10 Hours With… Lost Sphear

My first 10 hours with on Nintendo Switch Lost Sphear felt pleasant but unspectacular. Just like the previous game from Square Enix developers Tokyo RPG Factory, I Am Setsuna (you can read my review of that here), it leans on a lot of classic JRPG elements, but the occasional moments of wonderful original ideas pulled me through. Don’t expect a revolution, but the small refinements made in Lost Sphear make it worthwhile for those who enjoy the genre.


I Remember This

Going into Lost Sphear off the back of I Am Setsuna, the expectation is for a similar style of game. Tokyo RPG Factory were built around the mission of designing JRPGs that harken back to the glory days of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. The systems of Lost Sphear are familiar for those who have played these types of games – played in third-person, you control your party of up to 4 characters as they travel, with combat encounters playing out in an ATB (Active Time Battle) arrangement.

This means that time doesn’t stop between turns, and characters move as their ATB gauges fill up – when full, you can either do a standard attack or use abilities. This latter option is customisable depending on which Spritnite crystals you give a character, and additionally, as combat progresses, a Momentum metre fills up. When this is full, a press of the Y button enables further effects like extra damage. This is all pretty much identical to I Am Setsuna, but there are some changes.

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I Am Setsuna designated where characters were positioned depending on the moves they made. Lost Sphear alters this, letting you move your character to the position you would like. This adds a bit of freedom and added control to proceedings, which is welcome. The combo attacks of I Am Setsuna, meanwhile, have taken a backseat – they are resigned to the Vulcosuits.

Vulcosuits are a new addition to the combat, introduced around the 8 hour mark. Equipped with the L button, they enable stronger attacks, as well as combo abilities when multiple characters are ready – moves use up an extra gauge which are tied to the Vulcosuits, but it depletes very quickly. Given that it uses up a move to equip or remove them, this makes it all seem unnecessary; visually they look clunky, too, and my reaction was to get out of them. Perhaps the usefulness of the suits will improve over time, but the initial impression isn’t good – it feels like the Vulcosuits were introduced just to add something, but they ended up just being unwieldy.


Don’t Forget

Doing a better job at setting Lost Sphear apart is the story. Main character Kanata is from a small, humble town, where the biggest threat is small monsters that are easily dispatched. Soon, though, he and his his friends Lumina and Locke come across a much bigger issue. Parts of their home and the world beyond are vanishing into the “White Fog”, making locations and their inhabitants disappear. Kanata is the only one with the power to restore these places by using Memories. These items can be found by exploring, defeating enemies, or by looking for key words in conversations.

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It’s a really nice set-up, and watching out for prompts in conversation adds to the general story rhythm of a JRPG; there is an extra sense of reward for completing tasks, especially when opening up vast parts of the overworld. The characters themselves are likeable and distinct, from Lumina’s composed attitude to the reckless Locke – an interesting undertone is that Kanata and company don’t have parents. It seems that they have been forgotten, even, which could lead to really powerful story beats later on.

As well as this, other more complex ideas are starting to be integrated. As the story goes on and people realise what Kanata can do, people of authority try to use his powers for their own gain. He and his friends must be vigilant of what they get themselves into; one scenario is particularly questionable, and the characters have to look at their moral standing. If the strong premise of Memories continues to be used in this way, the story could have a really effective arc.


Moon Rising

Overall, Lost Sphear isn’t blowing me away, and relies on a lot of mechanics that we have seen before in the genre. Yet, these are still solid and satisfying, and combined with an intriguing story makes for a charming and interesting JRPG. Other than the major topics above, there are plenty of little improvements that are noticeable after playing I Am Setsuna. That game lacked Inns, or any place to heal your whole party – in Lost Sphear, one of the first buildings you come across is an Inn in your home town. It’s the game immediately saying “we listened to you”. You can now move a lot faster around the map when in between locations, too – in I Am Setsuna, the slow movement speed could make getting around the map a pain.

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This was especially apparent when you were just trying to find your next objective. If you missed certain dialogue in that game, you could be left with little idea of your next move – the party chat option in Lost Sphear helps with this, where the characters remind you of the current situation. It is touches like this that show a willingness from Tokyo RPG Factory to improve on the problems of their past game. Just take the opening hours compared to I Am Setsuna – there are less walls of text early on in Lost Sphear. The intro has you learning from doing things rather than being told, and it’s much more accessible because of this.

Lost Sphear also has an appealing sense of polish to it, with visuals looking smooth and running well. It is also refreshing to move around a world tonally different to I Am Setsuna. That game was covered in snow, which was a distinct and magical look, but the bright, varied appearance of Lost Sphear gives it a different feeling within the same art style.


Lost Sphear supposedly takes around 30 hours to complete, compared to the 20 hours of I Am Setsuna. My current inclination is to finish this game, as the game is holding my attention well enough with the interesting story. If you are burned out on JRPGs, there is no hurry to get to this – if you aren’t, though, and are looking for one that is solid and well-made, the first third of the game indicates that Lost Sphear is a good choice.

Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Developed by: Guerrilla Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Out Now


To sum up Horizon: Zero Dawn in one, bittersweet sentence? It’s the best game of 2017 that isn’t The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After the initial hours (as documented here), Horizon Zero Dawn hooks you like few games can and, to be frank, shows up a lot of other open-world action games. Guerrilla Games’ foray into the genre has produced a beautiful and intriguing world, with thrilling moment-to-moment action.


Woman & Machine

You witness the story of Horizon through the eyes of Aloy. She is determined, fierce and likeable, looking to discover her mysterious birth after being raised by father figure Rost outside of the Nora community they came from. They were both banished from the tribe, and the opening hours of Horizon introduce gameplay ideas within this restricted area. Yet, wherever you go, the lush world houses a major juxtaposition; coexisting in this world are both primal clans of humans and violent robotic creatures. Developers Guerrilla went to great lengths to make this all believable (y’know, as much as it can be). The machines are mainly modelled on animals and dinosaurs, oddly fitting into the environments. They stand out, but are still part of the food chain.

The clear question is: what is going on here? How did this happen? Horizon starts to give you hints in the early hours, and later developments in the story deliver – events are sometimes told in surprising directions, taking dramatic twists that engross until the end. It’s a new take on an apocalyptic story, taking beats from other stories of this kind but tying them into the intriguing world. Aloy is at the emotional centre of all of this, just trying to work out where she came from – as a result, she is the ideal player perspective. Our emotions at discovering the secrets of Horizon are matched by her.

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At the start of the game, you play through a sequence where young Aloy comes across a cave containing remnants of the past. She discovers a device called the Focus, which lets her interact with the advanced technology around her- in-game, this means being able to access audio logs (there’s a lot, but they’re good), interact with closed-off parts of the world, and exploit the weaknesses of the machines she fights. The Focus is an example of how Horizon seamlessly fits in the ideas of other games, and then offers a new take. In this case, the game takes the heightened vision of games like the new Tomb Raider titles and gives it a distinct spin. Guerrilla have used inspiration in really positive ways, not just taking ideas but working out the best way to use them within the setting of Horizon.


Girl on Fire

The biggest standout of Horizon is the combat. Using bow, tripwires, tie ropes and more, Aloy battles both humans and machines. The latter is where the game is most dynamic; with the Focus to help, you can identify the many different types of machines and their individual attributes. Early enemies like the Watchers can be tackled pretty easily, but as the game progresses, you soon have to adapt your approach to the situations. Take the crocodile-like, sea-faring Snapmaws. They are vicious up-close, but a quick scan exposes that they’re weak to armour-piercing arrows. Create some distance and break their outer shells, and suddenly the confrontation becomes easier.

Or maybe you’re being assaulted by the aerial scavengers, Glinthawks – dodge their ranged attacks, discover their weakness to fire, and you can find a way to bring them down. Planning is crucial, and elevates the action in Horizon to a new type of real-time strategy; you’re thinking on the fly, but without any jarring pauses – it’s all remarkably smooth and refined. Think of the mindset you have in the battles of Xenoblade Chronicles, but faster-paced and mixed with more visceral movement. The ability to dodge attacks is perhaps the most important tool you have; timing your dodge with the telling audio cues of a major assault is a sure-fire way to make yourself feel like the best player in the world.

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The aforementioned variety of approaches keeps it interesting, too. Aloy is a hunter more than a fighter, and has the toolset to match. Maybe you prefer to hold the machines in one place using the Ropecaster, and then go in for melee attacks? Or, perhaps, use trip wires and traps to do some of the work for you? One personal highlight was a tough fight against a Thunderjaw (one of the strongest machines, not that I’m bragging) in one of the dungeon-like Cauldrons, where my health was low and things were looking tight. Then, it walked into one of my traps, set off a chain reaction around the room, and fell – heart racing and mind transfixed, the personal payoff was amazing. Oh, and these Cauldrons? Complete them, and you gain the ability to override machines, turning them to your side. This is most useful when sneaking up on your enemy, as it takes some time to do.

With such a range of options, it’s good that Guerrilla got the UI and presentation spot-on. Holding the R1 trigger slows time down – doesn’t stop it, so that Snapmaw charging at you is still coming – while you choose from your weapons wheel. Here, you can also select your ammo type, and even craft it on the go, keeping up the pace of the action. Different ammo can mean elemental effects, or new ideas like the Terrablast Arrows. These emit an energy burst that is very effective at knocking parts off of machines and exposing vulnerabilities. Sometimes, if you knock a weapon off an enemy, you can turn it to your advantage. That’s right – attack robot dinosaurs, take their guns, shoot them with those guns. It’s hard not to find it all simply awesome.


Machine Hunter

Once defeated, you can harvest many valuable resources from the machines. It’s a fulfilling Monster Hunter-style cycle of taking down enormous beasts and getting better items from them. Many actions reward you with EXP, and levelling up is a way to upgrade skills and get more health. In addition, plenty of other RPG-like elements are within the menus – as you roam the world, hunting takes on a more tranquil form. Tracking non-robotic wildlife, picking up crafting materials, and gathering medicinal herbs (don’t skip them, they’re invaluable in combat) keeps you busy as you progress. All of your findings are useful in some way or another. Robotic or natural, resources can be used to expand upon ammo capacities, add augments to your weapons, and purchase sweet new outfits for Aloy. It is an undeniably rewarding gameplay loop – and it all ties into bringing this world to life.

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See, whilst not breaking through conventions like Zelda: Breath of the Wild does, Horizon: Zero Dawn is instead excellent at incorporating them. Horizon has many elements not dissimilar to Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and many other third-person open-world games. Take the towers that this genre tends to use (even Zelda). Traditionally, you climb to the top in order to reveal details about that portion of the map – these are in Horizon, sure, but in the form of a machine called a Longleg. Each portion of the map has one walking around it, and this is a machine you don’t fight – rather, you must find a way to climb it. This requires tracking the route it takes, analysing the environment, and working out your approach; it’s a puzzle that organically fits into the world, and is immensely satisfying once you get to the top. Horizon takes ideas from other games, but maximises their potential within this beautiful setting.

Oh, and my word, what a beautiful world it is. The detail that has gone into producing such a stunning environment is staggering, with different biomes all over the map. The sound design and soundtrack matches it, whether it is the synthetic roar of machines or the birds tweeting in the trees. Animals, weather, and lighting differentiate just as much as the combat does, and stops the game ever feeling stale. There are plenty of times when you will stop to just take it all in, with the soundtrack powerfully complimenting it all. The art direction, mixing in technology and ruins of the past, only adds an extra layer of intrigue to everything. Tribes have even taken the machines and incorporated them into their clothing, creating fascinating results. Whether it is a snow-covered mountain, a barren desert, or the glorious central city of Meridian, the temptation to explore is constant.

There are many other settlements and points of view in Horizon. Merchants and side quests originate from these areas; don’t pass on them, as the stories are worthwhile. These aren’t the general fetch quests that many other open-world games fall on. In Horizon, storylines range in scale from local feuds to protecting the position of the royalty. Characters make lasting impressions, and may just be valuable to Aloy later on. Dialogue has the choice wheel seen in Mass Effect, helping you give a voice to Aloy as she builds relationships. Visually, character models are high quality, but sometimes the animations are a little wooden – it’s something that you get used to, but also one area that could be improved in a sequel.

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If we’re talking about tiny niggles, then here is one that may not have even came up before March 2017. Climbing in Horizon is occasionally a rough experience, where you find yourself jumping repeatedly to try and inch your way up. When more scripted, with handholds and planned jumps like you’re Nathan Drake in Uncharted, it’s all good – but when looking for the collectibles and areas further away, it can get a bit messy. After the revolutionary climbing in Breath of the Wild, it is noticeable.

However, it’s hard to criticise something so small in a game that does so many big things right. Most of Horizon is about building – the more you play, you build confidence. The more of the story you witness, the bigger a picture you build. The more you interact with the world, the better items Aloy can build. Sometimes you’ll engage a herd of machines just for the satisfaction of engaging in combat, and trying out new techniques. Open-world games can feel like you’re just going from icon to icon, and it’s nice to see Horizon show them up. A lot of design and thought has gone into making each element interesting and different, and it’s a delight to play as a result.


Final Thoughts

It’s hard to think that Guerrilla Games’ is the studio which made Killzone for so many years. Horizon is stunning to look at, intriguing, and thrilling. You’re either being consumed by the dense world, or grinning as you engage in combat with a machine (which is also trying to consume you). This is a technical achievement, a gameplay achievement, a storytelling achievement; if Guerrilla isn’t already working on more Horizon games, they’d be out of their minds. Aloy can, and should, be PlayStation’s new face for a long, long time.

9.5/10

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Gaming Photo Album: Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman: Arkham Knight, as the conclusion the incredible Rocksteady-developed series, had a lot of expectation riding on it. Good, then, that it delivered. An epic and satisfying story, massive set pieces, and the mix of stealth and combat gameplay that made the series so popular. With the Photo Mode, you can capture Gotham and the heroes within it in a new way; Rocksteady really captured the essence of the DC hero and additional characters such as Batgirl. Here are some shots I took from this fabulous game:


Batman & Main Story

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Batgirl

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Catwoman & Harley Quinn

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Robin, Nightwing & The Arkham Knight

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Celeste Tackles Anxiety in a Way Only Games Can

-SPOILERS FOR CELESTE AHEAD-

On January 27th 2018, a game named Celeste released on Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC. This game first came onto my radar with an appearance in the January 11th Nintendo Direct Mini. The fast-paced platforming, in particular, drew me in. Also, it’s from the same developer – Matt Makes Games – that brought us the brilliant multiplayer title Towerfall: Ascension. Yet, still, Celeste defied my expectations – all because of how a touching story was interwoven so wonderfully with the core platforming.

Celeste is about a girl who just wants to move forward. That’s how it all started out. Talking to the ID@XBOX BLOG, Designer Matt Thorson was asked whether the story or the gameplay came first:

Our initial concept for Celeste was just “a platformer about a girl climbing a mountain.” The mechanics came first, and as we developed the game we were surprised to see how big a part of the game the narrative was becoming. In the end, narrative ended up becoming the center of the game that the rest is built around, and we’re really proud of the story Celeste tells.

More specifically, this girl is named Madeline (she can be renamed) and is just trying to climb a mountain. Great – simple narratives work for platform games like Mario all the time. You get into learning a simple toolset of climbing, jumping and dashing to make your way through the levels. However, the first of these ends not with a flag, or an arbitrary line to reach. You meet a memorial for those who have fallen trying to climb Celeste (the name of the mountain), and make your campfire by it. Madeline, complete with charming portrait and text, exclaims how she thinks this might all be a bad idea.

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From here on, the narrative really starts to come in. Early in the second level, you find a mirror which brings form to a different version of Madeline – one more hostile, more generically evil-looking. Naturally, “Badeline”, as the developers named her, has to be avoided or defeated. She haunts the player, chasing, threatening. You’re literally climbing up, up, as far away from the bad side of Madeline as you can, and towards your personal goal of the summit. As you go through the levels, environments get tougher, more difficult, and more claustrophobic. Areas are tighter, jumps more precarious.

The mountain, and the game itself, is constantly a reflection of Madeline’s mindset. This is something only an interactive medium could do for this story. Players can be made to perform moves that, without them even knowing, fit into what the characters are experiencing. Now, Celeste is a hard game. You try, try, and try again, racking up death counts in the hundreds – but it is an encouraging, and crucially very enjoyable, type of punishing. You are trained to expect failure, and learn from it. One chapter even starts with a letter telling you how it’s a positive thing, as it means you’re trying. Respawns are instant, and you keep going. You make it to the next screen – somehow – and restart the cycle.

Just as Madeline is constantly trying to progress and change how she thinks, the player is doing the same. It happens without you even knowing, reflecting the whole point of her journey. She came here to leave her life behind for a while, but her problems have come along too, plaguing her every step of the way. Now, my personal experiences by no means compare to the debilitating depression suffered by many. Nevertheless, this hits home. Sometimes in life, all you want to do is push things down, rise away, and forget about them – especially when it is silly things you know you shouldn’t worry about so much.

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It’s rarely that easy, and Celeste does a wonderfully subtle job of talking about it. In the early chapters, you find Theo – a modern hipster of sorts, coming to the mountain to take photos for his InstaPix account. Theo is kind, and understanding; about halfway through the game, after a tense sequence, Madeline and him escape in a gondola. Midway across the chasm, it stalls. Suddenly, Madeline’s constant movement to that point has stopped, and it all catches up to her – all the anxiety, all the stress. She has a panic attack (as aluded to by an earlier phone conversation with her mother, this isn’t new), which is presented with tentacles and darkness, a motif of Badeline throughout a large part of the game. It’s exaggerated, but effective.

Theo manages to calm her down, but it’s a powerful moment that leaves the Madeline sprite breathing noticeably heavy. Not long after, sitting by a campfire, the game brings down all barriers. An expansive conversation between both Madeline and Theo, and the challenges each of them face in there lives, is talked about plainly and candidly. It’s marked by being able to choose the order of conversation, unlike anywhere else in Celeste. Madeline talks about her anxiety and her depression, and Theo tries to understand. With just a small amount of dialogue, Celeste does more than some open-world RPGs manage with novels worth. Out of nowhere, Celeste goes from a fun 2D platformer to one of the most moving character stories in a long time. Equally, if you need it to be just the former, you can skip all the cutscene stuff. Just know that there is a special story here, too.

So Madeline continues on. She climbs, and she climbs, claiming to have a new attitude. Negativity will not hold her back anymore! You’re nearly there – the game even starts to present itself like the end is coming. Oh, but that’s the easy option, where talking about your problems and getting help instantly conquers issues. Celeste pushes it further. Badeline shows up, angry at being left behind. She’s furious that Madeline wants to abandon her – she is just as worthwhile as her! Madeline is thrown down, crashing through screen after screen, until you hit rock bottom. Landing in the water at the bottom of Celeste mountain, it seems as though nothing has changed.

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The ending sequence of the game becomes something else. In a long, winding battle against Badeline, Madeline eventually realises that the resolution isn’t to forget or remove the side of herself she doesn’t like – she actively apologises when Theo sees the monsters that Badeline produces – but to embrace her. She is part of her, whether she likes it or not. What Madeline can do is try to make her, and therefore herself, do things in a better way. With renewed determination, Madeline sets off for the summit. Now, Badeline is an assist, propelling her up distances she cannot cross. Accepting the whole of herself, flaws and all, things are clearer. The game even gives you an extra dash ability. It’s a glorious sequence.

In the space of 5-10 hours, Celeste makes you care about Madeline and those around her, and examine your own mindset as a consequence. Are there things you would like to face up to about yourself? It’s better to do that instead of attempting to hide it away and pretend it doesn’t exist. Celeste could have rested on the laurels of it’s fantastic gameplay and been another great, brutal indie platformer, but it goes one further and surprises you – it even surprised the developer. Designer Matt Thorson, in a Kotaku video (which is worth watching), says this about the narrative element of Celeste:

“… when we started the game, I also did not expect us to do that, to go there and it’s just like a way we ended up pushing ourselves like, out of our comfort zone… “

What an apt way to describe it. Throughout Celeste, Madeline is made to realise that just deciding to go and climb a mountain or push something away isn’t the hard part. Really going out of your comfort zone means facing up to the problem, realising it’s part of you, and trying to do better. Oh, and if you’re not looking for a disarmingly absorbing story? Well, beating a seemingly-impossible challenge after 500 tries is fun too.

Watch out for my full review of Celeste!

FIFA 18 Shows How Third-Parties Can Succeed on Switch

Let’s get thing very clear – FIFA 18 on Switch is missing a lot of the features present on other systems. Most notably, perhaps, is the lack of The Journey, a story mode of sorts that has you following the cinematic journey of Alex Hunter as he makes his, er, journey through the sport. Despite this and other shortcuts made to bring EA’s behemoth sports series to Nintendo’s hybrid, it’s a really enjoyable way to play the game.

Once the announcement was made that FIFA would be on Switch back in January 2017, my decision was made. A PS4 player of FIFA since 2014, my system of choice for the newest version would be on Switch. Part of it was perhaps making a commitment to a new Nintendo system, but part of it was the idea of playing FIFA on the go.

Now, going from the PS4 version of FIFA to the Switch version is a great way to expose anything not quite equal about the game. My main area of play is always career. On Switch, all the essential elements are there, but extra mechanics are notably missing. In FIFA 17 on PS4, you were given extra sub-targets as manager of your club, such as keeping fans happy, and bringing youth players through. These are nowhere in FIFA 18 on Switch.

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The thing is, it barely matters when playing. There are core reasons why FIFA has been so consistently fun for so, so many years, and it isn’t down to the statistics of how many fictional t-shirts you have sold. It’s down to the satisfying and rewarding gameplay, and developing officially-licensed players and teams. Crucially, this is where Switch really accentuates the game, in ways the other systems simply cannot. As a consequence, it pushes the little niggles out of your mind.

It’s no revelation to point towards the handheld side of the system for this. For a long time, Nintendo and fans of the company have tried to use innovations to make up for a lack of visual parity in third-party games. Look at the motion controls for the likes of Call of Duty on Wii, or having a map (!) on your controller whilst playing Mass Effect 3: Special Edition on Wii U. They never quite bridged the gap. With Switch, it’s finally happened.

It’s the same reason Doom and Skyrim are so enticing on Switch. They probably don’t look quite as good, and maybe they can’t run in 4K. However, the practicality of having that experience in the palm of your hands gives a genuine reason to choose Switch as you platform of choice. Dark Souls Remastered was just announced for several platforms, including Switch – the conversation of that was dominated by Dark Souls being portable now, even though the Switch version has a lower frame rate than the others.

Let’s bring it back to FIFA 18. The joy of huddling up in bed and playing a couple of matches is an experience unique to Switch. Furthermore, the inherent portability of the console makes it so easy to play a game, put it in sleep mode, come back later and immediately boot back up. As an added bonus, the soundtrack that comes with FIFA can make the Switch a makeshift portable music player if you’re desperate…

Doom

At the end of the day, it’s still a solid FIFA experience. It plays well. It has the bizarre, sometimes glitchy moments of any FIFA. It makes you want to keep playing. The visuals are solid, if not as crisp as other systems – player faces look good, and animations work well. What could have been a deal-breaker would be a lack of Ultimate Team, the phenomenally popular online mode where you play others, earn packs and players, and improve your team. FIFA 13 on Wii U suffered big-time for not having this mode, but Switch has it, and once again, the main experience is all present. Maybe a new side mode or two isn’t present, but the majority of your time is going into the central matchmaking and competitions that are there. Importantly, the Switch version gets updated alongside all the others.

A running theme here is that everything you really need from FIFA 18 is here, with the Switch factor more than making up for anything that isn’t. You’ve got career, you’ve got Ultimate Team; when cosily playing FIFA in an armchair, does it matter if you can’t purchase a special skin for the ball? At heart, FIFA is about the gameplay experience that keeps you coming back, and the Switch improves on that.

Third-parties can find a place on Switch – scrap that, they already have, and other publishers are realising it. This system has a unique selling point that speaks to people, diversifying and improving on the games released for it. However, EA, be warned – FIFA 19 doesn’t have the launch-year excuse. Switch better be getting those balls and whistles this year (look, the pun is so good, I had to use it again)!

P. S. FIFA 18 is great in handheld mode, but do be careful. That console is pretty light, and FIFA leads to frustrating moments sometimes…

5 Switch Games We Need to Know More About

The big worry/criticism of Nintendo Switch right now is that, after a stellar first year, there isn’t much concrete news about 2018. After stunning re-imaginings of two iconic Nintendo series in 2017 – Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – what can they possibly do to match that going forward? Have they completely shown their hand already?

Well, while it may be hard to hit those heights, there is a lot of cause for optimism. Nintendo has several big games in development that we know about – and we are going to go through the biggest 5 that we need to hear more from this year. It may just reassure you; Switch has some big games on the horizon.


Yoshi

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Let’s start with Yoshi. While maybe not at the level of a Pokémon or Metroid, a follow-up to Yoshi’s Woolly World (and the 3DS version, including Poochy) is a game to look out for in 2018. Unlike some games on this list, we even know what this one looks like (Nintendo spoil us, don’t they). Coming straight after the Metroid Prime 4 logo reveal in Nintendo’s E3 2017 Spotlight, and perhaps being missed by some as a consequence, Yoshi on Switch looks utterly adorable.

That hand-made art style, which started in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, is as beautiful as ever. Everything in the world looks like it could’ve been made by an inspired child, creating paper crocodile enemies and yarn Yoshis. The key game-changer this time around is an ability to switch around your perspective of the world, exposing the other side of these creations (the art style isn’t just for show) and allowing for clever puzzles.

However, Yoshi for Switch was a no-show in the Nintendo Direct Mini this month. A name, release window and more info on the game itself is needed, as you’d imagine Nintendo is targeting a release well before the winter. Either way, this is shaping up to be a solid Yoshi platformer that will be great fun in couch co-op.


Fire Emblem

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As is a running theme in this piece, we know Fire Emblem is officially coming to Switch – in 2018, even – but we know very little else about it. This was announced in a Fire Emblem Nintendo Direct on 18th January last year, along with Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia for 3DS and Fire Emblem Warriors for Switch (Warriors released in October 2017). Despite this, we haven’t even got a specific logo yet. Even Metroid got a logo… Well, that’s for later in the article.

However, talking about Fire Emblem is important, as it could be a huge dark horse hit for Switch. It may not even qualify for the dark horse category, considering the rise to prominence Fire Emblem has had over the 3DS era. The utterly superb Fire Emblem: Awakening, Fire Emblem Fates, and the previously mentioned Shadows of Valentia have evolved Fire Emblem from a relatively niche series into one of the biggest on Nintendo handhelds. It is time for that to transfer to Nintendo’s popular new hybrid.

The gorgeous art style is just begging to be put onto that crisp Switch display. With the HD power of the console, it can not only make those fantastic cutscenes shine, but also elevate the rest of the game to a similar visual quality. As well as this, the turn-based strategy is already proven for handheld play. The likes of Awakening were masterful at keeping you going for just one more battle, until suddenly it is 2am and you’re wondering what you’re doing with your life. Now, you could play it handheld on the go, get home, and have the battle continue on the TV. Enticing prospect, eh?

If Fire Emblem is indeed coming this year, we surely have to hear about it soon. E3 seems too late, if we expect a Summer release date. It has been over a year since our first word on the title – may it soon be time to get some information? It is likely that there will be another Nintendo Direct between now and June, which would be an ideal moment for more news. Please?


Pokémon

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Ah, Pokémon for Switch. Whether this releases this year may well define the success of Nintendo’s 2018. Perhaps the only franchise that can match up to Mario & Zelda in terms of mass appeal, the prospect of a full-blown Pokémon RPG on Switch is a salivating one. In a way, Nintendo has tricked Game Freak into finally making a mainline home console Pokémon title, by merging their handheld into the same system. Crafty!

Rumour has it that Nintendo is pushing very hard for a 2018 release date. Traditionally over recent years, Pokémon uses November as their release month – which does line up with President and CEO of The Pokémon Company, Tsunekazu Ishihara, saying at E3 2017 that the game may “… not release for more than a year…”. Last week, a survey did also potentially point to a targeted 2018 release date. This is one you will likely not see until E3 in June; Pokémon would be an ideal candidate to lead Nintendo’s holiday line-up.


Metroid Prime 4

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Metroid Prime 4 is not a 2018 game. Anyone thinking that it is… Get it out of your head now. Instead, move onto the unavoidable excitement of Samus coming to Switch in the future.

All good? Right. If you compare Nintendo’s first-party schedule to Sony’s for the PlayStation 4, Metroid fills the slot of The Last of Us Part II. It’s the return of an utterly beloved series, and likely looking at a 2019 release (despite what some people tell themselves). However, it is very possible for both games to unveil new information at E3 2018.

Nintendo may well give us something – maybe a glimpse of the gameplay; perhaps a tone-setting teaser ro establish the general setting. Remember, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption came out in 2007, more than 10 years ago. Will this game directly connect to how that trilogy ended, or essentially hit the reset button? The Prime branch of the Metroid series are traditionally first-person shooters, so that is what to expect.

A clever move that makes a lot of sense is announcing Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Switch. It would be brilliant for introducing the new audience of the Switch to the series in time for Prime 4, and keep fans happy whilst they wait. Similar to Zelda, and how the HD versions of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess filled the long wait for Breath of the Wild. Oh yeah, and who is even developing Prime 4? It’s not Retro Studios…


Retro Studios

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OK, it’s not even funny anymore. Retro Studios, what are you up to? After the Metroid Prime 4 reveal, many wondered if the studio was returning to the series that made them so well-known. Alas, no.

Their most recent game is Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Wii U back in 2014 (which is being ported to Switch, releasing May 4th 2018). Around the rollout period for Tropical Freeze, producer Kensuke Tanabe told IGN that Retro Studios has been at work on a new game for a few months. If this has continued since, then the project would have been in development for approximately 4 years. Working on an established series and then creating an original passion project brings a vibe of Guerrilla Games and the incredible Horizon Zero Dawn last year. Could Retro Studios be creating Nintendo’s next big IP?

Until Retro and Nintendo decide it is time to say more publicly, there is little information for us to dig into. Little, but not nothing – take recent job openings at the studio, which have included an environment artist and a designer. The environment artist position is no longer available (hopefully a good sign), and the designer listing includes the writing of “game scripts” as one skill. This could all point toward a project with a focus on the creation of a living world. With Retro Studios’ track record, the prospect of them making something new is massively exciting.


That was 5 of the biggest projects we know are underway somewhere, in some secret locations around the world. We may not have to wait too long to see of them, and in the meantime, Switch is getting new games on the eShop every week. A lack of games isn’t the issue, finding time to play them all is…

Final note: add the inevitable Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker release (maybe even a sequel?) to the list, and the Switch may be the greatest console ever. You know it to be correct.

I Am Setsuna Review

Developed by: Tokyo RPG Factory
Published by: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC
Release Date: Out Now


Tokyo RPG Factory, the developers behind I Am Setsuna, were created by Square Enix for one purpose – to make RPGs. In particular, ones that harken back to the classics such as Final Fantasy. For better or worse, I Am Setsuna really defines what that mission statement is; as the 20-hour story unfolds, the game simultaneously delights and frustrates in how it brings back RPG elements.


An Important Journey

I Am Setsuna is about sadness and the value of being alive. In this world of monsters, protection is only brought about by a sacrifice – a female who gives her life in order to keep them back. After a time, the threat rises again, and another sacrifice is made. The main player character, Endir, is an enigmatic warrior who ends up as the guard to the new sacrifice. Named Setsuna, Endir’s job is to see her to the Last Lands, where the sacrifice is made.

Along the way, you will encounter enemies, new comrades, and characters in need of your help. It all interweaves into the main story seamlessly, fitting into the overall themes. Characters like Nidr, who has a subtle but unspoken relationship to the sacrifice, are well developed; this combination of character arcs makes you care about the group as a whole. When it comes down to it, though, it is really a story about the pairing of Endir and Setsuna. Just seen like that, it is a really touching and poignant tale of how one person can influence another.

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The journey to the Last Lands is navigated through a mix of enclosed areas and a limited overworld. While you may freely navigate this mini-open-world, there is little to do other than find some items, recover your party, and move from place to place. Generally, this includes forests, caves, and dungeons between the multiple towns. They’re the kinds of locations you would expect from a throwback to the likes of Chrono Trigger. The towns in particular have a charming nostalgia, being places to buy and sell items, obtain new abilities, and chat to the townsfolk. Many intriguing characters end up being involved as you go.


Cold as Ice

One factor that helps your journey is the presentation of the game. The island land mass this game is set on is under snowfall, helping to give I Am Setsuna a distinct look despite the many callbacks to past games. Everything looks slightly magical under the cover of snow, and the sense of cold extends into caves and forests. Along with vibrant character designs, it all plays into a nostalgic appeal – where it comes unstuck is in repetition. It is noticeable that the dungeon areas, which appear more frequently in the latter half of the game, are all pretty much identical in presentation. While they are the exception, it messes with the pacing when you come across places very similar to ones you have already progressed through.

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On the other hand, the soundtrack is beautifully composed. It rarely intrudes on things, but if you listen for it, you realise that the carefully constructed beats are fitting into the quiet mystery of the world. A word that can describe a lot of I Am Setsuna’s presentation is “understated”. It’s not in-your-face, but has plenty of character if you sink into it. Well, once you are past the opening hours. It’s a shame, really – in the opening hours, I Am Setsuna barrages you with screens of text explaining the intricacies of the battle system.

Unsurprisingly, given the inspiration, the combat is the meat of the game. This is one of the biggest nostalgia plays I Am Setsuna has, bringing in time-based live combat. It is a style used in entries of the Final Fantasy series. To the uninitiated, this involves removing the system of characters taking one turn after another. Instead, the combat has a continuous flow of time. Each of your party of 3 has an ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge that fills over time, and when full, they may use a move. Time only stops when selecting your next action (unless you go hardcore and have time continue then, too). Under this is your expected HP and MP metres for each character.


Old RPG, New Tricks

However, I Am Setsuna does add a few ideas onto the combat. Spritnites are crystals that can be equipped to different characters, giving them different abilities. These are basically the source of your special moves. Spritnite becomes a strategic preparation tool, as a combination across characters can enable a combo attack if both ATM gauges are full. Discovering and using these extravagant moves is a fun part of the combat, but it also ends up being a major downfall as well. Spritnites may enable you to change your movesets, but some combos are so superior that you stop seeing the reason to change.

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Once into the rhythm of I Am Setsuna – and especially in the latter half of the game – my battle strategy focused around only a handful of moves. Battles between bosses (which are, thankfully, much more testing) became an almost instinctive set of inputs that would wipe out the enemies. The smaller enemies ended up just feeling like padding between tougher encounters. When the aforementioned dungeon areas were combined with this, it all ended up feeling especially bland. It’s only emphasised by the quaint, interesting areas of the rest of the game.

The other major addition is Momentum Mode, which has a much more subtle impact. Different actions in battle fill up the Momentum metre on a character, and when full, it allows for extra effects on your moves. This may mean added damage or critical hits, to name two examples. Continued use of Momentum can even add permanent improvements (Fluxes) to your abilities. In contrast to Spritnite, Momentum feels more refined in how it is included – even if it lacks the dynamic visuals of a Spritnite Combo. In general, the combat feels like it needed more time to fine-tune the balancing of certain elements.


Final Thoughts

I Am Setsuna is one of that increasingly-rarer species of game – a mid-tier title, both in production and length. The charming presentation and characters only make the 20-hours feel more appealing and palatable, and Tokyo RPG Factory use them to tell a sombre but hopeful story.

However, the smaller scale does lead to some repetitive environments and enemy encounters, particularly as the game gets into the final act. The combat has plenty of interesting ideas, and nicely calls back to classic RPGs, but feels unbalanced in the implementation of Spritnite Combos. Yet, if you can get past these flaws, I Am Setsuna is rather engrossing. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and beyond some obtuse issues, you’ll discover a touching game about the value of life.

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

The Secret Comedy of Batman: Arkham Knight

This isn’t exactly a serious analysis of Batman: Arkham Knight. The Rocksteady-developed game that has supposedly ended the epic saga had huge set pieces, emotional moments, and thrilling action – but in amongst it all is a much-unknown comedic secret. The glory that is video calls.

Occasionally in the story, Batman uses a heads-up display video projecting from his arm in order to talk to Alfred or other characters. All it takes is one swing of the camera, though, and suddenly any character can be Batman. Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, or even The Joker. Look, I’m not apologising for this, OK:

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Games can be dumb sometimes. It’s great.

Where Can Zelda Go After Breath of the Wild?

It’s already been nearly a year since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released to widespread adoration on Nintendo Switch and Wii U. A year! While we recently has the Champions DLC, the main period of conversation for the game is starting to settle down. Other big-name titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey have all been received well and taken some attention away in that time.

Therefore, the fast-paced gaming world is going to demand what comes next for Zelda. It’s perhaps a more challenging question than ever before for Eiji Aonuma and the rest of these creative developers. How do you top such a stunning, sprawling, groundbreaking game? Can we go back to a smaller, dungeon-focused Zelda?

If you listen to series producer Eiji Aonuma, then it appears clear that standing still is not in the plan for Zelda. Talking to Japanese magazine Nikkei Trendy (as translated by Japanese Nintendo) he said (via Nintendo Life):

“It’s not an easy thing to be able to answer expectations of all our users, but through this game, I recognised again that the significance of continuing to create the series is right there, so in the future I’d like to repeat doing “great fusses*” and provide great ‘surprises’ that exceed everyone’s expectations.”

To think about what these surprises may be, looking backwards provides some possibilities. Whilst the original NES The Legend of Zelda started it all, the game with the biggest effect on the Zelda series is arguably N64’s Ocarina of Time. That game broke huge ground for what a 3D adventure could be, with a huge game world full of interesting characters, hidden secrets and memorable storytelling. Sounds familiar, hm?

The effects of the success OoT had were felt for generations to come, and not just in the Zelda series. Looking at just how the Zelda series (on home consoles specifically) responded is retrospectively fascinating, and could give us some ideas of how Breath of the Wild may be followed.


The Majora’s Mask Direction

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In fact, the project being worked on straight after Ocarina of Time was the Master Quest version of the game, a version of the game with reworked versions of the dungeons. This could be compared to the DLC for Breath of the Wild; a way to still use the world that had so much development time and effort put into it. In an Iwata Asks interview, though, it came out that Aonuma wasn’t so happy about having to do this.

The next mainline Zelda, the cult favourite Majora’s Mask, came about from general producer Shigeru Miyamoto himself saying that series producer Eiji Aonuma wouldn’t have to do Master Quest if a new Zelda could be made in a year (OoT released in 1998 and MM in 2000 – let’s give them some slack, though!).

This shortened time limit was likely a factor that led to Majora’s Mask being the game that it was, with the three-day time cycle. We may see a similar departure after Breath of the Wild; the Switch and Wii U epic had years and years of development, so a tight experience with a unique new mechanic and a shorter development time could be a great refresher for everyone – developers and players alike.


The Wind Waker Direction

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Whilst Majora’s Mask was very closely tied to Ocarina of Time in many respects, the next title in the Zelda lineage went in a very different direction. Met with skepticism at first and positivity upon release, The Wind Waker flooded Hyrule and washed away the previous visual direction of Zelda. It was replaced with a cartoonish, cel-shaded look instead. The general structure of Ocarina of Time remained (to really simplify it: get some major items, plot twist, more items, fight Ganon), but felt fresh with the sailing, islands, and new characters like Tetra.

This may be the most exciting way to look at Breath of the Wild‘s legacy. The open world looks like it is here to stay, considering how Eiji Aonuma has stated to Famitsu (via Polygon): “I think that, in the future, open air games will be the standard for Zelda,”.

Breath of the Wild‘s post-apocalyptic feel has a certain appeal. Now, though, could we perhaps see a more intact rendition of Hyrule? A more built-up world (even if it’s not quite to the degree of New Dong City in Super Mario Odyssey) – could be one such direction. Before Breath of the Wild, we saw the seas, twilight, and the sky introduced to keep the series innovative, and this kind of variation could be the answer post-BotW.


The Twilight Princess Direction

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If there was one criticism to lodge at Breath of the Wild, it may well be how dungeons were implemented into the new open world. With the go-anywhere message, the dungeons were compromised to fit; they were shorter, and less clear-cut in their puzzle design. This was partly due to Link’s climbing and gliding making it harder to restrict the player. Furthermore, the dungeons lacked the visual variation we have seen before, even if the open world had plenty. Shrines were a welcome addition, but their bite-sized nature meant they, again, were compromised forms of dungeons. They couldn’t create the same a-ha! moment that comes from solving a larger dungeon in, say, Twilight Princess.

The thing is, Zelda as a series can’t go backwards now. If the games became more linear and restrictive, it could be seen as a step back. The great task facing Nintendo is combining the open world of Breath of the Wild with the peerless dungeon design we have seen in many other Zelda titles. 3DS’ A Link Between Worlds is a great reference for this – renting items for different dungeons may have been a clunky way to explain item limitation, but the reward of the dungeon design it allowed was worth it. If Nintendo could work out a more story-sensical reason for restricting items whilst in a dungeon, then that could be the answer.


Looking at those three post-Ocarina of Time games, you can see that we should have a lot of faith that Zelda has a bright future inspired, not overshadowed, by Breath of the Wild. The influence of OoT led to phenomenal – and, crucially, varied – games like Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, and Breath of the Wild can have a legacy just as impressive.

Seeing how the team working on the next Zelda try to top themselves is something we can very much look forward to. Meanwhile, I have another 100 or so hours to put into Breath of the Wild

Gaming Photo Album: The Last of Us Remastered

-WARNING: EXPLICIT IMAGES AHEAD-

You know what has been one of my very favourite additions to games over the last few years? Photo Mode, or any ability to take images more efficiently while gaming. This art form has so many moments of beauty that just fly by sometimes, and it is great to be able to preserve them; or, in the case of Photo Mode, create them and edit them ourselves.

This new feature is going to document my favourite images from my time playing games. Maybe, one day, it can even feature the contributions of other talented people as well. Starting here with the first in a collection of images from The Last of Us Remastered, it will hopefully showcase amazing gaming moments in new ways. This is a feature that can evolve in how it is presented over time.


Joel & Ellie

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The Apocalypse

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