Ape Escape – Because Monkey Escape didn’t have the same ring

Box art for the PlayStation game Ape Escape
Not an ape in sight

Recently, Sony have been releasing their new and improved PlayStation Plus service.  Those on the basic package are basically getting everything that they previously received in the normal PS Plus, but there are now an additional couple of tiers.  The mid-tier will get people access to a bunch of PS4 and PS5 games, much in the same style as a Microsoft’s Game Pass, albeit with not as good a selection and not with day one release of first party titles.  The top tier will give you an option to stream games, as well as access to games from the PS1, PS2 and PSP emulated (PS3 games are only available through streaming, unfortunately for anyone with mediocre internet, such as myself).

It is these classic games that I am most interested.  Having been pretty much solely a computer gamer when growing up (the first system coming into my childhood home was Amiga 500+), I missed out on all of these older console titles. So, I was eager to see the selection that would appear on offer when the service finally dropped.

It’s a shame that the quantity is so meagre.  With just under 40 games across those three systems, it feels like a big missed opportunity for Sony to celebrate their older titles.  Also missing are some of the big-name games that really defined Sony’s early consoles, such as Tomb Raider, Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid.  Perhaps the remastered versions of games like Crash Bandicoot or Tony Hawk’s means that those licences holders are reluctant to let the original versions out in an easily accessible format, but it is still a big disappoint to me to see so few iconic titles not appearing here.

There are a few well regarded games here though.  I started with one that may not be as much of a household name as some of those previously mentioned games, but certainly has a bit of a cult following.  Ape Escape came out of Japan Studio in 1999, a later title for Sony’s original PlayStation console.  It is perhaps most notable for being the first title to require the use of a DualShock controller, implementing an innovative control scheme on a gamepad that would become the standard basic layout for controllers up to today.

Main character Spike running to the right in an industrial-like setting

The game is a 3D platformer, much in the mould of other 3D platform games of the era like Super Mario 64.  You control Spike, as you navigate him around self-contained levels, travelled to by your professor friend’s time machine.  This allows the levels to be spread out across various time periods, from the Jurassic age to a version of the present day.  Your task is to catch monkeys (clearly not apes and never referred to as those larger simians, despite what the title might indicate) that are scattered over these time periods, who have managed to become super intelligent by the use of one of the professor’s inventions.  You will be aided by various different gadgets that will help you in finding and stopping the monkeys, as well as tools to help navigation of the levels.  There is even an element of Metroid-ness to this, as some gadgets will open up previously inaccessible areas, if you feel the need to go back and catch all of the monkeys.

Controlling these gadgets is often where the uniqueness of the game comes from and where the innovative DualShock controller comes into play.  Adding the use of the two analogue sticks that we are now so familiar with, opened up some interesting means to use these gadgets.  Whereas we may now have fallen into the standard use of the left stick for movement and right stick for view/camera controls, Ape Escape instead uses the right stick to use your gadgets.  Push the stick to the right whilst carrying your stun baton and Spike will swing the baton to his right.  Spin the right stick in a circle whilst holding the propeller and Spike will be lifted off the ground like a human helicopter.

It takes a little getting used to, particular with our brains so conditioned by third person games using the same standardised control scheme, but it works surprisingly well once you get the hang of it.   The most interesting gadget to control is perhaps the remote-control car, which you navigate using the right stick, whilst still having movement of Spike with the left, allowing for some interesting puzzles, as you are required to follow the car as it navigates through a maze as you run beside it or above it. 

The controls soon become fairly natural and responsive, perhaps helped somewhat by the slower pace the game has.  Having camera controls on the d-pad instead is perhaps the fiddliest element, but this is far from the nuisance that I initially expected it to be during my first few moments with the game.  Jump being on the right bumper was probably the most unnatural, as I regularly found myself hitting X to try to jump.  The face buttons are instead used for quick access to your gadgets, which can be assigned from the menus.  It is a serviceable solution, although it does also make you appreciate the radial menus that are now fairly ubiquitous.

Spike in a green field holding his stun baton
Your life bar is represented by those delicious looking cookies

Besides your gadgets, you will also occasionally find vehicles to control in the levels, such as an inflatable boat or a tank.  The former of these is where I had the most difficulty controlling, as you are required to spin both sticks simultaneously in opposite directions.  Fortunately, sections that require the boat are not regular and generally short, so I could battle may way through them, but it was one of the few times I felt I was fighting with the controls rather than them allowing me to simply do what I wanted to do.  The tank on the other hand is great to control, with the sticks controlling the respective tank tracks.  Push forward on both sticks to move forward, push just on the left stick to turn right and so on.  Initiative, but more interesting than just controlling the tank as if it was just like controlling Spike.

All of these varied methods of control also reflect the general variety that is on offer from the game.  This mix of gadgets and locations, lends itself to a nice mixture of different places to explore and ways to interact.  Sometimes there are some puzzles you might need to clear or there might be some platforming to do or perhaps you have to sneak up on a monkey to catch it.  Considering the latter is the central conceit of the game, it is a little disappointing that there isn’t a bit more variety displayed in your pursuit of these primates though.  The monkeys do come in slightly different forms, their different AI identified by the colour of trousers they wear, as well as others that might be armed or able to jump into a nearby UFO to shoot a ray gun at you.  For the most part though, you will normally find yourself running at a monkey, smacking it with your stun baton and then grabbing it with the net.  The action becomes fairly instinctual.  Sneaking up on the monkeys is often also an option and can come with its own sense of satisfaction, but failing to sneak up is normally not that much of an issue.  There are also a few more set piece moments, such as seeing a monkey riding a dinosaur that you need to get it to fall from.  These moments are where the game feels most like the 3D Mario games and show some of the inventiveness that you see there.  They are not very frequent though.

I found the back half of levels to be a bit more interesting than the earlier ones, particularly once you get to the recent history section and on into the present-day levels.  The theme park section in particular is a lot of fun, taking you from a wild west themed area, to a rollercoaster ride and then into a haunted house.  The game does a really good job of keeping these levels interesting and they increase in complexity the more you progress.  This progress is perhaps a little more linear compared to some other 3D collect-o-thon style games, such as the 3D Marios, and I didn’t have a great urge to return to them upon completion to find all the other monkeys I missed or couldn’t reach before, but I still very much enjoyed the first time through them.

Three monkeys
Some cheeky monkeys ready to get in your net

All in all though, this turned out to be a really delightful game, offering up a colourful world to play in and set of characters.  There are a few subsequent games in the series (Ape Escape 2 is also part of the new PS Plus Premium tier), but I did get a sense that this was a game that could have a modern iteration.  I’m not sure if people would be willing to return to the control scheme it pioneered, as a change from the standard third person controls would likely alienate those not willing to give it a try, but the basic idea of having a bunch of gadgets and a variety of levels to catch monkeys in still feels like it could have plenty of potential in modern games.

If you have the Premium tier of PS Plus, then I would highly recommend checking this one out.  It might take a little to get used to the controls, but it is well worth getting over that hump to teach those pesky monkeys a lesson.


Top 10 announcements from this month’s Not-E3

Summer Game Fest logo

June has increasingly become the month of gaming, with announcements galore being pumped out by all the big digital interactive entertainment purveyors.  It has always been the month of E3, but with that being cancelled the last few years, it has been replaced by an endless stream of streams, coming from publishers, console makers, magazines and Keighleys.

2022 has had some downplaying in the lead up to the announcements, as the delayed development time from the last couple of years of pandemic has started to really bite.  It seemed that the next few months were likely to be a little light on things to be getting excited about.  Really though, that just means the little players get a chance to shine.  And if you do prefer your games to be sprinkled with the pretty shinnies that comes with getting those three A’s together than there was still enough on show that is likely to keep you interested.

For most of us, it really isn’t possible to see every single stream that was on offer throughout this month, but I’ve managed to get in most of the big ones.  Each offered something slightly different.

poster for Stray
Stray is a cy-purr-punk game, shown off during Sony’s State of Play

The month started with a big one from Sony, with their State of Play.  This mostly focused on third party titles, so was lacking the big hitters that you would expect direct from Sony.  Having said that, God of War Ragnarök is likely the only one that we should have been expecting to come from Sony’s own studios, so probably not that surprising that the spotlight was given to the third parties.  We still had a few big things shown though, such Street Fighter 6 and Final Fantasy XVI.  There was also some underwhelming offerings for PSVR2.  VR obviously is a hard one to sell as part of a flat screen presentation, but we mostly saw new parts of an already existing disappointing VR game (Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners) and a VR mode for a game that has been around for a number of years (No Man’s Sky).  The Horizon VR climbing game looked more promising, but the others were disappointing from a piece of tech that I am quite looking forward to.

After that stream, the next show I caught was from big Keighley himself, Summer Game Fest.  Geoff Keighley may get some stick, but it can’t be denied that he has stepped up to take E3’s place admirably.  I feel a little sorry for E3 returning next year, as I expect it will overshadowed in the public’s consciousness by this show.  Just a shame that what gets shown is always just a bunch of CGI trailers and limited gameplay footage.  There was some interesting stuff, but we are going to have to really wait and see as to whether any of them actually amount to much.  As expected though, the reveals were slim on the ground.  The big closing reveal, a remaster for a game that was already remastered, even got leaked before the show, so wasn’t even a surprise.  If you liked space horror though, this was probably the show for you.

The delightful Wholesome Direct

As an antidote to all the scary violence on show from Summer Game Fest, there was also the Wholesome Direct.  A whole lot of twee that should have been a bit annoying, but was actually a nice change of pace.  A pleasant reminder at just how diverse gaming can be.  There really is something for everyone, even if the media fixate on the things that are for a narrow audience.  This had the most “oh, that looks neat” moments for me, but it was also so jam packed with non-stop games that actually picking out ones is pretty hard.  I would suggest having Steam open beside you when watching this, ready to wishlist the games as they go by.

Back to the big players though, and we had the Xbox & Bethesda games show.  For me, this presentation has been a slamdunk for the last couple of years, simply because the net is half as high for Xbox as it is for everyone else.  If you are a subscriber to Game Pass, than you are going to get to play the majority of these games without having to pay anymore than your subscription.  When the barrier of entry is just the time to download the game, it doesn’t need to do quite as much to get you interested.  Even without that though, there were some interesting games here shown and a nice variety.  Xbox has really come a long way from their dude-bro persona and it is great to see games ranging from quirky medieval tapestry inspired games to giant nerdy sci-fi RPGs to narrative heavy experimental indie games sharing the same platform.

Image from Tactical Breach Wizards
Tactical Breach Wizards was shown off during the PC Gaming Show

Then I caught up with the PC Gaming Show from PC Gamer.  Day9 always seems like a charming chap and I’m sure Mica is lovely too, but please dial back on the skits.  Fortunately, the games themselves look great.  Much like the Wholesome stream, this had me surprised more often than the others, so I can just about forgive the awkward humour, which wouldn’t feel out of place on CBBC.

On the other hand, Devolver Digital get away with the weird skits, as there actually seems to be some talent involved in putting those together.  This year’s was a little weaker than normal though and perhaps the gag is starting to wear a bit thin.  Also, there were only about 5 games shown throughout the whole show, which I’m sure was lighter than normal.

Outside of those, we also had the Capcom stream, which didn’t show too much new that hadn’t already been shown elsewhere and there was the big Final Fantasy VII Anniversary stream, which delivered a few new announcements, some expected and some wished for.

There are a whole lot more that I didn’t manage to get to, such Indie Game Connect, Guerrilla Collective, Tribeca Games, but there is only so much one person can manage to take!  There is meant to be a Nintendo stream coming tomorrow as well, but that is reportedly focusing on third party games, so it is unclear if anything too exciting will come from that.

Assuming that no surprise announcements are coming though, here are my 10 (or maybe 11) top picks from this month of announcements, in no particular order.

1. Starfield is actually a game

I’ll be honest, I was not particularly whelmed by the showing of Starfield.  No doubt, this was the most hyped for game that we thought would be shown and I expect many would have this topping their list of most anticipated games.  It is just a shame that the first thing they show from the game that is claiming to have a galaxy of possibilities is a grey moon to shoot some space pirates on.

Now, compared to other Bethesda games, that shooting did look a step up.  It wasn’t as good as a dedicated FPS, but then I don’t think anyone would expect that to be the case.  It seemed good enough for this type of game though.  Also, once we did see some of the other environments they did look a big improvement on the types of places Bethesda normally create, particularly the populated areas.  The characters too looked pretty decent, even if they did appear to be vending machines for quests, rather than engaging characters.

I am not a big fan of Bethesda games though, so perhaps my complaints are not ones that others would share.  Plus, as a Game Pass game, it is basically a certainty that I will be downloading this on the day of release.  Regardless of my opinion now or when I play it, this will likely be the biggest game of 2023 and it is going to be one to watch.

2. 2023 – the year of Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy is going to have a massive year in 2023.  It will kick it off finishing this year with the release of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, a remastered version of the 2007 Crisis Core game.  Many have said that this is going to be an important part of the Remake’s storyline, as the main character here will be featuring heavily in the follow up games for Remake.  Then, in Summer 2023 we will be getting the new Final Fantasy XVI.  This is looking incredibly bombastic and featuring more explosive action than a Michael Bay film. Whether it will be able to hold that together with an interesting combat system and engaging story remains to be seen, of course, but this is shaping up to be a nice return to form for mainline entries, after a lacklustre XV.  Then, in winter 2023, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, part 2 of the Remake series, will be released.

I don’t have much history with the Final Fantasy series.  XV was actually the first game from the franchise that I played and I really didn’t get on with the incredibly bland open world and uninteresting combat.  Since then, I’ve played a little of Final Fantasy IX, which I liked, and all of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I absolutely loved.  I can’t wait to see what more comes from the madness that is the Remake project, although I feel like I probably should get around to playing the original at some point.

Not much was shown of Rebirth, but seems lots of fans are already creating theories and speculations as to the direction it will be heading in.  It is still unclear whether we will still be very much restricted by corridors, as we were in the first part, or if things will be opening up into a more open world, as I understand the original did after leaving Midgar.

3. New strategy from ex-Blizzard devs – even if the presentation was a bit shit

A love a good strategy game, but releases in the genre have been a little light in a very long time.  Particularly in the style of Starcraft, which hasn’t really seen a proper competitor since the release of Starcraft 2 back in 2010.

Who better to bring the genre back in style than those that actually worked at the company that pretty much created it in the first place?  Well, hopefully that is the case.  The presentation for Stormgate from Frost Giant consisted of a poor CGI trailer that looked nothing at all like it was for an RTS game.  The screenshots shown didn’t either. 

What style of game this will actually be still seems to be unclear, but they are making it sound like it will be traditional.  Just a shame that what they are showing seems to bare little relation.

Still, I would love to see them bringing something to the table that actual competes with their former companies work and I look forward to giving it a go.  A pity that the wait is going to be quite some time, with betas looking like they won’t be until next summer.  This could either move up or drop entirely off my anticipation list, depending on what direction they are looking to take it.

4. Persona 3 Portable, Persona 4 and Persona 5 Royal coming to PC/Xbox/Game Pass

I picked up Persona 5 (not Royal) a while back on the PS4.  I liked what I saw quite a bit, but got a little frustrated by the hand holding that went on for hours and hours.  I was hoping to be let off the leash at some point and free to make a few more of my own choices.  I eventually stopped playing, only to find out that I was literally about an hour or 2 away from being given more freedom.

Since then, I’ve been keen to go back to the game.  Seems like I will get a chance to do that and I will be able to do it with the upgraded Royal version on PC.  Plus, an opportunity to play a couple of the earlier titles.

Now we just need to hear at the Nintendo Direct that they will be hitting Switch too.

5. Diablo 4 actually looks good

I’ve also thought I would like ARPG games in the Diablo style.  Ever so often I get the urge to try one and I almost always end up getting bored by all the clicking.  Diablo 2 wasn’t too dissimilar, although I managed to get through to the final chapter with it before discovering that my necromancer build was total tosh and unable to clear the hordes I was now having to face.

I wasn’t expecting to have much interest in Diablo 4, but the showing here was actually pretty good.  What particularly caught my interest was the idea of a more dynamic world.  If they could include elements that we might associate with more traditional RPGs and give us an opportunity to see our actions actually having meaningful impact in the world we are smashing demons in then this could be a really interesting one.

Just a shame that Blizzard had to go and put doubt in my mind with the recent diabolical release of Diablo Immortal, a game that fully embraces the dark side of the gaming world.  Hopefully none of that will be anywhere near Diablo 4 and that Blizzard learnt their lesson from 3 to not infect their mainline Diablo games with nonsense real world money elements.

The announcement even made me go back and try the original Diablo, which I never actually played.  It’s pretty good!

6. The Alters

This is one that unfortunately just showed itself off with a CGI trailer and not much information about what it is actually about.  But, the developer chat after the trailer as part of the PC Gaming Show had me really intrigued as to what this would end up involving.

Developed by 11 Bit Studios, who also created Frost Punk and This War of Mine, this is continuing their idea of meaningful entertainment and it is a great philosophy that I can really get behind.  I’ve recently gone back to Frost Punk, a game I only very briefly previously played, and I’m absolutely adoring what they did with it, adding a really fascinating twist to the city builder genre. I’m really interested to see where they are going with this.  The Steam store page suggests that it is likely to be a more narrative driven experience, emphasising choice and “What if…?” questions.

What ever it might be though, I reckon this is going to be one worth checking out.

7. Sitting at a desk exploring a desk in The Plucky Squire

Of all the more obscure games, this is probably the one that has hit the mainstream press the most and understandably so.  The trailer was incredibly effective and offered a proper “wow” moment.  If you haven’t seen it yet, just go watch it now.

Okay, back?  It feels like something that surely has been done before.  A very simple idea, but it is executed masterfully here.  The beautifully rendered environment just makes the moment that Plucky appears in the real world even more magical.  Plus, the trailer goes on to show a variety of different game play, as the character appears to shift between 2D and 3D, with different genres of games being used.

This looks like it is going to be a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t expand upon the ideas much more beyond what we see here.  Even if it ends up being not as interesting as it appears from this glimpse, it still makes a damn good trailer.

8. Get your Cadfael on with Pentiment from… Obsedian?

During the trailer for Pentiment, text appears on the screen to say “A Narrative Adventure Most Unexpected”.  That is followed by the certainly unexpected line “from Obsidian Entertainment”.  Best known for making (slightly broken) RPGs, seeing them make a game that looks more like a point and click adventure is certainly unexpected.

It is the writing that Obsidian are known for though, creating surprisingly deep games or making interesting characters or factions within existing franchises.  It isn’t really that surprising to see them create a game that is so focused on narrative.  It could also be very interesting if they look to include some of the RPG elements that they are known for, doing something that is perhaps a little closer to the combat light Disco Elysium or Tides of Numenera.

Either way, this looks to be a departure from what we general associate from the studio and I’m really excited to see what they are able to do with something that appears to be slightly smaller scope than they normally work with.  The, seemingly, real world medieval setting looks wonderfully realised too, with an art style reminiscent of Astrologaster.

Looks like it is going to be the perfect Game Pass game.

9. Finally, more on Hollow Knight: Silksong, but still no date

I absolutely adored 2017s Hollow Knight.  Team Cherry made the most perfect Metroidvania game, which featured tight platforming controls, simple but tense combat and a twisty turny world that was a joy to explore and unlock.  It is the only game where I have felt compelled to do a speed running achievement.

So, I’ve been anticipating more on Silksong since it was first announced back in 2019.  The silence has been deafening for the last couple of years, with every big stream carrying with it an anticipation that maybe it would finally get some more details.

Really, I was hoping for a date, but just some more footage and a sort of confirmation that it will be with us in the next 12 months is probably good enough for the moment.

The animation and world looks as wonderfully realised as ever, with a more acrobatic character to control this time around.  Team Cherry seem to be going all out on this and I can’t wait to see what their work for the past 5 years is going to deliver.

10. Star in your own Truman Show in American Arcadia

There wasn’t too many surprising announcements from the Summer Game Fest show, but this was probably the most interesting.  It looks to mostly be a platforming game, with some stealth bits, possibly some vehicle action and maybe some first-person bits.

The artwork is lovely and there is a great futuristic 60s style.  Themes wise, it could be interesting to do a more modern take on The Truman Show idea, a film that was quite ahead of its time.  It will be interesting to see what the social media age will do with such a premise.

As with most trailers that are part of this show, there isn’t much to really gleam about the actual play of the game, but it definitely looks like something a bit different.  It is likely that it will be quite a directed affair, but hopefully they lean into the idea of impressing an audience or keeping them on your side, giving a bit more player agency in how this all works.  Even if not, this looks like it will be a fun title.

11. In space, we will all be able to hear you scream

Okay, I couldn’t keep this under 10 and I’m going to cram in a bunch of games into one point.  This really was the season of screams, particularly with spaces games.  The already mentioned The Alters could even be classed in this category, with its edge of psychological horror with a sci-fi tinge.

Really though, we are talking about The Callisto Protocol, Aliens: Dark Descent, Fort Solis, Routine and System Shock.  You can possibly chuck in The Invincible too, although not sure how much horror that one will involve.  Of those, Fort Solis was perhaps the most interesting prospect, although not a huge amount was actually shown.  It seemed to be taking a strong narrative approach, whereas the others were much more action focused.  Which is fine, but the dread normally disappears once you know you can blast your problems away.

The Callisto Protocol was probably the big name for most people and it looks suitably like more Dead Space, with even more gore.  It should be a good time, as long as you okay stomaching all that violence. It definitely looks like it is going more for the icky fun than actual scares, but there is nothing wrong with that.

System Shock is likely to turn out very good too.  The original game is not one that I have ever played, but it looks like one that really could do with a freshen up.  The sequel still holds up and is probably the one that many would be more familiar with, especially if you have looked back at the origins of games like Dishonored or Prey.  It will be interesting to go back even further and see the roots of the immersive sim genre.


Derren Brown – Showman

What some might not realise if they have just seen the work that Derren Brown performs on his TV shows, particularly the big stunt specials, is that he is incredible at commanding the audience.  Perhaps no surprise what with him being a magician (mentalist, illusionist, Jedi Knight, pyscho, whichever you prefer), but his ability to captivate and mystify thousands of people in a room together is something that you really have to experience first-hand to truly appreciate.

Currently touring with the aptly titled Showman show, Derren continues to amaze and baffle audiences, all the while wrapping it in a narrative that is surprising, at times creepy and ultimately beautiful.  I won’t go into details about the actual content of the show, as audience members are requested to keep tight-lipped about what actually takes place, but I hope I can encourage to experience this for yourselves, something that will likely stay with you for some time.

If you have just experienced Derren Brown through his specials, perhaps where he gives someone the courage to land an aeroplane after pilots are taken ill or convinces someone that they are living through a zombie apocalypse to teach them a lesson about life, you would be forgiven for not really realising that magic is his true stock in trade.  The stage shows still maintains the air of psychology and suggestion that he is best known for, but the more traditional elements of magic come more to the fore in a way that his more modern television work perhaps lacks.  This show is no different and there are a number of traditional tricks right from his first appearance.  There is still the talk of manipulating minds and a fair amount of hypnotism, but there is also lots for those that may be less interested in some of his more notorious work.  What the framing device still manages to do though, is to make it feel fresh and exciting, even though he has been at it for many years.

Derren Brown with one hand out in front of him and another holding a microphone

The psychological framing device also allows him to craft a narrative throughout the show, giving a structure and allowing seemingly unconnected stunts and tricks a cohesion.  The show was originally intended to run before the pandemic struck, although it has clearly gone through a re-write since then.  It might well have had much the same structure and much the same content originally, but the events after the last couple of years add a poignancy to it and something that obviously becomes a deeply personal show for Derren Brown.  He brings in reference to his childhood and relationship with family members that would be relatable to most, if not all, that will have experienced the past two years

That isn’t to say that the show is depressing; in fact, it is far from that.  Instead, it is one of the most uplifting evenings of entertainment you are likely to have.  Derren Brown is known for having a sinister edge to the work he makes, with hints of the macabre often running through.  This is no different, although perhaps to a lesser extent.  Even with those touches though, the show’s message is far from those dark themes.  It is about love and showing it to those that you hold dear. 

You could sense from the audience a real energy that was created throughout the evening.  There was the slight trepidation at first, the laughter that was had throughout, there was the wonder at the seemingly impossible powers and absolute bafflement when seemingly most of us could no longer determine what was exactly real.  Most of all though, as we stood to give our ovations at the close of the show, there was a buzz of positivity.

For is that not the true power of a showman?  To convince a room of people, even just for a moment, that anything is truly possible.


The Last of Us Part II – An absolute triumph (except when it isn’t)

Image of Ellie from The Last of Us playing an acoustic guitar in the forest
While my guitar gently weeps

Unlike many, it took me some time to warm to the original The Last of Us game.  Played via the PlayStation 4 remastered version, I was left fairly unimpressed when I first ran through it.  It was mainly the gameplay that never really gelled together for me, with combat encounters feeling like they forced me into direct confrontation when I wanted to stealth and those fights would find me burning through all my limited ammo because of my inability to aim with my thumbs instead of a trusty mouse.  Zombie encounters especially were troublesome, with their twitchy movements and tendency to chew down on Joel as soon as they got near him.  I got through the game, but was regularly frustrated by my inaptitude.  Perhaps as a result of this, I never really got involved with the story and most of it just didn’t stay with me, bar the odd moment (giraffes, of course).  I couldn’t even recall exactly how it ended a few months after finishing.

Knowing that I would no doubt end up playing The Last of Us Part 2, I went back to the first game shortly after switching to the PlayStation 5 and I was completely blown away.  This time round it sunk its teeth into me deeper than a clicker’s bite.  I don’t know if I had just improved in my ability to manipulate virtual people with my thumbs or the PS5 controller is just that much better than the PS4 controller, but the game just clicked in a way that it hadn’t with my first time through.  Perhaps slowing down a bit and really playing like a stealth game made a difference, but I also felt more confident when the shit hit the fan and bullets started flying.  This allowed me to really get involved in Joel and Ellie’s journey and it can’t be denied that this is one of the best relationships in gaming, certainly modern gaming.  Then I moved to the Left Behind DLC, which I never managed to get around to and found that Naughty Dog managed to do an even better job of integrating narrative beats with interaction, as well as pulling together a story that hit the emotional moments perfectly.

I managed to stay clear of much of the noise that accompanied the 2020 release of The Last of Us Part II.  Still, it was hard to avoid the Internet arguments, where it caused equal amounts of admiration as it did consternation for fans of the series.  Critically, it was heralded as ground-breaking and went on to win more game of the year awards than any other game, earning some 300 or so.  Even amongst the media though, some of the narrative choices were questioned.  Unsurprisingly, the audience was also massively divided, with the usual review bombing that just so happens to accompany games that feature female leads and ones that touch upon themes of sexuality and gender.  I’m sure that is just a coincidence though…

An infected creature screeches at Ellie, who is on the ground point a gun at it

Despite this noise, I did stay relative blind going into the game, so managed to go in without too much tainting from all of that drama.  I’ve stayed away from most of that after finishing too, to try to make the following as clean of that as it possibly can be.  I’m going to delve into spoiler elements, but I will save those to end.  The TLDR or spoiler free summary though is that The Last of Us Part II is stunning game in pretty much every regard.  The gameplay is magnificent and feels as brutal as it needs.  Narratively, there are multiple moments during the story where it manages to hit the player in the feels like a truck, just as intends to.  If you managed to form a connection to Joel and Ellie in the first game, but somehow have not delved into Part II than just stop now, get it and play it.  You are going to have a fantastic experience.

But there are some caveats, mostly with the plotting.  So, lets leave those for the moment and delve a bit more into gameplay parts, which are mostly an unequivocal success.  If you have played the first game than you very much know what to expect.  We are once again scavenging through a post-zombie apocalypse USA.  You will spend equal parts of your time navigating through story segments, fighting humans, battling zombies, sneaking through both and rummaging for supplies.  There are also a few puzzle sections, which come with a few added twists this time that are welcome, but also a little underused.

To start of with the fighting sections, these offer a step up from what the first game offered in terms of pacing and feel.   Ellie, who you control for most of the game this time around, has become an exceptional fighter and the game is not shy of letting her show this off in as much graphic detail as possible.  There is a real crunch to the fighting, with you able to effortless switch between taking cover and popping off shots, to dashing in for a quick brutal melee finish.  Enemies feel a little less bullet spongey this time around, with body shots doing a good amount of damage.  It keeps the fighting flowing nicely and allows you to play more aggressively, more in keeping with the narrative that is taking place.  It is helped by some top-notch animation that goes with all this.  You will get used to seeing Ellie grit her teeth as she is choking someone out or stabbing them in the neck.  The combat is also accompanied by perfect use of sound that really pops every time you let off a shot.  This captures the feeling of using a deadly tool fantastically, as the sound of fire drowns everything out.

Left Behind introduced some interesting new dynamics with the combat, most notably sections in which they had you fighting zombies and humans at the same time, often able to use them as a weapon against each other.  Part II brings a little more of that, along with a couple of twists on that very late in the game. It is used sparingly though, perhaps a little too sparingly.  Personally, those are my favourite moments and I would have liked another couple of times where it is used.  Then again, too much of it may have made it less interesting and it is better that it is used a little too infrequently than over used.

Before you get into these big fights though, you are going to likely be attempting to stealth your way through the areas.  Stealth again feels like it has been improved a jot from the original.  The way you do it hasn’t changed much, where you are still sneaking up on people and choking them out, using your listen mode to see through walls and chucking bottles/bricks to distract them.  The sneaking feels a little more viable in the long run though and there are less moments where you just use it to thin the crowds before going loud.  You aren’t going to be able to ghost the whole game or never fire a shot, but it seems that style of play is more catered for this time around.

Ellie is on a raised platform looking down at an area with infected.  She is sneaking and holding a rifle

The zombies are much the same as before, with the same usual mix of normal infected people and clickers making up most of the encounters.  There are a couple of more mutated infected types to encounter, including one large boss fight with an infected enemy, which was surprisingly enjoyable.  The fights are much the same as in the first game though and don’t feel as interesting as the fights with humans.  There are moments where they feel a bit more puzzle like, with you working the optimal way to get through, although they do open up more as the game goes on.

As before, scavenging will let you find crafting material, weapon upgrade tools and pills that you use for upgrading your own character.  This hasn’t changed much from the first game, although the character upgrades feel like they have been expanded a bit more.  You will find magazines dotted around the levels which will open up new upgrade paths for you to take, totalling about 5 or so different areas for Ellie to focus on.  You are likely to be able to upgrade most of these by the end and they aren’t massively game changing, but still offers a little choice for you to focus on different areas.  These are a bit more interesting than the weapon upgrades, which only offers very similar upgrades for each of your weapons.  More ammo, better stability, extra damage and bigger capacity is basically what you will see on all the weapons.  It works fine, but some more interesting attachments or variations would have been welcome.

Where you do see variation though comes a little over a third of the way through the game.  Without giving away too much (I’ll get to spoilers towards the end), you do play as a second character (technically third, if you count some brief sections as Joel).  This character does have a different set of weapons to use, their own unique character upgrades and their own items to craft.  What initially feels like a bit of a disappointment to suddenly lose all your upgrades (I felt so blind with basic listen mode!) does come as a welcome bit of variation.

Ellie and Dina are on horseback in their community, Jackson

It is also here were we run into some problems though, mainly where the narrative is concerned.  I’ll get into details during the spoiler section, but what feels like a second act, doesn’t connect as much as I would have liked with the first act.  It makes the section feel disjointed from the story that had me so engaged through the first 8 or so hours.  The characters that I had grown to care for disappeared and had only minor interactions with what we are going through now.  That isn’t to say that these new characters we are meeting aren’t well drawn and interesting, but it feels an odd choice to distance from the people that we had already spent quite a bit of time with and to go off with this other group.  Tonally it still feels in keeping, but it doesn’t stop this feeling like you are suddenly playing a different game.   If anything, it feels like a disservice to these new characters and you can’t really blame the player for having a bit of resentment to have to spent time with them instead of with the people whose story you are really playing this game for.

It was striking that when I reached the third act of the story and was back with Ellie again, I was right there emotionally engaged once more.  Again, I don’t think that this is necessarily poor writing for these new characters or the stories that are told during that section, ones that are both interesting and important.  We can blame expectations and the disappointment of those not being met.

It is probably also worth noting that the experience for those that didn’t like the first game is likely to be similar with Part II.  As I think I’ve made clear already, not huge amounts has changed with the gameplay between the two.  This is still a linear experience too.  Early on, you are tasked with collecting fuel and are given an open area to explore.  What feels like it might be a new structure for the way the game will play actually just ends up being an anomaly and you are back to mostly corridors and arenas to fight in right afterwards.  Any nod to that section that comes back later on is really just a big corridor rather than anything truly open.   Also, where the first game was tonally bleak, the sequel just delves even deeper into the grim, muddy waters.  As before, there are sparks of joy to be found as people connect with each other, but those connections are destroyed, often repeatedly.  At best, there is a bittersweetness to the tender moments. 

If you don’t want that or you want something that isn’t so focused on the narrative then just stay clear.  If you don’t mind that though and want an emotional rollercoaster then strap in.  It will even make you tear up at A-Ha’s Take On Me.

I want to delve a bit more into the narrative though.  So, if you don’t want any spoilers time to close the tab.


Closeup of Joel.  There is a light shining in from a window behind him

I think it was pretty common knowledge that you would spend most of the time playing this game as Ellie.  I certainly knew that going in and even if I didn’t know the reason why it was pretty obvious what was coming.  Still, that moment that Abby decides to tee off from Joel’s head still manages to shock.  It isn’t so much the action itself, which is repulsively graphic, but a testament of Naughty Dog’s success in creating one of the finest relationships in gaming, even with it being wrapped up in lies and a surrogacy for Joel’s real daughter.

It is because of this that it is no surprise that the finest moments come when we see flashbacks to Joel and Ellie’s life in-between the first game and before he meets his demise.  The birthday trip to the science museum where Ellie gets to meet “motherfucking” dinosaurs and to sit in a space capsule listening to a tape containing a recording of a launch is as beautiful as it is heart-breaking to watch.  It is a moment that I can extol the virtues of and not even need to proceed it with a “for a game” comment, standing shoulder to shoulder to other great moments in genre fiction no matter the medium.  There are many moments dotted throughout just like this.

These moments mostly feature Ellie though.  Connecting to Abby is much harder thing to do and I can only put the blame on the decision to have her brutally murder a character that is so central to the emotional tale this game tells.  It is, of course, very much the point they want to make, where we share Ellie’s desire for revenge, only for the game to tell you off in the second half.

When I reached the final confrontation in Abby’s section and had to battle Ellie, the game had told me plenty to make me understand Abby’s motivation.  I, as the player, did not want to have to fight Ellie though and I’m not sure if the game could have ever pushed me to wanting to see Abby win that fight for any other reason than my desire to push the narrative forward.

There is an often-used term, ludo-narrative dissonance, which is where the narrative in a game contradicts the act of playing the game.  It is a silly phrase, often ridiculed but an often useful one.  Here though, I want to propose a different, equally silly term.  There are moments of ludo-character dissonance in The Last of Us Part 2.  It isn’t an uncommon experience in games, but it felt striking during this particular game, where I was forced to carry out actions that I the player really did not want to perform.  Partly, that is a result of so much good narrative beats throughout, but it is also highlighted how little agency I had as the player.

Abby is seen brandishing a bloody hammer approaching someone who is out of focus

If I felt that ludo-character dissonance during the Abby fight against Ellie, then I felt it even more so during the Ellie fight against Abby that is the real climax of the game.  There was an element of expectations there.  During this final act and the last hunt for Abby, I was convinced that the denouement would be Ellie asking Abby to take her to the Fireflies, to finally make the choice that Joel could not make for her.  Instead, Ellie was much slower on the uptake than we the player is about this tale on the fallacy of revenge and continues to want to kill Abby until they are both lying in a pool of water and each other’s blood, unable to finish the deed.  You are forced to slash Abby with a knife repeatedly and attempt to drown her.  I was willing for Ellie to stop during the sequence, but it was impossible to do that, unless I decided that the end of this tale would be a game over screen.

The true ending is left with some ambiguity.  We don’t know whether Ellie leaves the abandoned farmhouse to meet up with her partner Dina and their child, or if she is going out to find Tommy to reconcile their differences, or to continue to pursue Abby another time, or to hunt for the Fireflies, or to just go over and roam America to find a new home.  We can inject our own agency into that decision if we want, at least until Naughty Dog decide to continue the story.  Besides that, the game does not allow us to really shape the narrative though and it feels a missed opportunity to not let us decide how our Ellie will complete her tale.

But what about Abby?  I’ve spoken mostly about Ellie’s journey and the decision we can and can’t make with her.  What about this other character that we spend well over a third of the game playing as?  It is strange how much her tale feels like it comes from a different game, only intersecting at a few key moments.  The structure of the game shows you replaying the same three days that you experienced during the opening parts from another perspective.  The logical structure would have your actions whilst as Abby interact with the actions that Ellie makes.  At the very least, you would expect that Tommy to play some part in this section, who is supposedly taking out many of the WLF crew.  Instead though, Abby’s journey takes her off in quite a different direction, barely crossing paths with either Ellie or Tommy until she arrives back from rescuing Lev from the island.

Lev is shown looking concerned.  In the background, Yara is clutching her arm

There is nothing particular wrong with the story that is told here and much of it is excellent.  As already said, it is just that it feels as if it is from a different game.  The decision is likely because it wants to show a softer side to Abby, one that makes us feel a connection with her as much as we feel with Ellie, but I personally spent much of the time wondering when we would be getting back to the story I had been spending the first 10 or so hours playing through.

Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy here.  Abby herself is a great character, demonstrating the complexities that we expect from a Last of Us character.  We also have a lovely story between her and Lev, echoing the relationship between Joel and Ellie.  Her acceptance of who Lev is, without question, is a wonderful thing to see and speaks volumes to Abby’s compassion, despite what we may initially think of her.  I know that there were some complaints about the handling of Lev, but I thought it was understatedly played and done with care (although on this occasion I might add a “for a game” to that).  Lev being a trans-child is important to the plot and to his story, where I’m sure some may have preferred Lev to just be who he is without any consequence and I can completely understand that position, but I still feel the portrayal of the two together is very well done.  I would happily see a game that just focused on their continuing journey together.

There is still that problem with how Abby was introduced though and the game just can’t get away from that.  Perhaps if we had of opened the game playing as Abby, with no knowledge of who her father was or who she was seeking than it perhaps could have worked.  It would have been great to be able to get to know her without that hanging over her head throughout the whole time, an act that just ends up feeling like it forces the writers’ agenda for a “revenge is bad” narrative too much to the fore.  It is clear what they wish to do throughout, judging the player for siding with one brutal murderer, but not another.  I got that this was the narrative from about 5 or so hours into the game and it didn’t feel any more worthwhile at that point than it did at the final 25th hour.

That doesn’t detract from the moments I did absolutely love though.  We have the already mentioned trip to the science museum, there was the moments Ellie would play guitar, the time I played catch with Alice and taught Yara to play too, the time I had a snowball fight, when I completely smashed the target shooting at the aquarium or when Ellie danced with Dina at the barn dance.  These are all touching and brilliant constructed narrative beats that easily outweigh the wider issues.  Overall, this is still a magnificent entry into the franchise and leaves me hoping that Naughty Dog will one day return to this world and continue this story.  Let’s just hope that when they do, I don’t have to say ludo-character dissonance again.

Ellie is with Dina and is smiling.  Dina has her hands on Ellie's shoulders.
A very rare shot of a smile


Mosey on over to Kickstarter and check out Doomtown: Weird West

Howdy pardners. If you are looking for good ol’ time that is sure to end in a hoedown, then look no further than the just launched Kickstarter for Doomtown: Weird West Edition, a new base set for the excellent table top expandable card game. A (mostly) two player game that sees you battling for control of a dusty old town in a demonically singed Wild West.

What is it that makes this game so special? Most immediately obvious to new players will be the incredibly unique combat system. Form your posse and get ready to sling cards as you start by taking it turns to make shootout plays. These will be special abilities that give your cowboys, girls and thems buffs as you get ready for the show to start. Once you both pass and the lead is ready to start flying, you settle the battle with poker-like system. The cards in your deck not only represent characters, places and abilities, but also regular playing cards. Draw cards from your deck and try to form the best poker hand that you can, with the number you can draw and the number you can mulligan based on the bullets that your dudes’ cards depict. Depending on by how much the player with the winning poker hand wins by determines how many casualties the loser takes. If the loser is still feeling luck, they can decide to continue or run back to base.

Image of Doomtown Reloaded

This system becomes a brilliant moment of tension between the players as they prepare to reveal their hands. It is an amazing system to capture those scenes from classic western films, as the protagonist and antagonist stare at each other across the town square, hands hovering over their gun. More than that though, it soon becomes apparent that the implications on the system with your deckbuilding, as you need to balance having the right cards in your deck, as well as having a deck that is going to reliably be able to give you a good draw in a gunfight. Throw in extra rules such as special effects for having an illegal poker hand, as well as counters to your opponent having an illegal hand, or Jokers that can manipulate your hand rank and you end up with a real spicy bowl of beans to play with.

The deckbuilding as a whole really stands out from the pack. As well as this combat system to think about, you have to deal with the restriction of only being able to have 4 cards of particular value in your deck. You can easily spend until high noon trying to figure this puzzle out and it becomes a game unto itself. You may end up putting cards in just to make sure you pack out a particular value to make a good fight deck or perhaps you will make something a little more defensive that just generally focuses on high value cards to ensure that your spells work.

Perhaps though, what really stands out for this game is the way movement works. Unlike many other card games, Doomtown features an actual environment that you are battling over. At the beginning of the game this will consist of just you and your opponents home bases, along with the area between them that is called the town square. Soon though you will each start putting down buildings on your side of the street to start generating income and control. Control is the key to victory, as the winner of the game is the player that has more control than their opponent has influence (normally coming from dudes). This means that these buildings, or deeds as the game calls them, are vital to keep hold of. So, you need to move your dudes around the town to make sure they are protect, whilst also attacking your opponent’s deeds.

It can take a little while to get the hang of it, but the movement becomes another puzzle to try to work out. Most movement will cause your character to boot (or tap, for Magic players), meaning they won’t be able to move again. The exception to this is moving from your home base to the town square or the adjacent deeds, as well as moving from the town square to any in town deed. Similarly, when you are forming posses for shootouts, anyone at an adjacent location can be brought in, but they will need to be booted and stuck there. This results in you needing to plan out what you will be doing with your dudes on each turn and how you going to make sure they are positioned correctly to be able to defend locations or form attacks. Mix in the different location abilities and attachments and things get even more interesting. It isn’t surprising to see the game compared to chess, as threatening attacks can be just as deadly as actual attacks.

Image of the Doomtown Reloaded card No Turning Back

But what I love about Doomtown, the reason why I think it is a truly special card game, is the way all of this combines, along with the regularly excellent art work and flavour to the different characters and factions, to create exciting narratives as you play through the game. These aren’t set narratives, like you might find in the also excellent Arkham Horror, but natural western tales that emerge as you play. Sending your dude over to just sit in the bar over on your opponents side of the street, getting a posse together to run a kidnapping job on a particular valuable target, sending out your bible quoting lawman to smite diabolic demons with righteous justice or just starring down your opponent as you are both about to reveal that vital poker hand. It all creates an amazing sense of drama through these rules that evokes the western films that are so part of cinematic history. It does it with a great sense of fun too, with an extra dash of steampunk and horror thrown into the mix.

It isn’t the easiest of games to get into and some of the rules may seem a little obtuse to begin with. Getting your head around the movement restrictions can be daunting and there are times when you need to remember the differences between running a job or having a shootout. The other problem is that the mechanic that is likely to attract people into the game initially is also one that should not be jumped into without consideration. Most new players will likely get a shock as they rush into the town square for a shootout on the first turn, only to find the game quickly over in a shower of seemingly random bullets. Patience, waiting your time and building up a strong foundation is key to success and people regularly bounce of this game quickly before they learn it.

The time investment is worth it though as this is such a superbly constructed marriage of mechanics and theme.

With this new Kickstarter, Pine Box Entertainment are doing a bit of a reset of the series with a new base set. They have rejigged the cards that come in this set, adding some completely new ones, adding some that were previously in expansions, balancing a few of the original cards and doing a refresh of the rules to make things clearer. Of likely more interest to those that are familiar with the game, they are also adding in some extra ways of playing the game, with the big ones being solo campaigns, co-op campaigns and 2v1 mode. Allowing for a larger player count in general is being retuned and officially supported too. Then there are also optional tweaks to the rules that can be used, referred to as Town Markers, which act much like mutators from the Unreal Tournament series, adding a bit of variety if you feel like making gunfights more deadly or mixing up the scoring system.

It’s a pretty good package for those that are familiar with the game and seems to be an excellent introduction to it for those that have never played before.

Being quite complex, my words can’t really do justice to how you actually play the game, so check out the below video to get a better feel for the mechanics. You can also try it out through a new official online version. The Kickstarter is due to finish 8th September and delivery of the game is expected to be May 2022. Price for 1 copy of the base set is $60 or around about £44.


The Forgotten City – Marmota Monax Dies

The time loop genre seems to have had a bit of resurgence in recent years.  Film has had the very enjoyable Happy Death Day films and the recent Palm Springs.  There has also been the excellent Russian Doll playing with the format in episodic form.  Then there has been life, where each day feels much like the last whilst we were all in lockdown.

Not to be outdone, gaming has had a toy with the formula too, with notable games such as the delightful Outer Wilds and the upcoming Deathloop from immersive sims maestros Arkane.

The Forgotten City is not actually from this current wave of nostalgia for Groundhog Day, being based on a mod for Skyrim that originally came out back in 2015.  Developers, Modern Storyteller, have gone and given a sprucing up, making it standalone and shifting it over to the Unreal Engine.  The result is something that is a great story, fun mechanics and brilliant little mystery to unpick.

The game sees the player transported back in time to a hidden Roman city, tasked by the magistrate of this city with hunting someone who will be a rule breaker.  The rule they are going to break is the ultimate rule, known as the Golden Rule.  The city has only one rule and if that rule is broken then all 20-odd inhabitants will suffer the consequences, becoming one of the golden statues that you see all around the city.  Fail in finding the culprit (or break the rule yourself) and you will need to transport back in time to the start of the loop to resume your investigation.

As hooks go, it is a strong one.  It is a simple setup, but one that instantly manages to capture the imagination and forces to player to ponder many questions, both in terms of solving this particular mystery and of the wider philosophical questions regarding the Golden Rule.  Although working out who will break the rule and how to prevent them from doing it is the central mystery through most of the game, you also will stumble upon other smaller problems to solve throughout your time in this city, from finding missing persons, working out which of the gods is responsible for this rule and helping people with their troubles.  All of these connect together in quite a satisfying way and are told expertly throughout.  Even when the central purpose of the city is revealed about halfway through your time with the game and it is the answer that many familiar with these types of tales will likely expect, the further unravelling expands upon it in interesting ways.

Much of the discovery within the game is done through your dialogue with the other inhabitants in the city.  Those that want to venture into The Forgotten City should be prepared for plenty of listening to characters talking, as the city’s occupants are quite verbose.  You will be spending a large amount of time working your way through these dialogue trees with each of the 25 or so characters, as you piece together what is going and how you might be able to help them with their problems.  On occasion, you do have to pick your words with caution instead of just selecting all the options, as you might insult someone who will no longer talk to you.  For the most part though, you are just going through all the options you can.  It is fortunate then that the dialogue itself is excellent and enjoyable to go through.  Without the well written prose for the characters to be speaking, it would be hard to recommend this game, as you will spend most of the time listening to them, but developers here have done a great job of elevating the dialogue to a level that is above what you would generally see in games.  The characters are distinctive and it is clearly shown through the words they use.  The voice acting is mostly fine to listen to too, although it is clear that we are in the realms of an indie dev’s budget.  They all give it their all though and none are unpleasant to listen to.

When not talking to other characters, you will also be exploring this city.  It is a beautifully realised place to walk around, initially seeming quite small, but with a density of winding streets, along with little nooks and crannies to go pocking about in.  After a few hours, you will still find yourself stumbling into new areas that you haven’t really explored yet.  It is also just lovely to look at the smaller details too, from little shrines, to vases and ink pots.  There is an air authenticity to everything you are seeing and the short descriptions that gives the sense that this environment has been researched thoroughly and had plenty of love poured into every object’s placement.  I have no doubt that those who experts in the field of Roman history will find plenty of anachronisms, but it sells itself in this regard brilliantly.  More so than a theme park game like Assassin’s Creed, it weaves in elements of history and mythology into its tale that makes you buy these characters as real Romans.

Outside of chilling out at the Roman baths and philosophising about Pluto, you will also be playing around with the looping mechanic.  This does become central to solving many of the problems that you will encounter and it is handled with a subtlety that exudes most other areas of the game.  As you begin a loop with the items and knowledge that you left the previous loop with, there are plenty of opportunities to manipulate events the way you need them to go.  It even will allow for a few different solutions to the same problem.  For example, a woman is poisoned and the remedy is being extortionately sold by a merchant.  You can steal the remedy, breaking the Golden Rule and forcing you to restart the loop with the remedy still in your possession.  Alternatively, you can also steal money from the merchant and buy the remedy with his own money.  For those thinking with loops, yes that does mean he ends up with the money you stole in the other loop plus his money in that current loop, but there is still a delicious irony to buying something with the merchant’s own money (and yes, you could keep stealing his money and resetting the loop over and over again).

You are guided through these puzzles quite a bit with objectives, but the player does use their noggin just enough to feel smart whilst doing it.  I’m not sure if anyone is likely to ever feel particularly stuck trying to think how to solve the puzzles on offer, but there is just enough working your way through some of these to make it satisfying.  It also gives a good pacing to the game, with you never really wondering what to do next.  There is normally plenty of different tasks on offer that when you aren’t sure how to proceed with one you can just go doing something else until the solution presents itself.

It also manages to mostly avoid the pitfall of repetition that can present itself with loop mechanics.  Although there will be occasions that you need to go through repeated dialogue (mostly all skippable), the game offers a few nice tricks to make sure it is limited.  There is a character that you meet when first arriving that can be tasked for completing a few of the quests for you once you have done them once, meaning each loop doesn’t require you to start by running around the city.  This also smartly feeds into one of your later quests too.  There aren’t too many failure states that force you to repeat the loop either.  The way Modern Storyteller have managed to avoid frustration with this mechanic is one of the most impressive elements of the game, with the tight 6-8 hours that you spend with the game being mostly an act of discovery.

There are few stumbling points that should be mentioned though.  There are one or two more linear areas that are less interesting.  One of these also features quite a bit of combat, something that is irrelevant for the most part and likely shouldn’t have been included.  The enemies faced offer a very uninteresting foe to fight, as they simply charge at you.  The weapon you have to defeat them is also not the most pleasant to use.  The game does give you a prompt to warn you that a dialogue choice will lead to action and horror elements, so it is avoidable if you wish.  How that actually effects the development of the story though I’m not sure, as it leads to quite a big reveal, as well as giving you access to an important item that allows you to access many previously unreachable areas (this might be accessible without doing the questline though).  A later area that also featured combat didn’t present that warning, but it might just have been because I had already gone with the earlier quest.  Not doing either of these appears as if they would definitely cut you off from some of the endings, particularly the true ending.

This only takes up a brief moment with your time in The Forgotten City though and I don’t think they should deter anyone that fancies a good mystery.  The stories and characters are superb throughout and I was eager to uncover each of the endings (I managed 3 out of the 4, with the one listed as the third in the achievements remaining elusive to me).  When I did reach the true ending, I felt satisfied with my time there.  I don’t think there would be a huge opportunity for replaying, but this is a smartly told tale that will stay with me for some time and raises some interesting questions that I could ponder long after the credits rolled.  Anyone that is interested in good writing in their games should take a trip across the river to The Forgotten City.


Death’s Door – Something to crow about

Shot from Death's Door.  A narrow path leading to the top of cliff.  A big door floats in the air.  The playable character, a small crow, is shown standing in front of a bigger crow.
A path off a cliff with a crow at the end of it… seems familiar

Death.  It’s the universal constant that unites us all.  Even more so in the world of video games where ending life is generally our main interaction with the virtual worlds that we inhabit.

In Death’s Door, our role as bringer of death is made literal.  In this world, the task of introducing souls to their maker is carried out by crows, known as reapers.  You play as one of these reapers, exploring lands as you hunt down a soul that got away.

Developers Acid Nerve, follow up there 2015 game Titan Souls, with a game that can be said to also be heavily inspired by Dark Souls.  These comparisons only really feel particularly surface level deep.  For the former, your character does collect souls as part of their job and we have doors for returning to a hub world that act like the bonfires of Lothric, but the comparison can really end there.  Instead, Acid Nerve have created a game that should be talked about in its own rights and celebrated for its excellent, unique systems.

Played from an isometric-like angle, Death’s Door has you controlling your crow around this unusual world.  Exploration of this world is key to progression, but lets first take a look at the combat.  The elements here are quite simple.  You have your standard attack button for your melee weapon, which can be tapped a couple of times to have a chain attack.  There is also a heavy attack that you can charge up for a second or two.  This can also be mixed in with a roll.  There are only 5 different weapons to be found around the place (and one of those is a bit of meme weapon that is only there to give the most masochists of players an extra bit of a challenge). 

As well as your melee weapons, you also collect ranged spells as you progress through the game.  These add a little bit of spice to the combat, allowing you to back off and throw a few fireballs after your pursing foes.  In a twist as elegant as the health regen from quickly counter attacking in Bloodborne, your ammo for these spells can be regained from attacking enemies and destructible environment pieces, such as pots.  This gives a nice dynamic feel to the battling, as it forces you to confront enemies up close rather than always relying on your ranged abilities.  Dashing in for a couple of hits as you are dangerously low on health is a thrill that comes unexpectedly from the outwardly simple combat mechanics that you might first assume.  That dash (or, more accurately, roll) also comes in handy as you dodge out of the way of the enemy attacks.  All of this combines into a surprisingly hectic combat system that is constantly exciting to play with.

Image from Death's Door of the hub world
The grey hub world that you can return to in order upgrade yourself and fast travel to other parts of the world via doorways

Helping to keep this system fresh, Acid Nerve have done an excellent job of creating a variety of enemies for you to battle against, each requiring quite a different approach to fighting.  Some enemies might have a long noticeable tell for a big leap attack that will come seemingly out of nowhere if you aren’t paying attention; others might fire a projectile at you that you can slash at to reflect back at them or other enemies.

Although not a hugely long game, there is a big amount of variety in the different encounters that you will be running into, making each new area a moment of anticipation as you wait to see what new threats you will be encountering.  That is before you even have to deal with the great souls that you are needing to reap. These are the bosses for each of the areas and are excellently designed battles.  Such as your first real boss fight, with a grannie that is obsessed with pots, who at one stage will jump into a pot and spin round shooting out projectiles at you, almost as if you have slipped into a bullet hell fight.  I won’t go into details of the other fights to avoid spoiling any more, but these boss encounters are the highlight of the game. In what is often a rarity in gaming, even the final boss feels special, challenging and engaging.

It is with the exploration though that you will find yourself spending most of your time.  The world that is presented in Death’s Door is tightly packed interweaved collection of paths, creating a sense of scope through its excellent design.  You will venture out along a path traveling quite some distance, only to find a new opening that brings you right back to the checkpoint you started at.  As well as giving you that satisfying relief of reaching safety again, it also removes much of the frustration that death will bring you, as the checkpoint distance ends up being not too far.  On occasion, you may find that you have to repeat a section, but it is rare for this to be any more extensive than a couple of minutes.

Image from Death's Door of the first real boss in the game.  A speech bubble is shown of Grandma saying "You little shit."
The first real boss you encounter. She seems pleased to see you.

There is also plenty of secrets to unearth as you go on your quests.  These can offer up some shrines that will give extra life or spell power, new weapons and upgrades to your spells or just simply some Shiny Things to add to your collection, rather aptly for a crow.  It is a joy to unearth the little puzzles that make up these moments, although they are mostly quite straightforward.  Sometimes these might rely on your spells that you unlock, often needing you to return to areas, in a classic Metroidvania style.  This is where the game stumbles somewhat in its final moments, as there is no map and little indication as to how many secrets you might have missed in each area.  As the final spell unlock is often the most important for reaching hard to get to places, the sense of aimlessness that accompanies having to go back to some of these areas that you went to right at the start of the game is disappointing.  However, it is a testament to the game and the world that I was encouraged to do that, eager to find each of the hidden secrets.  In the end, I didn’t actually achieve that, with my save file saying I had completed almost 90% of the game.  I was still missing a few Shiny Things, 1 shrine, a couple of upgrades, a whole weapon and plant pots.

Oh yes, plant pots, something I have yet to mention and might seem to some like quite divisive bit of design.  As you travel around the world, you will find seeds to collect.  You will also find empty plant pots for you to place these seeds into, where they will quickly transform into a shining plant.  These become your means of healing.  Your only means, in fact.  Using the fully bloomed plant will turn it into a shrivelled-up thing that will only comeback when you either die or return to the hub world.

This is one of the quite few design choices that lends credence to the idea that this is very much a Souls-like and that it will also offer up the brutal challenge that puts many people of that series and the ones that look to ape it.  Do not fear though.  You will find that you have an abundance of these seeds, particularly if you put some thought into whether you really need to plant one at every pot you come across.

The difficulty in general is actually very nicely balanced and is quite a far cry from the ones you will find in From Software’s games.  That isn’t to say that it is a cakewalk of a game, but I found it was just tricky enough to require concentration, but not so difficult that I was required to repeat areas over and over again.  A couple of the later bosses did take a few attempts, but checkpoints were located very nearby and the animations for the bosses was so good that I didn’t mind getting a chance to see them a few times.  Plus, death is greeted with a gigantic “DEATH” splashed across the screen that comes across more whimsical than frustrating (that gag also has a great pay off towards the end of the game).  For those that are looking at screenshots, thinking that they want to see the world, but worried by the continual comparisons with the Dark Souls series, really should not be concerned and I would urge you to give it a try.  Equally, I would say to those that are missing their dom and in need of a gruelling slog through pain and misery, tamper those expectations somewhat and enjoy the game and its world for what it is.

Image from Death's Door.  The word "death" appears in big capital letters.
The game can be brutal in a few places, but you can stay frustrated for long when this appears

And it is a very enjoyable world to just soak in.  Acid Nerve have created a place that is beautiful to look and has quite a selection of characters to meet, often crossing into either the humorous or surreal.  Take the chap that has a pot for a head.  What else are you going to call him but Pothead?  Then there is a barman that for some reason has an octopus strapped to him that he seems to think is a backpack.  It is perhaps a shame that most of these characters aren’t expanded upon a little more, although some do have further quests to find if you explore around enough.  This slight lack of time with characters is particularly true for the other crows and it would be nice if they could have had a bit more involvement, as well as more details on the work that they all do.  Again though, some of this is most likely explored in secrets and you may get more out of the game on those accounts than I did.

That is a minor quibble though and the focus here is a worthwhile consolation for not trying to expand these areas and ending up with something that outstays its welcome.  At around about 8-10 hours, Death’s Door is just the right length, in that it left me wanting more but not to the extent that I felt short changed.  In a time when everything seems to feel the need to pad itself out with dozens upon dozens of hours, this feels tightly made.  Perhaps I could have done with another great soul to collect, but if that would have been at the expense of polish elsewhere than it is best left out.  Acid Nerve have done an incredible job with their second game.  Although there are certainly some similarities between this and their previous game, Titan Souls, Death’s Door shows a level of craft that far outweighs that game, exceling in all areas and not just showing some smart design.  This is a cracking achievement and I hope that it gets the attention that it deserves.

Image from Death's Door.  Shows a man with a pot for a head.  Big capital letters show his name as "Pothead"
Obvious, but you can’t help but smile

Total War: WW2 with Company of Heroes 3

Company of Heroes 3 - taking control of an airfield

Last week, the acclaimed strategy developer Relic announced they would be returning to beloved franchise; the one with the Earth Nazis rather than the space Nazis, Company of Heroes.  Showing off the game not only with a cinematic trailer and not only with a gameplay trailer, but with a whole bloomin’ pre-alpha for fans to download and play around with.  Not only that, but Relic appear to have been having a few chats with the fellow Sega pals down the other end of their offices, Creative Assembly, and adopted a few elements from their classic Total War series.

I’ve spent a few hours with the pre-alpha since its released, so here are a few of my thoughts on what they have shown off and what can be expected from the final game when it launches next year.

I think it is perhaps first worth noting that despite the title of this article, the cramming in the mention of Total War into the first paragraph and the numerous articles by countless other people saying “oh look, Relic are copying Creative Assembly”, the turn based strategy portion of the game is not particularly like Total War from this snippet and I expect that we shouldn’t be expecting the final product to feel much like one of those free form campaigns.  Let’s begin by looking at the more familiar real time strategy section though.

The main takeaway from the skirmish battles that are shown here is that Relic are not going to be upsetting the cart too much here, besides blowing it to smithereens with a well place tank shell, of course.  These battles play out very much how you expect them to, so those worried about them departing too far from the formula need not worry.  You have your base of operations where you can construct a few additional buildings, letting you produce your troops.  As before, you will also have a few extra abilities to call in support from off the map.  For the single player campaign, these will be determined by actions and decisions during the turn-based section, so more on that later.  The battles generally continue the trend of battling over control points on the map in order to increase your income to help fuel putting out more units.

These units also have plenty of abilities that can be used during fights, some that might increase the firepower briefly or maybe help move between cover.  You might also be able to upgrade your weapons, often to make your troops more specialist for battling tanks or other infantry.  These become essential as the battles progresses and you need to make sure that your troops remain relevant in the fight.  It is an area that Company of Heroes has always done so well and why it becomes so important for you to be able to keep these troops alive, engaging where at appropriate places and retreating at just the right time.  That is no change here and losing a unit can be devastating.

Artillery tank launching a shell

Placement of units also remains important, as you have to ensure that firing arcs of machine gunners are in suitable places for defending areas and that those mortars are going to be able to hit their targets.  Maps are dotted with various types of cover for your troops to use and you need to ensure that they are in suitable place to stay protected, as well as avoiding being flanked.  This is really were one of the few innovations comes into play, the tactical pause.  Freezing time to allow you to survey the situation and start queueing up orders.  For example, perhaps you want to chuck a grenade at a dug in group of units.  You could just send them all forward in real time, but activating the tactical pause will give you the opportunity to plan out their advance a little more carefully, jumping them from cover to cover, until they reach a suitable place to get that well placed grenade in.  Perhaps you want to also get another group of troops to move around the other side to create a distraction while this is happening.

I can see that tactical pause is going to be a real game changer for some people, suddenly making what is normally a fairly hectic game into something that will allow for a little more thought.  This can be completely ignored by players that aren’t interested in it and it well obviously not be available for multiplayer battles, so I don’t think any argument suggesting that it is dumbing down the game really stand up to scrutiny.

For me personally though, I found the tactical pause a little unnecessary, at least in the gameplay featured in the pre-alpha.  Perhaps it is just my style of play, but I found that grouping all my troops together and pushing forward was a pretty effective strategy.  As long as I didn’t charge them straight at an MG turret, there wasn’t really much need to stop and plan my actions.  Perhaps also being familiar with the previous games helps here and I was a little more instinctive about moving my units into cover.  Still, I think that this is a good addition and I have no doubt that a lot of people will get benefit from it.

This is just half of the game though.  As already mentioned, the single player campaign will also feature a large turn-based component.  Looking at the screenshots and thinking about the other strategy developer under Sega, I suppose it isn’t surprising that myself and other immediately jump to Total War as a comparison point.  Yes, you are controlling groups of units on a large map trying to paint it in your side’s colour.  Really though, what surprised me most during my time with this portion of the pre-alpha, was just how much was translated from the real time strategy section.

Strategic map, as British troops swarm across Italy

We are told that this section of the game comes at a later stage of the campaign.  We are tasked with getting a foothold in Italy, before moving onto capturing Monti Cassino.  The first thing that you need to do is select which “plan” you will adopt: American, British or Mixed.  This is basically just a decision on what units you will be starting with and doesn’t particularly have an impact on your general goals and the approach you are likely to take.  You also have access to produce any units you want from any of those sides, so you can quickly adapt if you wish. 

To my mind, I feel that this is going to be the shape of much of the game.  I think that it is best to remove completely the idea that the final game will particularly resemble a Total War game.  It isn’t going to be a large map of Europe (and, supposedly, a bit of Africa) that you need to conquer for the Allies.  Instead, the setup presented above is likely to be what each of the missions will be like.  Namely, a smaller section of a country with a primary objective to complete.  This is going to be a much more focused campaign than the slightly sprawling one we see in the Total War series and one that I expect will offer some freedom in how it is approached, but will ultimately be a more linear narrative.  I don’t see that a problem myself, but I do think some people might get the wrong idea and come away disappointed.

As I say, what you really do plays much more like a turn based adaptation of the RTS pieces.  You will be producing units, sending them out to capture points to improve your income and you will be setting them up in suitable positions to defend areas and ambush enemies.  One of my errors when I had my first go at the game was to think like I was playing a regular turn-based strategy, particularly with my resources.  I was quickly swamped by enemy units, as I was just not spending my money enough.  As with an RTS game, you should really be keeping that money as close to zero as you possibly can.  There isn’t any sort of upkeep present here and you aren’t going to be needing to spend money at the towns and strategic points you capture to improve infrastructure.  Instead, that money is purely for building units and using abilities to attack the enemy.

These units are comprised of two different types.  First are the run of the mill divisions.  These are your grunts that will be swarming around the map.  Cheap units that you can and should construct quite a lot of.  They come in similar flavours to the RTS units, although not quite as many varieties.  You have your engineers, medics, MGs, anti-tanks, etc. each with slightly different abilities that they can use on the map, such as medics being able to heal other units or engineers being able to put up and remove roadblocks.  There are also some interesting options for block supplies, so you can cut off resources for the enemy (or, as I accidentally did before understanding what I was doing, yourself).  They can also attack other enemy units.  Hovering over an enemy will give you a little summary of how the battle will go, so you know exactly well it will be worth doing and whether they are going to be able to counter-attack you.

Lots of weak units taking a control point

The other type of unit you have are your companies.  These are much more expensive.  Stronger than your divisions, these are the unit that will be able instigate the RTS battles either with other companies or when trying to take objectives on the map.  They also feature skill trees, which is one of the areas where you will see decisions on the strategy map will influence the tactical layer.  These trees are made up of active and passive abilities, as well as a few extra units that you can add for construction during skirmishes.  Whereas the divisions are fairly expendable, the companies are the ones you are going to want to keep alive, pulling back when necessary and making sure medics are nearby to keep them healthy.

These systems are all fairly simple to understand whilst playing and there really isn’t too much more to the strategy map than described here.  There are a couple of extra bits to think about (such as partisans that can be liberated and will unlock some extra abilities, and side missions that crop up tasking you to collect intel or kill an enemy general), but for the most part you are just edging your troops forward as you move towards the main objective.  It does work well though and, even in this early version, you can clearly see that with a good variety of objectives and an interesting enough narrative to push you forward, this could be a much more interesting campaign than your usual RTS.  It also isn’t completely out of the blue for Relic to do something like this, as they did something similar with CoH2 and the Ardennes Assault DLC , but where that felt a little too directionless and as if you were just playing a mix of Risk and whack-a-mole, this felt much more focused and tighter (their other RTS series, Dawn of War, also had a Total War-esque expansion, Soulstorm, although that was developed by Iron Lore and not Relic).

There is still a question of just how much freedom it will offer you.  I speculate that it will not be as much as some people think, but that is just speculation.  It could probably do with a little more than is demonstrated with this section of the game, as playing it through with each different plan did feel quite similar.  We also know little about the multiplayer portion of the game, something that the most vocal of the community will likely be wanting to know.  This pre-alpha does feature a skirmish option, but I think that is just a random potential skirmish that you might have from the single player game.  Hopefully they will steer clear of repeating the same mistake as they did with CoH2 with its DLC commanders.  Relic have mentioned that they will also be doing a similar public test with the multiplayer, although no date has been given on that.

If you want to give this game a go yourself, you can do so by signing up over at the CoH-Development site.  Do remember that this is very much a pre-alpha and you will likely encounter bugs.  I personally could not start the final skirmish at Monti Cassino, as it would crash-to-desktop whenever I tried to start it.


Linux and gaming – just how well does it work?

Linux penguin mascot
Tux, the Linux mascot

With the recent announcement from Valve of the new Steam Deck handheld PC gaming device, it came with a few questions that we likely won’t fully know the answer to until it gets into people’s hands this December.  One of the big ones is just how good will the game compatibility be.  With the device using Valve’s SteamOS, based on the Debian distribution of Linux, we certainly can’t expect every single game out on Steam to just work.  That is before we even look at the performance of the hardware that makes the thing tick.

There isn’t much we can do about judging the hardware beyond the on paper numbers, but we can at least take a look at the software compatibility that Valve’s decision to go with a Linux based system.  So, I decided to give downloading, installing and, most importantly, playing on Linux a go.  Here is the start (and could it be the end?) of my experiences.

It feels like it should really be a rite of passage for any serious PC enthusiast to at least give Linux a go once.  For some reason, the bug has never really bitten me though and I’ve stuck with the safety and comfort of the Microsoft environment.  It wasn’t until the Steam Deck and questions around compatibility did I really consider giving it a whirl.  I like to consider myself fairly proficient with computers, happy to dig around with the internals and play with buried options within registries, but something about the jump over to Linux always felt quite daunting and, most importantly, unnecessary.  As attractive as the “stick it to the man” imagery of the open source operating system is, the moral high-ground never outweighed the potential difficulties and the convenience of just sticking with Windows (see also Amazon).  This is even more true when it comes to gaming. 

Valve making claims that it is easier than ever to do though made me curious to see just how accurate that was.  Let’s see how I get on.

The first decision to make is just which version of Linux was the right one for me.  There are dozens upon dozens of choices available, all filling different requirements.  One of these and the one that the Deck will be using, is SteamOS.  This was the logical choice, given the purpose of trying this out.  However, the first page I found detailing SteamOS was Valve saying that it wasn’t made for casual users.  One of the main reasons behind the creation of SteamOS was to be used with one Valve’s first forays into the world of hardware, Steam Machines.  These were just pre-built systems looking to offer a console like experience for PC users.  The venture was ultimately not very successful, but it was an early attempt by Valve to experiment with hardware and has no doubt led to what they are offering with the Deck in many ways, not just the operating system.

Image taken from Valve's SteamOS page saying "Users should not consider SteamOS as a replacement for their desktop operating system. SteamOS is being designed and optimized for the living room experience."
Valve’s SteamOS page, warning people away.

With Valve’s words of warning, I decided to opt for something that was a little more welcoming from the off.  This is a step that I probably should have taken longer with and I would recommend anyone that is considering giving Linux a try to spend a little more than the 5 minutes I did.  However, I quite quickly found a distribution called Mint that seemed to be tailored for a general user.  This came in three different varieties: Cinnamon – the full fat version, MATE – the slightly slimmed down, more stable version and Xfcce – the most lightweight, barebones version.

I decided to go for Cinnamon, as this is the one that was recommended by the documentation for those who weren’t sure and it would likely give me the closest experience to the type of operating system I was used to.

The official documentation offered for Mint was quite straightforward and it all seemed to be a very simple process.  It looked like anyone that had experience of installing Windows before would have no difficulty in following the process.

First up, was putting the ISO (the bundled together files for the operating system and the equivalent of an installation disc) onto a USB stick (can also be put onto a CD/DVD).  Mint even linked to the right tool to do this, called Etcher.  Simple process of selecting the ISO file, the USB drive to copy it to and off it went, formatting the stick as required.

Then came the big moment.  Leaving the USB stick in its slot and rebooting the computer, in theory, should let me boot straight into Linux Mint.  Things started okay, with the USB stick appearing as a boot option and then the Linux Mint logo appearing on the centre of the screen.  Then I waited… waited some more.  Not much seemed to be happening.  There was a log in the background I could access, but it didn’t seem to say too much.  Rebooting to try again offered the same result.

After reading online a few suggested fixes, not much seemed to help matters.  Fearing that my journey was going to come to a very abrupt end before it had even started, I decided to start from the beginning again, suspecting that maybe the image on the USB was corrupted in some way.  This didn’t help too much, but then I noticed I had actually tried compatibility mode.  The result…

Welcome screen for Linux Mint
A sight I half expected to never see

Bingo!  We were in.  It was only displaying on my TV hooked up to my computer and not my actual monitor, but it was a start.

Now, this wasn’t an actually installed version of the operating system.  This was just running straight off of the USB stick.  The installation is helpfully right there on the desktop for you to open up and begin. 

As is normally the case with these installations, you just need to select the language options, time zones and the like.  Nothing particularly taxing.  Then I reach the actual installation section.  According to the documentation, I should have had an option to install this alongside my existing installation of Windows and the setup would sort everything all out for me.  No option was visible to me.  Instead, I could either erase everything on the drive and start fresh (err… no) or do “something else…”

This is when things started to get a little hairy and I started to wonder if I had bitten off a bit too much.  I’m sure many are used to messing around with hard drive partitioning will be comfortable with all this, but it isn’t something I had any need to do before.  The worry that I would end up wiping my entire Windows install became quite real.

The first step was to reduce the size of part of the drive, freeing up space for me to create enough room for the extra partitions.  After spending quite some time trying to get simple instructions on how to do this, I finally managed to set it off, lowering the space of where Windows was installed by around 60GB.  This then required me to wait for a very long time.  All the while, I was worried that it would finally be done and I would see that it probably had wiped everything. 

Image of the partitioning options during Linux Mint installation
err…. yeah, sure

Fortunately, after about 15 minutes, it came back showing that the space had been reduced and the “used” figure did not change.  I was now able to create the two partitions required for the installation.  One of these is for the operating system itself (around 15GB) and the other bit is for the “swap” partition, which is used for hibernation and in case you run around of RAM.  This should match the amount RAM you have (32GB, in my case).

Now that was done, I was able to start the installation.  This was briefly interrupted by messages complaining about EFI.  It said I could continue, but might encounter problems.  After so much fiddling already, I decided just to go with it.  What is the worst that could happen?

The installation itself was pretty painless and took just a few minutes.  Soon I was ready to reboot and see my gloriously fully installed Linux operating system.

Of course, I am soon faced by the same black screen and Mint logo that I saw the first time I tried booting from the USB.  Even more worrying, the boot options didn’t have Windows as an option.  Was I screwed?  Had I destroyed both my Windows installation and was Mint not working?  It was this stage that I really felt like I just wanted to run back to Phil Spencer asking for forgiveness, beg Panos Panay to welcome me back and take papa Gates’s full embrace.

Cooling my head and taking a step back, I manage to access some more options for launching.  Looking at some of the system status information, I see this:

Taken from the system status screen.  Says "Physical Volumes: not ok (BAD)"
I like the clear messaging here

“not ok (BAD)” would indicate something wasn’t too good.  I run one of the tools here and also using the refresh the boot menu option, before restarting.  First up is the boot menu, which now contains Windows 10 (as well as Windows 7, oddly).  One issue sorted, now I just have to hope that Mint boots.  Well…

Welcome to Linux Mint!

We are in!  I was pretty pleased with the results here.  This was definitely not as simple as doing a Windows install, which is completely plug and play now, and I certainly needed to do quite a bit of fiddling, but it worked.  And on my actual monitor finally too.

As with any new operating system, first port of call is sorting out the drivers.  Mint offers you a nice “getting started” window that will take you through the different steps of getting everything in working order, from the drivers to the look of the system.  However, the drivers presented to me only seemed to pick up graphics card.  This would suffice for the moment so I just went ahead and installed those.

Next up was the main purpose of doing this.  Actually seeing how well games would run.  Unfortunately, Linux uses a different way from Windows to run programs.  .exe files do not exist here and they won’t run.  So, my initial attempts to just run something directly from a drive didn’t get very far at all.  You really need to use something like WINE or use an actual Linux version of a game.  I did briefly try to use PlayOnLinux, but didn’t get very far with this.  I might try looking into this some more and report back later.

Really though, I was here to see how well Steam would cope.  So, I started to download Steam.  The installation and the updating process were all fine and I was soon looking at a big list of my games on Steam.  All greyed out.  Again, because Linux uses a different structure than Windows for its programs, those installations on your Windows drives aren’t going to work.  This means re-downloading the games.  Glancing online, there are some suggestions on how to access the games on your other drives meaning you don’t have to entirely re-download the games and only download the bits that are required for Linux, but my quick tests didn’t work too well.  Again, this is something I will play with some more and hopefully report back on.

Instead, given my desire not to wait hours for downloads and the very limited space I had on my Linux drive, I picked a few lightweight games to give a go.  These were Deus Ex, Doom 2: Hell on Earth, Hotline Miami and Sonic Mania.  I didn’t check anything about these beforehand, whether they have Linux versions or not, as Valve claim they can handle that all for you.  Enter Proton.  Proton is an option you can enable within Steam that will assist with making non-native Linux games run on the open source platform.  Valve have worked with others, predominately, WINE in order to perfect this.  Judging by ProtonDB, which collates user tests to show which games Proton works with and how well, this is reasonably good, unless the game has multiplayer.  This is when it runs afoul of anti-cheat software.  Valve have said they are working to resolve those issues specifically, ahead of the release of the Deck.

Anyway, onto the testing.  I didn’t do anything to extensive with these, mostly just checking whether they would boot and get into the first level okay.  Presumably, if it could do that then the game should function mostly okay throughout, although the odd glitch might be present.  I also didn’t do any frame rate analysis to check performance, but with these older, simply games I don’t think that would be particularly informative.

Deus Ex was first up.  I clicked the play button fully expecting things to go wrong. 

Deus Ex logo
We will be crowned kings, or better than kings: Gods!

Surprisingly, it loaded with absolutely no problem.  I went into the first level and stood on the dock of the Statue of Liberty.  It did look very dark, to the point where it was almost impossible to see anything on the dock.  Checking the game in Windows, it is a dark area although it appeared a little clearer.  Some tweaks to the options might help with this, but my brief adjustments didn’t make much difference.

Moving on, Doom 2: Hell on Earth.  Initially, I was presented with a black screen and not much more.  Hitting enter seemed to clear this though and I was soon presented with the usual “press start” screen.  I was chainsawing imps in no time with absolutely zero problems.

Doom 2 opening level
Chainsaw works just as well in Linux as in Windows

The same happened with Hotline Miami too.  No issues as far as I could see, other than me completely forgetting how to play and dying multiple times to the first few enemies.

The final test was Sonic Mania and I chucked in controller support into the mix.  I use a PS4 controller, connecting through a 8bitdo Bluetooth receiver.  Steam needed an option enabled to detect it as an X360 controller, but once on everything was fine and Sonic was charging around Green Zone just as he would at his “normal” Windows home.

So, 4 for 4 and no real issues encountered, besides the darkness in Deus Ex.  I was genuinely shocked at just how easy it all was, once the operating system was installed.  When it comes the Steam Deck, this has gone some way to alleviating my compatibility concerns. I would like to test this some more to get a better judgement on this, particularly with more modern and complex games.  This might not be possible without re-downloading quite a bit, but I’ll be experimenting some more and will report back.

In terms of my PC usage, I don’t really see myself fully adopting or even partly adopting Linux, just as there isn’t any real benefit for me personally, beyond the rebel image.  That has not stopped me from writing this very article in LibreOffice Writer though. 

As an operating system for the Steam Deck, it is looking like I’m not going to have any complaints.


Valve to deal another hand in the hardware game with Steam Deck

Valve's new Steam Deck hand held console

A little while ago, Gabe Newell gave a cryptic answer to a question about Valve’s relationship with the console market.  Asked whether there would be more ports coming from Valve onto consoles or if they would continue to stay on PC, the Steam head honcho responded “You will get a better idea of that by the end of this year and it won’t be the answer you expect.  You’ll say, ‘Ah-ha!  Now I get what he was talking about.”

Now we seemingly have an actual answer to that question and it is definitely something that not many people would have guessed at.  The Steam Deck will be a new hand-held device, allowing you access to your Steam library (as well as much more) on the go, be that on a plane, train, the local park or your lavatory.

Valve have no doubt seen the incredible success that the Switch has had, not only for games that come out of the Nintendo factory, and have decided they want in on the action.  This seems like a massively smart move from Valve too, with none of the other big players really trying to muscle in on the market and offer an alternative to the Switch.

Looking at the outside of the device, this could almost be a modern Sega Game Gear.  A chunky looking thing that at first glance looks like it isn’t too concerned with its aesthetics.  On closer examination though, we have some curves in the right places that might make it appear as if it might be a little more pleasing to hold for extended periods of time than the rather pins and needles inducing Switch.  There is also plenty of buttons and controls featured, with the usual that you would expect from a modern controller (2 analogue sticks, 4 face buttons, a couple “start” buttons, a trigger and bumper button on the left and right hand side of the device).  There are also two buttons at the bottom of the device, one saying “STEAM” on it, presumably to quickly access the Steam interface and another that has three dots, perhaps for further options. 

Steam Deck playing Factorio

Nothing particular unusual there, but we then come to some of the more interesting extra buttons.  On each side of the back where your fingers will naturally rest you will find a couple of buttons.  Then, because it wouldn’t be Valve hardware device without them, you have touchpad controls on both sides of the screen, likely to allow for mouse focused games to be more playable.

With the excellent controller customisation that is present in Steam already, expect plenty of custom made button layouts to be created for this thing by the community.  With the wide range of control options available, there are bound to be layouts that will meet what works for you.

Away from the controls, we have a 7” LED screen.  Perhaps a little disappointing to hear after Nintendo using the superior OLED tech for its new version of the Switch, but it sounds like this device will have pretty good brightness, going up to 400 nits.  The resolution is going to be 1280×800 (using the slightly unusual ratio of 16:10).  This is basically the same as the Switch’s 1280×720, which has proven to be adequate, although certainly not great.  More goes into a good looking screen than a resolution though and this is something that can’t really be judged until seen in person.  The extra brightness should help, but worth holding onto judgements until we see how it turns out in practice.

The other specs we have been given tell us that it will be operating with AMD architecture.  Zen 2 specifically, so not the latest.  It will be featuring 4 cores (8 threads) clocked at 2.4-3.5GHz.  This will go with 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, so that side of things is going to be reasonably nippy. 

For its graphics, it will be using an 8 RDNA 2 CUs, clocked at 1-1.66Ghz.  They say that this will be capable of up to 1.6TFlops.  For comparison, the PS5 is specced for 10.29TFlops, so quite a significant amount more.  Don’t expect this thing to be a beast of a machine.

Worth remembering though, the resolution that this will be going for is quite a bit lower than those next gen consoles.  Plus, it is 60% faster than the Switch, which is around 1TFlop.  These things aren’t exact sciences either, so there is no doubt plenty of other technical wizardry going on inside to get the best possible performance and we can’t say just how well this device will work with the latest games until people start getting their hands on it.  If you aren’t too worried about the latest blockbusters though and want this just for indies and retro games than you shouldn’t need to concern yourself too much with the power.

The back of the Steam Deck, showing the rear finger buttons, triggers and bumpers

Storage is another area that might possibly of concern.  Coming in three different models, storage will be the only thing that differentiates them.  The smallest will be 64GB eMMC storage.  The larger models will be 256GB and 512Gb of NVMe SSDs using PCIe Gen 3.  On face value, 64Gb is really small and likely will not be worth having unless you are very specific on your requirements and won’t be playing any games that are likely to take up much space.  Having said that, there potentially could be ways for game sizes to be smaller, if there is incentive for developers to go in that direction.  Particularly with this device’s lower resolution, downloading huge textures to the Deck is likely pointless.  Adding additional download versions will require a little more work, but it certainly isn’t outside the realms of possibility.  The Deck will also feature a microSD card slot, so you can expand the size yourself.  Valve have said that they have worked quite a lot on making this as fast as possible, so depending on how well they have done with that the size might be moot point.

The other area that is worth mentioning is the compatibility of the games.  Valve have been quick to say that this will not be a closed system and that users will be free to download and install any software they like, including Windows.  That could be useful, as the device will be running SteamOS, Valve’s modified Linux.  Game support for Linux has always been patchy at best, particularly with AAA games.  Valve do have an answer for that with Proton, a layer that is automatically applied to improve compatibility.  No personal experience of trying this out, but reports are mostly positive (see ProtonDB for list of tested games), except for games that feature anti-cheat software.  This cuts out most multiplayer games.  Again, Valve have addressed this point and said they are working on a new version of Proton that should resolve this problem before the Deck is released.  When the big selling point of the device is that you can access your Steam library anywhere and then only half the games work that is definitely a problem, so this is something that might worth waiting on reports to see how much it will be an issue.

The fact that you will be able to install Windows though, along with any store you want, is fantastic.  This makes the library potentially huge presumably with no more headaches to accessing than you would from a regular PC.  There is also the possibility of running emulators on this thing, putting to shame the mediocre effort that Nintendo have put into their NES and SNES offering with Nintendo Online.

Release date for the Steam Deck will be December 2021 for United States, Canada, EU and UK.  Other regions will follow in 2022.  Price will £349/$399 for 64GB, £459/$529 for 256GB and £569/$649 for the 512GB.  This includes a case. A dock to connect to monitor or TV will be sold separately. Reservations open today.