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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You’d be forgiven for taking one look at the blocky visuals of Dragon Quest Builders and rolling your eyes at the thought of a Square Enix helmed cash-in on Minecraft’s success. However, while clearly taking cues from the cuboid phenomenon, this is much more than just an Akira Toriyama-themed skin pack. Personally, I came into Dragon Quest Builders 2 with relatively little experience in the Dragon Quest series. I nearly finished Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, and finished Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, and haven’t played any other games in the series’ extensive back catalogue. Despite their wordy titles, though, I enjoyed both games immensely. As for Minecraft, my experience there is almost non-existent. I’ve tried it once or twice, but always found myself unable to get motivated to build for the sake of building in the open-ended, low-res world. I found myself getting much more involved with the 2D building of Terraria, thanks to its progression, bosses and neat graphical style.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 obviously borrows visually and stylistically from Minecraft, but does even more than Terraria did when it comes to adding focus to the sandbox. It features a lengthy quest that sets it apart from more open-ended survival/builders and a story line that, while fairly basic thanks to a silent protagonist, throws up its fair share of twists and turns. The ongoing relationship between the player-created character and his or her amnesiac companion Malroth is often interesting and occasionally moving, and the vibe can shift from upbeat and irreverent to surprisingly foreboding or hauntingly melancholy at a moments’ notice. Observant, old-school Dragon Quest fans may also recognise the name Malroth from Dragon Quest II, and will already have an inkling that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. The story chugs along nicely and, despite some slow sections, concludes in satisfying fashion, too.
The quest is split into numerous distinct parts, set on different islands in a vast, unknown sea. While undertaking the story missions on these islands, you won’t be able to leave them. Upon completing that part of the quest, however, you’re free to go back and forth between your home base (known as the Isle of Awakening) and almost any island you’ve already completed. Once you go to a new area and get stuck into the next story mission, you’re locked in again. The split nature of the world allows you to keep different projects handily separated, but can result in frustration later on when you find yourself spending far too much time propositioning the quirky Captain Brownbeard to take you from island to island, and experiencing the loading screens that are part of the deal.
There are also island types known as “Explorers’ Shores”. These randomly generated holms, cays and skerries offer up enjoyable orienteering activities in which players can unlock infinite reserves of certain resource types. You can also find optional boss fights, pick up various villagers and helpful NPCs to take back to the Isle of Awakening, and gather handy resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t bother building anything, though, as the place will be swallowed by the ocean mists when you leave, never to be seen again.
Each main island will teach you different aspects of the building, survival and management elements of the game. The first island introduces you to farming and meeting your villagers’ basic needs, the second area demonstrates mining and entertainment, and so on. Complete the main quest and you’ll be armed with the knowledge to build the fantasy metropolis of your dreams back at the Isle of Awakening once the post-game opens up.
Nearly. The game keeps a lot from you, and completionists looking for all the items, cooking recipes and room types on offer will have a gigantes-sized task on their hands. The story quests will only tell you so much, the rest needs to be uncovered by following NPC hints or through a bit of good old trial and error. This is welcome, as it gives the game a wealth of content for enthusiastic builders to uncover long after the end credits have rolled. However, the game’s obliqueness can occasionally go too far, and frustrating occurrences are a little too common. Room-types not registering with no clear indication as to why, villagers ignoring your newly built facilities with no visible explanation, and a lack of clarity when determining how far out into the map you can expand your settlement are all examples of problems I encountered. All of these are understandable limits, but it would have been nice if the game attempted to explain them a bit.
Combat is basic. Swing your sword until the enemy dies, occasionally pausing to dodge obviously telegraphed power attacks. Level up and craft better swords to hit harder. That’s pretty much it. Combat isn’t the focus here, despite there being plenty of it, but variety is injected through the use of companions. Throughout most of the game you’ll be accompanied by Malroth, and you can rely on him in a lot of the battles. There will also be occasions when your party grows to four or more, and later on whole armies can be thrown into battle at your behest, though I never used this feature outside of the story mission that introduced it. While visiting the aforementioned Explorers’ Shores, you can choose up to three companions to take with you, and this adventuring party can eventually include tamed monsters. These monsters add another wrinkle to the resource-gathering, combat and exploration aspects of the game, as many of them can be ridden and used in various helpful roles.
I’ve not played the first Dragon Quest Builders game, but from a little bit of research it seems that the sequel added such a wealth of gameplay tweaks and quality of life changes that I’ll probably leave it unexplored. Having said that, I did read somewhere that Dragon Quest Builders has a double jump. Dragon Quest Builders 2 could really do with a double jump…
We can forgive it, though, because Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a thoroughly charming, content-rich and surprisingly deep game. Bright, fascinating and bizarrely pun-obsessed, the building gameplay mixes perfectly with the questing, and for the most part the balance between hand-holding and letting you do your own thing is weighed perfectly. Despite enjoying previous Dragon Quest titles, I partially dismissed Dragon Quest Builders 2 as a cash-in on the popularity of Minecraft that was squarely aimed at kids. An opportunity came to play it (it was a gift for my daughter) and I was quickly enlightened to the fact that, while both of those things are true, this is still an excellent game that will keep you coming back again and again. I want more of it, despite it having a 50+ hour campaign and near endless post-game content, and that’s a sign that something is definitely working. As far as Dragon Quest spin-offs go, this one’s built for success.
The grid-based, strategy role-playing game has always been a favoured genre of mine. My first experience was with Shining Force III for the Sega Saturn. I bought it off the back of playing and enjoying dungeon-crawling RPG Shining the Holy Ark, and honestly wasn’t expecting such a significant shift in gameplay. I loved it, though. The bright graphical style, the multitude of cool characters to recruit, the depiction of epic, fantasy battles in grid-based form. I’ve since played the earlier games in the Shining Force series, as well as the likes of Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Luminous Arc and more, but to me, Shining Force III is still the pinnacle. Let’s see if the genre’s newest addition, Square Enix’s Triangle Strategy, can knock it off the top spot.
First off, as mentioned in my recent look at the demo, the game is visually exquisite. The retro-styled locales and battlefields portray a lush and enticing fantasy world of the kind that escapists long for. Fires glow warmly in hearths, foliage appears thick and verdant, and water glistens captivatingly in the background. The sprites are pleasing and echo the personality of each character’s portrait. As the game progresses, the protagonist’s allies can be promoted to a more powerful class, and the character sprites change in kind, subtly increasing in grandeur to reflect the character’s growth.
The music compliments the world well. A few of the tracks are epic and memorable, and the rest are in-fitting with the setting and exemplify the atmosphere. However, while the dialogue is fine, the voice acting comes across as very pedestrian. Strangely, main protagonist Serenoa was saddled with the most uninspiring voice performance, but the ponderous drone of advisor Benedict comes a close second, his slow delivery of lines begging to be skipped. The voice acting in general lacks life, and comes across as generic and lacking in character. It might be best to turn the speech volume to zero and read the dialogue yourself. You’ll act it out better in your head.
The story is complex and multi-layered, and designed to present the player with difficult decisions at pivotal points. It’s serious and political, concerning high-profile members of a medieval fantasy society making important decisions that affect the trajectory of a coming war. When it’s time to make a decision, protagonist Serenoa puts the question to his most loyal followers, and a vote is undertaken. Interestingly, Serenoa, and by extension the player, does not get to vote at all, but has the ability to speak to all of his companions before a decision is made, hoping to swing them to his way of thinking. How well this goes can often depend on how much the player explored and how many NPCs were interacted with in the build up to the pivotal moment, as such interactions can unlock crucial conversation options that can change the opinion of an ally. Fail to gather enough information, and risk leaving the story’s direction to chance.
These grand decisions are Triangle Strategy’s most obvious innovation, but there are also interesting intricacies in the gameplay that set it further apart from its competitors. As with all games in the genre, positioning of allies is incredibly important to your chances of victory, but there are various abilities and environmental effects that take this even further. Back-stabbing critical hits, consecutive attacks on surrounded enemies, and spells and abilities that can move opponents make for interesting tactical options. As do flammable, freezable and electricity-conducting terrain types. In an arena with high drops onto spike traps, wind magic becomes invaluable for knocking your enemies to their dooms below. If it’s raining and there are puddles forming, then lightning magic becomes devastating. That is, unless someone used ice magic to freeze the puddles. Still, you can always use a fire spell to turn the ice back into water again. There’s a depth to the game mechanics on offer that lends itself to experimentation and replayability.
The large roster of combatants available to find and recruit also helps in this regard. While there is a core group of plot-significant characters that you’ll want to make sure are appropriately powered-up at all times, there are plenty of secondary characters also willing to fight for the cause, and each one of them brings something different to the table. There’s a wandering shaman who is able to change the weather, heightening the affects of certain spells, and a clever merchant who can turn enemies to your cause with the offer of riches. There are even characters that excel in item use, meaning that pretty much any play-style is covered. Although there are a multitude of replayable training battles, you’ll need subsequent play-throughs to really get to grips with everyone. Good thing there’s that massively branching storyline, then.
The story was clearly important to the developers, and is taken very seriously. Numerous optional scenes are available throughout the campaign, dropping in on characters in distant lands as they discuss their plans for conquest. There are long periods of story-building and scene-setting between battles. If you’re into it, it’s great. If you’re less invested, but still feel like you need to understand what’s going on and refuse to skip any dialogue, you’re in for a bit of a slog. For me, personally, it was a mixed bag. Certain characters felt deserving of the time spent on illustrating their involvement in the story, while others seemed superfluous or predictable, and occasionally my attention drifted.
There are no monsters, either. That’s right, not a single goblin, no ghosts or zombies, not even a wolf. Even Game of Thrones (which is almost certainly an influence on the fantasy/political tone of the game) had dragons. Your enemies consist of the various opposing heroes and generals you’ll encounter, and a few different types of soldier or magic-user, reskinned in the colours of their national affiliation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t help if you’re finding the game’s tone a little too sober. I would’ve liked a wyvern cave or two to explore. The battlefields and story scenes are accessed from a map of the continent. This is fine, and gives off the impression of moving pieces around a military map, but also takes away from any sense of journey or discovery. It becomes apparent early on that there are no mysterious new frontiers to explore, you’re just going to be hopping back and forth between the three established nations throughout the campaign.
As such, what we’re left with is a mechanically and visually fantastic strategy RPG that just lacks the flair, personality or variety that the likes of Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics can offer. If you come in knowing that, and you become invested in the story, you’re going to have a fantastic time, and likely won’t put your Switch down for hours on end. If, like me, you find yourself harbouring that nagging thought that the story twists and character beats are not quite as effective as the serious tone requires, you might find yourself thinking that the game, like it’s title, needed a touch more personality.
All great games have high points. Those peaks in the action, the memorable bits that give a title its identity. Sometimes those moments are in the gameplay; when pulling off a killer move or surviving a dangerous encounter. In other games, it might be a story beat, a great plot thread building to a cinematic crescendo, or maybe it’s in that moment of down-time, in which you really get to soak up the atmosphere of the world the developers have created. In Gravity Rush 2, it’s in the simple act of getting from A to B.
It has all those other moments too, but the sheer joy of upending gravity and shooting protagonist Kat from one end of the majestic, floating city of Jirga Para Lhao to the other is utterly unique. That initial sensation of weightlessness followed by a shift in gravity and an exhilarating burst of speed, coupled with the stunning visuals and atmosphere of the world, make basic movement in Gravity Rush 2 more fun than many games can muster in their entirety. Does this seem like an outlandish claim? Not to me. At it’s best, Gravity Rush 2 is a kinetic masterpiece, but let’s see what else it has to offer.
The player takes on the role of Kat, a mysterious girl in a strange world. Kat is a refreshingly upbeat character. She sees the best in everyone and refuses to be brought down, and harbours a burning desire to help people and make the world a better place. Despite these nauseatingly saccharine personality traits, she never drifts into annoying or cluelessly naïve, managing to stay adorable throughout.
As you may have guessed, she has powers over gravity as well. These powers are provided to her by her cute and mysterious cat companion named Dusty, who seems to be formed of negative space, and floats along for the ride. Kat can fall through the air in any direction as she adjusts the pull of gravity around her, and there are endless opportunities for exhilarating exploration as you run up the sides of buildings, float about the underside of docks and archways, and launch Kat off into thin air just to see what’s on the other side of that cloud. The world is bright and beautifully designed, a fascinating mix of cultural influences from around the world suspended on floating islands in a dazzling sky.
Changing up a gear from the PlayStation Vita original, Gravity Rush 2 also gives Kat two additional gravity styles, which affect her levels of weightlessness and how hard she can smash into things. The light and airy lunar style increases Kat’s speed and jumping ability, while the weighty Jupiter style enables her to deal more damage as a trade-off for manoeuvrability. The combat predominantly consists of airborne battles with sinister, formless entities called Nevi. However, hapless, ground-based soldiers and the occasional boss fight offer some variety. The combat is fine, and at its best can feel spectacular and impactful, but if the camera doesn’t feel like cooperating that day, it can start to become a little too infuriating for comfort.
The struggling camera is Gravity Rush 2’s only real downfall. You can approach any location from any angle at any time and change direction in a heartbeat, and this can result in occasions where Kat and the camera just don’t get along. It’s not unusual to find yourself exposed in combat as you desperately try and search for the nearest enemy, or completely baffled as to which way is up or down following a camera angle flip because you got too close to a corner. It feels like the developers did the absolute best they could with the camera, but given the nature of the game and the sheer freedom of movement, there were always going to be times when it just couldn’t keep up with the action.
That aside, Gravity Rush 2 is an endlessly charming, often breathtaking and beautifully presented game. The story is fun and unusual and occasionally emotional, and provides some nice surprises for those who are invested in Kat’s murky origins. The game world of Jirga Para Lhao initially seems to be similar in size to Hekseville from the Vita original, but when Hekseville shows up in full part-way through as a completely explorable (and beautifully visually-updated) new area, that preconception gets blown out of the water. Massive, endearing, surprising, and full of unique gameplay, Kat’s gravity-defying journey is a joy to experience. If you put Gravity Rush 2 into your PlayStation and float away into it’s artistic and mysterious world, you won’t want to come back down.
I’ve been orbiting the Metroid series for a while now, but it wasn’t until this most recent offering that I finally hit the boosters and made planetfall. Metroid Dreadis an immaculately polished space adventure in a classic, retro style. Nintendo’s artistry is abundantly evident in the way they’ve brought the side-scrolling action to life with detailed, 3D graphics, flawless animation, and a great sense of consistency, atmosphere and depth to the environments. The story is told through environmental changes and subtle, background elements as much as it is through cut-scenes, and, from what I’ve read, there are countless fascinating links to the larger Metroid universe for the eagle-eyed fan to find. All this makes for an excellent, expertly presented sci-fi narrative experience.
The gameplay is refined and precise. Silent bounty hunter Samus Aran controls with pinpoint smoothness, and dashing through caverns and corridors, latching on to ledges and blasting the local fauna is immensely satisfying. The immersion increases as progress is made and new skills and weapons are unlocked. These skills and weapons also provide the main means of travelling to new areas. Double jumps, weapon upgrades and the ability to roll up into a ball and squeeze through gaps all open up new places to explore and new dangers to face.
The game can be difficult, but this difficulty is mostly limited to the E.M.M.I. encounters, certain boss fights, and the uncovering of secret areas. Even when things do get tricky, it’s never down to fiddly controls or unfair level design. Metroid Dread gives you the tools you need to succeed, you just have to figure out how to use them. Bosses that seem insurmountable at first will be felled eventually once weaknesses and patterns reveal themselves. The learning curve is natural and satisfying, if you’re willing to stick with it.
The most controversial sticking points are the encounters with the E.M.M.I. machines. Samus’ standard weapons are useless against these contorting arrangements of metallic sinew. They stalk through quiet, eerie areas sealed off from the rest of the level, and can form and reform in order to pursue Samus across any surface and through any gap. Their inquisitive bleeps and bloops haunt the areas they patrol, and once one catches sight of its prey, a quick exit is the only way to avoid a nasty demise. These relentless automatons are almost at odds with the rest of the game in terms of visual design. While most of the other enemies are indigenous life-forms or fleshy abominations, these E.M.M.I. creatures look like they were dreamed up by a focus group in an Apple laboratory.
Speaking of laboratories, Samus will be exploring a few of them, many with life-forms on display in an apparent state of mid-autopsy. One especially effecting area has a huge creature suspended by probe-like machinery, its hideous visage gaping open in the background as its muscles spasm and jolt. There’s a definite sci-fi horror vibe, sprinkled with a seasoning of gross body-horror for flavour. These dark themes juxtapose strangely with that trademark Nintendo brightness, like a coat of bright paint over rusted metal. Or like Aliens if it was directed by Michael Bay. No, scratch that, that’s a horrible thought…
Metroid Dread is an expertly crafted, exquisitely balanced game. Samus is a joy to control and the world is a fascinating one to explore. The E.M.M.I. enemies have divided opinion, and there is certainly a line beyond which being one-shotted by the same invincible horror over and over again goes beyond tense and terrifying and becomes annoying, Alien: Isolation style. In my view, however, the E.M.M.I. encounters just about stay on the right side of the line throughout, and add to a great experience. All of this put together means that Metroid Dread is modern, old-school gaming at its best. Also, Samus is a girl. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.
I went into Immortals: Fenyx Rising knowing the Ubisoft open-world games only by their reputation. The likes of Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs and Far Cry all represent gaps in my otherwise extensive gaming knowledge, and this dive into a bright and breezy imagining of ancient Greece is my first contact with Ubisoft’s house-style. It’s an outlier; a title that risked a visual style that doesn’t tick all the triple-A action game boxes. You could almost call it unique, but Nintendo would have something to say about that – there’s a certain breath of the wild about it that cannot be denied.
Before we get into all that, though, the first thing to note about Immortals: Fenyx Rising is how pretty it is. The art style is bright and abundant, with attractive, expressive characters, spectacular sky-boxes and lush vegetation. The content is similarly bright and breezy for the most part. Far from a stuffy retelling of the classics, Immortals treats Greek mythology like a Saturday morning cartoon, albeit a surprisingly accurate one. It’s far more rooted in the actual subject matter than Disney’s Hercules, for example, and even uses the less-popular Greek spellings of familiar names like Hephiastos and Herakles.
Many of the jokes rely on the player having a decent knowledge of the subject matter. If, like me, your knowledge of Greek mythology is somewhat limited, you may find that some of the quips go over your head. I remember enough to know that things can get messed up, though. Immortals leans into this in a humorous way, slyly referencing the murder, cannibalism and incest while keeping things family friendly, on the surface at least. Almost every scene is treated with a tongue-in-cheek approach, and the pantheon rarely receives the dignity it deserves. War god Ares, for example, is initially found in the body of a chicken, with all of his gusto and confidence drained away. He also has a bit of a thing for Aphrodite, but then, don’t we all.
The world of Immortals is beautiful, but artificial. Landmasses poke out of the sea at odd heights, suspended on sheer cliffs whose only purpose is to hinder exploration until the player earns stamina upgrades. Plateaus jut haphazardly, inhabited by token packs of boars or bears, vast temple complexes are built across areas where no regular human could easily reach them. Villages and ruins are situated and laid out in a way that serves the purpose of the nearby puzzle, but gives no indication of a living, breathing world. Immortals eschews any concept of world-building and immersion in favour of a game map that serves the gameplay only.
Said gameplay consists of exploration, combat and puzzle-solving. The exploration is satisfying, but would be more rewarding if the world was more alive. The combat is swift but fairly standard. Elite enemies can give players a hard time early on, but things get easier as more moves and abilities are earned. The puzzle-solving comes in a few different flavours, ranging from sliding fresco puzzles to lighting torches in the correct order to open a door. The world is dotted with Gates of Tartaros, portals to ruined structures suspended in an interstellar void. These areas contain some of the game’s most devious puzzles, and it’s most valuable treasures.
The Gates of Tartaros bear a striking resemblance to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s shrines. Spread out across the map, containing challenges or arena battles, and walls that our hero can’t climb. They’re not the only similarity to Link’s most expansive adventure, either. Immortals’ player character Fenyx (customised by the player with a limited character creator), has many of the same skills and equipment as Link, or at least close equivalents. Expect to glide around the map once a certain item is acquired, shoot arrows, and lift heavy blocks using an ability not dissimilar to telekinesis. Luckily, though, Fenyx’s weapons don’t break.
It’s derivative of Breath of the Wild (and probably Ubisoft’s other games, I really wouldn’t know), the Gates of Tartaros challenges can slide into the frustratingly fiddly, and the world doesn’t quite feel authentic, but this is a fun and exceptionally nice-looking game. The act of traversing the world is satisfying, the voice acting is on point, and the dialogue should raise a few smirks (though not every gag is a home run). Immortals: Fenyx Rising’s myth probably won’t live on through the ages, and it’s no titan of the industry, but it’ll definitely keep you entertained for a week or so. I’d call that heroic, at the very least.