Resident Evil 7: Biohazard Review

Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch (Japan Only)
Release Date: Out Now


Jumping from prequel to most recent sequel, this time around I am reviewing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, continuing my comprehensive but not-very-chronological reviews of the horror franchise. Now, this is a scary one. Yes, I know, it is Resident Evil – but all the others I played before this have a different, more cinematic horror; they are in third-person and offer you a bit more perspective. However, for this entry there is a switch to first-person and an intense, heart-pumping terror akin to hits such as Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It is a departure for the series in many ways, yet also maintains a distinct Resident Evil-ness as it experiments with the new approach. So, how do the results of said experiment turn out?


No Turning Back

Along with such a change in gameplay, Resident Evil 7 also brings with it a very different story predominantly focusing on brand new characters. You play as Ethan Winters (Todd Soley/Hidenobu Kiuchi) who has suffered for years due to his wife Mia (Katie O’Hagan/Akari Higuchi) being missing and thought dead. However, he then receives a message – supposedly from Mia – beckoning him to a rural location in Louisiana, southern USA. Even with any suspicions this may incite, it makes sense that Ethan would go – I mean, there is the possibility his wife is alive! How is he to know this is the world of Resident Evil, and he is walking into a literal house of horrors… We join Ethan in first-person as he drives up to the address, and immediately there is an uneasy atmosphere present. The history of this part of the USA, combined with the foreboding too-quiet rural countryside, creates an anxious feeling that strengthens as you begin to enter the house.

Transitioning from sunny outdoors to shadowy and disturbingly unkempt interior has a tone of inevitable descent; you can feel the opportunity to turn back quickly falling away as you pass by dirty kitchen utensils and empty rooms. This opening section definitely has the sort of impending dread that games such as Outlast have permeated so well – you just know that you are walking into something awful, but it has not arrived yet. At multiple points in the story of Resident Evil 7, videotapes are a means to view and literally play through prior events, and the first of these is found during these early explorations; you witness a small crew filming for a haunted house-style series getting much more than they bargained for in the very same space you are watching the videotape. It is a very effective way to suggest to the player how unsafe they are, but with Mia still not found, Ethan presses on…

Which nice family might live here?

As you may be able to guess, doing that lands Ethan into a world of trouble. These initial struggles effectively teach us how certain Resident Evil mainstays have been adapted to first-person. You still have familiar weapons, from melee attacks to firearms, but the feel is markedly different in first-person. The viewpoint involves you into the moment in a very immediate way, viscerally putting across each hit (and much worse… ) that Ethan suffers, and similarly your efforts to retaliate can feel more erratic as you desperately try to get your weapon or hands up to defend. Running away is often a very viable option, particularly early on! Amongst all this, those familiar aspects I mentioned act as a slight comfort blanket; healing is still done via herbs and first aid, and the inventory remains familiar, with examining and combining items still a key element of puzzle solving.

Your efforts to escape are cut short when you finally meet the reason why the film crew disappeared – the Baker family. Upon being captured, you wake up at a disturbed version of a family meal (featuring rotten food and dismembering), but before you are fatally harmed they are distracted and Ethan gets an opportunity to slip away. It is not long until father figure of the family Jack Baker (Jack Brand/Kazuhiro Yamaji) is trying to track you down; with a lack of weapons, you are depending on stealth to escape. On the scariness scale, this is where the game was at its peak; picking the right moment to make your dash past Jack and bolt for the door is heart-racing stuff, and when you are spotted, his chase of you is terrifying. Jack moves at a similar speed to you, and your limited means of defense leave you scrambling for safety – which could be in the form of a save room or the next progression point.

Stop! I will do the dishes next time, okay?!

Again, familiarity arises in the actual puzzles themselves – finding pieces of an emblem to open a door, gathering keys that grant access to new areas, and discovering new firearms are classic Resident Evil activities. I appreciated this; it meant that even with all the changes in 7, it never felt as though it had split off too far to the point of not being a Resident Evil game. On the other hand, as the story progresses, the balance of this goes off-kilter. You see, the anxiety and uneasiness of avoiding Jack – and other enemies – fades as you start to get more and more firepower at your disposal. Now, you would expect this to a degree, but at a point this see-saw of tone tips over too far. Particularly towards the latter stages, the tension felt so strongly early on largely disappears – in my opinion, this does not match up well with the game they were trying to make, even if I am personally sort of grateful for the reprieve (I did not handle Jack chasing me well, haha!).


Keeping It In the Family

Of course, it is not just Jack you go up against. The whole Baker family are out to maim and kill you in their own specific fashions, and you run into them one by one as you open up each new section of the estate. To be honest, a bit more creativity in how you go up against each of them would have been welcome, as the sequential one-after-the-other way the majority of the game is structured breeds predictability and, in this case, predictability is not scary. It does not help that none of them get anywhere near to being as intimidating as Jack, partly due to the power creep I mentioned before, but also the way they act is not as direct and gives you more urgency in how you respond. Wild-haired mother Marguerite (Sara Coates/Maki Izawa) throws a few jump scares at you, but otherwise her swarm of insects are more annoying than downright scary; and whilst the Saw-esque vibe of the traps hooded son Lucas (Jesse Pimentel/Setsuji Sato) puts you into had the potential to give you trouble sleeping, they are either too straightforward or illogical to the point of stagnation.

Living conditions in London flats were getting out of hand

Sadly, it does not get better with the Molded, who act as frequent, wandering enemies in similar style to the zombies in other Resident Evil titles. The black, gleaming aesthetic of them and surrounding surfaces is disconcerting and certainly creepy – that is not the issue. No, it is how prevalent they are and how few other creatures are mixed in; there are variations of Molded, generally getting bigger and hitting harder, but they all have the same visual style and, as with other elements of the game, get progressively less scary over time as a result. Set piece fights against Jack, for example, are so much more engaging, with the cat-and-mouse elements sidelined for improvisational and gruesome fights featuring cars, chainsaws, and more. It is disappointing to me that 7 becomes much more of a shooting gallery in the climactic stages – this could be satisfying to some, but is not really where I think the strengths of the game lie.

For all the flaws, though, there are plenty of those strengths, and environment design is one standout. The shadowy, twisted take on a family residence is excellent at providing blind spots and hidden alcoves for either you or unfriendly adversaries, and any concerns of it getting repetitious are quashed as you move through a greenhouse, docks, and more. It all has a high production value sheen that a Resident Evil can bring where perhaps, say, another such as Outlast cannot – for example, character models are detailed and expressive, immersing you into exchanges with them. Furthermore, it is not only the actual design of the world, but how you can explore it too, with those aforementioned videotapes pre-empting Ethan entering multiple sections. Seeing and playing through how others have suffered in those same spaces constructs an immediate ominous atmosphere. In addition, as you backtrack out of necessity, there are slight but striking changes peppered through that can frighten when you least expect and stop you ever being fully comfortable.

Nope nope nope

I have so far mentioned quite a bit how the gameplay escalates as you get deeper in, but how about the narrative? Well, there are mixed feelings for me. In my experience playing through the Resident Evil series this year, a significant part of my enjoyment has been getting to know the likeable characters, from personal favourite Jill Valentine to other series mainstays such as Ada Wong and Chris Redfield. With 7 making the bold decision to almost entirely avoid continuity connections, there is the risk of low player investment into the transpiring events. It is testament to the story of 7, then, that I was quite engrossed by the fun revelations and reveals into why this was all happening – though I admittedly was missing those friendly faces and hoping they would appear. Ethan Winters, perhaps due to how the first-person perspective puts you in his shoes, was someone I was rooting for as he earnestly tried to get Mia and himself out of this awful situation. Mind you, the attempt at multiple endings does not really work very well.


Did You Hear That?

Sound design has always been an area where the Resident Evil series excels, whether it be the corridor moans of the original, the animalistic roars of Nemesis in 3, or the creaking and shuffling in the ship of Revelations. The first-person approach brings with it a sort of first-person sound as well; as you can see less of your surroundings at any one time, there is this heightened sensory aspect where you are listening for audio cues on approaching threats, all mixed in with the ambient sounds all around – the whistling of the wind, the glistening of Molded discharge, the buzz of insects… It all goes together to leave you unsettled. Communications devices are either analogue or in disrepair, leaving you feeling disconnected and vulnerable, and even the choice of licensed music track to open the game – a new cover of Go Tell Aunt Rhody – has an air of conspiracy and deception.

A setting for secrets and scares

Everything is just so grimy and dirty in this game. It is the details that emphasise this, such as how you messily throw first aid medicine over your wounds, or the way blood splatters over the screen to impair your vision when hurt. Ethan does a lot of sickening things out of a lack of alternatives, the sort of stuff that makes you physically recoil when playing, and it is evident Resident Evil 7 knows what it is doing in that regard – walking through these disturbing sequences can end with catharsis when you find your way out. If anything, 7 could have leaned into this more. More face-offs with the family and less Molded time-padding would have gone a long way, as would less means with which to defend ourselves.

Speaking of which, I shall also mention that I find gunplay in Resident Evil 7 unique in the weight and feedback sent to the player. Guns are held very high on the screen and are quite clumsily jostled as you move, as though Ethan is not used to handling them (which I would guess he is not). It is not bad, but is a bit uncanny and unwieldy. This could be down to the switch from third-person to first-person and a lack of development experience. Considering that this is not a full-on first-person shooter, it is okay to work around – some of the time you are picking up items, collectibles, or otherwise, so you do not have a gun equipped one hundred percent of the time.

Do you remember VCRs? Taping over one of your other recordings was genuine horror

Another area Resident Evil 7 feels noteably different – and not in a positive way – is the extra content packaged in with the campaign. Which is a means of saying that there is arguably not any of it before any DLC downloads. This is in contrast to, say, Resident Evil 5 and 6, which have an impressive amount of side modes for either solo or multiplayer. As well as this, with much of the approximately 8-10 hour core campaign dependent on the surprise of unexpected obstacles and reveals, it does not encourage repeat playthroughs in the vein of Resident Evil 3. There is one free DLC pack that is over all-too-quickly, and a handful of other content too which I have not played and will not be factoring in here. Similarly, I have not played the VR version of 7, so do not take this as a review on that version. Whew, playing this game in VR would be, um… Very frightening, I imagine!


Final Thoughts

After the mixed reception to previous games, a large-scale revamp for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard makes sense. The new perspective and a focus on ground-level, rustic horror is very effective at supplying chilling conflicts, but as the game naturally shifts back towards the slightly more action-oriented gameplay the series has always had, it exposes a few mismatches where all does not come together as cohesively as hoped. Really, 7 needed to commit fully to either the early intense stealth horror or the louder gunplay it veers into, so that there was more time to develop the ideas of each. Instead, it does have the vibe of a very high budget extended demo or experiment, which it essentially is as Capcom sees where this franchise might go into the future. Taken that way, it proves two things to me: one, that Capcom can create a very proficient first-person Resident Evil game; two, that I personally prefer the previous third-person entries…

8/10

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Resident Evil Zero Review

Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: Switch, Wii, GameCube, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed – via Resident Evil Origins Collection), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: Out Now


My quest through the Resident Evil series continues; this time, by going back to before the beginning. At this time of year, it is fitting to write more reviews from my 2020 education on Resident Evil! Though, reviewing them in any sort of chronological order seems beyond me, eh? Ah, let’s go with it. Resident Evil Zero tells the story of the S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics And Rescue Service) Bravo Team that venture into the Arklay Mountains prior to the Alpha Team of the original game, discovering shocking and horrific revelations that inform events elsewhere in the series. With nostalgic fixed camera angles and tense/clunky (take your pick) controls combined with the characterisation and drama that Resident Evil is so great at, it’s an entertaining ride, though it is unnecessarily obtuse in certain ways. I am reviewing the HD version within the Resident Evil Origins Collection on PlayStation 4; the first release was on Nintendo GameCube in 2002.


Return Ticket

After a helicopter crash, Officer Rebecca Chambers (Riva Dipaola) and her colleagues search the surrounding area, finding that convicted criminal Billy Coen (James Kee) was being moved but is now missing. Exploring the ominous forests, Rebecca discovers a stopped train – the Ecliptic Express – and upon entering, the gameplay begins. She quickly finds that the people on board are now violent Zombies; soon encountering Billy, they decide to form a temporary combo to fight their way out as the two playable characters in Zero. Rebecca is quite a new recruit, feisty but inexperienced, and so there is conflict with the egotistical and brash Billy. This dynamic and how it develops is the source of endearing moments – I really enjoyed the back and forth they have.

To get to those story moments, you first need to survive; to do so, you work through environmental puzzles, whilst staying out of the claws of Zombies and other unfriendly creatures. This was my first experience of Resident Evil in the fixed camera angles style, where you go from screen to screen with the viewpoint decided for you. Often, said angles are tailored for maximum atmospheric build-up, restricting your sight and spatial awareness. It is admittedly quite jarring having such limited scope for movement, especially coming from later Resident Evil games such as Resident Evil 4 with the over-the-shoulder viewpoint it introduced. The difference is, though, just that – a difference, and there are certainly unique merits to this way of doing things. In a horror setting, giving the player such defined circumstances accentuates the scares effectively.

For most of the game, you control Rebecca and Billy in unison, switching from one to the other at impressive speed. Each has their own inventory of up to 6 items to manage, as well as specific equipment they can use: Rebecca can create healing items with her mixing kit, and Billy can use his lighter at opportune moments. Furthermore, Rebecca is the only one who can combine herbs for more powerful healing items, whereas Billy can take more damage and push heavier objects. Recognising which is the best fit for a task is essential to progressing in Zero. This is emphasised when they are split up on simultaneous yet separate paths through an area, exchanging items when possible in order to reunite. Other entries – for example Resident Evil 6 – have a dual-character mechanic, but Zero noticeably dedicates itself to the concept in a more ingrained way. It works well, and ensures you play as each character for a considerable amount of time instead of just focusing on one or the other.

This train area is sort of an extended tutorial; it acts as a sort of microcosm for the challenges the game throws at you, with roaming Zombies, obstacles that require you to consider the environment in new ways, and a tougher enemy or two that are more formidable to get past. Weapons and how you use them are a crucial aspect; the expected armory is to be found here, be it a pistol, rifle, shotgun, grenade launcher… There are also items such as the Molotov Cocktail to help you fend off your opposition. Similarly to the camera, aiming and firing is very deliberate – for me, and how I had my controls set up on PlayStation, it first required holding R1 to lift the weapon, then movement inputs to shift my targeting, and subsequently pressing X to shoot. As it is so methodical, planning your approach is important to avoid getting flustered in intense scenarios. Just as with the fixed camera angles, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I got accustomed to it, to the point where it felt very natural.

This train ride doesn’t quite go to plan

With Zero being a prequel to the original Resident Evil, it serves up many intriguing morsels of story information that connect not only to that game, but others in the series. Familiar faces appear in cutscenes interspersed throughout the narrative, and whilst the GameCube origin is evident visually, they’re nevertheless well-produced, cinematic in tone, and fascinating to experience; you get to witness where certain plot points of other games originate. However, particularly towards the very end, Zero loses a bit of momentum in this department. There is rising intrigue from documents you find, the details of your surroundings, and the aforementioned cutscenes, but when it comes to the final flourish, it all resolves very fast and left me wondering why we didn’t see more of where particular plot threads had gone. I am still satisfied on the story front, but there was opportunity for a keener impact that would make the final ominous note even more striking.


Take Your Time

Of all the Resident Evil games I have played, I would say Zero is the slowest-paced; it asks you to be very purposeful in how you act. Rushing into situations is a no-go, and will likely end with you stumbling into the grasp of an enemy. Audio cues are a common signifier of imminent threats, from the footsteps and groans of zombies to the change of music track as you near particular plot developments. I wouldn’t say it is always subtle, but it is undoubtedly effective – you often hear what is happening before you see it!. Instead of being led through a lot of consecutive linear areas, Zero feels more as though it is a collection of claustrophobic tight spaces that hide secrets under their surface. An air of ominously descending downwards thickens as you go further into the game, mirroring how the story unfolds and unveils new horrors within the mystery.

No match for Rebecca and a shotgun

Whilst being in smaller locations gets you to contend with the feeling of being trapped, there are also drawbacks. Movement being quite slow – even the animations of opening up a new room seem slower than the original Resident Evil – mean that when you are going back to previous rooms to organise items and put together solutions for puzzles, it can gradually drain away the nervous energy Zero has built up to then; this is especially the case when you have cleared out the hazards and are literally just trekking around to gather the items efficiently. The balance of backtracking isn’t quite struck, leaving Zero with a slightly uneven pace. Notably, the later stages of the game are much more immediate than the earlier ones, sacrificing part of the depth of exploration for an increased frequency of fresh (or, given the setting, not-so-fresh) sights.

Speaking of which, environments themselves are remarkably varied within the mountainous setting, and there are plenty of callbacks through similar location types. The design of each is intricate and crucial to puzzles being rewarding to figure out. As well as this, there is plenty of gruesome surrounding paraphernalia to, well, creep you out! Interacting with some objects gives you a bit of text info on them, contributing to the ambient foreshadowing that Zero excels at. The palette is dominated by cold colours, often browns, blues, greens, and whites; together with the weathered, unclean aesthetic to your surroundings, it proficiently leaves you uncomfortable. My main complaint on the visual side of things is that those backgrounds aren’t very refined, which might speak to the GameCube origins again, but in a HD version it would have been great to see even more polish in those areas. Contrastingly, the new character models are brilliant – Rebecca and Billy are each full of expressive personality.

In addition, the monstrosities you are up against supply motivation to press on! It’s Resident Evil, so there are a range of hostile inhabitants with proficiently unsettling designs. The motif of Zero is rooted in insects and slimy, parasitic tendencies; leeches are very prominent… Yeah, I know, nope nope nope. During my time with the game, a seemingly invulnerable and regenerating strain of infected caused me a lot of strife, often positioned in narrow corridors where it is tricky to get past without being swiped or latched onto. There is distinct challenge posed by this, but another way of viewing it is that it artificially extends the length of the game; I spent quite a while trying to find a way past without being damaged, and my progress through those areas would have been much smoother otherwise.


I Need A Medic

Those moments, when the path you need to take is lined with potential peril, Resident Evil Zero is quite a difficult game. As I played, my opinion on this fluctuated – I much preferred when the conundrum was right in front of me, whether that be a puzzle that could be solved within one room or a strong enemy making a surprise entrance. Personally, I find that the reactionary improvisation that asks of the player is much more satisfying than when figuring out how two rooms that are far apart connect. The latter got tiresome more than once – if there was more inventory space, that may have helped, especially as there are no item crates to organise with. In order to swap out an item, you have to leave it where you are; if you need it again later and you have left it far away or blocked by an enemy, well, you’re going to have to make your way back.

First impressions and all that!

Previously mentioned intermittent fights against one-off, tougher enemies show the more positive side of the troublesome situations Zero can place you into. Those sudden battles are important for breaking up the rhythm and putting a focus on combat when they appear. Ammo is at a premium, so utilising your loadout to emerge from these encounters in enclosed spaces requires a skillful knowledge of how to handle yourself. They can be very spontaneous, and are one of the reasons to stay constantly prepared with a close eye on your inventory and ammo/healing supply. In fact, overall Zero is quite a bruising journey for Rebecca and Billy, where damage can rack up quickly.

On the other hand, the difficulty and least enjoyable puzzles are admittedly softened when on a repeat playthrough, as you know where the items are that you are going to need, and can plan out where to go with your new prior knowledge. This doesn’t excuse the game on that first run, though; the game design should naturally lead you through, but it can be hit-and-miss whether Zero is successful at that. The dual-character mechanic is one with lots of creative possibilities, it just seems that the sweet spot of making it consistently player-friendly hasn’t been reached. A way of merging it with item crates may have worked better and streamlined the whole experience.

Feels as though I’m being watched…

The HD version of Zero has a few extras as well. You get free access to some costumes (there are others that you can pay for); Rebecca wearing a Fan Design Jill Sandwich T-shirt totally didn’t take away any tension from scenes, aha! Upon your first completed run, you unlock more modes to experiment with, too… Another inclusion is a handy gallery for viewing back cinematics, a welcome choice considering the gripping story of this game. These little touches collectively elevate this release of Resident Evil Zero.


Final Thoughts

Insightful and suspenseful, Resident Evil Zero lets the player delve into a previously-unknown time in the series chronology. The characters, plot twists, and settings are mostly superb, but Zero does suffer a bit from the way it implements the new dual-character mechanic; exciting in theory and occasionally in practice, the way the rest of the game has been molded to make it work can cause instances of excessive backtracking and item retrieval. Still, Zero delivers more than it disappoints. From start to finish, there are thrills, scares, and dramatic reveals, aptly acting as a precursor to the rest of the series. To think how events escalate from Rebecca walking up to the train, or even from that final, chilling frame…

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Gaming Photo Album: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

So, it’s time to finish my three Gaming Photo Album posts for Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, ending – shock – with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, which – perhaps controversially – is my favourite of this trio. In my opinion, within this trilogy, it has the best action set pieces; the one at sea around halfway/two-thirds in is a particular thrill ride! I am aware that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the game many favour, though, so I’ll quickly get onto the photos I took whilst playing before too many people tell me I am wrong in the comments, aha!


London


Enclosed


To the Shore


Plane Crash


Desert


Riding to the Finale


Well, there are some snaps from my time with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception! Bear in mind that, say, during the ending sequence, I’m more preoccupied with the story than taking photos – this is quite a natural showcase of how I use the Photo Mode here and there. I’ll have to consider which game I put into this feature next; watch this space (and feel free to make suggestions)!

Spellbreak Review

Developed and Published by: Proletariat
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: Out Now


Am I accidentally getting into Battle Royale games? If I am, it’s partly due to my friends. After their suggestions, I have recently played Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and now Spellbreak, a new take on the genre that brings fresh ideas to the table. Whilst it undeniably relies on certain traits of previous Battle Royale games, there is a physics-based, magical spin that does serve to set it apart. So, how does Spellbreak stack up against PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, Apex Legends, and so on? Well, read on…


I Call It Magic

Upon first entering the game, an aspect that struck me was the art style and accompanying slightly melodramatic, grand notes of the audio. This may be a random connection, but it stirred memories of the rousing Spider-Man 2 theme but with a fantasy, medieval edge. Spellbreak is set in Primdal, a world of mages and mystery, and visually has a vibrant sheen not far removed from Fortnite but with a bit more detail and intrigue to it. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Western animation – proportions are quite realistic, but they maintain clear segments of colour interspersed with signs and symbols to add that extra sense of lore.

To me, the style resides somewhere in that space from Fortnite to Apex Legends. Furthermore, the different types of magic flying around in-game creates a palette of colour spattering the surroundings, complimented by reverberating sounds of impact to keep the tension raised. As clarification before going any further; I played the Switch and PlayStation 4 versions of the game. The PS4 version is unsurprisingly more technically proficient; there are crisper lines and the game runs smoother, compared to the Switch edition which is a bit more blurry and can suffer slowdown when there is a lot happening on screen at once. It isn’t awful though, just a tad behind the PS4. It certainly isn’t enough to, ahem, break the spell.

The mix-ups of elemental attacks create some energetic scenes

Let’s get into that, then. Spellbreak starts, wisely, with a tutorial to get you accustomed to the basics of the controls. You play as a mage, and choose one of six different specialisms: Frostborn (Ice), Stoneshaper (Stone), Toxicologist (Acid), Tempest (Wind), Pyromancer (Fire), and Conduit (Lightning). The option you settle on decides your primary Gauntlet on the right side of your HUD; this, logically, takes up one of your arms, leaving space for a secondary Gauntlet on your other arm if/when you find one within the world map in-game. As you play, you start to get more accustomed to how each one works, and find combos that work for you as a player.

Each Gauntlet has two attacks, with varying effects and cooldown rates which at launch are impressively well-balanced, with no one Gauntlet being overpowered. Combined with your Rune, another pick-up item that can give you varying effects such as invisibility, dashes, and the ability to see enemies through walls, it creates a menu of actions at the bottom of your screen that reminded of the real-time combat in JRPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles (see below). As far as I know, this is a new mash-up within the Battle Royale space, and is perhaps the defining element of Spellbreak.

Using the Ice Gauntlet, which can be held to zoom in for a sniper shot

The tutorial is actually really well put together, explaining all of this plus various other gameplay mechanics. To sum up other elements of the HUD: you find Scrolls in the world that improve one of your three custom Talents that have subtle effects on your character; Potions and Armour to bolster your ability to take hits; Belts to increase your capacity to carry Armour; Boots to up your Run Speed; and Amulets to increase your Mana supply. When you do enter the scary world of the Battle Royale proper with up to 49 others, finding these items and sufficiently preparing yourself for encounters with opposing players is – as with other Battle Royales – crucial. However, I will say that because of the added depth of the range of HUD options here, it does result in a more complex set of mechanics – particularly because of the mix of elemental Gauntlets.


Mix ‘n’ Match

This is because the game, and those Gauntlets, have a very clever, interweaving physics system based on their differing properties – a system that isn’t just about combat, but traversal too. Each of them are singularly fun; to take the Ice Gauntlet as an example, the trails of Ice it creates can be skated on for increased speed and mobility (Frozone in The Incredibles anyone?), and the Wind Gauntlet can spring you into the air for an improvised vantage point. The initial phase of Spellbreak where you are experimenting with these different Gauntlets is brilliant, as you discover how they all work and affect the space around you.

Whilst your character runs and crouches as you may expect, the jump has a hover function that allows you to float, further tying into the Mage idea and supplying a vertical dimension to the gameplay; skating on ice and then transitioning into a speedy hover over a gap is joyous, almost making you forget you need to keep an eye out for other players! There’s a decent skating game hidden in here, you know. Where Spellbreak really excels, though, is in the detail of how the Gauntlets interact with each other, whether it be with other members of your up-to-3-person Squad or the Mages you fight.

So, say your opponent puts up a wall of fire with the Fire Gauntlet, but you have the Ice Gauntlet; a shot from the Ice Gauntlet can cut through the fire with the Ice dousing a safe path. In the other direction, though, the fire melts your ice path quicker, limiting your skating. Moreso, if a player with the Thunder Gauntlet strikes that water, they can create a new barrier of electrified water! Another case: The Toxic Gauntlet can cause a cloud of poisonous gas, but then the Ice Gauntlet can freeze that, and another element – perhaps the Stone Gauntlet – can smash that gas away to clear the space.

Ice and fire meet again

These are just a few of the examples of this wonderful physics system that delivers surprise moments. It reminded me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the way physics played such a part in that game, especially as the art styles aren’t that far apart – and also the hood and cape you can wear reminded me of the one Link can wear in Breath of the Wild, aha! Developer/Publisher Proletariat could have had the Gauntlets work individually and left it at that, but instead they have gone beyond and thought about the way they act in contact with one another, emphatically adding to the enjoyment of playing.


Safely Inside

On the other hand, not all of Spellbreak is so praiseworthy. The gameplay systems may have a new twist, but the world they are encased in has an admittedly generic Battle Royale infrastructure. It’s all-too-familiar for players who have experienced Fortnite, Apex Legends, et al: you land in a set map (this time without even the illusion of any vehicle dropping you in) with up to 2 others on your team. From there, you collect the aforementioned resources to kit yourself out, whilst being wary of other players around you. Then the “Storm” closes in, shrinking the circle of play smaller and smaller and closing the remaining players up until eventually only one Squad or player is left victorious. Put that way, it sounds very unoriginal, and well, it is, but as I say, those gameplay quirks are where the appeal lies.

Side note: I find it kind of amusing how each game has to find their own terms for their games: so, in this case, you don’t go down, you are “disrupted”, and you you don’t bleed out, you are “exiled”. One day we are going to run out of words! The first and currently only map, the Hollow Lands, is your typical fantasy world, with a dystopian tone again making me compare it to Breath of the Wild. It’s lots of green and brown punctuated by crumbling castles, but there are some welcome contrasts, whether they be an intricate maze or a misty, swampy section. We aren’t savvy to a lot of the lore of Primdal or the Hollow Lands yet, but the destroyed sites you encounter – including one that seems to have been a Colosseum or auditorium – do pique my intrigue. Narrative content is on the way for the future – the “Chapters” menu is currently grayed out – and I may do a further article at a later date to see how these affect the game.

Going back to the set-up of the game, I will note that as the game progresses and the circle – sorry, the “Storm” – gets smaller, the more the distinctive magical actions make their mark, as you’re naturally forced into deploying them once hiding becomes less of an option. Not that I’m hiding… Erm… next point! Early on, when you’re on the Battle Royale collecting merry-go-round, it’s a very similar cycle to other games of this type, but when you encounter others, that’s when the game really comes alive. Desperately maneuvering around as spells fly past your face, with ice, fire, acid, and more suddenly appearing around you, is a frantic and utterly fun form of chaos that legitimately gets the heart pumping, especially when you get down to the final few players. Staying on the move is so important in this game to make yourself harder to hit and to remain aware of those around you.

In-air fights are a regular occurrence

I tried playing Spellbreak with friends and without, and had engaging experiences with each approach. With friends you can discuss strategy on the go, but in a way it is also easier to get distracted and give away your position, aha; I am very appreciative of Proletariat incorporating cross-play, making the process of putting together a group of friends more efficient. When playing by myself in Solo it brought out that lone wolf determination, and then when in Squads with unknown people, there ended up being in-game camaraderie despite no voice chat! The inclusion of the pinging system that was so well done in Apex Legends – so, again, this isn’t a new idea – is helpful for co-operating without dialogue, too, letting you point out where you are headed, items you have found, and opponents you spot.


Running the Gauntlet

Free-to-play games such as Spellbreak can be made or broken by their progression systems and the way that the dreaded real-money payments are integrated. If we start with just the in-game side: each Gauntlet has a separate Class Rank, which as it improves unlocks new ways to optimise it – take the Ice Gauntlet, which is the one I have used the most. As that has gone up in Rank, I have acquired the possibility of it being able to temporarily highlight players I target, making them easier to keep track of. Being able to commit to one Gauntlet and feel as though you are mastering it is very satisfying! Similarly, there are separate “Mastery” stat tracking menus for each class, allowing you to see your record with each playstyle. As well as this, you have an overall Mage Rank that you get progression on whichever Gauntlet you are using, and the increase of this is the main in-game way to earn Gold for the Shop.

Okay, so the monetisation. It’s not great… The frequency at which you earn the Gold isn’t necessarily the problem, but the amount you earn, 50 each time? When items range from around 400-1200 in the shop? By Level 10 I had around 450, which gave me the option to purchase one item, but if I did that then I would be back to around 0 and even further away from those more expensive items. When you”re in the scenario of only being able to afford a “bored” emote, you know the system has gone awry!

It just seems as though for items in the Shop, realistically, they’re set up for you to pay real money for them. Spellbreak is free-to-play, so not as egregious as, say, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, but it still isn’t an ideal situation for the player. To counteract this, the item unlocks in-game are decent, with fun designs for your Badge, Card, and more, solely from your level going up. Therefore, if you ignore the Shop, you’ll still get a decent variety to customise yourself from. I also have hopes that as they add new features, they open up new ways to earn Gold to make the Shop more viable for those not spending real money.

There are multiple ways to stylise your character

In terms of those prospects for the future, there is that aforementioned story-based content on the way which sounds promising, and there have already been updates, such as the addition of a Solo mode that I touched on earlier for those who would prefer to go it alone. It’s awesome to see how aware the game is of the community – take the very active Discord server as an example, where players are constantly teaming up. I’m very confident that this game has legs, and in my mind there are opportunities for ideas such as new elements being introduced to shake up the meta. A dedicated Water Gauntlet, perhaps? For now, though- as with Fall Guys – I can only review the game they have presented to us at launch, so my score is based on that, not what might happen.


Final Thoughts

For a game I tried out with friends as a potential way for us to spend some fun time together, I was pleasantly surprised with Spellbreak. Within the generic trappings of Battle Royale conventions it employs, it manages to create an identity for itself through inviting presentation and, most of all, the smart Gauntlet system and clashing of elements. This is a fantastic base from which Proletariat can work from, and I am especially excited to see how the story side of the game evolves into the future. Spellbreak may not do much to redefine the Battle Royale, but it does have enough new ideas to carve out a place in that genre in which to shine.

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review

Developed by: Mediatonic
Published by: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: Out Now


Since the reveal trailer in the 2019 Devolver Direct, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout has been a game I have had my eye on, and the decision to make it a PS Plus game this August has served to put it even more in the spotlight. Built around a simple premise, being the sole survivor of 60 players in a random selection of obstacle courses and team games, it’s ingenious fun that especially comes alive when playing with others in a group. There are elements of the game that could be improved, with some obvious gaps in the offering, but the overriding chaotic fun of trying to bundle your way to victory and the Crown does a lot to cover up for them.


One Way Through

Fall Guys has one mode, and one mode only, that throws you into the action with 59 other players in a new take on the battle royale structure. This time, the genre has been given a Total Wipeout-esque twist (sadly without Richard Hammond) with your primary goal being survival as you progress from course to course with only the actions of jumping, diving, holding onto other players, and your custom theatrics (essentially an emote). Each stage you play through whittles down the group until a final round where the sole remaining player earns themselves the lucrative and sought-after Crown. From my experience, there tends to be around 4 to 6 levels in each run of play, usually beginning with an obstacle course such as the battering Hit Parade and ending with one of the tense final levels designed to leave one player standing. In those mid-point courses, though, there is a varied selection, so you’re never entirely sure what is next, whether it be an egg-gathering contest or a memory match puzzle.

Of those currently in the game, there is a hierarchy in my mind of which levels I prefer to play; in general, the obstacle courses such as The Whirlygig – with plentiful spinning blockades – are much more satisfying to me, as they reward individual skill, in comparison to the team games, where you are much more at mercy to the overall ability of those you are put in with. For example, if in the Rocket League-style Fall Ball the rest of your team doesn’t play well, then you’re at a serious disadvantage. I’m not against the idea of having a range of stages to combat repetition and create that sense of chaos, but perhaps it would be wise to make alternate playlists for those who prefer playing certain types of course; these could have differing rewards so as not to detract from the value of the Crown. More modes would encourage me to play more, as the idea of playing certain levels puts me off the idea of going through the whole sequence again.

Patience can be an important skill in this game

The courses themselves are very well-designed overall, with clever tricks and side passages; I got the impression that even with the randomness, as you play more, you do get better. I’m very conscious that your personal favourites can vary from person to person, and the ones you perform better at can easily become the ones you prefer. Many of the levels aren’t actually that complicated in layout, but the real challenge comes from trying to navigate them with up to 59 others also stumbling through them, forming logjam and tripping hazards. Springy sound design and the unintelligible noises of determination from the characters provide quirky appeal; the physics of your character are purposefully awkward, easily falling and rolling around, losing you control – gaining and maintaining momentum are crucial for success here. Seeing everyone trying to get through pathways to not be eliminated is a delightful sight – they’re all attempting to make it, but not all can…


Fall Fashion

Even before I got into my first game, the energetic, vibrant, and colourful presentation of Fall Guys stood out to me as I waited in the lobby. That main theme music is audaciously funky and entertains me by itself in the brief waiting periods from game to game, pairing wonderfully well with the bubblegum-bright art direction. Pastel pinks, oranges, and similar are all over, combining with the soft, almost rubbery environments to create a very welcoming atmosphere that draws you in to the world created, leaving you to get stuck in the cycle of one-more-go as you chase victory. The endearingly clumsy avatars have a bunch of customisation options, from outfits to the theatrics emote. These are great for turning the group of 60 into a crowd of distinct personalities.

Leave see-saws how you find them, everyone

Upon release this has the illusion of being a free-to-play game, but really it isn’t, considering that you pay for PS Plus, and after this month it returns to solely being a £15.99 game. Hence, we must be careful about how we discuss the monetisation. Through gameplay, you earn Kudos, which is one of two currencies, with the other being Crowns, which you can only get by winning or by reaching certain level-up milestones. In the shop, you can use these to pay for various outfits and theatrics to add to your personal repertoire; these alternate each day, which adds some pace of variation, but this also feels a bit of a trick to me, when they could make all previous additions permanently there on the shop. It’s a trend emerging across these sorts of games that only limits choice.

Only the Kudos currency can be purchased with real transactions, with costume packs also available in that way. It’s not over-egregious, as you get a decent amount to spend just from playing, but these systems aren’t ones that leave a positive impression, especially when the game does cost money to initially buy – don’t let the PS Plus situation hide that. The game is in Season 1 right now, with Season 2 soon arriving (and new stages with it); as you play and level-up in-season, you gain new items. There is a decent pace of progression, so you are getting those moments of achievement to fuel you on, though the desire to amend past failures already brings a lot of motivation! Even so, having those real-money payments there is a temptation for those involved to make you spend that does not sit well with me.


Group Descent

All the emotions encouraging you to do better on that next go, that quickly turns into another go, and another, are only emphasised when playing with others in your party, which I have had the joy of doing; in-game, the only difference is that those players are marked out for you, and will automatically be in your team in applicable games. However, the change in urgency and hilarity is keenly felt, as your trials and tribulations are shared. A key difference to me is how when I was on my own, a slight fatigue did set in to the way the game only has one set routine of gameplay. When with others, though, every game has the added intrigue of where my friends are and whether they’re gonna make it; and even if I don’t myself progress on, I have an investment to see how they do. Those aforementioned team games I had complaints about work better too, as I know more about the team I am on. For one gem of an example of this dynamic, see the video below of two friends of mine (one of which recorded this, thank you!) and I, as one of said friends has an encounter with another player…

Another slight and general criticism I have of Fall Guys is how it feels unpolished. It’s the little details, such as when you are grouped up with friends, and the spectator camera doesn’t prioritise them, meaning you need to cycle through everyone to find those perspectives – additionally, it doesn’t stay with them from one round to the next. Further to that, and my comments about the lack of modes, why not allow us to make custom playlists of stages for just us and our friends, or maybe add sliders to adjust aspects just in those private games? Fall Guys has a really fantastic base concept that could be added to in so many creative ways. Yes, this is a game that may well get those additions, but if this is how you launch, then this is where the game is judged. As well as this, the visuals, though charming, aren’t always very refined, and the choice of typography for most of the text is quite a generic option. They’re all small aspects, but when all improved together, it elevates the entire package.


Final Thoughts

On occasions, a simple premise, with the right delivery, can form a brilliant party game to strike just the right note and resonate with an audience. The decision to make Fall Guys a PS Plus game has opened up the game to an audience that may otherwise not have paid the £15.99, and has created a multiplayer phenomenon that I am confident shall thrive and be added to over time. As I just talked about, there are many areas here and there that I was slightly disappointed by whilst playing, as my mind wandered to imagine how great this game could be. It’s a game that shall evolve over time, but without guarantees, they’re omissions that affect my enjoyment. A game that provides joyous entertainment and many passionate reactions, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is a game I imagine I shall be playing for a while, and hopefully it fulfills the potential as that happens.

7/10

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Let’s Chat: The Last of Us Part II Spoiler Talk!

It’s the return of Ashley Harrison and I for our discussion articles, newly renamed “Let’s Chat”! The release of The Last of Us Part II means a LOT to discuss, especially knowing how invested we both are in the first game. So, what are we waiting for?


William Robinson: Hi Ash! It’s been about two years since our last of these discussion articles, and we’re starting again with our full spoilers talk of The Last of Us Part II! It is fitting in a way, as our very first was back when the game was first unveiled at PSX 2016. To me, that seems both so long ago and yet also not long ago at all; before we really get into it, Ash, perhaps you could briefly describe your opinion of the prior game and how you went into Part II?

Ashley Harrison: Yo, how’s it’s going? Really has been a while, huh? It’s crazy to think our first of these articles was 3 and a half years ago now, after that reveal. The world really has gone crazy since then. Briefly describe my opinion of The Last of Us? Man, that’s hard, you know how much that game means to me. It’s no secret that The Last of Us is my favourite game of all time, and as a result means a lot to me. So much so I have Troy Baker signed copies of the game and its vinyl soundtrack. As a result, I was probably more on the hype train that probably most people were for Part II.

The reveal of The Last of Us Part II at PSX 2016

WR: Wow, that long, huh? Also shows just how much time went into the making of this game – that’s only the time since the reveal! For me, The Last of Us is a masterpiece of interactive storytelling, using the medium to create a game and story that questions you as you play it. As it is such an amazing game, I was both anxious and excited at the idea of them making another game in that world. Let’s get right into it then; having played through the game, your initial reaction now?

AH: Man.. I really wish I could give the answer I want to here. If we’re looking at it from a purely gameplay perspective, it’s absolutely incredible. It’s the culmination of over a decade of work from Naughty Dog with the style of game, starting with the release of the first Uncharted. It’s so fluid and smooth, taking the base of the original game and the addition of, in my opinion, much-needed mechanics such as being able to crawl and squeeze through gaps to breathe new life into the stealth part of the game, opening up the floor to way more ways of taking down enemies. However, from a purely story perspective, the game really just leaves me wanting more, and not in a good way. I’ll explain more as suitable, but the climax to the story especially really threw me off, as well as some serious scenes really not feeling anywhere near as important as they should.

WR: We’ll really go into the story, talking about each part, in a moment; firstly, I really do want to mention more on that gameplay. Similar to how you say, it really builds upon the prior game. Going prone additionally opens up more opportunities in exploration to find hidden are as and solve puzzles, and there are new items to craft that I found altered my approach to situations – the smoke bomb, for example. There is a real variety of situations you find yourself in, which encourages trying different approaches throughout the game. Speaking of which, the environment design in this game is utterly spectacular. The scope of the areas you play through is jaw-dropping, with such attention to detail and a sense this world was really lived-in. Was this impressive to you as you went through the game, or is your opinion on this slightly different?

This open area in Seattle is a great example of the environment design in the game

AH: Nah, I’m completely there with you man, the environmental design is incredible. The attention to detail for each “level” of the game is insane, and it really does help you to truly believe you’re traversing a real world. It keeps kicking up in quality somehow too, culminating in the sequence escaping from the Seraphite island. Seeing the island burning around you after seeing what it was, all as a result of human nature and their inability to keep a truce, is incredible. My only criticism of it, however, is that the environment, specifically the fungus growing into walls, does give away the kinds of enemies you’re going to come across at points, for example in the Hotel.

WR: That’s an intriguing point; there isn’t really ever a moment where they don’t signal that the next opposition is either Infected or not, is there? More experimentation with that would have been fascinating; for me, some of the most interesting combat segments were where you could play the Infected against the non-Infected tracking you down.

AH: The places where you can pit Infected against enemies tracking you down are so much fun to play, especially because it gives you a variety of options to play those specific sections. You can either go in all guns blazing, and try to take on both sets of enemies at the same time. Or, you can throw a brick or another item into the human enemies, and let the Infected take them out, then take out the Infected, which was my favourite way of playing. Finally, there’s also the option to pit the Infected and human enemies against each other, whilst you sneak by unnoticed. It’s clever design points like that that make me love the combat in the game, and it’s a massive improvement upon the first game’s combat which most of the time is gunplay-focused. I just really wish there were more points in the game where you could do it, because to me they feel too sparse.

You can disrupt the people hunting you down by drawing Infected into the fight

WR: We’ve mentioned about the gameplay, but now I reckon it is time to really tackle the story of this game in full spoiler mode. To be thorough, let’s go through the game section by section, as this is a game that at times feels split into distinct parts. We open with Joel telling Tommy about the way the first game ended, in a sorta cinematic recap; I thought this was a bit of an over-explanation, but I understand that it is for players who are playing this without having played the prior game (though, I mean, if you are, what?). Then, we have an extended prologue of sorts in and around the settlement at Jackson, where we play as both Ellie and new character Abby as a routine day goes very badly wrong. We start to be introduced to new characters, particularly ones that Ellie knows, and I also found that this opening segment re-introduced how to play in a smart fashion. The playing-from-different-viewpoints idea is one that is carried through the game, and from the start I appreciated it as a change of structure from the relatively linear first game.

AH: The game opening with Joel’s recount of the first game felt off to me also; who’s really going into this without having played the first game? Honestly, at the beginning of the game, I really wasn’t a fan of the idea of the split viewpoints, especially as Neil Druckmann had said this game was about revenge and had only spoken of Ellie being playable in any way. Though, saying that, he said the same thing about playing as Joel in the first game. I just wanted to play as Ellie and see how things are going for her, and why she was going on a journey of revenge. However, I really did come to enjoy playing as Abby throughout the second half of the game.

This game pivots around that moment, as it is the motivation, or perhaps even some kind of twisted justification, for the many acts of violence Ellie commits

William Robinson

WR: That is an element of the game I am confident we will be discussing a lot shortly; you play as Ellie for the majority of the, I’d say, roughly first half of the game? This opening is quite cryptic in terms of Joel and Tommy – and the game is quite enigmatic about Joel in particular throughout – but it seemed, at least to me, that there was signposts of Abby having a purpose at Jackson to do with Joel. Yet, it was still shocking when Abby – after Joel and Tommy help Abby out of a tight situation against Infected, no less – takes out Joel’s leg with a shotgun and proceeds to violently beat him. Then, when Ellie gets there, and Abby kills Joel with the golf club… it’s brutal. This game pivots around that moment, as it is the motivation, or even some type of twisted justification, for the many acts of violence Ellie commits as she subsequently goes after Abby. The scene is certainly intense and impactful, but does it fuel the game in that way for you? I found that there was more of a disconnect between the gameplay and story than there was in the prior game.

AH: The game definitely peaks intensity wise if you ask me at that moment, nothing else in the game really ever reaches the same point of emotion. It’s such a dark scene and happens so early into the game, which given the story makes sense I guess, that I would’ve been surprised if they’d have managed to keep up that level of intensity. I wouldn’t say there’s a disconnect at all between story and gameplay though personally, especially during Ellie’s segments.

Ellie and Tommy early in the game, not long after that brutal scene

WR: Perhaps that disconnect is more to do with how they end the game as well, when the moment of forgiveness happens relative to other events. Is that a negative for you then, if the rest of the game was never at that point of emotion? It was believable to me that Ellie would go after the person who killed Joel, same for Tommy; and Dina going with Ellie made sense for different reasons, as their relationship gradually evolved. Throughout, I found Dina really well-developed, and her dynamic with Ellie to be told in an intelligent way, all the way through to her leaving Ellie at the end.

AH: I wouldn’t say it’s a negative for me that it never reached that level of emotion again really, as it already had the build behind the whole first game to go with it that got you invested in Joel, and for it to happen so early into the game and be so brutal really added to the emotion. Am I slightly upset that the most emotive part of the game was an hour in when the whole game is 25 hours long? Yeah, I guess a bit that I am. Was I expecting that moment to be the most emotional during the game though? Absolutely. It’s absolutely believable Ellie would go after Abby for killing Joel for me, however I’m not quite sure about Tommy. Whilst obviously 5 years have passed since the events of the first game and anything could’ve happened in that time, we learned that Joel and Tommy had a very rocky relationship, with Joel in the first game saying to Ellie “I believe his [Tommy’s] last words to me were “I don’t ever wanna see your god damned face again.”” I’m speculating here obviously, but we don’t ever really learn much more than that about Joel and Tommy’s relationship through either game. As for Dina, you’re probably going to hate me for this, but I really couldn’t have cared less for her if I had tried. Personally it seemed to be that she’s only there so that Ellie could have a companion to travel with and carry on the feeling of the first game with Joel and Ellie. The game never really made me care for her, especially when her defining moment is revealing to Ellie she’s pregnant, which in itself is just such an overused trope.

WR: See, to me, Tommy is fascinating in this game. We know he is also after Abby, and probably slightly ahead of Ellie through much of the game. Yet we only briefly see him, in the confrontation at the theatre, when he visits the Farm, and in a really smart reveal as the sniper in a sequence late in the game when you are playing as Abby. He is, in a way, the most tragic character in the story, as he loses health and his marriage to his hunt for Abby after she murders his brother. I really disagree about Dina; she is a distinct character, one who won’t – and doesn’t – wait for Ellie if she won’t stop going after Abby.

Ellie and Dina in one of the several flashbacks

AH: I wouldn’t say Tommy is the most tragic story in the game, although he does definitely rank up there alongside Ellie. Both start the game with everything they want in life, however by the end they’ve both lost it all. If they’re going to release a side-story DLC ala Left Behind for Part II, I would love for it to focus on Tommy so that we can learn more about him.

WR: The stories of Ellie and Tommy in this game have many similarities; yes, either as DLC, or if they do a third game, playing as Tommy is an idea that could make for a powerful story. He has a certain charisma to him, yet has so many flaws. Interspersed through the 3 days in Seattle as Ellie are flashbacks – these sections, playing as Ellie with Joel accompanying you, have some delightful moments that light up the game. The museum one is brilliant; it has so many wonderful back-and-forths that take me back to their dynamic in the first game, as well as a very creepy and ominous conclusion. Thoughts on these?

The chemistry between Ellie and Joel is definitely the defining characteristic of the first game, so it was great to have them back together.

Ashley Harrison

AH: Man, those flashbacks. They got me so emotional watching them as I played. The chemistry between Ellie and Joel is definitely the defining characteristic of the first game, so it was great to have them back together. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker have produced insane performances once again to really make you remember why you loved those two characters. I think the reason the museum flashback especially hits so hard is it’s the first time you see Joel after his brutal death, and he’s taking Ellie to see something she’s always wanted to in the Dinosaurs exhibit. It really brings home the fact that at the end of the day, Ellie is just a kid, and you’re seeing that childhood innocence come through after seeing everything she had to go through after losing Riley to the Infected.

WR: Relative to the first game, there isn’t actually much of Troy Baker in this game; he is fantastic in his performance, but he hasn’t got that many scenes compared to Ashley Johnson. For me, there was never a moment in this game when other characters had a dynamic on the level of Ellie and Joel, not that I necessarily expected there to be. You can tell how much Joel cares for Ellie in that museum scene, and it is wonderful just to hear them talk. Oh, and, erm… ELLIE SWIMS!

There are traces of the events of the first game

AH: Can we swear? Because if so, halle-fucking-luljah! When the Instagram advert popped up on my feed a couple of days before release, and the opening part of the video showed off Ellie swimming, I genuinely can’t describe just how happy that made me feel. The definite low point of the first game was having to fetch pallets for Ellie to cross bodies of water, so that fact I never had to even touch a single pallet for that reason in this game? So much of an improvement.

WR: It’s a very different moment in tone, but in that same flashback, when you see the “I killed for them” message on the wall… for me, possibly the creepiest moment of the game because of how out of place it is there at the museum. These indirect moments of referencing the cost of the actions of Joel at the end of the first game I found much more smart than when they showed Ellie confronting Joel about it in other flashbacks. I would have preferred it being kept more subtle, with the hints at the divide between Ellie and Joel and other consequences.

AH: See, we’ve already spoken quickly about this exact scene and I’m on the complete opposite side to this. It was the single biggest secret building up to this game, and because of that it basically had to come out at some point, rather than it just being alluded to in Ellie and Joel’s interactions with one another. Saying that though, I was so disappointed in that scene itself. I really felt like it should’ve a huge, pivotal moment for the game and Ellie and Joel’s relationship, as it is basically Joel dooming the whole of humanity because of his own selfish actions, but it just falls so flat in my opinion. It’s missing the emotion I feel like should be there, and instead it just feels like a throwaway conversation between the two. What really annoys me as well is the scene at the end of the game where Ellie tells Joel that she can never forgive him for taking away the opportunity for her life to have purpose is exactly the kind of moment I was wanting, but because it’s at the very end of the game it’s hard to care as much.

Joel sharing the full truth with Ellie of his actions at the Firefly hospital

WR: Isn’t that sort of the problem, though? After the first game, it was always going to be hard for that scene to live up to how you imagine it. The genius of that ending is in the way that it leaves it to your imagination, and so showing it in this game goes against that. That final flashback is beautifully told, and the idea of Ellie maybe starting to forgive Joel is heartbreaking knowing the events that come after that conversation. In a different way to the first game, it leaves it up to the imagination, but this time we know that that time was taken from them.

AH: See, for me, the ambiguity of the ending of the first game was always going to be ruined as soon as this one was announced, there was no way of getting around it in my opinion. If it had stayed as a single game, then yeah, I could imagine what happened afterwards. But again, it was too big of a secret to ignore in a sequel.

WR: I reckon there was other ways around it where you don’t have to directly show those scenes. However, I have to mention that Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker are amazing in this game. Though, and this may be a controversial opinion, Laura Bailey potentially steals the show as Abby. After Ellie has killed some of her friends, she confronts Ellie at the theatre and we are again put back in time; though this time, we are playing through events from the perspective of Abby, starting around the end of the first game. We play as Abby for a long time from this point, which is a bold move, but this dual perspective really gives a different viewpoint on the actions of Ellie and Joel.

Abby is a complex character who raises moral questions for the player

AH: Now, I know this is the point where a lot of people say the game starts going downhill, and honestly, I don’t understand it. To me, the game actually improves in quality when you’re having to play as Abby, as you’re running into Infected more and it starts to feel more like the first game from a gameplay standpoint. However, I guess I’m also biased because I love when games and films turn the perspective and make you see the story from the “villain’s” point of view, especially with this where there isn’t any character that’s either good or evil, they’re all shades of grey and have done some really shitty things to survive in the times they’re living in. Honestly, to me, Abby is the most morally grounded character in the whole game. We find out that Abby is the daughter of the surgeon Joel murdered in the hospital at the end of the first game (he’s also the only person you do have to kill in that moment, which I thought was a great touch) so she’s gone out for her revenge as I’d assume most people would in that situation. Once she’d got that, she was quite happy to just walk away from the situation until Ellie came back and started killing her friends one by one. The viewpoint switch really does go to show that Ellie really isn’t the innocent, perfect character people see her as.

WR: In my opinion, that flip of perspective is where a lot of the new ideas this game has come from. Revisiting areas that were previously hostile but, as Abby, are areas populated by people surviving, challenges how you consider the world this game presents to you. The game seems to make a point to make you play as Abby through these events after playing through them as Ellie, really hitting you with the inevitable consequences of the people you have affected. The relationship between Abby and Owen stood out to me; it has so many layers to it that make you invested, and yet the whole time you know that Ellie kills Owen. Abby also has different attributes and items which can affect how you play, which is a nice touch. The items she can craft are more directly damaging, for example.

AH: Again, when we had our quick conversation before properly doing this, I said that the whole time with Abby and Owen, there was obvious sexual tension, to the point where I was just like “can you two just hurry up and have sex already?”, not realising that’s actually where it ended up. Given that you only see their relationship and how it develops after you’ve already killed Owen as Ellie, I’m honestly so surprised at how invested in that love affair (in both senses of the phrase) I was. Abby’s exclusive items are so good, big shoutouts to the pipebomb and flamethrower weapons, definitely saved my ass on multiple occasions against the Shamblers, Clickers, and that absolute monstrosity in the Hospital Basement which I’m sure we’re going to talk about.

Infected remain a key threat throughout

WR: Okay, so, yeah. For me, they went overboard with the Infected design there; I get that there are references to the Infected underneath the Hospital being there since the Outbreak, and the design of that area is very eery. However, when we get to the boss-style Infected… it gets too arcade horror for me, with this Infected of multiple bodies. The way it quickly charges around that area just doesn’t click (no pun intended) with me, tonally feeling way off from other Infected encounters. I more envisage a slower, more imposing Infected being the result of such a long gestation period. However, I will say that the flamethrower was very useful there!

AH: I will agree it definitely seems odd that it’s so fast, as we know that as the infection progresses, the movement of the Infected slows down, with Shamblers and Bloaters being super strong but extremely slow moving as the last stages of infection. I’d disagree it gets too arcade horror though, I always saw it as a natural progression. We know that Infected can start to merge into the walls with the fungus growing, as we come across this multiple times during the game, so I don’t think it’s that hard to believe the idea of “There’s been Infected in a confined, untouched area for the last 25 years, could they possibly have merged together in some way?”

WR: It isn’t really the merging together, as that makes sense, it is more the overall presentation of that fight gameplay-wise and the design of the Rat King. At that point in the game, it felt as though I was supposed to be terrified, but it more just seemed a bit ridiculous. The Shamblers are better designs; an Infected that evolves to disperse spores in such a violent way fits the theme of it being natural and evolving over time. Overall, through the game did you prefer the Infected or non-Infected encounters?

At times, fights are viciously violent

AH: If we’re just looking at it from a straight up gameplay perspective, personally for me, the Infected fights are more enjoyable than those of the human enemies. However, the story behind the human enemy fights are a lot more engrossing than those of the Infected. I think here is where it loses the connection slightly to the first game, as the story for that was always about the fights against the Infected, and the fights versus the human enemies seems like a sub-plot. Contrastingly, for this game, the roles for that have been reversed and honestly? I’m not too sure I’m a fan.

WR: Is a possible reason for much of that is because of the war going on between two factions, the WLF and the Seraphites, throughout the game? I am not sure enough was done to make me invested in this battle; more time with characters such as Isaac (Jeffrey Wright) may have helped here to really show the motivations of the leadership on either side. Instead, it seemed more of a crossfire you are navigating through.

AH: I’m so surprised that we don’t ever really see the leaders of either side all that much within the game so that they can explain their motivations. Given it takes up over half of the story, I think I can count on one hand the number of interactions you have with Isaac, none of which are particularly that long, and I don’t think you ever run into the leader of the Seraphites, do you? I honestly can’t remember, and if you do, it shows just how little the game makes you care.

More time spent with Isaac in the game may have helped develop his character

WR: It even seemed to me that Isaac was being set up as a character who would be crucial to the story later on, but then he is killed quite abruptly; it is even as though they only had limited time with Jeffrey Wright? This war is really prominent in the life Abby leads, and yet for me a lot of the time playing as her I was more anticipating her interactions with Owen and Ellie.

AH: Oh for sure, especially wanting more of her interactions with Ellie, although I guess that that’s because you’re obviously emotionally connected to Ellie, and want to see more of her, as well as knowing how the story ends up so you’re left wanting to see how Abby and Ellie interact with one another once Ellie’s killing spree of Abby’s friends has gone down. You just knew that something big was going to happen between the two of them.

That section playing as Abby is extensive, and there is a risk of a lot of it being overshadowed by the knowledge that there is a confrontation with Ellie on the way

William Robinson

WR: It makes me wonder why they ordered the sections of the game the way they did; that section playing as Abby is extensive, and there is a risk of a lot of it being overshadowed by the knowledge that there is a confrontation with Ellie on the way. Perhaps it was almost meant to be exhaustive, to really force you to find more out about the life Abby leads to that point. I reckon maybe another flashback or two, similar to the aquarium one with Owen, may have helped the pacing here, as the combat is frequent.

AH: You see, I personally don’t actually mind that the extensive amounts of combat during the Abby sections you play, without much downtime. It really hammers home the fact that this is what they have to go through in order to just survive in this world. Abby and the WLF aren’t only stuck in a war with the Infected in their day-to-day lives, they’re stuck in another against the Seraphites as a result of a broken peace treaty. As well as the fact that it helps break up the monotony of the combat by not just having you face one type of enemy constantly, it actually makes me sort of feel sorry for Abby because she never really wanted to live this life, she was quite happy as a Firefly until Joel ended all of that in the first game.

As Abby, you meet Yara (Victoria Grace), a Seraphite caught in the middle of the war

WR: The aspect that really stands out is that after they murder Joel, they make a point to not kill others, and they show that again later on in the game. Ellie, though, goes through several of the people close to Abby, and that moral difference makes you question Ellie a lot. When you play through the sequence where Abby discovers first Alice, then Mel and Owen all murdered, it hit me in the core; it’s a powerful way to show the cycle of violence these people are in.

AH: Yeah, Abby is quite content on getting revenge on Joel alone for murdering her Dad, whereas Ellie is determined to take out every person that was at the scene when Joel was killed, despite the fact that it’s Abby alone who shoots him with the shotgun and then finishes the job with the golf club. The fact that Ellie is willing to go to whatever lengths it takes to avenge Joel’s killing (we finally know who the “I’m gonna find, and I’m gonna kill, every last one of them” line from the original trailer is about!) is the main thing that makes me say that Ellie isn’t at all a good person in this game. Abby spares her life on two separate occasions, whilst Ellie only does the same at the end of the game.

WR: Is it just me who finds that Ellie becomes more and more similar to Joel as this game goes on? That determination to hunt them down, and even the way she acts during combat, reminds me of Joel in the first game. So, when you reached the theatre, and you play as Abby against Ellie, were you on the side of Abby at that point of the game? It’s fascinating that Ellie becomes the opposition in the gameplay, yet which of the two were you backing throughout that?

Ellie confronting Nora, a friend of Abby

AH: She definitely does become more and more like Joel as the game progresses, that’s a very good observation. She definitely gets more and more selfish as time progresses, to the point where it causes her to lose everything, and everyone, around her. It’s her determination to hunt Abby down that causes her to lose Dina, probably the most important person to her besides Joel. With the theatre section, I can’t actually say that I was rooting for Abby, despite having just spent the last chunk of the game playing as her and seeing her side of the story. I think that’s the game’s intention though, to make you uncomfortable whilst fighting Ellie, because she’s obviously the person you’ve spent a game and a half getting to know and empathising with. The hatred still lingers for Abby for what she did to Joel from my point of view, what about you?

WR: Even though I question so many of her actions, there is such an emotional attachment to Ellie that she is still the one I side with. That fight is tough too, with Ellie being a formidable opponent – as you would expect. It is Abby who emerges with the advantage, and again leaves Ellie alive; at this point, I find it tragic that these two people are in this cycle of violence that is damaging their lives. If Ellie and Abby talked more, I reckon they may even discover similarities between them.

AH: I don’t think they could ever get along with each other for that exact reason personally, they’re far too alike to one another. Even their stories in this game match up perfectly – they both have lost the person that means the most to them, and all they care about is avenging that fact, no matter what lengths it is that they have to go to in order to achieve that.

Ellie in the theatre; this becomes the setting for a fight between her and Abby

WR: Is there any other points about the game to this point you would have us mention at this juncture? Otherwise, we shall go on to the first appearance of the Farm; at first I wondered if this was the end of the game, with Ellie and Dina settled outside Jackson after Dina has given birth to J.J.; there are some great quiet moments here, and seeing Ellie as a mother figure after all the events you have played through is emotional. Then, herding sheep, suddenly her trauma from the murder of Joel strikes her.

AH: If the game had have ended there, I think I would’ve been even more annoyed at the ending than I already am to be honest with you. It just seemed like such a dumb place to end it, however, like you said, it felt like that was going to be the end for whatever reason. You know what absolutely broke me in that section specifically? When you’re holding J.J. (I’m gonna assume it stands for Jesse Joel or something myself) and go outside and sit on the tractor, Ellie says to him that “she’s going to teach him how to play guitar.” To me, that was a perfect way to bring a whole full circle to that, and carries on Joel’s legacy. Joel taught Ellie how to play guitar, having promised her at the end of their journey, and now Ellie is promising at the end of her journey to teach J.J. how to do the same thing when he’s old enough.

To me, that was a perfect way to bring a whole full circle to that, and carries on Joel’s legacy.

Ashley Harrison

WR: That’s a great point; I also found being able to engrave initials on the tree a touching moment, especially when you revisit the Farm and see them again. The trauma Ellie feels about Joel is done well; it suddenly hitting her as she goes about her life is an apt representation of how an experience can impact you. When Tommy arrives with a lead on Abby, and Dina is trying to make Ellie stay, which side are you on?

AH: I’m automatically on Tommy’s side trying to get Ellie to go with him after Abby, purely because I feel like that’s the ending that the game justified; Ellie has gone this far, she can’t quit now. Had the game instead ended with Ellie staying at home with Dina, I would’ve been even more disappointed in the ending than I already am with the actual ending.

The hunt for Abby and a life with Dina become conflicting options for Ellie

WR: Okay, we’re nearly at the ending; Santa Barbara is the setting for much of the final stages of the game, first playing as Abby, then as Ellie. Abby searching for a newly regrouping Firefly movement is a positive, forward-facing act, yet we never see these Fireflies. Instead, Abby is ambushed and captured, and suddenly Ellie hunting for Abby started to have the feeling of a rescue mission to me. Can I just say; this section of the game is STUNNING. That beach area when Ellie arrives? Wow.

AH: I think this is definitely the best looking section of the game by a mile, so I’m with you, it’s absolutely stunning. You know what though? I don’t actually think Abby ever got in contact with Fireflies; it was all just a set-up. My own (purely speculative, of course) theory is that that “Firefly Base” had long been taken over by the new enemies introduced for this final portion of the game, and the radio frequencies left on the table were hoaxes left by the enemies, except the one where she gets a reply, which is a direct link to them rather than Fireflies as Abby thought. Whilst we know from the Ellie section that the enemy base isn’t all that far from the safehouse, it’d explain how the enemies got there so quick to capture Abby; they were monitoring that base.

WR: That makes a lot of sense now you say it! Especially as they ambush them straight after, immediately as they leave the house. Fighting Infected in a more sunny, bright area was quite refreshing too. Those battles were dynamic, having a really different feel to other encounters in the past. I thought the non-Infected you face weren’t developed much though; for example, the two that are killed after Ellie is captured. Her using her immunity to her advantage there is a new idea too; though, that injury against the tree seemed really severe, and she stitches herself up without us seeing. I actually, despite the game being quite long, reckon more detail around this sequence would have helped.

Workbenches allow you to upgrade your weapons, shown with detailed animations

AH: Yeah, I would’ve loved more development for them. Do we even know what they’re called, and what their motivation for hanging people on stakes is? I genuinely can’t remember that ever being mentioned in that final section. My favourite part about that level of the game though, I have to say, is the fact that you can release the Infected from their chains and temporarily have them join your side of the battle, taking out the non-Infected enemies. It’s a neat little battle mechanic that obviously we’ve mentioned you can see glimpses of earlier in the game, but this is the first time you can manually pit the Infected against non-Infected enemies.

WR: It’s slightly different to those earlier encounters – it makes me sorta wonder why there wasn’t more of it, as there is so much combat in the game. Wouldn’t the WLF and the Seraphites use Infected in their war? It seemed there is a whole operation going on in Santa Barbara that we find not much out about. Especially, again, compared to how much of the game is spent on the WLF and the Seraphites. This final part was quite tough, but to me wasn’t as suspense-building compared to the Firefly hospital in the first game, where you could really sense that you were at the finale. Here, you save the captured people, and – to me – the game quickly shifts into finale mode, with Ellie starting to struggle more.

AH: You honestly found it tough? To me, it was too easy, there was just too much stuff to hide behind so you could get a decent angle to either shoot the enemies, or sneak up on them to stealth kill them. Definitely wasn’t as suspense building as the Firefly Hospital in the first game either, I’ll agree with you there. At that point you know that the endgame was there, and it was a race against time to save Ellie before the operation started. The search to find Abby at the end of Part II doesn’t have anywhere near the sense of urgency in my opinion.

Going prone opens up new avenues in combat

WR: I played on Hard, how about you? Not to compete, just wondering, haha! Yeah, agreed, though with the setting and new opposition, I reckon it could have been; it was paced in a way that didn’t seem smooth to me. Okay, so here we are – the discovery of Abby tied up. Ellie cuts her down, and they move over to where the boats are. I know you have a strong opinion on the next part…

AH: I did just play on Normal difficulty using all the default sliders, though I really do wish I’d turned up the frequency of ammo drops because I think I found myself without ammo more times than I ever did in the first game. Man, oh man… This fucking ‘climax’ to the story. Genuinely this has brought down my score alone that I’d give the game. For anyone wondering, the climax of the game sees you fight Abby and attempt to drown her in the sea, and just as Abby is about to die Ellie suddenly sees Joel and decides to let Abby go free. I get why the game ends this way, Ellie is breaking the cycle of revenge that she knows would only lead to Lev coming to find Ellie and exact revenge on her. However, am I really supposed to believe that after everything Ellie has been through to get revenge on Abby, after travelling from Wyoming to Seattle (a journey Google says takes 16 hours in a car, a luxury obviously not enjoyed in the game), after murdering each of Abby’s friends one by one, that she would really let Abby leave alive at the last second, purely because she saw a vision of Joel that hasn’t bothered her in the journey up to this point? She’s killed numerous innocent people on the journey to find Abby, and yet she can’t finish the job. The game is too long and too much happens to Ellie during it that it makes it impossible to believe that Ellie would show mercy at this point, she’s too far gone mentally that letting Abby go just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

WR: There is two sides to it for me; the idea of that conversation with Joel inspiring Ellie to break the cycle is beautiful, especially with the connection to the finale of the first game. Yet, as you say, for it to happen in that way, after all the events of the game… it doesn’t quite work. Also, the 1-on-1 combat is clunky; there is a melee fight at the end of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as well, so it seems to be a way the developer is going, and I am not much of a fan. That shot of Ellie isolated in the water, though, connects back to your point about her; she has lost so many people.

Abby taking away the time for Ellie to forgive Joel is heartbreaking

AH: And that point is rammed home even further upon returning to what was Ellie & Dina’s home after letting Abby go, only to find Dina and J.J. have left Ellie. This is, without a doubt, my favourite moment of the game and the fact it comes after the lowest point of the game for me is such a juxtaposition between the two moments. You realise in this moment just how much Ellie has lost. She’s lost her parents. She’s lost Riley. She’s lost Marlene. She’s lost Joel. And now she’s lost Dina. The ending of the journey has left her with less than she started with. If you think back to the first game, there’s a moment with Sam after the sniper point and Sam gets bitten, where Ellie and Sam are having a conversation, with the latter asking Ellie “How is it that you’re never scared? […] What are you scared of?” Ellie’s answer to that is “Being by myself. I’m scared of ending up alone.” And with everybody that she’s lost along the course of both games, that’s exactly what’s happened to her at this point. She had everything she wanted, and because she couldn’t let Joel go she’s ended up alone. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of storytelling that reminds you that when The Last of Us is good, it’s absolutely incredible. It upsets me so much that people aren’t making the connection between that scene with Sam, and this moment at the end of Part II, because it’s such a vital piece of lore behind this ending. I’ve had to explain to so many people online the significance of Ellie ending up alone.

WR: I also got a vibe that she was heading back to Jackson, though, and perhaps she has seen how much she has lost and is going to try and build relationships again, with Dina, with Tommy, with others. That is really complex and intelligent character development. That final sequence at the Farm, with the flashback, is so emotional. Finding out right at the end of the game that Ellie was really going to try and forgive Joel, despite every event, and that opportunity was lost… that really hit me. It isn’t at the end of a game that builds to the moment as well as the first game built to an ending, that’s a key difference. For me, forgiveness is perhaps the key theme of this game, and the ability to allow yourself to be open to it.

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of storytelling that reminds you that when The Last of Us is good, it’s absolutely incredible.

Ashley Harrison

AH: Revenge and forgiveness are undoubtedly the key themes of the game, but the most significant piece of forgiveness just happens too late for it to be believable, as I’ve already said. That final cutscene with Joel that you mentioned where you find out Ellie was willing to try to forgive Joel for taking away her purpose in life, it’s absolutely beautiful. I mentioned earlier how I felt like the big scenes lacked the emotion that I felt they deserved, especially the scene of Ellie finding out Joel lied to her, but this one doesn’t suffer from that in the slightest – this is the exact kind of scene I was hoping for more of. It genuinely broke me that despite the fact Joel took away what could have been her purpose in life, and she’s obviously angry at him for it and rightly so, she’s willing to try and forgive Joel because of everything they’ve been through together and the fact that at this point, she really doesn’t know any other life.

WR: It’s the type of scene I am after; it is a consequence of the first game, but builds on it with ideas that are dependent on that game instead of repeating to the audience the events that have happened. The problem is that it takes until the ending to get a scene at this level. The first game excels at weaving gameplay and cutscenes together into an absorbing narrative, whilst this game felt a bit more as though I was playing towards story points. In your opinion, where is Ellie heading towards? Back to Jackson? Off on her own? Perhaps another way? Also, would you prefer they leave the story as is now (with the possible exception of DLC), or keep going – potentially to form a trilogy?

The game opens in Jackson; perhaps Ellie is going back there?

AH: I’m fairly sure she’ll probably head back to Jackson and reunite with Tommy, rather than set out on her own. She knows she’s safe there and time can heal most wounds, so I don’t think Ellie would risk her own life to go off on her own. As for the story, I’d love to see a Left Behind style DLC that focuses on Tommy and develops his story more. It’d be a good way to bring Joel back, and could help fill in the 5 year gap between the ending of the first game and the beginning of this one. As far as whether to make it into a trilogy or not? I’m firmly in the ‘no’ camp for this one myself. The climax to this story has turned me so far off the idea of another game, it’s such a letdown.

WR: Yeah, as aforementioned, more on Tommy please! I would be concerned that they would have an even greater scope on another game, and it would have even more of a problem with under-developed ideas than this game does. If it was a really focused story on Ellie returning to Jackson and finding Tommy, as well as maybe seeing where Abby and Lev go (to try and find Fireflies? Unless they reckon that was part of the ambush), then perhaps. A lot of my anxiousness about this game losing restraint was founded, though – I would prefer if they had not made a second game.

AH: After playing it now, knowing everything I know, I’d have preferred it without a second game honestly too. The first was perfect with the story and how it leaves such an open ending for you to imagine yourself what happens after the game. As an aside, have we mentioned just how good the sound design is? Despite the fact Gustavo Santaolalla can’t read or write music in the traditional sense, he’s composed 3 incredible soundtracks for the series. My favourite moment sound wise from the whole game is in the hospital basement. As you start exploring, it starts with a simple, slow drum beat. As you progress though and get closer to the Rat King, more and more instruments are added and the tempo increases, really adding to the drama of that moment. It’s genuinely incredible, and had my heart racing even just walking around in the basement.

Environments are stunningly detailed

WR: It seems harsh to say it, perhaps, with all the work that went into this game – and as a piece of art it is undoubtedly technically phenomenal; the performances, the visual graphics, the gameplay systems. The soundtrack to this game is amazing, as is the sound design. The unique way Santaolalla creates music is astounding to me, and creates such a sense of atmosphere that is distinct to this game. Yet, story-wise, it feels unnecessary to me, and that is at the forefront of The Last of Us as a series.

AH: Absolutely. For such a story-focused pair of games, The Last of Us Part II gets everything else so right except the story.

WR: After finishing the game, how were your emotions? In addition, how compelled are you to play through the game multiple ways in comparison to the first? I felt I was thorough, yet I have many collectibles to find!

AH: The game is such a rollercoaster of emotions, when it’s good it’s great, but when it’s bad it’s awful, and that’s personally how I felt. There are definite low-points, but absolutely more high points. However, between the combination of game length and the fact that Ellie lets Abby go free at the end of the game, I’m really not likely to do anything more than a collectible runthrough to obtain the Platinum trophy as like you, I thought I was pretty thorough but apparently I missed so many! In comparison, I’ve genuinely done nearly 20 runs of the first game.

There are plenty of secrets to find in the world

WR: I am not sure whether I shall go for the Platinum; I often go for the Platinum on games I connect with on an exceptional level, and I don’t reckon this game is on the level of the first. Right, unless there are other elements you reckon we should mention, we’re gonna go onto our scores! We have discussed a lot about the game, but at the same time there is so much more we could talk about!

AH: I think we’ve covered everything now that I’d want to talk about! Any further discussion would just be repeating points, and I’m sure we’ve already done as such haha! How are we doing this? A score out of 10 I assume? If we’re going for that, then I think a fair review score would be a 7/10. Like I said there are such incredible moments in the game, but there are severe problems that I have that I don’t think I could justify anything more than a 7.

WR: See, this game is so tricky to score! It is stunning in many ways – as a production it is really impressive. Those key story flaws, and a lack of restraint in multiple areas, really affect the game for me, and led to moments where I was not on board with the direction the game was taking. It’s impressive, ambitious, so flawed – a 9 from me.

The game is ambitious in the emotions being portrayed

AH: A 9? Honestly that’s higher than I was expecting. With such critical flaws, I could never imagine giving the game that high of a score.

WR: It’s the level of detail in the world, and the improvements to parts of the gameplay, as well as how ambitious they have been with the story they have told. There is so much smart about the game, even with all the flaws. Would I have preferred no second game? Yes. However, if I am scoring this game, I have to consider just how impressive so much of it is.

It is a game I can imagine inspiring a lot of creators in years to come to try alternative methods with their video game narratives.

William Robinson

AH: See, I can’t give it extra points for ambitiousness in the story when it falls completely flat on its face at its most vital point for me. I appreciate what they’ve tried to do, but yeah… It’s definitely impressive in its scale and scope, and I fully commend everyone at Naughty Dog for what they’ve achieved, but for me the most important part of The Last of Us is its story, and Part II just doesn’t do it for me.

WR: There are those shining moments, at points in the flashbacks; at the end; in the structure of the game, that show me that those ideas are there. The flipped perspective with Abby is really clever and shows a nuance a lot of games do not have. It is a game I can imagine inspiring a lot of creators in years to come to try alternative methods with their video game narratives.

Is there going to be DLC, or a third game?

AH: I definitely hope that more creators take up the idea of a dual perspective; showing multiple viewpoints definitely helped my enjoyment of the game. It also helps provide more depth to the supposed villain if you get to see things from their side of the story. In this case, it definitely helped to humanise Abby, and see her as more than just a random person who murdered Joel.

WR: Yeah, so many games have underdeveloped opposing characters; perhaps now more people shall see that there are many ways to provide another perspective on the events of a game. Keep an eye on narrative styles in the years to come, and see if there are more experiments with alternative viewpoints on the events within games. It’s been a delight doing this again. Let me know when you get that Platinum, haha! Until next time!

AH: Until next time!


I hope you enjoyed the return of this series of article! These are going to be recurring from now on; let us know if there are any particular changes you suggest. Also, leave a comment about your thoughts on The Last of Us Part II; we could discuss more!

Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds Review

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


Horizon Zero Dawn‘s major DLC expansion delivers more of what made the action adventure so compelling to begin with – beautiful environments, visceral action, and an engaging story about woman and machine (you can read my review here). The Frozen Wilds also makes subtle but noticeable improvements on weaker areas of the base game, which bodes well for the inevitable sequel.


A Cut Above

The Frozen Wilds is set in The Cut, a brand new addition to the north of the map. As we know from popular culture, heading north often means cold, harsh conditions, and it is no different here. Horizon is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where sentient machines caused widespread devastation and led to the human race essentially hitting the reset button; The Frozen Wilds introduces a new handful of these imposing robot dinosaurs, and the linear path up to The Cut forces an encounter with one straight off the bat.

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20180125220942

This is the Scorcher, to be precise – a machine that is ferocious at close range and can produce devastating bursts of fire. Even the players who are experts with the the way combat works in Horizon will find a big challenge here, especially when multiple machines are attacking at once later on. Whilst the recommended level for entry was 35 (the previous cap was 50, which is raised to 60 in this DLC), even my lv50 Aloy struggled at times. Another introduction is a machine based on a polar bear, which can unleash consecutive melee attacks that leave Aloy reeling. The added challenge is welcome for those who had perhaps gotten too comfortable with the cycle of strategic combat.

A big draw of Horizon was not only the gameplay but the intriguing story that was interwoven in; the Banuk were a tribe that were involved at times, mainly though the enigmatic Sylens, who assists Aloy at crucial points. They remained mysterious, though – however, The Cut is the residence of the Banuk, and reveals a lot about them. The overarching plot does little to deviate massively from what Guerrilla presented in the main story, with dangerous machines populating the freezing mountain known as Thunder’s Drum due to a hostile AI.

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It’s what The Frozen Wilds gives you within that structure that supplements what came before. Aratak, the Banuk Chieftain, and Ourea, who discovers a friendlier AI, are the most developed side characters and provide the main emotional payoff, but the Banuk tribe is full of other perspectives and troubles that Aloy can help with. It’s like learning a different culture – one quest requires finding missing hunters that didn’t return from a survival ritual, and dealing with the morality of saving them when they think their failure makes their lives void. Other quests teach you about new materials and techniques, adding slight variety to gameplay whether it is spear modifications or a new flamethrower weapon. Horizon was already good at giving you side quests that weren’t just busywork, but felt unique and worthwhile, and The Frozen Wilds continues this.


Ice, Ice, Aloy

The mini-open-world addition that is The Cut is full of notable things to do. Some are changed-up versions of what came before, such as a Tallneck machine which needs putting back together. Others are new additions, like the Control Towers that repair nearby machines. The latter is one of the better introductions, as it makes you think about new approaches; if you sneak in and disable the tower first, the ensuing battle will be much easier. The Frozen Wilds is at its best at times like these, where it is ever-so-slightly changing up the the gameplay while sticking true to what made Horizon one of the gaming highlights of 2017.

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It’s the little things that you notice, as well. In my original review of Horizon, I noted the animation as sometimes looking a bit stiff in conversations. The Frozen Wilds features exchanges where characters look more natural – swaying, using hand motions, and pacing as they express emotion. It makes everything a little more believable, and is a good sign that Guerrilla know what to improve for the sequel that they are surely working hard on.

It’s just a shame that not everything can be magically fixed in DLC. The timing of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s release – so close to the groundbreaking Zelda: Breath of the Wild – emphasised the clunkiness of traversal when ascending more awkward, mountainous environments. The Frozen Wild‘s snowy world is full of these areas, awkwardly limiting where you can and can’t go. At one point, I got lost in The Hunting Grounds of The Cut just because a small wall was blocked for me; one issue with being given another chunk of the same game is that you have more time to examine the intricacies of how it works – flaws and all.

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Then again, it is saved to a degree by the stupendous beauty all around you. Even by Horizon‘s already-high standards, The Cut provides another level of technical achievement. You’re either journeying through tranquil, crisp white sheets of snow, or you’re being battered by relentless blizzards that block out everything further than a few feet in front of Aloy. In the spirit of Horizon, this is mixed in with the remnants of the old world, like the massive, frozen dam in the centre of The Cut; in both art direction and raw technical prowess, Horizon remains at the pinnacle of games as an art form.


Final Thoughts

The 8-ish hours it took me to get through the majority of The Frozen Wilds gave me a strong sense of closure. There is enough DNA from the base game to keep it feeling familiar, but also enough new ideas – and considerable challenge – to make playing through the entirety of the DLC both justifiable and enjoyable. Learning new bits and pieces of info about the events of Horizon act as a neat epilogue, but also set up what might come in the future; just like being reminded of some weak points raise the excitement for what an improved Horizon sequel could achieve.

9/10

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Gaming Photo Album: Transistor

Supergiant Games are one of my favourite developers going at the moment. Transistor, and now Pyre, are both intoxicating games with beautiful stories and art styles (admittedly, I need to get to Bastion). Some of my favourite moments of Transistor are when events are told with a single image; the idea of a picture speaking 1,000 words is evident at these times. Below are a handful of stunning examples from Transistor (they also make awesome PS4 backgrounds!).


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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.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

Developed by: Naughty Dog
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Out Now


This PlayStation review could hardly be a bigger one. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is billed as the conclusion to Nathan Drake’s generation-spanning story; having the unenviable job of living up to the heights of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception whilst also doing something new. Esteemed developers Naughty Dog have managed to pull off another fantastic experience here, even if it does have flaws that keep it from being the best Uncharted game yet.

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A Thief’s Life

A Thief’s End is, as the name signifies, the conclusion to the central 4-game arc of Nathan Drake. Despite this, Uncharted 4 feels different to the previous games. The new hardware may have something to do with this, but more important is the growth of Naughty Dog as a team and the new influences they have; The Last of Us‘ impact on this game is stark, with the areas in the game being much larger and containing more potential for exploration. Whereas previous titles had the throwaway Treasures as the main items to collect, Nathan Drake now has notebook entries and dialogue bubbles to seek out. You can get lost in this game, and taking a slow pace through the adventure rewards you with richer environments and deeper storytelling.

Where the influence of The Last of Us isn’t so welcome is on the pacing of the beginning of the game. While both third-person and action-oriented, Uncharted and The Last of Us (don’t worry, I won’t compare them all the way through this review) are very different stories with vastly different tones. The first six chapters or so feel like they get these two games mixed up, as A Thief’s End moves along at a sluggish pace with limited excitement. Nathan’s brother Sam (voiced by Troy Baker) is introduced and while this character is a solid addition to the cast (we’ll touch on this more later), at the start of the game you’re looking to connect with the characters that have made this series so special – Elena and Sully. Holding them from us inevitably hurts the content you offer us instead.

The focus on Sam feels like a distraction, and, crucially, this opening segment lacks Uncharted‘s brand of fun. Drab environments and little gun-play keep the game stoic, and overall the set-up of Sam coming back to send Nathan on another adventure wasn’t smoothly executed – even if it is necessary. Seeing Nathan’s home life is wonderful, but when you’re throwing a certain Easter Egg (you’ll know it when you see it) in my face as fan service, it doesn’t come across as a subtle nod. It comes across as a little self-indulgent by the game and it ultimately took me out of the story that was being told at that point.


The Brothers Drake

I’m sounding down on the game here, but this criticism of the beginning stages is due to the high standard set by the Uncharted games, and, indeed, the rest of Uncharted 4. Naughty Dog had to be careful not to lose the light, adventuring spirit of Uncharted even as they constructed a deeper, slightly darker story. I’m glad to say, though, that as you progress past the beginning of the game, that familiar feeling of adventure gets stronger and stronger.

When the first big explorable area comes up, in the Scottish Highlands, it really begins to feel like Uncharted – and not only that, but a real evolution of what that means. The world is lush (and the directing is set up to show it); the characters are chatting enjoyably through the environment; you might even feel inclined to use the returning Photo Mode, but there is a difference – you don’t run through the area like you may have used to. It’s sprawling, so you explore the different corners and find collectibles, take your time, and listen to conversations. Eventually, you get to some action and combat, but the exploration until then is just as interesting – even if it is optional (I really mean this: take your time with this game).

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The slower gameplay of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is suitable, as really, the theme of the game is about knowing when to stop and appreciate what you have. At the beginning of the game, we are shown a Nathan Drake that is going on dives and salvage missions. Clearly, however, he is yearning for the big adventures of which we saw in the three previous mainline Uncharted games. At home, he stares at a painting of a faraway place as Elena’s talking slowly fades into the background. We see him doing not-particularly-thrilling paperwork. He has this life with Elena, but he isn’t satisfied with that and desires another adventure.

That’s when Sam turns up, offering him just that. His brother needs to find the great treasure of the pirate Henry Avery to get his cellmate and drug lord (doesn’t he sound lovely) Hector Alcazar (Robin Atkin Downes) off his back and he has gone to his brother for help. Being in the situation he is in, Nathan accepts – and off he (and we) go.

This is a story that allows the character development of Nathan Drake to naturally progress. He’s never going to be content as he is at the start of the game, but along this adventure he learns a lot about what he really wants and how to go about getting it. While this is a globe-trotting tale with bad guys, it’s really all about Nathan’s future. As we progress towards the middle of the game, events continue to ramp up to the point where you wonder “is it worth it?”. The stakes, the action, the interactions, it all escalates – and not only is this extremely engaging and thrilling to play through, but it works in the context of the story. As aforementioned, Uncharted 4 is about when to stop, and you’ll be tackling that as Nathan Drake does.

Woven into all this is Rafe Adler (Warren Kole), an old prison acquaintance of the Drake brothers who is after the same Treasure in order to prove his own ability as a treasure hunter. With the physically proficient Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) and her army to back him up, he gets mixed up with Nathan’s adventure and causes a fair bit of trouble. Their stories are interesting enough and work as alternate views on the situation Nathan is in himself. Still, the central conflict of Uncharted 4 remains with our protagonist and his ideals.


Time for Adventure

It’s wonderfully ironic that the change in gameplay approach is similar to the recent Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft’s reboot – which has propelled Lara back to critical acclaim – has plenty of open areas that enable you to choose your own paths, but the game keeps you on a linear track. This is the case in Uncharted 4 as well, even with the introduction of vehicles about halfway through the game! In these instances, you have such a large scale of land to explore that it begins to feel like an open world game – but as you go in search of nooks and crannies, the game is cleverly edging you along to the next story point. There is a positive back and forth with these two franchises; for example, Uncharted‘s Indiana Jones-style adventuring owes a lot to the classic Tomb Raider games, just as Crystal Dynamics’ reinvention of Lara has traces of Uncharted‘s gameplay DNA.

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The more open areas affect the way combat works, as well. The core of the gunplay isn’t dissimilar from before, but – and I’m gonna mention The Last of Us again here – the way Joel and Ellie operate appears to have given Nathan new ideas. For starters, companions are integrated more cleverly into combat (ahem, Ellie) and – usually – don’t get in your way. Furthermore, tall grass can be used to conceal yourself and attack enemies quietly, and the addition of being able to mark enemies encourages you to take them down quietly, one by one.

Doing this can be challenging, with the AI moving intelligently and packing a punch. You’ll find yourself having to go all guns blazing sometimes of course and in this department, Uncharted‘s action shooter gunplay remains solid, if unspectacular. The larger environments make battles sprawling and tactical, as you try to find the cover you need whilst also attempting to get a clean shot at the enemy. Little touches spice combat up from time to time, such as the simply awesome, cinematic-style attack from above (which has wisely been incorporated into Uncharted 4 trailers! Seriously, it looks very cool).

Which brings us to the new item, the rope. As a choice for a new item, it’s an interesting one. It adds a bit more visual excitement to the climbing areas of the game, stopping it from being a constant search for the next ledge, but apart from that aspect it’s quite a shallow item. It has limited use in combat and exploration, and feels like lost potential at times. On the whole, it doesn’t hurt the gameplay, but some more interesting uses of the item could have added to Uncharted 4‘s refined gameplay.


Lights, Camera, Action!

Without spoiling too much, let’s talk about those action set-pieces. Unlike, say, Uncharted 3‘s boat scene, there isn’t a clear stand-out in A Thief’s End. It’s almost as if the game opts for the direction of more sequences, albeit with the caveat that they aren’t quite as bombastic. Indeed, Uncharted 4 feels distinctly longer than the PS3 Uncharted games, so the need for more intermissions of action is understandable. Nevertheless, there are still great moments. A multi-faceted chase sequence and the ascent of a clock tower are memorable; when the set-pieces do arrive, they are still energetic and varied, but it does lack that one sequence that you leaves a really strong and lasting impact.

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Speaking of these high-octane moments, Naughty Dog is setting a high standard with the way it does game presentation. The motion capture, choreography and performances by Nolan North (Nathan Drake), Emily Rose (Elena Fisher), Richard McGonagle (Victor Sullivan, AKA Sully) and co. continue to be captivating. The added polish of the storytelling pulls you in in a way few other developers seem able to execute.

The graphical performance of the game is utterly stunning, too. You often get treated to tremendous views (a long time was spent in Photo Mode), but it is the way that Uncharted 4 looks consistently beautiful that impresses most. Details like grass moving fluidly in the wind, particles of snow hovering in the air, and dust affecting the lighting add up to make one of the best-looking game worlds you can inhabit.

It’s also impressive how the attention to detail translates over into the gameplay. You can clamber over the backs of companions when climbing, so you don’t get stuck behind them. Clear a group of enemies silently and Nathan will express his pride. It’s little things like these, in both gameplay and presentation terms, that elevate the quality of Uncharted 4.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of small criticisms to level at the game. Late on, jungle environments pop up a little too frequently. Character interactions keep things lively, but these similar environments are noticeable. On the topic of repetition: can we stop this reliance on the ol’ boost-someone-up-a-ledge-then-wait-for-them-to-push-something-down-for-you in Naughty Dog games? These are exceptionally creative developers; surely there is a better way to break up sequences?


Give Me a Boost

It’s easy to forget that a game as story-oriented as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has multiplayer. It’s a substantial offering of content, but speaking of Tomb Raider, it feels a lot like the multiplayer in that 2013 reboot. It all feels a bit… unneeded. There’s a few different modes, including straight-up Team Deathmatch, capturing Command Sites in Command, and retrieving idols in Plunder. Rather small maps, with pretty straightforward routes of navigation, restricts combat to pretty simple scenarios within these game modes – ultimately, it all just feels a bit throwaway.

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There is undeniable enjoyment to take out of playing as characters you aren’t able to control in the single-player, such as Elena and Sully, but past kitting your characters out in your favourite garb and pushing up the Ranked Leaderboards… there isn’t really too much longevity to be found here. We know more content is coming, so it may be worth keeping an eye on, but the single-player is where your attention should be going here.


Final Thoughts

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End concludes (no spoilers) in a way that neatly sums up the game. I started by having problems with a bit of it, but then the main substance of the ending was so well-done, so interesting, that I sort of forgot the discrepancies of it. Sure, the pacing of Uncharted 4 is damaging to the momentum of the game early on, but once it hits its stride, you find yourself along for the ride and savouring each moment.

Is Uncharted 4 flawless? No. Is it still fantastic? Certainly. As an end to the story of our central character, the charismatic Nathan Drake, it is immensely satisfying. In terms of presentation and storytelling, this is a standard games should look to be inspired by. Nathan Drake’s adventure may be ending, but hopefully many more are just beginning.

9/10

Rating: 9 out of 10.