration on his upper lip, though, and I haven’t seen much evidence of him being a Vietnam vet either. Still, at least he can turn into a ninja at a moment’s notice and start cracking skulls with his bo staff. I don’t believe Mr. Selleck ever donned a headband and started performing ninjutsu techniques throughout the tropical beaches and bamboo forests of Hawaii. At least, I don’t think he did, but maybe I missed a few episodes.

Tick, Tick, Shabuhm

So what’s Donald got himself involved with this time?” I hear you ask. Well, there’s a witchdoctor, you see, and he’s stolen the idol of Shabuhm Shabuhm from a tropical island. This idol is considered to be the island’s guardian spirit, and Donald as Maui as (occasionally) Cold Shadow needs to get it back. Our hero must track the nefarious shaman through the various locales of the island while winning over the natives and even taking a trip to the underworld, before coming face to face with the masked meddler and engaging in a climactic showdown.

The thing is, when you do finally meet the witchdoctor and find out what’s going on under that creepy tribal mask, it’s only going to cause more questions. I won’t completely spoil it, but let’s just say that this guy epitomises the term “air-headed”. That’s some bad mojo right there.

I hope you enjoyed this little look into what might have been if Sega Mania Magazine had kept going. I did actually start writing one more review, but I never finished it. It was on a Sega Saturn game called Robotica Cybernation Revolt, but I only wrote a snazzy, cyberpunk-style intro and never got into the review proper, mainly because I hadn’t played the game yet! Maybe I will one day…


RimWorld – Impressions

The Harrowing Trials and Tribulations of the Potato People

I held off on playing RimWorld for years after it first started showing up in my Steam discovery queue and my suggested YouTube videos. In terms of gameplay and premise, it was right up my street, but the visuals always turned me off. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some shallow ingrate concerned only with aesthetics, but a large part of the appeal of sim games for me is the visual interest of watching your settlement, theme park, zoo or other grow, and viewing the interactions of the denizens within. I can while away hours watching a junction in Cities: Skylines, for example, just observing as the traffic builds up, then filters through, then builds up, then filters through. Edit a junction or change a stretch of road, watch how it changes the flow. Watch the traffic build up, then filter through. I have a full and productive life.

Anyway, it was the hilariously and informatively presented videos of a YouTuber called ambiguousamphibian that finally caused me to take the plunge. 30 hours of gameplay later, here are my initial thoughts.

I really don’t like the visuals. Nothing has legs or arms, and everyone looks like a little potato person. Sometimes a colonist will have interesting hair, giving them some visual character, but then they’ll immediately put a hat on so that they look like a little potato man again. When they get shot or stabbed or scratched by cougars, cuts and slashes appear on them, giving the disturbing impression that they’re potatoes that bleed. I understand that the graphics are representative, and that rendering arms and legs would be quite an undertaking considering your colonists can and will lose limbs and then replace them with bionic implants, but I find it difficult to get attached to the little potato people, probably more so than if they were represented by icons or text.

If you can’t make out the text there, it’s saying that Cauchois’ brain is a mangled scar thanks to a shot from a revolver. This has … slowed her down somewhat. She used to be my finest builder.

The environment textures are very lacking as well. I immediately downloaded a mod that sharpens up the textures but you’re still going to be looking at basic, bare minimum visuals for the entirety. It’s fine, it is what it is, I wish there was a more appealing visual solution for a million-selling game, but I signed up for the addictive progression-based gameplay, the situations that can arise, and the stories that can play out.

RimWorld nails all of that stuff, especially if you’re brave and play on the harder difficulties. It’s the sort of game that generates water cooler talk. If you’re lucky enough to have a pal who also plays the game, you’ll be regaling each other with tales of tribal raids, cold snaps, giant insect infestations and killer guinea pig attacks for months to come.

A few years back, my wife and I used to play The Sims 3 a lot. We had completely different play-styles. She would create the perfect Sim, take total control of their lives, get them to work every morning, and try to make them as happy and fulfilled as possible (that’s if she ever got past meticulously creating said Sim’s perfect abode with the infinite money cheat). I would create a household of three or four, give them a mixture of good and bad traits, give the AI the maximum amount of control and just let events unfold, only intervening if I absolutely needed to.

There was another guy in this colony called Hella, but he died when a cougar bit off his arm. Said cougar ended up as lunch for the other colonists. It’s a harsh world sometimes.

RimWorld really rewards players who are somewhere in between the two. You’ll have to be in control to ensure your colonists survive the raids, harsh winters and other such dangerous occurrences the computer will throw at you, but rolling with the game’s mischievous tendencies to throw seemingly insurmountable odds at you is essential to really experiencing what RimWorld has to offer. It’s a story creator, and sometimes said stories may be tragic or hopeless, but they’re always fascinating. If you’re the type of player who would quit and reload if your favourite colonist got his arm ripped off by a passing warg, then this game isn’t for you. You’ve got to accept the rough as well as the smooth to get the ultimate RimWorld experience, and you’ll probably need lots of time to spare, too.

At only thirty hours and three colonies deep, I don’t really feel qualified to review RimWorld. I’ve not come anywhere near the endgame, and have barely scratched the surface of what this indie gem has to offer. However, I can say some things for certain already; this game is meticulously crafted, addictive, near-limitless in breadth, often melancholic in tone, and chock full of little potato people. It’s definitely got a-peel.

Aero the Acro-Bat – Retro Review

Bother in the Big Top

This review was written for Issue 8 of the sadly now defunct Sega Mania Magazine, as such it is written from a ’90s perspective.

Does anyone actually like the circus? I mean, I’m sure they were great in the olden times, when the only other forms of entertainment were gathering around the wireless or playing with a hoop and a stick, but do we really need them here in the futuristic ’90s? We have television, spectator sports and video games, bars and nightclubs, Pogs and Slinkies. I for one think that it’s time for circuses to go. The animals don’t want to be there, I question the motives and mental capacity of anyone who chooses to be a clown, and acrobats can use their impressive suppleness and contortionist abilities elsewhere. Maybe they can perform elaborate robberies or something.

Aero the Acro-bat for the Mega Drive has an unavoidable big top vibe, with the titular Aero being the game’s protagonist and the star of the in-game show. A villainous industrialist named Edgar Ektor has sabotaged the World of Amusement Circus and Funpark, and has kidnapped all of its performers, replacing them with nefarious, evil clowns and other such appropriately-themed bad guys. It’s fallen upon Aero to use his high-flying skills and acrobatic feats to save the day, rescue his girlfriend Aeriel, and put a stop to Ektor’s machinations. This includes taking care of Ektor’s lead henchman, a certain Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel.

Aero is contemplating the tiny, one-hit-kill spikes that infest every stage. Can you see it?

If you’ve seen Aero the Acro-bat before, you’ll know that he represents yet another developer having a dip into the “critters with ‘tude” well. This time it’s Sunsoft who have their straws out, attempting to slurp up some of Sonic’s lucrative success water. Have they backed a winner with this Chiropteran tumbler? I’m not so sure. The designers doubled down on the mean and cool attitude and forgot to add any charm or charisma. Also, he’s a circus performer, which means I immediately question his moral and social ideals.

Initial impressions paint Aero the Acro-bat as a fairly standard platformer, and it feels a little dated compared to some of the platformers that have appeared in recent years. Aero himself is somewhat stiff to control, and he commits that platformer hero sin of not being able to stop quickly, which can result in some aggravating slides into certain doom. The stages, while colourful, seem fairly lifeless, with levels that don’t evolve as you progress and forgettable enemy designs. There is some stage variety later on, with a few cool gimmicks that are mostly based on fairground rides, but nothing really stands out or sticks with you. Visually, this is closer to James Pond or Krusty’s Super Fun House than it is to Ristar or our iconic hedgehog pal.

A bat in a barrel, rolling past featureless trees and hills.

Mechanically, the level design philosophy seems frustratingly centred on catching the player out with traps that they could not have foreseen. The admittedly-large levels are littered with spikes, and said spikes are small and inconspicuous, and are often found in the most annoying of places. For example, some of the levels ask you to jump on certain platforms, which causes them to disintegrate, and you can be darned sure there are going to be spike pits underneath all of them. There’s a particular spiked pit during act two that you get dumped into immediately after a unicycle tightrope ride, the likes of which have thus far given you no reason to think they’re going to end in certain, spiky doom. This would all be fine if the spikes just made you lose some health, but these barbed bad boys are insta-death, baby.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, have oodles of time to spare, and enjoy memorising massive levels using a process of trial and error that involves lots and lots of dead bat, then you might get a lot of enjoyment out of Aero the Acro-bat, as there is satisfying gameplay to be found once you’ve mastered Aero’s initially-awkward dive attacks and formed your mental map of the levels. It’s a heck of a slog to get there though, and with its forgettable mascot, uninspiring visuals, small sprites and irritating, circus-themed music, you might not want to go through the trouble.

The rollercoaster section is just another memory test.

I can’t help but feel that the game doesn’t want you to have fun. Did you know that bats are the only mammal capable of true, full flight, and are even more nimble and agile when airborne than most birds? Not this one. He can hover for a bit, and can only fly temporarily after collecting a certain power-up. He’s also able to fire star projectiles, but they’re extremely limited, he starts with none, and the pick-ups are located in fiddly places to get to. Enemies are positioned specifically to catch you out, which you could say about your average Sonic the Hedgehog level, but Sonic’s zones are mostly focussed on fun, spectacle, exploration and a satisfying challenge, rather than just aggravating schmuck bait.

The Mega Drive is absolutely stuffed with top quality mascot platformers, and Aero, despite all of his impressive acro-bat-ics, struggles to even trouble the top 20. Perhaps he should go back to shooting soundwaves at unsuspecting moths or sucking blood out of horses. You know, all that bat stuff that real bats do.

I hope this was an enjoyable little extra for any Sega Mania fans out there. I wrote one more review for Issue 8 which I will be posting at a later date, and I may also be uploading some of my favourite reviews from throughout the mag’s seven issue run, so stay tuned! 

Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Live to Fight and Fight to Stay Awake

Alright, so that subtitle is a bit misleading. I didn’t find Xenoblade Chronicles 3 boring (rest assured I would not have stuck with it if I did), I just found it very, very comfy. I’ve already touched on this thought in my other writings that can be found in various corners of the internet, but a good JRPG is like a cosy duvet and a fluffy pillow, pyjamas and slippers and warm milk, and gentle rain pattering on the window. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has a very long run-time, it has a battle system that, if you’re a bit over-levelled, can require very little input from the player, it has expansive, dream-like landscapes and an otherworldly ambient soundtrack. All of these factors and more combine to make it impossible for me to play this game for more than a couple of hours at a time without drifting off, controller in hand, as my chosen character idles in the middle of a battlefield surrounded by monstrous fauna. It’s alright though, because the rest of the party will take care of them, and the victory fanfare will usually wake me up.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a very typical JRPG in some ways, but completely does its own thing in others. The story follows a small group of soldiers under the banner of the nation of Keves, who soon get thrust together with a similar group of soldiers from the opposing nation of Agnus. The world is locked in a seemingly-eternal battle in which opposing sides kill to fill their “flame clocks” with the life energy of their fallen enemies. The people of this world seem to have a ten-year life span, appearing as a young teenager and “ascending” in their twenties, if they survive that long. These ten years of life are dedicated to a mysterious queen, and that’s about all you’ll know for quite some time. There are no traditional RPG towns, almost every settlement you come across is a military base inhabited by personal from one of the two major factions, and almost every NPC you’ll meet is a soldier in the never-ending war.

The battles are very flashy, with spells and effects going off everywhere. I found that the offensive classes were the most fun to play as, but others might prefer defence or support.

Noah is the main protagonist, and is an off-seer, a soldier tasked with playing those slain in battle off to the next life with his special flute. His role handily sets up the game’s contemplative tone, but the world is very slow to reveal its secrets. There’s an opening scene that initially seems barely linked to the rest of the story, and it’ll be ages before you even know who you’re fighting against. The story is definitely a slow-burner, but it’s okay because there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Huge areas to explore, extra-tough, bonus monsters to fight, side quests galore, and equipment and class systems that give endless scope for build-tweaking and customisation. If, like me, you’re not into all that min-maxing stuff, there is a handy auto-equip option that will get you through the main game absolutely fine.

The six main characters run the gamut of decent to extremely likeable, with the roguish Lanz and Eunie and the occasionally prudish Taion being my personal favourites. Each of these characters comes with a character class that fits into one of three categories; attack, defence or healing. They don’t have to stick to these classes though, and can be given another character’s class with the press of a button, gaining new weapons and a new move-set. This means that studious healer Taion can become a longsword-wielding damage-dealer, or front-line defender Lanz can be converted to a back-of-field support and healing role, should you so wish. Certain skills from certain classes can be carried over to new classes too, giving even more scope for customisation. There are numerous “hero” characters that you’ll encounter throughout the game, and these guys take up the seventh slot in your active party. They bring whole new classes to the mix which can also be equipped to your main party members, and there are loads of them in the main game and even more in the post-game, resulting in a galaxy of options when it comes to fiddling with character and party builds.

The battle system feels like it was pulled from something like World of Warcraft, with various skills available that slowly recharge after use. Initially, the battles are simple, consisting of standing your chosen character (you can control any of the main six) next to the enemy and letting them auto-attack, then activating special attacks as they become available. As you advance, the combat system becomes more intricate, adding layer upon layer of complexity with attack-types that can be chained into other attack-types, moves that can be cancelled into other moves, special abilities that can be activated by building up a metre, and other special abilities that can be activated by building up other metres. Positioning is very important, as certain attacks are more effective from certain angles, and you’ll charge your chain attacks quicker if you attack from the right direction. The chain attacks, once activated, tee up a kind of interactive, anime-style cut-scene event where everyone gets to do their cool moves in an order that you define. Even this is complex and multi-layered, as you’ll need to balance the build up to the finishing move in such a way that you boost your damage multiplier as much as possible. Also, characters can merge to form a single, extra-powerful being, which will open up even more options and approaches. Remember, if all of this seems too much, just stick to the basics and you’ll be fine. That is totally what I did.

Being able to turn into big, angelic robot things is just one of many wrinkles in a complex battle system.

The world is large and mostly open, with huge, bizarre structures and rock formations looming on the horizon that you might eventually find yourself climbing over later in the game. There are various boss enemies and supply caches hidden about the place, but if you’re not too into the crafting and stat-maximising side of the game, the containers you can find won’t seem like much of a reward. The world can feel lifeless despite the number and variety of monsters roaming about, but this is likely a deliberate attempt to communicate the war-torn nature of things, with the only humanoid denizens belonging to the various military colonies that are hidden in ravines or behind waterfalls. The creature design is very interesting, from buzzing wasp-type enemies to gigantic, thundering colossi that are probably way too high level for you to even contemplate going up against. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is not afraid to sprinkle its low level areas with high level enemies that you’ll be expected to come back and defeat much later in the game. This can occasionally result in you getting one-shotted by a rogue, high level monster that has snuck up on you while you were occupied with something else. Don’t worry, the party will just appear at the nearest safe area with nary a scratch on their pretty, anime faces.

Speaking of which, the characters are interesting and well-designed, with their outfits having an understated quality that eschews the over-the-top fantasy/steampunk clothing you might expect from games in this genre. The voice acting is mostly on point, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 continues the series tradition of making almost everyone sound like they’re from Dickensian London, although there are definitely some Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Australian twangs in there, too. Again, my favourite character here is Lanz, whose exclamations of locating rare “doodahs” out in the field have become something of a meme in my household.

Even though I really enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles 3, there are things about it that can make it difficult to recommend, especially to those with less experience in the JRPG scene. The battle system that initially seems barely interactive is the foremost of these stumbling blocks, but if you come in with an open mind, or you’re an RPG veteran, you’ll soon realise that there is a wealth of depth and strategy on offer. Despite these options and details, the battles rarely felt especially epic, even with the majestic visuals and stellar musical accompaniment. If a battle is too difficult for you, it doesn’t feel like there’s much you can do about it other than grind a few levels. This isn’t true of course; you can change your party composition by adding healers or defensive classes, or tweak your moves and equipment, but it’s all preparation and no skill, all science and no art. I also found that I became over-levelled after a chapter or so, and started to breeze through the story missions and most side-quests. I didn’t really need to pay attention during the battles, and that’s when the sleepiness set in.

The grand vistas offer clues as to where this is set in the Xenoblade Chronicles timeline. They also look all majestic and stuff.

I knew what I was getting into with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but it still had its surprises. The story, though winding and very introspective, is interesting and has some surprising moments, the main characters are endearing, and there are some highlights among the secondary hero characters, too. The villains are less memorable, but they do the job. There are some awesome cut-scenes and some great vehicle and robot designs, and some gorgeous exploration music joins one or two memorable and epic battle themes on the soundtrack.

I enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles 3 a lot. I enjoyed it, and then I got used to it, and then I took it for granted, and now I can’t play it without drifting off to dreamland. There is post-game content, but I think I’ll save it until the next time I’m suffering from a bout of insomnia.

Vigilante – Retro Review

Green-Trousered Rogues

As a kid growing up in rural Somerset, I didn’t see much in the way of gang violence (although I’d argue that a group of shifty-looking cows can be just as intimidating as a gang of ruffians with flick-knives), and my only experience of that culture came through films and music videos. Loading up Double Dragon or Target Renegade on the C64 was my chance to live out that Los Locos scene in Short Circuit 2 or pretend I’m one of those cool and mean-looking dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video.

Upon closer inspection, Vigilante for the Master System seems to have taken its cues from more adult-targeted media like 1979 film The Warriors, what with the antagonist gang being called the Rogues and all. No sign of David Patrick Kelly though. In fact, all the bosses of Vigilante’s Rogues are the “large and in charge” types, rather than diminutive, trouble-making rat-bastards.

The boss of the first level. Is it Bruiser Brody or Brian Blessed?

To me, Vigilante was the herald of the next generation of side-scrolling fighting games. After sampling the likes of Renegade and Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja on the C64 and Amstrad CPC, Vigilante was my first taste of streets-based violence on a console, and mighty impressed I was too. Bright colours, neat backgrounds and cool animations greeted my eager, innocent eyes, but what would my contemporary opinion be of this near-forgotten 8-bit beat-’em-up?

Well, it ain’t no Streets of Rage, that’s for sure. Released on the Master System in 1989, Vigilante is a port of a 1988 arcade game by Irem, and is apparently a spiritual successor to the 1984 arcade game Kung-Fu Master. An unnamed city has been overrun by crooks, thugs and ne’er-do-wells, and Maria, the protagonist’s girlfriend, has been unceremoniously chucked into the back of a van. It’s time for the titular vigilante to clean up the streets. The levels consist of a single, linear run towards a boss waiting at the end of the road. Contrary to what you might expect from the genre and the screenshots, there is no vertical movement, with our vigilante friend limited to a single, horizontal plane. Enemies will attack from either side, and you have punches, kicks and jumps at your disposal to fend them off.

As such, Vigilante plays less like a traditional scrolling beat-’em-up and more like some kind of violent rhythm game. This is because much of the game comes down to the timing of your button presses, especially when it comes to one particularly annoying thug-type whose modus operandi is to repeatedly rush in and attempt to grapple you. Seriously, these guys are the worst. Every other enemy will approach from either side of the screen, hold off for a bit as they get close, and then attempt to catch you out with an attack. The aforementioned grapplers, identified by their white vests and green trousers, will rush in at full speed, single-mindedly intent on locking you in an energy-sapping hold. Your only defence is to batter them before they get to you, but they come in so quickly that the timing is extremely precise. It’s difficult enough when just these green-trousered hooligans are rushing you from either side, but pair them up with other crooks and things can get immensely frustrating.

Look at him, coming in from behind while you’re occupied with t-shirt and jeans guy.

If you can survive this glut of grapple-happy nutters you’ll reach the boss at the end of the level. These guys are intimidating, but will soon fall once you figure out which of your attacks they’re particularly vulnerable to. Be careful not to let the boss push you too far back through the level though, as once you’ve defeated the stage’s head honcho you still have to walk to the end, and if you’ve gone too far back you can expect to be set upon by thugs and green-trousered grapple guys again.

I played the Master System version of Double Dragon so that I could compare the two, and there’s so much more to that than there is to Vigilante. The stages are larger, with vertical movement, pits and multiple height levels to traverse, you have more moves at your disposal, and Double Dragon has that all-important two-player mode. Vigilante looks nicer though, its alleyways, scrapyards and city skylines artfully delivering that retro urban vibe. Vigilante’s nameless city is a pretty cool place to be, it’s just a shame that I have to spend my entire time there desperately fending off infuriating bastards in fetching aquamarine slacks.

Played on Master System/Emulator

Dakar Desert Rally

Hooning in the Dunes

There’s something fascinating and visceral about rallying. It’s man and machine versus nature, and the battle takes place on muddy Welsh backroads, deep in snowy, Bavarian pine forests or across the arid outback of Australia. Skilled drivers exhibit courage beyond reason as they fling noisy, high-powered, sponsor-festooned automobiles around trees, through rivers, and along the edge of ravines. It’s the rough, messy antithesis to Formula 1’s high-end, super-rich glitz and glamour, and it’s way more entertaining.

I’ve owned my share of rally games in the past, mainly sticking to the Colin McCrea series of simulations that later evolved into the more Ken Block-influenced DiRT games, through which I learned the meaning of the word “hoon.” Despite all of the outrageous stunts, cool music and bright colours of the more recent titles, I’d take sliding a Peugeot 205 around the Finnish countryside in the pissing rain over screeching around a gymkhana event in a Ford Focus plastered with Monster Energy logos any day of the week.

I tried to capture the lightning strikes in this screenshot. I really tried. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it looks super-cool.

I’ve been more-or-less aware of the Dakar Rally event, but I’ve never looked into it too deeply. The idea certainly appeals to me though; man and machine versus nature again, this time in a harsh, desert environment, careening over dunes and navigating through blinding sandstorms. When I spotted a few trailers for the new Dakar Desert Rally game (and spotted its very reasonable price point), I thought that it was time to take the plunge. I’ve been burned out a little by lengthy JRPGs after all, so it was time to try something a bit different and scratch that old racing game itch.

Dakar Desert Rally takes place in open environments with courses laid out using waypoints. Your job is to validate all the waypoints and get to the finish line as quickly as possible. There are three main game modes on offer, which range in difficulty and intensity. In Sport mode, the next waypoint is clearly highlighted on screen and you’ll be leaving the starting line with three other racers, making for a more arcade-y experience. In Professional mode, you’ll be racing against the clock without the aid of highlighted waypoints, instead being forced to find your way by using your roadbook notes, keeping an eye on your compass, and listening to your navigator. Lastly, Simulation mode is like Professional mode but with no restarts and higher repair costs at the end of each stage.

I started out in Professional mode, hoping to get that real Dakar Rally experience. It’s certainly intense, with information being fired at you constantly as you try to keep an eye out for errant rocks and trees. Your roadbook will flash up on the right-hand side of the screen, overwhelming you with symbols and arrows and arrows that go through symbols, while your co-pilot constantly feeds you audio information as well. Not only will your passenger warn you of dangers like jumps, fords and extended downhill sections, he’ll also feed you compass points and call out sudden turns. This mode takes some practice, because if you want to do well, you’ll need to keep your eyes and ears on many factors all at the same time, all while still maintaining those breakneck speeds. Relying solely on the vocals of your buddy and ignoring the roadbook and compass won’t cut it, as occasions such as him calling out a “keep right” instruction only for the course to veer off to the left seem to be fairly common. I’m ashamed at how often I found myself circling aimlessly out in the wilderness as the co-pilot fed me compass point numbers in a disappointed tone, desperately trying to get me back on track.

There’s nothing quite like the open dunes. Unless you’re in a vehicle that isn’t too good at jumping and landing, then things will get very flippy, very quickly.

Eventually, I dropped down to Sport mode, and after I’d gotten over the initial pangs of failure and shame, I started to have a lot more fun. While it’s still possible to get lost if the next waypoint is behind a hill and the instructions aren’t completely clear, being more confident about where you need to go allows you to really put your foot down and concentrate on the racing. You’ll also notice that Sport mode still features the staggered starts of Professional mode, only with groups of four starting ahead of you and behind you instead of single racers. This can lead to some awesome moments where you catch up with a different class of vehicle while still fighting for position against the guys who started alongside you. There’s nothing quite like blasting up the side of a dune in a badass 4×4 while bikes, trucks and buggies jostle for position all around you.

Combining these moments with Dakar Desert Rally’s stellar weather effects are when the game really reaches its action-packed crescendo. While the environments look great in clear weather, barrelling through epic thunderstorms, fierce blizzards (yep, in the desert) and intense sandstorms is bare-knuckle racing at its finest. The developers (Portugal-based team Saber Porto) have done a fantastic job with the more extreme weather effects, with dramatic lightning strikes and impressive rainstorms offering up some variety amidst the admittedly-pretty clear skies and desert sunsets.

The experience is far from perfect, though. Odd physics and some glitchy collision detection will occasionally send you flying unfairly, and overly aggressive AI drivers will sometimes ruin your day. More egregious issues include slowdown and some absolutely killer loading times. The game has a too-common habit of chugging when you pass a waypoint, which can cut through your concentration and make you lose that all-important racing line. The load-times are also frustrating, and are an absolute bastard if you’ve wrapped your quad bike around a tree right at the beginning of the race and want to restart. While we’re on the subject of quad bikes, said four-wheeled steeds are a nightmare to control, handling like bars of soap, and turning you in the opposite direction at the slightest opportunity. Seriously, the quad bikes can get directly in the bin. The cars, bikes, trucks and buggies are all fine, though.

The trucks are so big they can block your view a bit. That still doesn’t mean I’m going to use the cockpit view though…

Some racing game fans might lament the lack of variety, but really, if you’ve bought a game called Dakar Desert Rally you should expect lots of deserts and rallying and not much else. It’s different enough to the more traditional rally games to warrant a place alongside them on a driving enthusiast’s gaming shelf, and in Sport mode it’s definitely able to provide some MotorStorm-esque arcade thrills, too. Dakar Desert Rally isn’t the top racing game around, and nor is it the first one you should choose, but if you’ve worn out your tyres on Forza, run out of fuel with Gran Turismo, and ground your gears to dust in Project Cars, there’s definitely plenty of fun to be had here for those that want to try something a bit dirtier.

Go on; go hoon along some dunes.

Played on PS4


Not Recommended for Those With Thalassophobia.

Alma’s unsettling appearances in the first F.E.A.R. game. My decision to quit and never come back thanks to the constant aura of smothering terror in the P.T. Demo. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem trying to convince me that my TV was on the blink. All of these are examples of video games getting under my skin, giving me that sense of tingling anticipation that something truly horrible is about to happen. The three games mentioned above are pillars of horror in video games. Subnautica is not even classed as a horror game. It’s an open-world, survival-crafting experience with bright, cartoony graphics, but that first play-through was spent in an almost perpetual state of near-unbearable dread.

It might just be me, but it’s the open ocean that does it. Those endless, unknown depths. Those distant, unidentifiable sounds. That grasping, limitless, suffocating void filled with leviathans horrific beyond imagining just waiting to suck you into their inescapable, cavernous maws. Subnautica has its light-hearted moments, and is enjoyed by players of all ages, but if the idea of dangling alone in a pitch-black, watery abyss is as unappealing to you as it is to me, then this game will absolutely terrify you.

Enough about my weakness to water, though, let’s talk about the game. Subnautica is set on an uncharted planet known as 4546B, whose surface is almost entirely composed of a vast, deep ocean. When the spaceship you’re on crash-lands on this watery world, you find yourself stranded and alone with only the cold, computerised voice of your PDA assistant for company. The game will offer up a few hints and markers early on, but you’re pretty much on your own. It’s nice and safe in the floating escape pod that brought you to the planet, but those hunger and thirst meters are ticking down already, and hanging around there isn’t going to get you back home. It’s time to explore.

Once you get your bearings you’ll start to understand what you need to do to survive. Important tasks include hunting for edible fish, creating potable water, and scavenging for equipment to help you explore. You’re probably going to drown. A lot. It’s all too easy to get distracted while searching for resources, and end up misjudging how long it will take you to get back to that distant, glistening surface before your air supply runs out. However, search enough wreckage and harvest enough materials from the local flora and fauna, and you’ll soon be able to upgrade your equipment and leave the comfortable shallows, heading deeper and wider. Persevere, and you’ll discover that there are quite a few surprises out there.

Meet the Ghost Leviathan, one of the scary leviathan-class creatures. A few are harmless, but most just want to swallow you whole. The last aggressive leviathan you’ll meet is a little disappointing, though. A goofy-looking gator-squid. Shame.

Survival/crafting games don’t tend to put too much emphasis on the story, but Subnautica is very different in that regard. Through audio recordings and interesting discoveries, you’ll start to piece together a very interesting tale about the planet’s history and ecosystem, and will become embroiled in a surprisingly deep and involved mystery. As the plot threads unravel, new plans and blueprints will become available too – from more advanced air-tanks to a mighty submarine called the Cyclops, all of these gadgets help to let you go deeper and deeper into the abyss, where you’ll finally get to the bottom of the compelling mystery.

Another thing that you can do to help keep yourself alive is build an underwater base (or a series of bases), where you can craft, plan, or just take a breather in relative safety. As long as you keep your base powered, you won’t run out of oxygen, and you can build such helpful devices as battery chargers, storage containers and water purifiers. These bases have a nice, clean, futuristic aesthetic, to which you can add decorative items such as beds, plant-pots, and even aquariums, and if this building aspect really appeals to you, there is a “creative mode” in which you can work on huge, underwater complexes with no restrictions.

Its cool and everything, and constructing a vast, aquatic utopia is an interesting aspiration, but Subnautica is really about the moments. That moment when you swim out into the open ocean and the sea floor drops off into an abyssal trench, and you hear a shrieking, haunting cry out in the murky blue. That moment when you go to a new biome for the first time and the PDA voice informs you that you’re in the migratory path of leviathan-class lifeforms. That moment when you’re exploring in your compact submersible and a dreaded Reaper Leviathan appears from nowhere, grabs your craft and shakes it around like a dog with a chew toy. That moment when you realise that maybe you weren’t the first sentient being to splash down on this planet after all…

Subnautica is absolutely packed to the gills with memorable and awe-inspiring experiences. Most of them invoke negative feelings like loneliness, isolation and dread, but there is wonder too, and a real sense of adventure and discovery. When I finally finished the game and was given the opportunity to leave the planet behind, despite feeling unease and anxiety for practically my entire adventure, I suddenly didn’t want to go. When it was finally time to escape the terrifying deep, I found that I didn’t want to leave this beautifully dangerous world behind. I think they call it Stockholm syndrome.

Played on PS4