Sunday, 15 April 2018

Now Playing: Final Fantasy XV

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game shit the bed quite as hard as Final Fantasy XV. In just a handful of hours, it went from a game I considered to be an early contender for my GOTY, to an early contender for my Most Disappointing Game of the Year.

I had an absolute blast during Chapters 1-8 of Final Fantasy XV. Chapter 9 seemed promising, but that’s where things rapidly fell apart. Chapters 10, 11 & 12 took a serious dive in quality and Chapter 13? Chapter 13 was so bad it made me want to stop playing the game entirely. Oh god, was it bad.

Then came the final chapter, and I was just ready for the game to be over. But Chapter 14 knocked it the f**k out of the park with an absolutely fantastic finale. And suddenly, FFXV became a contender for my GOTY once again. To say that FFXV proved to be a roller-coaster of an experience would be an understatement.

The question is: what the hell happened? Chapter 9, which introduced a new location and map, felt stripped down, and the following Chapters 10-13 felt unfinished. The story was always a little disjointed, but from Chapter 10 onwards it goes entirely off the rails. It feels like massive chunks of content are simply missing and these last few chapters were simply cobbled together with whatever they had.

Was it a matter of time and budget? I don’t know, but as I said, FFXV does gets it shit back in order for the final chapter and go out with a suitably epic bang. But my god, was Chapter 13 terrible. There are two routes available, and from what I understand, Route B was only added because of how poorly received the original (and only) Route A was. But I didn’t know that going in, so I chose Route A because it seemed the ‘right’ choice to make considering it focused on the main character.

I wish I hadn’t. Route A is so boring, tedious and infuriating it made me want to quit. But I’m glad I pushed through, because Chapter 14 f**king rocked. I don’t think I’ve sever seen a game dive so hard in quality but recover just as quickly. That’s not to say Chapter 14 doesn’t take a misstep or two. It’s a shame we didn’t see more of the new world Noctis awakes to. I was disappointed we didn’t get to see demon slayer Iris, for example.

The most fun I had with FFXV was simply exploring its world. The side quests and monster hunts do a good job of pushing you to see every area and creature. Yes, the side quests are mostly basic fetch quests, but there’s a nice variety of objectives and fighting the fantastic variety of monsters is something I never grew tired of.

As I said in my First Impressions post, the combat system of FFXV is stylish fun, but it can become very messy in enclosed environments. This is particularly true during the dungeons, many of which feature narrow tunnels and chambers. But once you’ve unlocked all of the various combat skills and abilities, there’s more depth to the combat than you might initially think. It’s very fast paced, so it can descend into a mindless brawl, but when everything clicks, it’s very satisfying to play.

I’m also quite impressed with how much post-game content there is to explore and unlock. It keeps you wanting to play, even once you’ve finished the man story. And the main story, overall, is pretty good, despite feeling butchered to pieces during the last few chapters. What sells it are the characters, all of whom are pretty fun to interact with.

Graphically, FFXV looks great but could use a few more patches to improve performance. They fixed an issue with the summoning ability, but at the time of writing I’m still experiencing what I’m sure is a memory leak. Because I don’t tend to play for extended periods it’s not really an issue for me, but many people are still reporting it.

Final Fantasy XV was the first FF game I really got stuck into and despite the flaws and that late dive in quality, it’s a game I thoroughly enjoyed and intend to keep playing until I’ve completed all of the additional content. It’s certainly got its highs and its lows, but when it hits high, it really knocks it out of the park.


Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Now Playing: Super Mario Odyssey

Princess Peach has been kidnapped and only you (Mario) can save her (again)! But you’re not alone! Accompanying you on your journey is a sentient hat by the name of Cappy. If sentient hats aren’t weird enough, Cappy can be used to possess various creatures and people. They become your unwilling puppets. It’s kind of f**king disturbing when you think about it.

I’ve played a few Mario titles such as 64, Sunshine & Galaxy but I’m not a massive fan of the series. I think Galaxy was the one I enjoyed the most, but it’s been a long time since I played it, so it’s hard to say if I prefer it to Odyssey. It’s something I’d certainly like to revisit this year, if I can find the time.

SMO is one of the most creative, fun and clever games you’ll play. Variety is its strongest aspect, with a fantastic mixture of environments, visuals, audio, enemies and most importantly – gameplay mechanics. Every world introduces new and fun mechanics which you’ll need to utilise in order to progress. It does this via Cappy’s possession ability – by taking control of various enemies, creatures or objects, you’ll gain access to their abilities too.

It limits these abilities to a couple of basic functions, so it doesn’t overcomplicate things. It also doesn’t overuse them – as I said, it’s introducing new mechanics with every world. And every world has its own unique theme and style.

The goal on each world is to collect a certain number of Power Moons in order to progress. There are, if you add together all additional post-game content, 999 Moons to collect. Of course, you don’t need to collect quite so many to complete the game. In fact, if all you’re interested in is progressing from the first world to the last, you could probably beat the game in a couple of hours.

Power Moons are practically everywhere and collecting the minimum number required to progress is incredibly easy. Some Moons require you solve small puzzles or platform challenges, but others are just sitting there waiting to be picked up. I can see this being an issue for some players, who aren’t really interested in going out of their way to collect as many Moons as they can.

If all you want to do is ‘beat’ the game then you may be disappointed by how short and ridiculously easy Odyssey is. As fun, creative and clever as it may be, it also has practically zero challenge – at least as far as progression goes.

The ‘challenge’ of Odyssey isn’t finishing the game, but collecting all of the Moons. That’s the primary focus of the title, and that’s very clear when you do complete the game and it unlocks a whole f**k load of new Moons to collect.

I’m not normally someone who cares very much about collecting stuff like this. It reminds me a little of the Korok Seeds in Breath of the Wild of which there are 900 to find. But I never felt the need to find them all, because you’ll find enough to see you through quite easily. They also weren’t the focus of the experience.

But the Moons in Odyssey are the focus. Finishing the game is just the start, as it unlocks a new world to explore and hundreds of new Moons to collect. And because it has so much variety and clever mechanics to play with, even I found myself continuing to play to see how many Moons I could find. More Moons = more content to unlock. Unlike Zelda, Odyssey really nails the post-game experience. In fact, it feels like the post-game is where it really begins.

If I had one major criticism of Odyssey it’s that it never really requires you to combine all of these neat little mechanics in a testing or complex way. It’s only at the very end that it presents a section where you have to combine the various mechanics you’ve learned, but it’s still a very basic and easy section to navigate.

I kept waiting for the game to really put these various possession abilities to the test, combining them in unique and clever ways, but the game never takes that extra step. Every mechanic is fun and unique, but also very isolated from the next. The boss fights, though fun, are also very basic, easy and somewhat repetitive.

Whilst some Moons present fun, clever and unique challenges to collect, others just seem to be there to make up the numbers. That said, they do lend themselves to playing the game in portable mode, where you can jump in for short sessions and collect a handful of Moons on the go.

I played primarily in docked mode using a pro controller, which can be a little awkward at times, because it seems the game really wants you to use the detached joy-cons. It seems like it was designed primarily for that control method, so that’s something to be aware of. I’m not really a fan of the joy-cons though as I find them too small and tricky to use.

My only other issue is that a couple of the worlds feel somewhat incomplete compared to the rest – they’re smaller, with less to see and do. The best example is the Ruined Kingdom, which feels like a hell of a lot of wasted potential.

Overall, Super Mario Odyssey is a fantastic title that’s extremely fun to play. I just wish it had stepped up the complexity and challenge a little more than it does, and combined the various mechanics in more interesting ways. Despite those complaints, it’s a must have title for the Switch and a game that’s perfect for pretty much everyone to play regardless of age or skill level. It has something for everyone to enjoy.


Saturday, 24 March 2018

Final Fantasy XV: First Impressions

I have a confession to make: I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game. Okay, so that’s not entirely true. I did play a little of Final Fantasy III and IV, but I never finished them. I’ve always kept an eye on the series, but by the time we hit Final Fantasy XII or so, it felt like a series I’d never really be able to jump into.

But then I saw a PC demo had released for Final Fantasy XV. It promised a game for old fans and new players, so I figured I’d give it a spin. And despite feeling the game – most notably the combat – had its flaws, the demo convinced me to pick up the full game. I’ve now played Final Fantasy XV for 25 hours and I’ve still got a long way to go, so I thought I’d share my initial impressions.

Graphically, FFXV is a very pretty game. Crank up those settings – the NVIDIA options in particular – and it’s easily one of the best looking open world titles on the market. Performance, overall, is pretty good, but there are issues that need to be addressed. I suspect the game has a memory leak, as performance does noticeably degrade the longer you play – to the point of crashing.

I’ve experienced two crashes – one of which frustratingly cost me an hour of play – and both times came during extended sessions. There’s also an issue with a particular ability in the game which, when activated, triggers the frame rate to crash to about 20 until you exit and reload (Update – now fixed!). The PC edition hasn’t released without its issues, but with a patch or two, everything should be running smoothly.

Okay, so let’s talk about the game. You play as Prince Noctis who is embarking upon a road trip with his three best mates. You’re on your way to your wedding which is part of a peace treaty between your kingdom and a powerful empire. The game does a decent job of introducing you to the world and history, but it’s not entirely perfect.

At one point I was presented with a very odd, disjointed cut scene of a battle that didn’t really make any sense to me. I didn’t know if it was a dream / vision sequence, but it turns out it was actually clips taken from a CGI film intended to accompany the game. This is kind of dumb, because I then had to go and read a synopsis of the film to better understand what was going on in the game. It’s not as if you can’t follow the story without seeing the film, but I wish they’d handled the incorporation of those elements a little less confusingly.

Final Fantasy XV is an open world RPG. You have your core missions which advance the story and your side missions to keep you busy between. The world and creatures of FFXV have been the real highlight for me. There’s a nice variety of terrain and landscapes and a wonderful variety of exotic creatures to marvel at – and then murder.

The majority of the side missions are simple fetch quests, but it’s the monster hunts I really enjoy. These send you to fight tougher variations of the different monsters in the world. I’ve had a real blast doing them, because I really enjoy the big monster fights. Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where I’ve had to stop doing the side content because it’s so damned easy to over level.

The recommended level for my current core quest is 25, but I’m already level 42. And it’s not as if I’ve been grinding my way through side content – I’ve still got 10 hunts in my log, and there’s another 10 or so I’ve not yet picked up. The game doesn’t pace its side content very well in relation to the core quest. They really needed to unlock the side content a little more slowly as you progressed through the story.

And I’ve liked what I’ve seen of the story, at least so far. Noctis and his trusty boy band are all likeable chaps with some fun banter in and out of combat. You traverse the world in your personal car in which you can sit back, chill out and watch the scenery go by. It’s quite a relaxed adventure, especially with the additions of the fishing mini-game or the photography which lets you build a visual log of your travels.

So let’s talk about combat, which is both fun, stylish and messy. You can set combat to be ‘active’ or ‘wait’ which triggers a combat pause, but I found the ‘wait’ system to be rather irritating to use as it continually disrupts the flow of the action. And it’s that flow to combat that makes FFXV very fun to play.

You can equip up to four different weapons or spells, and enemies are more or less vulnerable to different types. You can build combos, but not in the way you might expect. Your attacks are related not to your button inputs, but more so by the direction of your attack. It certainly takes some getting used to and I’d highly recommend playing with a controller because I found it far easier to handle when using an analogue stick. It’s also a system that becomes more enjoyable the more you unlock the various skills and abilities, expanding your range of options.

You can combine your attacks with your mates to pull off some heavy damage moves, and activate their special abilities for some very stylish and ‘cinematic’ attacks. Combat is fast, fluid and when everything clicks just right – very satisfying and impressive to watch. But it can also be incredibly messy.

If you’re fighting a large group, it’s easy to get ‘lost’ when you’re surrounded by enemies, and fights can devolve into mindless mashing. It’s also a combat system that works best on an open field, but some fights take place in enclosed settings or surrounded by scenery such as trees and rocks which often block your view of the action. It can be frustrating getting stuck into a fight, especially in a wooded / bushy area because you can’t see what the f**k is going on.

I’m also kind of irritated by the random drops of enemy soldiers. They can drop right on your head during the middle of a tough monster hunt. It’s an exciting and challenging surprise at first, but when they’ve dropped 3-4 times in 10 minutes it gets pretty tiresome.

Okay, I’d better wrap this up. I’m really enjoying FFXV so far and I’m eager to see where it goes. The story does seem to be picking up, and I’m looking forward to seeing what new areas and creatures the game will introduce. Despite a few issues here and there, this may be an early contender for my GOTY.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Now Watching: It Comes at Night

I’d seen both very positive and very negative reviews of It Comes at Night, so when I finally sat down to watch it, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But from the moment it began, the film held my attention, squeezing it with a vice-like grip. It’s rare that I’m so thoroughly absorbed by a film that I can’t look away from the screen.

To say that I found watching It Comes at Night a tense experience would be an understatement. I had a mild headache at the end of it – I’d been sitting so rigidly, my eyes focused on the screen.

It Comes at Night is a horror/psychological thriller set following the outbreak of a mysterious virus. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah and son Travis live a cautious but safe existence in an isolated house – until a stranger arrives at their door. I won’t say more on the story, because this isn’t a film I want to spoil, but I do want to touch upon why I think it’s so good.

I’ve seen people say the title is misleading, but I disagree – I think it’s wholly appropriate. Because at its core, It Comes at Night is a film about paranoia. It’s about the fear of what we don’t know or understand – and how we react. The title is perfect in that regard, as it immediately puts the viewer on edge – just like Paul.

And what’s more, the film brilliantly restricts the viewer to the same level of information as the characters. We know as much as they do. There’s no disconnect from their experience – we’re right alongside them, every step of the way.

The film is wonderfully shot, with an appropriately unsettling score. It feels claustrophobic to watch, an effect that grows ever more uncomfortable as the film progresses. As far as any criticisms go, I’d say the ending does get a tad muddled as it tries a little too hard to be ambiguous. But overall, I thought It Comes at Night was excellent, and easily one of the best horror films of recent years. Recommended.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Now Playing: Ikaruga

I wasn’t sure if I should do a review of Ikaruga. It’s a shoot ‘em up I originally played on the GameCube in 2003, but recently picked up again on PC. Ikaruga is generally regarded as one of the best of its genre, but it’s not a genre I’m particularly familiar with – so keep that in mind, because this review is going to be written from a more casual point of view.

Ikaruga is a game that’s easy to beat, but very hard to master. There are only five levels, and each can be cleared in about five minutes. If you’re new to the game I highly recommend heading straight to the settings and enabling infinite continues for your first run – by default, you get zero continues.

It won’t record your scores if you alter the default, but you really shouldn’t be worrying about score, but about learning each stage and becoming familiar with the mechanics. The game won’t teach you as you play, so it’s also worth watching the ‘How To Play’ video, found in the options menu.

Your ship has two polarities – white and black – which can be switched on the fly. Enemies also come in either a white or black variety. By firing bullets of one polarity, you can do more damage to those of the other, but if you’re struck by a bullet of the opposite polarity you’ll be destroyed.

So far, so simple, but this is where things get more interesting. You can also absorb the energy of the bullets matching your current polarity, charging your special attack – a multi-missile strike. So it can actually be beneficial for you to soak up enemy fire in order to use it against them.

But learning the mechanics is only part of the challenge. You can also be killed by coming into contact with enemy ships, or by crashing into pieces of scenery – and on a couple of levels, it’s attempting to navigate the constantly shifting/rotating scenery that can prove as difficult as dealing with the hundreds of bullets heading your way.

Ikaruga requires time, patience and dedication if you want to ‘git gud’. Memorisation of each level is key if you want to aim for higher scores. You can multiply your score by building ‘chains’ – destroying multiple enemies of the same polarity in a row. If you want to do more than simply ‘beat’ Ikaruga – which you can do in about thirty minutes – and achieve the highest ranking, then be prepared to replay every stage multiple times. As I said – time, patience and dedication.

And that’s why I wasn’t sure if I should do a review of Ikaruga, because I just don’t think I have the patience for it. I’ve played through the game four times, clocking up a couple of hours play. I’ve tried replaying the first chapter several times to improve my score and hit a higher rank, and whilst I am getting much better at building my chains, the system is pretty punishing to the point that a single slip can ruin an entire run.

Fans of the genre seem to love it, and I can certainly see the addictive appeal. The short levels do encourage repeat play, but as someone who’s not really a fan of the genre, I don’t really feel the need to do so. Visually, the game looks great, and it has a suitably killer soundtrack. I do like the mechanics and think the polarity system is pretty clever, but I just don’t know if I want to keep playing for score alone.

I might keep jumping into Ikaruga to see if I can hit those higher ranks. I’m already watching videos of people who know what the f**k they’re doing to see if I can pick up a few tips. Hitting those higher ranks is a challenge that appeals to me, but I’m just not sure if I have the patience to keep at it.