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

REVIEW – Indie Game: The Movie

I recently had the privilege of seeing Indie Game: The Movie, a Canadian documentary that looks behind the scenes at three well-known indie games: the commercially and critically successful Braid, the soon to be released Super Meat Boy, and the perpetually trapped in development hell FEZ. The movie was funded by two Kickstarter projects and features a soundtrack by Jim Guthrie of Sword and Sworcery fame.

More importantly than the games, Indie Game also looks at the developers behind them: Braid’s lone wolf Jonathan Blow; Super Meat Boy’s fiercely determined Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes; and FEZ’s beleaguered Phil Fish. The film gives an intensely personal perspective of the men behind these games, their backgrounds, their philosophies and the relationships they have with their creations.

Braid is a puzzle platformer that was released to widespread acclaim, making it the second highest selling XBox Live Arcade game in 2008. Critics loved its elaborate puzzles and unique time mechanics including a full rewind feature, but Blow feels that a lot of people who have played and reviewed the game have missed the point of the artistry in the game, particularly its story. Braid was conceived in opposition to the current trends in video gaming, and Blow is certainly not afraid to let people know it. The film documents some of the internet vitriol Blow has received for his views, but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He has genuine desire for an emotional connection with a player of the game through its story, and he feels disappointed that the majority don’t seem to ‘get’ it.

The film covers Super Meat Boy through its final weeks of production, and counts down to its release on XBLA. McMillen and Refenes are a close-knit team who live on the opposite sides of the US, conducting most of the game development through Skype. They are passionate gamers with true love for the artform and its storytelling abilities. McMillen’s wife Danielle and Refenes’ sister and parents are also featured, which gives a nice view on how important familial relationships are in supporting a developer, but also the toll that the stress and long hours can have on them. Super Meat Boy is finished on a very very tight deadline, and the scenes of both developers pulling all-nighters to finish it might hit a bit close to home for some! For me, the journey of this game was the most powerful emotionally – the stress of meeting the deadline, the shock and disappointment of Super Meat Boy not appearing on XBLA on release day (it was eventually released that afternoon and sold 20,000 copies in 24 hours), and the pure joy and relief as the first positive reviews for the game come out and both of them realise that they are on the cusp of the success that they’ve been working towards for all their lives.

FEZ’s journey started in 2008, when it started to win awards purely based on its trailer. It’s a colourful and whimsical puzzler using a unique mechanic – the world spins on its Y axis, rendering a 2D game into a 3D world. However, after 2008 the game and its developer encountered problems – the game subsequently went through 3 complete redesigns, and Fish’s business partnership dissolved acrimoniously, creating substantial legal problems. Fish admits his perfectionism is a large part of the delays, and the game has swallowed his whole life. The internet is growing very impatient with the delays, and Fish worries that there will be no interest left by the time the game is finally released. There’s a very sweet moment where he plays little games he made as a child with his father, and he seems to regain his joy and passion for gaming and developing.

A crucial moment for FEZ takes place at the 2011 PAX Prime, where Fish is due to debut the first playable demo. Due to his ex-partner’s refusal to sign the last of the paperwork ending the partnership, Fish is not legally allowed to show the demo in public. He goes ahead anyway, and even though the game is full of bugs and crashes constantly, the demo is widely well-received by attendees, and even Penny Arcade’s Tycho. After years of constant stress, towards the end of the film Fish finally gets the signature, and carries on developing FEZ. (FEZ was subsequently completed after the movie was filmed, and released to great success in April 2012.)

Indie Game is a very truthful film, and the emotions of all involved are powerfully raw. It has more highs and lows than Six Flags. It does leave you questioning why the developers do what they do at times, but what really shines through is their desire to tell stories through a medium they all love and respect. Everyone who has ever thought about making games should definitely watch it. Hell, even anyone who has ever bought a video game.

 

Indie Game: The Movie is available for downloading/streaming online, and also on Steam and iTunes

Braid is available on XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac and Linux

Super Meat Boy is available on XBLA, and PC/Steam. A mobile version is currently in development

FEZ is available on XBLA

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

SECTION 8: PREJUDICE

If I had to describe Section 8: Prejudice in comparison to other games, I would probably say that it is a mash-up between the design elements of Halo, the upgrade leveling of Call Of Duty and, of course, the fast-paced, arena combat of Unreal Tournament – on which its engine is based. To many people, that combination of inspiration would sound absolutely brilliant, which is why it is such a shame that this 2011 release from TimeGate Studios ended up so very abandoned.

In terms of a single player campaign, you’re not going to get much out of Prejudice. Consisting of a couple of levels of ‘kill this/take control of that’, it’s got a repetition and ease that gets monotonous very quickly  – but, that being said, this is a frag-fest at heart and rather than nitpicking its faults, there are actually a lot of stylish, exciting additions that set it apart from being just another Unreal clone. Weapon and armour design could be seen as reasonably generic for a ‘future combat’ scenario, but nonetheless the style and aesthetics do seem very smooth and in no sense uninspired – there is a definite Halo feel, which is never a bad route to take.

With every kill you are effectively gaining experience for both your character and your weapon, unlocking future upgrades, such as grenades, ammo-types and tools that can give you an advantage on the battlefield, as well as being able to customise your loadout to form a certain class of soldier. In terms of movement, you have both a rechargeable jetpack and advanced sprint, helping navigation within the map and the ability to attack from a variety of different angles and paths, e.g. quickly scaling structures and environment for effective sniper spots. Both of these abilities work extremely well and are certainly a nice touch to the genre, however the advanced sprint has a delay in its use, which can result in it only kicking in after a few minutes of running, which can be slightly frustrating, especially so when you are rushing back to defend a command post.

TotalBiscuit gives an excellent insight into Section 8‘s gameplay, as well as expressing his own disappointment with its seemingly empty servers

Obviously focusing on multiplayer, Section 8: Prejudice contains a variety of online gametypes, which range from survival mode to territory gaining. My personal favourite has to be Assault, in which one team must defend its control points from being stolen by the opposition. When there is only one point remaining, however, the game switches to sudden death, meaning that any killed players cannot respawn. This certainly adds a nice twist of intensity, which I feel is lacking from a lot of games in this style – when you can constantly re-enter the battlefield, where’s the punishment of death?

On the note of respawning, this is certainly something that TimeGate has developed very well. Instead of your standard ‘appear back at base’ routine, Section 8: Prejudice lets you literally drop into any point of the map, plummeting through the air to your destination. Anyone familiar with the old MDK games might draw similarities between these drops and its stage introduction levels, with the danger of being killed whilst airborne due to enemy turrets and weapons. However, in the same vein of the weapon upgrades, additional armour boosts can be fitted to protect your soldier, allowing you access to much more heated sections of the warzone.

Overall, Section 8: Prejudice is a very cool, exciting title which can easily be enjoyed by any fans of deathmatch and arena styles of play. The weapons do seem to lack the sound and sense of impact you might find in other games, but that is hardly a complaint, considering the low price and replayability of this title in particular. I’m still in the early stages of playing Section 8, but I don’t see myself getting bored anytime soon. If it wasn’t for the lack of other players, I can definitely see this becoming a new favourite, extremely reminiscent of the Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 deathmatch setups that inspired it.

Visit the website here

Buy it on Steam here

THE AGONY AND ECSTASY OF MINECRAFT

For the past couple of months, Minecraft has very slowly crept up on me. Favourite Internet communities were doing hilarious Let’s Play videos, new memes were born, and everyone was fascinated by this unlimited virtual Lego set. The limit was your imagination, and having to contend with deadly enemies determined to not only kill you but destroy your creations like a jealous younger sibling brought that extra tension that was irresistible to gamers. And the best thing is – in multiplayer you can still go smash your elder brother’s perfect castle into bits, it just takes a bit longer.

When I went to my local geek con in mid-June, one of the most popular pieces of merchandise was the square cardboard Creeper head, the swirl of greens and faint grin easily seen across the crowded convention centre. Minecraft had arrived, and it was making pixels cool again.

My husband caved first. I would sit at my desk in our shared office, while I heard the sounds of him picking at dirt blocks, the sickening crack of falling too far, the popping of lava, blobbing in water, and a few quiet shrieks and profanities as a Creeper lolloped dangerously close. He showed me videos of people’s amazing creations: the 1:1 scale model of the Enterprise D; a relatively-dimensional TARDIS; TNT explosions so huge the game can’t render them; huge troll faces on grass plains; and buildings literally touching the top of the world. I resisted for a while. But, eventually, it got me.

I played my husband’s copy of the game while he was at work. In hindsight, it’s a good idea that I don’t have my own copy. I was immediately sucked in. Armed with a cup of tea, and the Minecraft wiki in the background, I set to work.

I really wanted to build my base in a snowy tundra, and I spawned on a beach. I wandered for an in-game time of three days, until I finally found the perfect spot. I had water, lava, a view of the sunrise, and plenty of sheep. I built an awesome log cabin out of spruce, with a bed, coloured wool rugs, paintings, bookshelves, and a sign. (It’s very telling that even though I had nothing else in the house, I had three bookshelves.) I had a natural mine nearby, in which I got ridiculously lost a couple of times. I planted flowers outside, and watched the snow falling on the roof. It was awesome.

The one thing I didn’t realise was that to spawn in your bed, you had to sleep in it. Whoops.

I proceeded to die in the most spectacularly faily way – I found a hole in the ground, and went to see how deep it was and went too far. Seriously.

I respawned on the beach where I started, to my surprise. I tried desperately to remember which way I walked, by the landscapes I went through. I wandered around for days, following the sun in every direction. I was going in circles. I discovered a closer and bigger snowy tundra to my spawn point, which was annoying fact number 1. Eventually, I accepted annoying fact number 2: I was hopelessly lost, and there was no way I could find my house again. Annoying fact number 3: I’m usually a pretty good navigator, but I’d done the stereotypical female thing of having a terrible sense of direction in a pixellated world. My husband delighted in making gentle fun of me, even when I distinctly remember him effing and blinding because he once got stupidly lost in his own mine.

I exited to the title screen, and restarted the game. With a heavy and shamed heart, I proceeded to delete my game and start over again.

I found another tundra. I rebuilt my cabin, bigger and better with my increased knowledge. I found a much better mine with more minerals, including my much-wanted and elusive lapis (which I used to make a blue rug under my bed). I had more sugar cane, which satisfied my insatiable need for paper. I had all the sheep I could shear. I built a boat and went across the ocean looking for squid. I slept in my bed. This game was ten times better than my previous attempt, but the magic was gone.

My house is built. I have my sign, my paintings, my books, my brightly coloured floor. I’m coming up against the same problem that I had with Lego when I was a child – there’s so much to build, so much I could do, that I don’t know what to do next.

So, I’m interested in what you guys have gotten up to in Minecraft and maybe get some inspiration for things to build. What cool stuff have you made? Have you lost your house like I did? Have you used a pressure plate in devious ways? Have you toiled away for hours only to have a Creeper explode in the middle of your work? Let us know!

Minecraft is available for PC, Mac, Xbox 360 (through Xbox Live Arcade), Android, and iOS. You can buy it here.