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…


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.

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

Dragon Quest Builders 2

Dragons, Quests, and Builders, Too!

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.

Farming forms a very large part of the early game. See that hat-wearing worm in the background, there? He’s indispensable for growing crops. He was also raised in the deepest wilds of rural Dorset, if his dialogue is anything to go by.

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.

Played on Nintendo Switch

Triangle Strategy

Actually Full of Squares

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 battlefields are almost as intricately detailed as the lore.

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.

Gravity Rush 2

Falling Blissfully Upwards

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.

Kat’s appearance changes when she starts manipulating gravity, switching from “cute girl with cat” to “godlike supernatural being” in the blink of an eye.

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.

Metroid Dread

The Grim Brightness of the Far Future

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 Dread is 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.

The submerged areas are some of my favourites to traverse. Metroid Dread does a stunning job of creating an immersive atmosphere with its deep and detailed backgrounds.

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.


Triangle Strategy Preview

A Shining Example

At the time of writing, Triangle Strategy is about two weeks away from release. Coming to the Nintendo Switch, this turn-based tactical RPG is drawing a lot of comparisons to Final Fantasy Tactics, and rightly so, it’s developed by Square Enix. However, as a certified Sega Maniac, I’m hoping that this strategic adventure will be the second coming of a different masterpiece from the late 90’s. Shining Force III for the Sega Saturn delivered deep, grid-based tactical action and multi-layered political fantasy only a few months after the initial release of Square Enix’s PS1 effort. A well-received strategy epic, Shining Force III was one of the Saturn’s top titles, and a paragon of the genre.

The Triangle Strategy demo is out there for those who are interested. The game is gorgeous. Expressive, pixel art characters and detailed, atmospheric backgrounds combine with beautiful depth of field effects to make for a visually bountiful experience. The glistening water effects especially are a visual treat. The game is immersive and comfortable, perfect for a cosy gaming session on a cold, winter’s evening. The voice acting is … a mixed bag, to put it kindly, but that’s all part of the charm, right?

Like Shining Force III, the game plays out on battlefields that are divided into neat grids. The player has access to a number of different party members, and commands them during battle by moving them around the grid and performing actions such as attacking enemies or casting spells. As the story progresses the player will recruit more characters to the cause. Each one of these characters has a story, a background and a role to play, though some are more integral than others. The basic tactics are fairly standard. Keep your melee guys in the front, and your more delicate ranged and support guys in the back. Out-position the enemy, don’t get surrounded, go for the objective.

This character is using a healing ability. In the background, the glittering water combined with the blur effect makes for an almost dream-like atmosphere.

Triangle Strategy also has plenty of elements that set it apart. Branching storylines, interesting skills that use the map in inventive ways, optional story events and the ability to explore many of the battlefields before combat ensues all represent evolution in the genre. There’s also an interesting and unique mechanic in which certain narrative-shifting decisions are voted upon by NPC party members. If a player wants the vote to swing a specific way, they’ll have to explore the local area and talk to the locals, hoping to find information that will help sway the opinions of the voters. This fascinating mechanic, along with a branching story of politics, heroism and conflict in a fantastic world, the stunning, retro visuals and the classic strategy gameplay all sound like ingredients to a perfect tactical RPG recipe.

Shining Force III was the first part of a trilogy. The second and thirds acts never made it to the West thanks to the dwindling fortunes of the Saturn. If Triangle Strategy ends on a cliffhanger, I may get a little nervous. But that’s a concern for the future. In the meantime, Triangle Strategy looks like it’s going to be a must for strategy fans. It will be released for the Nintendo Switch on 4th March 2022.