SHELTER

It was in the rapids that I lost my first cub.

There was no warning, just the sudden sense of shock as a vast wave swept through our pack, submerging us all in a rolling tide of water. Darting to the shore, I immediately counted my remaining children, silently noting a missing face. Waiting for a few moments, I clung to the hope that it had perhaps gotten itself stuck on some kind of branch or stone and would soon appear, so we could continue on as a family… However, there was no choice but to continue trekking through the wilderness – if not for progression’s sake, but for the hungry four that trailed, squealing at my feet.

Shelter is not in any form a conventional game release. Developed by independent studio, Might and Delight – best known for 2012’s Pid – it is, essentially, a badger life simulator. With no emphasis on controls or direction, the game places you into the role of a mother badger (or, sow), who must care for her five, individually patterned cubs that dance playfully around their earthy sett. Digging roots and catching smaller prey, you must keep your family fed as you travel the land, fending off danger and always keeping a close eye on the safety of your pack.

The true aspect that instantly attracted me to Shelter was its beautifully simple art style. Rendered in a very basic, I-hate-to-say-retro ruggedness, the game relies heavily on its immersive world and bright, organic patterns that certainly draw you into an atmosphere of pure, untouched nature. It becomes very clear how much Might and Delight opted to focus on character and personality throughout this experience, creating a game that feels almost as if you are playing through an intricate landscape painting – whereas, say, a studio that had tried to emulate realism in its graphics would have fallen far short of the mark, leaving us with a cold, artificial copy.

Shelter is a world that drinks deeply from your sense of concern and nurturing, quickly cementing a strong bond to your pack, without the need for introduction or additional information that most modern games rely so heavily upon. An atmospheric, acoustic soundtrack drips and fades along your journey, complimenting each subtle note of season, whilst also inspiring fear and dread with every passing danger. It is these small, immersive details that all combine so perfectly into an experience that can become heavily entwined in emotion throughout play. The huge sigh of relief as you finally manage to pounce on that elusive fox you’d been stalking, giving your cubs that little, extra boost; the careful, measured steps through the undergrowth, terrified of the hawk that circles above – the little moments and spikes of sentimentality that shape every minute along the way.

This is not by any means a long game – I counted roughly four or five stages in total – however, it certainly warrants the time spent exploring and indulging in its rich, lively environments. The gameplay itself could perhaps be compared to one giant escort mission, but it is important to note that the cubs are by no means a burden upon you, rather travelling companions that you honestly feel indebted to protect. In full circle, I began this review detailing the death of one of my own, and it was a hard blow of loss that far surpassed any other title I have played of similar ilk.

Beside being a great new addition and real victory for Steam’s Greenlight, Shelter inspires an appreciation of the hardships within nature and, ultimately, motherhood itself – a must play for any who wish to escape the decaying, urban shadow that haunts so much of our lives, for a small glimpse into the untouched circle of the animal kingdom.

Buy it on steam here or from the website here

Visit Might and Delight’s website here

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE

In today’s online titles, ‘Cooperative’ does not necessarily indicate ‘Teamwork’ – a fact that should leave most gamers dropping their heads in shame.

Perhaps it was that time Coolguy94 slammed you off the map with a grenade launcher in Left 4 Dead, or maybe even the session where that frankly hilarious teammate of yours decided your vehicle was the most convenient way to carry some extra C4? In any case, the multiplayer scene in the majority of current games do not benefit the conscious companion.

Enter Guns of Icarus Online, the in-progress successor of Muse Games’ 2010 airship-based turret defence title.

Sailing past its interesting, albeit shaky, origins, this newly Kickstarted incarnation of Steampunk-themed dogfighting allows for players to finally test their mettle against one another in a variety of classic gamemodes, including deathmatch and king of the hill. With a choice of 7 unique ships and 3 classes, it is up to each vessel’s team of 4 to pilot, repair and fire each gun, working closely together to secure sky domination.

The real beauty of Guns of Icarus Online, however, lies deep within its community. With a dedicated force of helpers, guides and active forums, you are never far from receiving the odd push from those of experience. Captains and crewmen alike are happy to advise on ways in which to maximise efficiency on a ship, as well as an included, if basic, tutorial that covers the core aspects of gameplay.

In terms of customisation, each airship can be decked out with a variety of guns, allowing much room for strategy and preferred ways of assault. For example, placing a heavy gun, such as a Carronade, on the front of the Goldfish will allow for powerful, piercing strikes to quickly breach an opponent’s balloon from behind. For the classes themselves, which range between Pilot, Engineer and Gunner, there are player-defined loadouts on which tools or unique ammo types you’d like to bring to a specific match. Players are given a wide choice of vanity costumes and headgear, which can be won through claiming certain achievements, however all are available for minimal fees through Muse’s own inbuilt store. These costume pieces, despite also being nicely designed and fitting for Icarus‘ style, can most certainly be considered donations toward the game’s ever-evolving progression – the most notable being its highly anticipated Adventure Mode, which is marked to release in 2014.

Guns of Icarus Online has proven itself to be a highly entertaining – if not sometimes frustrating – title that certainly appeals to the tacticians and teamplayers of the gaming sphere. Allowing for up to 6 airships in combat at one time, it is hard to find any other game that can compare to its class, bearing in mind that it is still firmly a work in progress. Although lacking the much-wanted mechanics for boarding an enemy craft, Muse Games are rightly defiant in their decision, as pulling any form of singleplayer combat into the title would have serious effects on its current dynamic, as well as remove from the cooperative emphasis on maintaining your ship as a whole.

Overall, I highly recommend this game for its refreshing backpedal into team-based combat, where each player is absolutely vital to the success of their ship. With its ever-growing community and update additions, Guns of Icarus Online has quickly risen to become one of my most played games since its release, and I can only predict improvement in its future.

Buy Guns of Icarus Online from Steam here

Visit the website here

Guns of Icarus Online is also destined to be released on the PS4

ZENO CLASH

Effectively the equivalent of brawling your way through a Heronimus Bosch triptych – of which Chilean developer, ACE Team, were greatly inspired by – Zeno Clash offers a very unique and original take on storytelling, gameplay and, most importantly, presentation, that can both enchant and disturb you along its twisted paths.

Initially released as a Steam download in 2009 using Valve’s Source engine, Zeno Clash can appear to be rather mysterious, if not confusing, in its content and theme. Through the eyes of its rebellious, yet sullen protagonist, Ghat, the player is immediately thrust into the Frankenstein world that is Zenozoik – a cobbled together assortment of everything but the ordinary. One of many children under the looming, birdlike hermaphrodite that is Father-Mother, Ghat is forced to flee his clan after discovering a dark secret about their universal parent that subsequently ends in him taking its life. Assisted by his female companion, Deadra, the two travel far from their home into the unforgiving, violent territories that make up Zenozoik’s landscape, all-the-while hunted by Ghat’s siblings who are hungry for revenge.

Although containing an assortment of crude melee and ranged weapons, this game is centrally focused on first-person hand-to-hand combat, embracing this wholly untraditional style of gameplay with very satisfying effects. Using a simplistic control map (punch, harder punch, block, dodge, etc.), the player is given a lot of freedom to experiment and formulate a fighting style over a series of linear maps that mark each stage of Ghat’s journey, as well as his retelling of the events that lead up to his banishment. The key to Zeno Clash‘s intense combat, however, lies in its firm grounding and brutal placement within this alien world: whilst playing I often felt a rush of contradicting emotions between each combatant, reluctantly delivering the final blow to some, whereas others I felt driven by my own hate and fear to destroy – a good example of this being against the grotesque cannibal, Gabel.

In terms of story, some players may feel a little bit disappointed in comparison to the game’s otherwise bizarre design and philosophies. It is not badly written, as such, however the characters – especially Ghat – can occasionally feel a little lacking and flat, which is not helped by the speed in which the journey progresses (I completed the campaign over a period of 3-4 hours in total). It is important to note that more focus is certainly drawn to the environment and its inhabitants who you will find recycled throughout and, surprisingly enough, happy to recognise in repetition. This close-knit, community feel definitely adds to Zeno Clash‘s atmosphere, creating a sense of isolation, yet intimacy within its cast – if pummeling anyone and everything repeatedly in the face is to your favour, that is.

Overall, Zeno Clash, despite its flaws, is definitely worth experiencing for its creativity and fresh take on first-person combat, combining many elements from other games that inspired its design – a cross between, say, the stage-based fighting of Double Dragon and perhaps the (tamed) brutality and perspective of Chronicles of Riddick – lacking in size and freedom, however. The core factors that support this title definitely lie in its organic and natural feel, which certainly left me intrigued and wanting for more insight into the beautifully dark realm of Zenozoik. After completing its campaign, players are also given access to a Tower Challenge mode akin to Soul Calibur‘s ‘Tower of Lost Souls’, in which Ghat must complete each individual floor of ascending difficulty – a deeply satisfying addition for any player who wishes to test their mettle further within the Zeno Clash universe. I highly recommend experiencing this title, especially so with its highly anticipated sequel’s release at the end of this month.

Buy Zeno Clash from Steam here

Visit the website here

SKYRIM: DRAGONBORN DLC

Ever since Bethesda’s much anticipated release of Skyrim in 2011, one key question has been haunting our collective mind: “When are they going to let us fly a dragon?” Fast forward 2 years and it would appear that we have finally reached a compromise. Well, kind of…

The third DLC in the Skyrim roster, Dragonborn returns our chosen hero to the familiar, ash-soaked island of Solstheim – previously depicted in Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon expansion in 2003. On arrival it is discovered that the land has been plagued by a mysterious uprising of ash creatures and has fallen under the will of a second, ancient dragonborn: Miraak. Using a collection of new shouts and the arcane knowledge found within a set of powerful ‘Black Books’, Solstheim’s freedom and the fate of Tamriel lies in your hands.

If you’ve read my previous post on the Elder Scrolls, it’s pretty apparent that I am a big fan of the series and have a fair amount of background knowledge on each title – Morrowind in particular. Needless to say I was pretty excited with the announcement that Bethesda were set to recreate the architecture and atmosphere that I had previously grown so fond of, and they honestly did a very good job of it – ignoring their insistence on blanketing everything in a thick layer of snow, that is. Finally, all those classic armours, items and landscapes in vastly updated graphics – there was even the promise of no Cliff Racers to drool over! So what could possibly go wrong with a setup as flawless as that? Well, uh, quite a few things actually.

Voice acting. What is this weird joke Bethesda have been carrying on through their audio? If all their previous games have set the Dunmer with a deep, rough drawl, where has the inspiration suddenly emerged to equip all our blue-skinned friends with what I can only deduce as a dodgy attempt at a Yorkshire accent? Previous characters throughout Skyrim have certainly been victim to a serious lack of emotion, but Bethesda managed to cross the line into obscurity when they made this production choice final. Disregarding that, the island’s denizens are fairly well crafted, if a little two dimensional.

Ah, but now it is time to explore this Miraak character we have been hearing so much about; this demonic, overwhelming energy that has engulfed the land in darkness. Emerging from the void in a particularly engrossing cinematic, we are treated to a James Bond-esque monologue, detailing his evil plan and why you are too puny to step in his way, fully clothed in flowing, dark robes and one of Dragonborn‘s new Cthulu inspired masks. All in all, Miraak is pretty well placed as a villain, encompassing those dreaded feelings of ‘he’s actually quite intimidating’ and ‘I hope he doesn’t come for me’ in a nice little package. What Bethesda are really pushing for here is that knowledge is power and, as it turns out, Miraak is pretty knowledgeable – he’s even been cheating a little bit with the help of a devious God. This wisdom, though, can equally be acquired by yourself in travelling through the winding passages of the Black Books.

These sections right here are easily the most interesting and original out of the entirety of the DLC. Upon reading each book, the player is transported into the realm of Apochrypha, which is mainly composed of bubbling, tentacle-infested water and, well, books. Each section forms a labyrinthian maze of literature to explore, all the while fending off attacks from the shade-like Seekers and fish-headed Lurkers. Every aspect of this new feature screams Lovecraftian design and horror and no reference made is at all hard to miss. On completion of each Black Book, the player is allowed to acquire one of three unique perks or powers which are certainly very welcome, if a little overpowered. As of writing my current character is level 51, so in terms of necessity there is little – but thank you for the little escape!

If you’ve read this far just to hear my original claim about riding dragons, then I do believe you are in luck. Yes, in Dragonborn you can now, ahem, ‘fly’ one of those winged beasts – but, not exactly in the way that statement should imply. Using ‘Bend Will’, a new shout that allows you to turn enemies into allies, the player can mount and use a dragon in combat, however you are confined into a particularly disappointing sequence of circling the battle area, with commands limited to ‘attack that’, or ‘land here’. It was a bold concept for Bethesda to push out if they had no intention of fulfilling their word on the matter, however understandably so: with so much landscape and detail to render, there would’ve been doubtless performance issues had the player been allowed to roam freely.

In terms of the plot, you would not be mistaken in feeling a little bit of deja vous. The side quests are fairly unique in part, but we’ve come here to fight that Miraak bloke, haven’t we? Already in place is the expectation of fighting your way into the big, final showdown against the nasty, old boss who’s been hounding your progress for ever so long. On playing, however, I was surprised to see that Bethesda chose to, essentially, take the Alduin route and just roll out another ‘you can only reach this place by dragon’, ‘you will not get the glory of winning it alone’ story. In a series that prides itself on intricate lore and detail, re-using tried and tested formats is fairly enjoyable, but certainly not at the peak it could have been.

I’m aware that this review has maybe appeared a little bleak, but that shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent – Dragonborn is unquestionably a worthy DLC and certainly worth shelling out for if you are a fan of Skyrim and its universe. But, as is with all things Bethesda, it has its numerous bugs and defects that should not go undetected. If, like myself, you play this title on a computer, then I strongly recommend checking out the huge number of community-created mods that patch up all the leaks Bethesda left behind. These can be found through the Steam Workshop, or, for a lot more power and depth, it is advised to use the Skyrim Nexus, which can be found with full instructions here. Solstheim itself forms a decently sized addition of explorable land to the vanilla game and introduces a good number of new enemies and items to tinker with, so should not be passed up just because of a few minor shortcomings – for those familiar with Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the much-needed makeover given to those horrid little Rieklings. Overall, let it be said that I fully endorse this DLC, if just to snatch a glimpse of the ashlands once again – a safe and enjoyable purchase.

Dragonborn is available on Steam, Xbox 360 and Playstation

Buy it on Steam here

Visit the offical website here

10,000,000

‘Action’, ‘RPG’ and ‘Indie’ are three genres you have probably seen banded about a little too much recently – and there is no exception in the case of EightyEight Games’ debut PC port, 10,000,000, which washed upon our digital shores earlier this year.

Taking note of its iOS origins, I plunged into 10,000,000 with grave expectations of disappointment. “Just another failed crossover”, I began to tell myself as I flicked between screenshot after screenshot of crudely pixelated dungeons and monsters, “There is no way I am about to earn my money’s worth of enjoyment”. Well, uh, it would seem I was wrong. 8 hours overall playtime wrong, in fact.

A very simple game with little need for instruction, 10,000,000 actually does manage to work on a number of levels above its classification. On one hand you have the blatant RPG elements of grinding for experience and upgrades, the other a basic three-in-a-row matching puzzle, which earns the resource for the former. So, where does all this elusive ‘Action’ fit in, I hear you cry? Running atop it all is your tiny, fedora-equipped self, forming what is essentially a progress bar rife with chests to plunder and a variety of monsters to swing at. Whenever an obstacle is in your path, the correct tiles must be matched in order to continue, i.e. swords and staffs will deal damage, whilst keys unlock. Bearing in mind that your enemies are as eager for you to fail as you are to succeed, gameplay quickly becomes fast-paced and intense as that back wall – your only form of death – edges ever nearer.

Of course, there are a number of items to collect along your journey (food, for instance, gives you a little bump forward, allowing for last minute recuperation), however the main goal lies in the game’s title: 10,000,000 points must be achieved in order to gain your freedom. The developers’ original intentions aside, this is where we begin to break the fourth wall a little, and it certainly wasn’t hard to see links between our protagonist’s endless struggle and my own in playing this title. With every attempt I grew both stronger and more confident, all the while pushing for a higher score; that one step closer to victory.

It is important to note here that 10,000,000 carries the high addiction rate of most successful mobile titles and, already being a big fan of similar puzzle classic, Bejeweled, it certainly captivated my attention for the time that it lasted. This is a game that is very comfortable within its genre and will by no means make any move on trying to change that. All in all, a fun, challenging title that is extremely humble in both its motives and its pricing – worth checking out for any lover of its ilk.

Visit EightyEight’s website here

Buy it on Steam here

Buy it for iOS here

MISTS OF PANDARIA

Last tuesday, Blizzard released World of Warcraft’s latest expansion: Mists of Pandaria. Featuring a new race (Pandaren), a level 90 cap, new dungeons, raids and battleground, this new expansion had me hooked ever since it was announced.

I’ll try to keep this as (major) spoiler free as possible, but read at your own discretion. Also, keep in mind that this is a lot of content to go through, so it’ll take me a while before I finish  the other parts of this review. Make sure to check back every day to see the new updates. Beware, really long review incoming.

New Race: Pandaren:

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Let me just start off by saying that the new starting zone is amazing. Set on the Wandering Isle, which is literally an enormous tortoise, the player is tasked with finding out what’s wrong, since the Isle has been moving erratically lately, causing some problems for the inhabitants. Pandaren players have seven classes to choose from: Monk, Warrior, Hunter, Rogue, Priest, Shaman and Mage. It’s too bad they can’t be Death Knight, but I guess it would be against canon if they could. They start out as a Neutral race, and don’t get to choose a faction until they’re level 11. What is most important is that it’s not a dull zone. The lore of the place keeps you interested for the time you’re there, as well as the beautiful environments surrounding you. Although it’s certainly a fun starting zone, it’s definitely not the best, but it’s up there.

New Zones and Quests:

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I still remember my first couple of days playing WoW, some years back. When I created my first character, a Night Elf hunter, I was immediately blown away by my surroundings. The vibrant colors astonished and enticed me. Blizzard has managed to recreate this feeling. As soon as I stepped into Pandaria, I was amazed by the style of the place. And to top it off, the game’s soundtrack fits perfectly into the theme. So if you’re going to play, crank up the volume and listen carefully, it’s well worth it.

What really surprised me was the amount of in-engine cutscenes included in this expansion. Wrath had a couple, Wrathgate and Fall of the Lich King for example, but Mists has tons of them. About a third of the quest chains end in a Cinematic, and so far, I have counted at least 10 different ones. And let’s be honest, Wrath Gate didn’t look all that good, but these ones blew my mind and gave me shivers.

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Blizzard has introduced a new type of quests that I loved. They’re basically flashback quests, telling you the story of something that’s happened within the story whilst you weren’t there (instead of one character missing and only a couple of text lines to explain what happened). You are given control of a different character, and the person in question usually narrates what happens while you’re playing it. It’s pretty fun and innovative.

Overall, Blizzard has stepped up their quests. Back in the old days of WoW, 40 out 50 quests would be “Kill X of Y” or “Collect X of Y by killing Z” but now there are many different types of quests. Sure, you still get some of those quests, but there are many quests with fun objectives such as: Help a pandaren farm, kick some critters (literally), the aforementioned flashback quests, and much more. Levelling doesn’t feel like much of a grind now.

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Another neat touch on Blizzard’s part is that when you have a quest that asks you to kill a semi-boss enemy, it doesn’t matter if there is someone else already fighting it, you can still jump in mid-fight and get the recognition of killing it. This way, you don’t have to wait for the other player to kill it for respawns, and you can work in a team without being in a party. For instance, I was once tasked with killing an evil witch, so I ran up to her and saw a fellow Druid already fighting her, and he was obviously struggling. So I joined the fight, healed him and suddenly two Hordes come up, and they start helping us out too. Of course, once we killed the witch we started fighting between us, but still, the brief alliance was a fun thing to watch.

Some of the zones are more light hearted than others, and some don’t even affect the main story. For example, within Jade Forest most of the story is set, but once you go into Valley of the Four Winds, you have a moment to take your mind off the main conflict. Still, all of the new zones are gorgeous and worthwhile.

What made the original World of Warcraft great was the ever existing threat of war: Horde vs Alliance. Yet in previous expansions, this was lost, because for the most part of them, heroes of the factions were basically banded together for their mutual benefit, for example, killing the Lich King or Deathwing. But in Mists of Pandaria this is completely different. The expansion itself starts with conflict, and the discovery of this new continent is also a consequence of the war. Throughout the whole expansion you’re reminded that not only you’re exploring a new continent, but also fighting a war against the opposing faction.

 

STACKING

Double Fine Productions are very much renowned for making games with a hell of a lot of character – most notably in the form of Psychonauts, which has received almost cult status amongst those who have played it. Stacking is certainly no exception to this rule.

Set within the dawn of the industrial age, you are placed in control of Charlie Blackmore, a small Russian doll setting out to free his family from child labour – orchestrated by the secretive and evil ‘Baron’. Using your ability to stack into dolls of larger sizes than yourself, there are a range of logic puzzles and challenges to overcome in a variety of different ways, with a multitude of different dolls. Each doll, it is also important to note, has its own unique ability which can be used to aid your quest – or even to just have a little bit of fun.

The first thing I really noticed about Stacking was how stylised it is: absolutely everything has been tailored to fit within the time setting, down to the costumes, environment and sounds, and all with a brilliant sense of humour running throughout – especially within each doll’s characteristics. There is a lot of fun to be found (and side challenges, known as ‘Hi-jinks’) in demonstrating a unique doll’s ability upon a selection of others – for example, clearing rooms with flatulence, or shouting out childish insults. However, as much as Stacking can make you laugh, it also makes you think. Set within this Victorian era, there are still very noticeable class divides, and in controlling dolls of higher status it is obvious as to which are more accepted within certain areas, or indeed allowed to pass through them.

As much as I can recommend this game, it is important to note that, being classed as adventure/puzzle, it is essentially a series of Find & Retrieve quests which can (more often than not) leave you feeling a little bit lost within each richly-furnished world. For each challenge you are allowed 3 hints to aid you, but with no setback in doing so. In comparison to another puzzle-based game – say, Machinarium – hints and tips are purposefully hard to access, forcing you into really assessing a situation before attempting a solution. With this in mind, Stacking can become repetitive after some time – mostly so when an area is actually complete, but there are unique doll collections to still be found.

Crossing to PC from its Xbox origins, Stacking is definitely an interesting and humourous title to explore. This game is as much about discovery as it is about the actual puzzle-solving – if you are not inclined to seek out each detail and doll within a level, then there is no real excitement to be found, as the true beauty of Stacking lies in its subtlety and the way the environment reacts to a specific action or doll. If, like myself, you do find yourself drawn into Double Fine’s elaborate windows into the industrial era then, by all means, please go out and experience this game! However, those of you who are looking for a fast-paced, thrilling adventure, I’m afraid that you’re reading the wrong review.

Visit Double Fine’s website here

Visit Stacking‘s website here

Buy it on Steam here