Bad Mojo (Windows 3.x)
By Unicorn Lynx on February 4, 2023
Harrier Combat Simulator (DOS)
By Unicorn Lynx on February 2, 2023
The Exterminator (PC Booter)
By Unicorn Lynx on January 24, 2023
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed (PlayStation)
By Unicorn Lynx on June 17, 2022
By Unicorn Lynx on June 7, 2022
The Saboteur (Windows)
Concluding the decade of mongrels with dynamite and cabarets
Saboteur is the last game created by Pandemic, who will be fondly remembered for their Mercenaries games. It is obvious that the developers put a lot effort into this product. Saboteur is clearly a more polished and ambitious game that anything the company made before it. In its desire to become the "ultimate hybrid" it reminded me of The Precursors.
The core gameplay here is free-roaming action and driving, which has become the leading gameplay genre of the decade ever since GTA III popularized it. However, the game also manages to assimilate the key gameplay element of Assassin's Creed games: climbing. You can climb on nearly every building you see, and explore Paris of 1940's on rooftops. Imagine the kind of freedom this feature gives you in a game that already contains driving, sprinting, jumping, and swimming. Literally every corner of the game world can be explored here.
Imported from Mercenaries is the ability to blow up structures. While less prominently featured than in Pandemic's earlier creations, demolitions are fun and rewarding. True, they can get repetitive quickly; but the game almost never forces the player to resort to those means, and most of the destruction here is completely optional. Speaking of which, the game informs the player which mission is obligatory and which is not necessary to complete in order to advance the plot. There is quite a good deal of side missions in the game, and some of them are surprisingly interesting.
On top of all that, Saboteur has car races, some nicely scripted action sequences, and an interesting light RPG-like angle: gaining achievements unlocks various bonuses for the player, so it pays out to try out every gameplay feature the game has to offer.
Saboteur is also one of the more ambitious sandbox action and driving games story-wise. The game opens with a fully irrelevant erotic cabaret show, but quickly switches to a dramatic, personal tale of friendship and revenge. Adequately directed cutscenes and dialogue that manages to raise above mediocrity on several occasions confirm the developers' intention to create a story-driven experience. The characters and the situations are interesting enough to compel the player to return to story missions in order to find out what happens next.
Saboteur tries to be everything at once - and, as it often is in such cases, does not excel at anything. At its core, it is a typical "GTA clone" with an eclectic mixture of ideas ripped out of other games. The game does many gameplay styles, and does them fairly well; but it adds nothing of its own to the cocktail of borrowed concepts, and there is no single concept it truly improves upon.
The times when every open-ended action and driving game could calmly copy GTA while relying on its sheer power of personality to seem different have long gone. Most recent games at least tried to contribute something to the genre's development (as did, for example, Pandemic's own Mercenaries). Saboteur, on the other hand, diligently and professionally recreates the tricks, but doesn't cement them with anything that truly belongs only to it, or anything that would make it better. In particular, the driving, once an essential component of the genre, seems like an afterthought here, and is strangely unexciting. The arcade-like abundance of sub-missions and a fairly plain, uninspired location design make Paris feel artificial, cold, and much too "video game-like", while lacking the true diversity, color, and wit distinguishing GTAs.
At this point you'll probably say "but there is the original setting". Indeed, Saboteur is (to my knowledge) the first sandbox action and driving game that takes place during World War II. Unfortunately, there also lies what I consider one of the game's main weaknesses. While both Mercenaries games were aware of their limited realism (which resulted in humorous, nearly comical undertones), Saboteur attempts to be a serious war drama. Now, I don't necessarily think that free-roaming action and driving formula contradicts seriousness. The example of Mafia testifies to the contrary: the game had violent driving and shooting and yet managed to portray a rather authentic environment and tell a deep story. Naturally, doing the same within the frames of World War II is much harder, and Saboteur does not succeed in this lofty aspiration. The game feels too cartoony, failing to reflect the gravity of the subject; the Nazis are comic-book figures, the Resistance consists of stereotypically upbeat "good guys", and the protagonist is a Hollywood-like action hero with bad manners but noble heart. Perhaps setting the game away from that particular historical time period would have diminished the discrepancy between its overall concept and the attempts of its story to be "real".
The Bottom Line
Saboteur is an open-ended action game with all sorts of popular ideas crammed into it; as such, it cannot be completely dull. Yet the superficiality of its syncretic nature as well as lack of focus and dedication to one core gameplay concept leave a sour aftertaste. Saboteur fittingly rounds up a game development era that was certainly high on fun and variety, but fairly low on true creativity and depth.
By Unicorn Lynx on March 26, 2020
Wacky Races (Windows)
By Unicorn Lynx on February 12, 2020
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (Dreamcast)
By Unicorn Lynx on February 2, 2020
Bubble Bobble (SEGA Master System)
By Unicorn Lynx on February 1, 2020
Bonk's Adventure (Game Boy)
By Unicorn Lynx on January 31, 2020
Tetris (ZX Spectrum)
By Unicorn Lynx on January 27, 2020
Forsaken 64 (Nintendo 64)
By Unicorn Lynx on January 26, 2020
Crusaders of Might and Magic (PlayStation)
By Unicorn Lynx on January 26, 2020
By Unicorn Lynx on January 16, 2020
Mia Hamm Soccer Shootout (Game Boy Color)
By Unicorn Lynx on January 16, 2020
Pac-in-Time (Amiga CD32)
By Unicorn Lynx on December 9, 2019
By Unicorn Lynx on December 9, 2019
Snatcher (SEGA CD)
Better than most of its genre brethren, but does that really mean much?..
For a game involving little more than repetitive menu-cycling with an occasional meager shoot-out, Snatcher is certainly a success. It is clear that a lot of attention has been paid to its setting and plot structure, aiming to make it as little boring as it was only possible.
Of course, Snatcher wouldn't be the same without the action segments. The furious shooting releases the stress accumulated during the investigation, and although those sequences are rather simple, they are certainly fun. Unfortunately, there were very few of those sequences, but there were many situations where you expected shooting, and this alone was curiously enough to keep you in suspense.
The monotony of menu choices is somewhat broken by a few more involving tasks, such as creating a computer montage of a criminal's face based on a description given to you by a witness; guessing the name of a hospital with a broken neon sign; searching a dark room by moving a flashlight around. But even the routine menu-selecting is well-made. First of all, you always get elaborated messages from your sidekick Metal Gear. No matter what you look at, even if it is unimportant stuff, Metal will analyze it and give you a description. Usually you can select the same option several times and get a different answer every time.
The story develops just at the right speed, without giving too much of it away in the beginning, and always introducing mysteries. Already the core plot point of the game - who am I? - captures the player's attention and makes him curious. The game always presents smaller mysteries, that are tied nicely with the main plot.
The story of Snatcher is pretty good, especially when everything is explained in the end of the game and you realize how seemingly unimportant events and encounters were in fact very important. The story is built like a big puzzle, with all the pieces brought to their places only during the ending sequence. Moral problems, philosophical outputs about mankind, world-domination, love are treated with typical Japanese clueless naivety, but not without passion.
In addition, Snatcher has great comic-style graphics and a memorable soundtrack with some atmospheric background tunes.
Snatcher is a Japanese adventure. To put it bluntly, if there's anything wrong with it, it's this. The lack of movement, control, and general involvement is aggravating. There is no physical movement whatsoever in the game: the adventure mode allows you only to select menu choices, and in the shooting mode, all you can do is aim your gun and shoot. I'd be really glad to see some movement in the game: for example, navigating the turbocycle myself, or actually playing those nerve-tickling movie sequences. At least a point-and-click interface would have helped. Unfortunately, there is nothing of the kind. You are not physically present in the game world, and that is a serious flaw for gameplay mechanics.
Like most games of its genre, there is a common and very annoying problem of "triggering" in Snatcher. New menu choices will only pop out when you have already browsed through all other choices, even though those choices didn't bring anything to the development of the plot. That turns a good deal of the gameplay into impatient selecting of all menu choices, examining and investigating everything that bears no importance to the actual game events and is turned mandatory because it inexplicably triggers new choices.
Snatcher (and its very similar follow-up Policenauts) is not really concerned with letting you explore its world. Not all Japanese adventures are fully linear; some, at least, allow you to move from location to location at your own pace. Granted, both games pay attention to detail and their locations are interesting, but this linearity can get stifling.
Most of the dialogues are okay, but some of them are surprisingly weak and can ruin the game for some sensitive players. The writing suffers from "Kojima-syndrome", with some pointless moralizing and semi-educational material that is too obviously presented - something anyone who has played a Metal Gear Solid game is familiar with.
Kojima loves movies, and most of his game plots are a mishmash of different themes he had drawn from popular blockbusters, sci-fi or otherwise. Snatcher is no exception, as the title and the entire premise not-so-subtly imply. The plot of Snatcher is therefore "gimmicky", compiled out of liberally used borrowed material. It's also very Japanese, so expect tiring verbosity and sexual innuendo at every corner.
As opposed to some unnecessary descriptions and corny dialogue, I'd much prefer to see more action sequences in Snatcher. There are, in fact, only three major shooting sequences in the whole game - one in each act. They are also way too easy, thus turning the entire game into a straightforward affair devoid of any real challenge.
The Bottom Line
Snatcher is clearly better than the vast majority of Japanese adventures, but that still doesn't make it a particularly compelling game. Basically, this is a flashy, yet derivative story accompanied by bits of restricted gameplay. The game evokes sympathy thanks to the evident passion of its creator; but as far as adventure games go, it is very primitive and lightweight, and can only be compared to the similarly simplified Rise of the Dragon.
By Unicorn Lynx on September 10, 2019
Kana: Little Sister (Windows)
Touching story... no game
As a hentai product, Kana can be considered a winner - as long as we allow ourselves to apply such a word to this industry branch. There aren't too many sex scenes, and those that do appear are noticeably more tasteful than the grotesquely overblown porn the Japanese seem so fond of. They are also not gratuitous and reasonably dictated by the events of the story.
Kana takes itself seriously. It tries to put some meaning into the deplorable genre. For that, it deserves some respect separating it from pure masturbatory material for guys who prefer monstrously-proportioned drawn girls for their sexual fantasies.
The only "gameplay" in Kana are some decisions (highlight an option and click on it) that will eventually lead you to one of the six possible endings. You can be more discreet and less romantic with Kana and tend more towards Yumi, thus getting the Yumi ending; or you can be totally engrossed in the relationship with Kana and ignore all other things - this will lead to any of the other ones.
The story of Kana has real emotions and some scenes are genuinely moving, I certainly do not deny that. It can engage us on an emotional level because it chooses a topic nobody with a human heart can be indifferent to: the suffering of an innocent little girl. At its best, Kana is touching, and playing it gives you the cozy feeling of watching a TV series or a movie that goes for the heart in a direct, almost crude way; prepare some popcorn (dark chocolate in my case, actually), sit down, relax, and purify yourself with a good melodrama. Kana aspires to be something like that.
I suppose I could point out smaller problems such as a generally very low-budget presentation without voices, any kind of animation, or even a sufficient amount of character graphics - often you talk to people while staring at the background picture. The music is repetitive and annoying, mainly consisting of totally inappropriate cheerful Japanese pop, with only a few pieces actually matching the tone of the story.
But all that means little when we stand face to face with the fact that Kana can hardly be considered a video game in the first place. I have to state it as clearly as I can: there is no gameplay in this product. With the exception of the twenty-five or so "decision points" that pop out throughout the game, you literally do nothing in in it. Nothing at all. You simply read the text, looking at pictures. I know it is a hentai game, but even the stupid Three Sisters' Story had rudimentary gameplay - you could go to different locations, look, ask questions, think, etc. Not that any of that was interesting or challenging in any way, but at least regular Japanese adventures try to simulate gameplay, not matter how badly. Visual novels, on the other hand, forfeit their game rights right away.
At this point Kana fans will probably tell me it's not about that at all. We are supposed to drop all those expectations we usually have for a video game and just enjoy the groove. It's not about gameplay or anything; it's about telling a touching story, so I should only evaluate that one aspect of it. But since we are dealing with a game, I wonder why I am required to make such concessions. Nobody would criticize a film reviewer who gives a low rating to a movie despite the fact that one of its characters is terminally ill. We understand that the art of making movies lies in cinematography, direction, acting, and other facets, storytelling being just one of them. So how much more this should apply to video games, which are by default interactive entertainment where the story is much less significant than immersion through gameplay mechanics and atmosphere?
But let's for a moment forget that Kana is a game, and look at it through the eyes of literary criticism. The moment we do that, we discover a weak script devoid of drama and constantly revolving around the same basic ideas. There are way too many descriptions of what's going on in the hero's mind, needless repetitions, pointless remarks, redundant information - and all that is not even well-written. When this happens in a Metal Gear Solid game, I console myself with the fact that I can enjoy playing those games, allowing myself not to take anything else too seriously. But Kana forces us to focus on its story because there is nothing else. And yet, the admittedly serious and important topics it deals with are treated with the quality of an average soap opera at best.
The Bottom Line
Most Kana fans will probably call me a heretic unable to understand a game that transcends its medium and so on. But the simple truth is that Kana is neither well-written enough to be a great book, cinematic enough to be a movie, and (remember it's a game review) interactive enough to be a game. As it is, Kana is most certainly superior to the bulk of non-interactive hentai crap, but that doesn't make it any more fulfilling if you come to the medium with the desire to play.
By Unicorn Lynx on September 9, 2019
What happened to you, Sierra?..
Larry 5 is one of Sierra's VGA titles of the early nineties, a row of games with wonderful graphics, rich MIDI music, and conveniently elegant interface. The technological gap separating this game from its predecessor is so huge that sometimes it seems there really must have been a "Larry 4" between them. It also has a cartoony look that later became widespread among comedy adventures: some rooms are viewed from strange angles and have strange shapes, planes wave their wings when taking off, and a few people look appropriately disproportional, such as the hilarious maitre d' in Hard Disc Cafe. The visuals could be the game's saving grace, although the much more rewarding remake of the first game looks just the same.
Al Lowe probably could not have created a completely unfunny game even if he tried. While much less memorable than the previous installments in that regard, Larry 5 still has some spark here and there. The situations themselves leave a lot to be desired, but there is attention to detail that has always distinguished the series, and it has survived the departure of the text input. Some of the game's optional actions - looking at unimportant objects, etc. - may yield jocular descriptions that belong to the more tolerable material it has to offer. The company directory with omitted letters (where ".uck You.." ends up being deciphered as "Duck Youth") is a definitive highlight.
And, of course, playing as two different characters is always a good thing. At least seeing Patti nicely recreated with 256 colors could be vaguely stimulating, especially if you got attached to her in the previous game and want to know whether she and Larry will ever be together again.
I have no idea what exactly happened there. Rumors of the company's boss actually instructing the designer to make a game anyone could finish may be quite close to truth, because Larry 5 ended up being just that. Perhaps they were intimidated by the success of LucasArts with their death-free policy. In any case, by throwing all danger overboard, they went further and eliminated any kind of challenge altogether: Larry 5 is unabashedly, mind-numbingly, infuriatingly easy.
I'm completely serious when I say that what is supposed to be the meat of the game - the plot-related tasks - can be completed by clicking through them. You see, in an inexplicable move, Sierra made all the puzzles of the game optional. I really mean it: all the puzzles in the game are there only to score extra points. You can procure an item and give it to a person who might need it - but you can also fail to do that and still proceed with the game as if nothing happened. This terrible decision utterly ruins the game. There is no sense of reward and no feeling of achievement, which is a crucial component of game design. The final segment is particularly horrible: Larry manages to fly a plane, safely land it, meet several people, and stop the villain in the final scene without a single input from the player!.. Often the game simply becomes a string of cutscenes with barely any control, almost like a Japanese visual novel.
It gets worse: Larry 5 is also aggravatingly linear. Whether you play as Larry himself or as Patti, the chapters all follow the same routine: you are taken to a single location where you must make a few steps, perform the most obvious actions, and automatically proceed to the next segment. There is no exploration involved: most of those areas consist of a few screens at best, each offering next to nothing to do. You can't even wander around, take stuff, or talk to people aimlessly - each chapter confines you to one tiny area only, without anything connecting between them. The scarcity of available objects and the restricted movement would make all the puzzles too easy even if they were mandatory.
Even in terms of humor, Larry 5 fails to reach the bar. The situations depicted in the game are simply not funny - not even in a vulgar sexual sense. Speaking of which, there is something coarsely lewd in the entire premise of the plot - having sex with overly horny young women and videotaping the act. This is a step below the risky, yet for the most part tasteful humor the series is known for. Since seducing all the woman requires no effort whatsoever from the player, the whole thing feels even cheaper and less attractive.
The plot makes little sense - and not in a good, entertaining way, like in the second game. The whole amnesia issue and the spy activities intertwined with corrupted porn industry are not particularly amusing and feel fake and disjointed. The overly symmetrical, formulaic structure of the game precludes any surprises already from the lukewarm start. And, like a sour icing on a stale cake, the omnipresent copy protection is more annoying than ever.
The Bottom Line
Even the greatest ones have their dark hours. The lovely visuals and the remnants of humor in Larry 5 prevent it from completely tarnishing the glory of its developers, but its inconceivably simplistic, shallow gameplay comes close to doing that kind of damage. Sadly, this is not only by far the weakest installment in an excellent series, but also a game way below any kind of standards set by its creators.
By Unicorn Lynx on September 9, 2019
Graphical showcase concealing an average game
The initial "wow factor" of this famously expensive, extremely hyped-up game is very high. Immediately upon firing it up you begin to bask in the warmth of its visuals. The graphics of Shenmue are quite amazing. The game presents a fluid, detailed 3D world with some very impressive effects. The only thing that blew me away more around that time was Ultima IX, but Shenmue beats it in the smoothness of its character models. There are quite a lot of people walking around the streets of Yokosuka, and they are all different. Even the most unimportant characters, casual pedestrians, have each his or her own face, body, and clothes.
You can explore the game's world at your own pace. Mind you, it's not large at all, it's just busy; but hey, you can't demand too much from a Japanese adventure. At least here you have a reasonable freedom of movement, and physical actions are finally allowed. You can look at, touch and take some objects, including those unimportant to the actual story. You can talk to any character you meet. You can practice your fighting skills or go and play classic MegaDrive games for the whole day. You follow a certain schedule, meet your girlfriend from time to time, go to work and come home to sleep. Oh, and you can feed a kitten!
I liked some of the realism injected into the gameplay to fit the deliberately prosaic plot. You need money to buy a ticket to Hong-Kong, where you hope to track down the murderer of your father. So what do you do? Descend into a dungeon, hack some monsters and see how their dead bodies miraculously turn into gold? No, you get a job and earn the money!
I didn't hate the fights and the quick time events. I didn't exactly love them, either: they were, so to say, tepid - definitely not too off-putting and not particularly exciting. Without those action segments, however, the gameplay would have been significantly more boring. You literally sigh with relief when a fight breaks the overwhelming monotony of the game.
Alas, Shenmue is a typical example of an overhyped game. People talked about groundbreaking concepts and revolutions in game design, but those were just words: the actual game is remarkably timid, shying away from any kind of serious concept and trying to convince the player to be satisfied with casual minigaming.
I'm anything but an expert in fighting games, and that's why my experience should really count here: I won all the fights in the game without any problem at all - and I haven't even trained! There is no challenge whatsoever in Shenmue. An even bigger problem is that the fights are not really fun - they are clumsy, repetitive, and way too infrequent to make a lasting impression. Indeed, Shenmue is much more of an adventure game with fighting sequences than the other way around.
And as such, it fails completely. The Japanese used to make good action games and their RPGs can be entertaining; but the overwhelming majority of their adventures are dull and pointless, being almost entirely devoid of true gameplay. Unfortunately, Shenmue is yet another one of those Japanese adventures: it just fools us into thinking it's more than that because of its free movement and fancy 3D. Seriously now: 90% of the gameplay in Shenmue consists of walking around and participating in uniformly dull conversations. There are no puzzles or challenging tasks of any kind. It's just running from one boring character to another and asking a myriad of unnecessary questions. In fact, even that doesn't matter: regardless of what you do, after a few days you get a call from a Chinese master, which completely negates all your previous achievements in the investigation - whatever they might have been.
It's like they didn't even try. And that's the game's ultimate problem: obviously, all the effort went into designing the visually impressive world, while gameplay was clearly an afterthought. There is absolutely nothing there that hasn't been done before many times and better. People went "oh" and "ah" at the sight of Ryo opening a drawer, forgetting they could open many more drawers (and find much more useful stuff) in simple RPGs of the 16-bit era. Once the novelty of seeing familiar actions performed in 3D wears off, you are left with paper-thin gameplay taking place in what is actually a small and restricted world. We are only talking about a few streets of a quiet town where you cannot even enter most of the buildings.
Another mystery, for me, was the praise directed at the story and the cinematic direction of Shenmue. At that point I could only ask: what story? Ryo's father was killed, so Ryo meets a couple of Chinese people who help him, earns some money and goes to Hong-Kong. This is, in all seriousness, the summary of all the important events that happen in the game. To get to them you'll have to endure days upon days of aimless wandering and inane dialogues. As for the game's dramatic qualities, they have been vastly exaggerated as well: the cutscenes are impressive only because they demonstrate the power of the game's engine. Otherwise, they are completely unremarkable and further undermined by bad voice acting.
The Bottom Line
Shenmue has lavish visuals and a few nice ideas here and there, but it's hard to understand why it was considered a revolutionary game by some people. It is, at best, a mildly entertaining collection of minigames superimposed on visual splendor without any actual gameplay backbone. The sequel is indeed more dynamic and more fun to play, but I'm not at all surprised the series was discontinued: the second game has already squeezed everything possible out of the nearly empty formula that tried to pass for a breakthrough in game design.
By Unicorn Lynx on September 9, 2019
Tomb Raider (Windows)
Represents its time, for some good and quite a bit of bad
The new Tomb Raider was marketed as a "re-boot" of the legendary franchise. Frankly, I never cared too much for its countless installments, but the first game was a masterpiece I had some great times with. For some reason I trusted the hype and went into playing it as a believer in a brighter future and a radical overhaul that would invigorate the series.
Tomb Raider is a visually absorbing game. The initial impact is very strong. The beginning already contains some of the best the game has to offer: you are being guided through several dark, almost disturbing scenes, fully identifying yourself with the helpless, terrified protagonist. You fight for your life, you desperately use whatever is handy to get out, and then you emerge into a desolate, hostile environment, where you are told to rely on your instincts if you want to survive.
Tomb Raider looks great. The game immediately lures you in with ravishing vistas that take your breath away. It is also probably the best-animated game to date. The animations are incredibly smooth and life-like. Environments are very busy and filled with objects and details. In fact, there is so much happening at the screen at every moment that it quickly becomes overwhelming.
One of the game's main attractions are its setpieces. Once you've seen some of them you won't be able to forget them for a long time. Near the end of the game you feel over-satiated and wish there were fewer of them, but this over-abundance doesn't change the fact that many of them are absolutely spectacular. Some of these scenes genuinely make you shout your favorite expletive and just stare in disbelief. The first encounter with hostile humans; the fall into a destroyed plane with the floor cracking under Lara's feet; Lara falls down. tumbling and grasping at every object on her way; Lara climbs a seemingly endlessly tall tower with amazing views opening to her. This is the kind of stuff I wanted to share with everyone because it was simply so cool.
The shooting sections work well, and there is a good balance between various weapons. You won't dismiss your bow just because you've found a rifle, and you'll find yourself switching between weapons to suit your tactics most of the time. Confronting enemies can get quite challenging even on normal difficulty, but it's always possible; you are not forced to resort to stealth but often it makes things more satisfying. Weapons feel fairly realistic and firefights are very graphic and intense. Even regenerating health and automatic crouching didn't subtract from the enjoyment of fighting enemies in this game.
The new Tomb Raider tries really hard to be the next blockbuster in the world of video games. Production values are soaring and the developer took cues from many modern games, obviously intending to put it all into one ultimate hit. The result, however, is not very satisfying. The game doesn't excel in genre-merging and confines itself too often to overly scripted gameplay amidst irritating hand-holding.
Tomb Raider is much more of a shooter than it is a platformer, though it does try to incorporate platforming into its gameplay. One can argue that being a bad platformer betrays the legacy of the series, but let's first assume that the new Tomb Raider was not supposed to follow the classic formula. Taken simply as a stand-alone 3D platformer, Tomb Raider is below average. It is streamlined and automatized to the point of preventing the player from having any kind of meaningful control. Most of the time you don't even need to think: you will get where you are supposed to get simply because the game is tailored to the needs of players unfamiliar with platforming. There is no skill involved in the platforming sections: they consist simply of jumping and climbing where the developers send you. There is little trying, experimenting, or overcoming challenges: it's too easy, making even the most spectacular setpieces less exciting.
Some of the game's environments are unabashedly artificial, with objects clearly serving purely gameplay-related purposes. Many levels are full of conveniently placed ziplines, craggy walls, and other junk that is there only because the designers wanted to hold your hand and smoothly guide you through it. You don't need to figure out anything: everything has been already done for you. It is in line with the alarming tendency of modern games to cater way too much to the player, to be as casual as possible without regards to the damage done to credibility and involvement.
Survival game? There couldn't have been a bigger deception. After the short initial stretch Lara will dispatch of hundreds of enemies with basically unlimited supplies of ammo. After the first scripted dear-killing event you won't need to hunt ever again. There is no hunger meter or anything like that, so all you can do is kill animals for the game's omnipresent experience points. Everything is there in over-abundance because the developers wanted the player to suffer no inconvenience whatsoever, thus removing the joy from overcoming difficulties on your own, figuring out on your own how to deal with the game.
For a reason I cannot fathom almost every modern game needs to have quick-time events. I thought that ever since they were abused by Fahrenheit the developers would actually realize that they should be seen as what they are, a gimmick, rather than being elevated to a primary gameplay element. Instead of boss battles and challenging scripted events Tomb Raider makes yet another sacrifice to modern conventions with those QTEs. And don't let me get started on the "survival instinct" option, which highlights all important objects on the screen.
Tomb Raider was probably not supposed to be an open-world game. But for some reason it has many elements that would actually greatly benefit from free-roaming. Collecting stuff is much more fun when you know you can go anywhere to look for it, and it's the only case when such abundance of things scattered around makes sense. Tomb Raider is, on the contrary, a linear game at heart, and its linearity is often ill-disguised. The island looks like a beautiful place you'd just love to freely run around in, but you'll never be able to. There are optional areas, but they are always well within the confines of a larger one, and they can be easily accessed. The terrain is disappointingly misleading: you'll long for free acrobatics and dangerous jumps, but the game will never let you do that. Try to think outside of the box and the game will instant-kill you. Many times I jumped at cliffs that looked way less dangerous than a series of crazy contraptions Lara just overcame without any problem, but I was punished right away for my desire to do what I wanted. Even though the game takes place on an island, water is almost completely inaccessible, and Lara never swims.
There is also an obvious discrepancy in style here, discrepancy between the seemingly mature story of the game and its unapologetically "videogame-ish" nature. Actually, the story itself is not very good, with a cliche villain devoid of any charisma or personality, a rather underdeveloped character cast, and ill-placed plot "twists" you saw coming from the very beginning. But Tomb Raider games were never about the story anyway. The problem here is that this game tries to present itself as a mature experience, an insight into Lara's character, but it tries to add depth to the character without supporting it by anything gameplay-related. Lara is supposed to be an intellectual who has never held a weapon in her hands. The first scenes describe with graphical poignancy how hard it was for her to kill a deer and a few moments later a human being. Yet afterwards she literally goes on a rampage. Nothing survives in her way, and she kills by far more humans than she ever did in all the previous games combined. Looks like sometimes over-ambitious storytelling can damage a game's image more than an unpretentious plot without any character development if the gameplay fails to match it.
The Bottom Line
The new Tomb Raider is, above all, a child of its time. It is the quintessential modern game: great-looking, tightly designed, intensely cinematic, sporadically fun, hand-holding, and lacking in substance. My feelings to it shifted from giggly joy to over-saturation, weary antipathy, and at last resignation. Maybe I'm just a grumpy old gamer, but I really prefer my games more open to possibilities and less patronizing to the player. In all honesty, I much prefer the original.
By Unicorn Lynx on September 8, 2019
Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition (Windows)
There are quite a few things to like about Final Fantasy XV. First of all, I applaud the developers for breaking away from constraints of turn-based Japanese RPGs. These linear, overly scripted games with little interaction could never compete with their Western counterparts in terms of gameplay. Square understood this and attempted to launch its flagship franchise into the realm of open-world action RPGs, such as the Elder Scrolls games.
The game's absolute highlight is Chapter III. After two short and rather unimpressive introductory chapters, the game elegantly glides into open world exploration. Now, it is not "open world" in terms of doing main quests in any order you want - the main storyline requires you to do things in a completely rigid progression. You can, however, take a break from the story and just explore. This is something that the series has done only sporadically, and it is a welcome change indeed.
Much of the gameplay in those early-mid chapters consists of driving around (yes, you have a car in this game, which is definitely a cool feature for an RPG), disembarking at any time and just exploring on foot. You can run, jump, look for items, and fight wandering enemies in action-based combat. All this provides a much more natural and smoother experience than the rather constrained journeys of the earlier games in the series. More importantly, the world of Final Fantasy XV is busier. There is quite a lot of detail, and all sorts of places of interest - parking spots, motels, outposts, dungeons, and towns. There is unfortunately way too few of these last two, and the world is quite modest in size in comparison to any Elder Scrolls game. And yet it is, probably, a more breathing, immersive world than anything the series (I dare say the entire Japanese RPG genre) has offered us before.
It is also a beautiful world. There are some marvelous landscapes, truly impressive fauna (there are some positively huge animals wandering the wilderness), and the whole laid-back, cruising feel is captured really well. The few dungeons vary in quality, but some of them do offer optional rooms and alike. They are still quite small, however. Nevertheless, it is fun to explore this world - that is, until the game brutally takes exploration away from you, or until you get sick from meaningless side quests and just want to get on with this.
There are also some nice touches in the gameplay, such as super-powerful weapons that deplete your health, food that one of your semi-controllable companions can cook to bestow bonuses upon the party, extra abilities to learn from a special menu, etc.
Do you remember how the sixth game was all linear in the first half, and then opened up in the second? This makes some sense, since the first half acts like a long tutorial and a dramatic story sequence, preparing the player for the true gameplay "meet" afterwards. Well, Final Fantasy XV does just the opposite: its first half is relatively open, while the second is infuriatingly, inexcusably linear. When I say "linear" I'm talking number thirteen - a string of ultra-long cutscenes interrupted by contrived, short marches from point A to point B. The game just jerks you out of free exploration, and puts you onto rails. The second half of the game is truly, utterly terrible.
Sadly, this is not the game's only problem. Its first half, the one with the open world, is actually not that great either. Don't understand me wrong: it's still head and shoulders above the usual "traverse dungeon Z to get to city Y" kind of thing. It's just that Square probably didn't have much experience designing open-world games, and so it made the game shoot itself in the leg. You can drive a car - but only on the roads, with barely any control over it. You can do a lot of side quests - but they are boring fed-ex assignments or incessant monster hunts. There is a vast area with diverse features - but there isn't much to do there. There are a couple of impressive cities - but you can't enter any houses. The world is open - yet it's rather restricted by terrain, too reliant on roads to connect between points of interest, and really not big enough to have a lasting sandbox value.
Another major problem is combat. It just feels too unreal, too jerky and cartoony, with a definite arcade-like feel, with way too much chaos and too little planning involved. Also, the game's very low difficulty level makes much of it pointless. Your health always regenerates, you don't die immediately when your HP falls to zero, you get frequently revived by your allies, and can always rely on the easily accessible healing items to boost your health back. What's the point of doing all those side quests and seek out foes to level up, if you can pretty much breeze through the game as it is?
I won't talk about the story, since I've stopped caring about video game plots. It has to be said, though, that there are quite a few holes and serious pacing problems with the narrative. Also, the character cast this time is way below the usual Final Fantasy quality - the characters lack the charm and the depth of an average series cast.
The Bottom Line
Final Fantasy XV is interesting and appealing in a peculiar way; but in the end, though, the experience was definitely too flawed to be truly involving. I'm glad that Square finally tried to break away from stale Japanese RPG templates and venture into the world of more open-ended, flexible games; but I also hope that next time, they try harder.
By Unicorn Lynx on February 5, 2019
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Windows)
Medieval Fantasy Sims
Oblivion is, for most purposes, a typical Elder Scrolls game: it puts you into a gigantic world which you can freely explore and undertake any quest you are interested in. One of the problems of its predecessor were boring, repetitive side quests that took the joy out of experimentation. Fortunately, Oblivion pays more attention to this; in fact, some of its side quests are more interesting than the "save the world" main mission. Working for the Thieves Guild or the assassins, you will discover some tasks that require you to make choices and generally involve a bit of variation on the usual "go to place X, kill person Y and bring me item Z" formula.
Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion is set in large world with plenty of background. Dialogues contain tons of information about the world. One thing I loved in it was the abundance of books. I always like it when developers dedicate their time and skills to something that could have been simply left out. For example, I read with a great pleasure a story about a thief who had to sleep with the ugly wife of the person he was robbing in order to escape. It was just a book I found in one of the many stores. It has absolutely no significance to the story. But it was so well-written, with wonderful style and humor, that it left me wonder why the writers couldn't do the same for the conversations between the game's characters.
"Size doesn't matter", some people say. Well, it's still nice that Oblivion doesn't confine itself to narrow passages some other modern RPGs tend to do. You are free to explore this world in any way you like. Emerging from the first, tutorial dungeon into the open wilderness is an amazing sensation. Fortunately, not every location is marked on your ubiquitous map, so there is still some stuff to discover by yourself, without jumping from dot to dot.
The "radiant AI" was a welcome change from the signposts that were the NPCs of Morrowind. You can see characters talk to each other and perform some routines - less convincingly so than in Ultima VII, but impressive nevertheless. It was fun to take a stroll through the quiet alley surrounding the Mages Guild in the Imperial City and contemplate a Khajiit sitting on the bench and reading a book.
Oblivion has great graphics, and they are more than just eye-candy. The world is detailed, there are many objects everywhere, each room is stuffed will all kinds of things, not just important items like potions or alike, but candles, apples, quills, plates, mugs - regular household items. And you can interact with all that physically. There is a "grab" action in Oblivion that allows you to drag things in any direction, much like in Ultima IX, but with a more realistic physics system. It feels great to push tables and see how things fall off it. I know this is just fooling around, but that's one of the things I like doing most in games.
You can also jump, climb, sneak, swim, and generally do whatever you like in the world of Oblivion. The meticulous customization is always a joy. Alone the character creation is almost like a mini-game of its own. You don't just pick a character out of the several available pre-made ones, but create his face and body. You can even adjust things like nose shape and the color of eyebrows - with a little patience, you can make the hero of Oblivion look like yourself.
There are plenty of spells, and you can also make some of your own. You can play as a thief - there is a physical stealth element in the game. I liked the fact that you develop your skills simply by using them repeatedly (like in Quest for Glory games). This is a simple idea that makes the gameplay addictive, and in many cases very rewarding, because you feel you really did something, not just fought many monsters and miraculously became stronger overnight.
I found the music wonderful. I don't think there is a need to introduce Jeremy Soule to anyone who pays attention to music in video games. Much like the graphics, the music here is a very sensual experience. Sure, you could call it "generic fantasy orchestral track", and that is indeed the genre it belongs to, but it's the choice of melody, the harmonies, the detailed orchestration that make the difference. And there is full voice acting in the game, which is always a plus in my book.
Oh, and you should definitely get the expansion, Shivering Isles. It gives the game a much-needed "edge" both in visual presentation and quest content.
Compared to the intriguing, fascinating world of Morrowind the setting of Oblivion is a disappointment. It is just your archetypal European-style medieval fantasy environment with somewhat repetitive scenery and locations. It's still beautiful, but it doesn't quite capture the magic of the previous game. The recycled textures in the dungeons also do little to preserve the ominous atmosphere that envelops you when you venture into one of those places for the first time.
Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion pays little attention to narrative and writing. The main story is very short, very simple, and quite uninteresting. The only more or less exciting part, the search for the missing Emperor's son, was over way too early. Very soon you learn everything about your antagonists, and from that point on it becomes the usual hunt for items required to defeat the bad guys. I also think that the "save the world" urgency didn't sit well with the laid-back pace of an Elder Scrolls game, and was less exciting than the gradually unveiling mystery of Morrowind.
Why is there fast-traveling to cities you have never visited before? Who on Earth came up with this idea? I remember how interesting and rewarding it was to look around everywhere in Morrowind, which forced you to explore physically because there was no other way to discover locations. What's the point of exploring if there is always an easier and quicker way?
Despite the well-written books (which were actually ported from Daggerfall, if I'm not mistaken) and the overall clear improvement over Morrowind, the writing in the conversations is still painfully impersonal. The dialogue is there just because you'll need to receive quests and obtain information. The NPCs have no personalities, and there is no single living soul in this whole world you can become attached to. Remember your friends in Gothic games? Well, here, technically, you also have friends; but they are, with very few exceptions, distant and forgettable.
The levels-scaling system almost ruined the game for me. Basically, the stronger you become, the stronger are the enemies around you. I always loved this feeling in RPGs when you grow strong and then go to some place with enemies who seemed so tough before and just whack them in two hits (Gothic games were great at that). Well, you can't do that in Oblivion. You can get to level 99 and then go to some place where you saw level 1 bandits, and you'll see the've become level 99 as well, and on top of that magically procured very strong and rare enchanted armor. So if you don't specialize in combat, those level 99 bandits will actually kick your level 99's ass faster than they did when you both were humble level 1. So much for character growth.
The items you can find in dungeons are randomized and also scaled to your level. So you can forget about being a low-level guy who ventures into a dangerous dungeon and gets that super-strong sword before vicious creatures can tear you to pieces (and again, Gothic conveyed that feeling superbly). If you are low level, your reward will be low level as well. If you are high level, you'll already have found better stuff due to the fact of you being at high level. It's a bit like communism, actually. Sounds logical in theory, but makes life very boring.
The Bottom Line
Oblivion is a hard game to review. It improves upon Morrowind in several ways, but also retains many of its shortcomings and adds some new ones. Its dubious design choices are irritating, and you can't help thinking what it would have been if it had more charisma. And yet, despite all its flaws, Oblivion is still as fun and as addictive as only an Elder Scrolls game can be. Yes, it is a generic fantasy world, but one you can lose yourself in for hours without noticing how the time passes. It will probably not convert a new player to the series' fandom, but will certainly satisfy those who enjoy full-scale freedom and sensual immersion in a virtual world.
By Unicorn Lynx on August 30, 2018
Okay, we've got the playground. Now all we need is a game...
To what can I compare Assassin's Creed?.. Prince of Persia? The Middle Eastern setting and the acrobatic manoeuvres are pretty much the only common denominators. Metal Gear Solid comes to mind when you think about sneaking and infiltrating with a larger-than-life story on the background. But for the reasons mentioned in the "Bad" section, even Hideo Kojima's convoluted soap opera heroes look like trained real-life spies compared to the sheer dilettantism of Altair and his adversaries. Actually, the games I thought of most while playing Assassin's Creed were (perhaps surprisingly) GTA series. Exploring large cities, hijacking horses and having trouble with the law brought back memories.
This alone should give you an idea about how unorthodox Assassin's Creed is. So let my praise begin with just that. The gameplay of Assassin's Creed is unique. It's like a gigantic mega-platform game in a sandbox world with stealth. And even though it is very far from perfect, some of its gameplay works very well and manages to be genuinely exciting.
The most interesting aspect of the game is its acrobatic platform action, which comes in nearly unlimited amounts. Platform games are associated with linearity. The best platform game is usually one that has the tightest design. The developers invent clever puzzles, intricately constructed levels, and then invite you to play inside their creation. But Assassin's Creed shows that platforming can also be fun (at least for a while) when it is open-ended. The platform "levels" of the game are entire cities; the walls, the windows, the roofs - an organic whole that looks natural no matter in which part of it you are. You always feel that you are in a city, not in some cleverly designed contraption. Only the conveniently placed little chambers on the roofs and the hay stacks feel like "game elements"; but those aren't integral parts of the platform gameplay.
The platform action is splendidly animated, feels natural, is never frustrating, and is fun to do even without any particular goal - which is most of the time, since the game almost never forces you to take a particular route. Want to do some sports? The roofs are open to you. Tired of monkeying around? Go down into the city and walk like a human being.
The sheer fun of being able to go anywhere in the city, (at least outside, since you can't enter most of the houses) is incomparable. The moment you visit one of those vast, beautiful cities, you have a mad desire to jump and climb, because you know you can. You see huge buildings towering over the city, and the first thing that comes to your mind is: "I want to climb there!". And you can. Go ahead and climb wherever you want. You jump over rooftops, hang from ledges, walk over narrow planks, and finally climb on that huge tower. The wind is your only friend now, you are far, far above everything and everyone, you carefully stand up and look down - the city lies at your feet...
The game is worth playing just for such moments. The views are so breathtaking that you'll feel that you don't want to go back. But when you do go, down onto the streets, you find yourself in really crowded cities. Narrow streets, people walking everywhere, pushing you aside, merchants selling their wares, guards bullying innocents, beggars blocking your way and asking for money - the cities live their life. Walking around those cities, exploring them, seeing their two faces - the world underneath and the world of the rooftops - is what makes the game unlike anything you've seen before.
Of course, Assassin's Creed owes a lot to its magical setting. Maybe I'm not completely objective, because this is one of the few games that are set in my country, at least partially (Damascus is in today's Syria, but Jerusalem and Acre are in Israel). Jerusalem is the city I grew up in, and it was a very moving experience for me to visit it in a game. Actually, Jerusalem of Assassin's Creed is only based on the real Jerusalem; anyone who knows the city can see that the layout doesn't match. But still, the atmosphere is there, and the general depiction is rather accurate.
So, what do you do in those cities, beside performing stunts on the roofs? Well, it is certain that Assassin's Creed has interesting gameplay ideas. Some of the stuff you can do in the game is cool and original. Putting your palms together in a hypocrite prayer and mixing with a crowd of religious scholars while harboring a sharp dagger in your sleeve and a wish to kill in your heart is a good example.
There are a lot of such nice little touches, things that you wouldn't normally be able to do in other games - like moving through a crowd and gently pushing people aside. I loved the way the crowd reacted to your movements, the breaking of the jars people carried on their heads, and the sheer chaos the cities turned into after you are discovered by the guards. Similarly to GTA, you can wreak havoc in the cities, simply starting killing people or destroying things.
The assassinations, which play the role of "boss fights", or rather "boss levels" in this game, have some scripted events and generally take place in unique buildings. Despite the simplistic nature of their goals (go and kill that person), the assassinations have enough variety to sustain the interest of the player even without paying much attention to the story.
Speaking of which, I didn't quite expect Assassin's Creed to have a good story; I thought it would be more of an "assassin simulation" with all the focus on the gameplay. But to my delight, the story turned out to be a rather intriguing piece of work with enough alternate history and philosophical speculations to satisfy a fan of such things. Though it had way too much of a banal "conspiracy theory" flavor for my taste, it was interesting to witness an attempt of a "historical reconstruction" in a video game narrative.
There is an interesting twist in the way this narrative is structured: the "frame" story is actually set in modern times, and while 99% of the action takes place in the Middle East at the time of the Crusades, the true protagonist of the game is not Altair, but his descendant Desmond (this is not a spoiler, since it is revealed in the very beginning of the game). Everything that happens to Altair is a "memory" experienced by Desmond through a special device that lets him connect to the mind of his ancestor.
Some games don't have any noticeable flaws, but also don't have anything that would raise them above the rest of the crowd. Assassin's Creed is just the opposite: there are plenty of things to love in it, but also too many things it does wrong - or should I rather say: doesn't do at all.
For starters, the premise of the game is absolutely misleading. When we begin to play it, everything indicates a stealth game. Which is logical, since we control an assassin in this game, somebody who has to hide and to stay unnoticed to perform his dark deeds successfully. That's what the game was probably supposed to be. But in reality, it's something entirely different. If you expected something along the lines of Thief, you will be sorely disappointed. The stealth in Assassin's Creed is useless.
You don't need to hide for one simple reason: the incredibly easy combat. Now, this is coming from a guy who plays every damn action game on the lowest difficulty level. This is probably the first time that I complain about easy combat in an action game. But seriously, the combat in Assassin's Creed is a joke. In a most ridiculous way, enemies can attack you only one at a time. Even if you are surrounded by ten enemies (which happens quite often), they will all take turns in attacking you. That would have been half the trouble; but early in the game, you learn the counter move, and that settles it. By using this move every time, you can defeat even the toughest opponents in a few strikes.
In a game in which you can do so many cool things in order to stay unnoticed, the laughable combat kills the necessity of doing those things, effectively depriving the game of some of its most interesting features. Why run away, looking for a place to hide, if you can just stand in the middle of a crowded market and kill all those guards that come at you one by one?
Unfortunately, the cool things that I mentioned in the "Good" section are not all that cool, either. In the beginning of the game, it's exciting to learn how to pick-pocket people, how to trace informers, how to overhear conversations. But very soon you realize that all those activities are little more than extremely simple mini-games that appear only when they serve some purpose for the plot. You can't just pick-pocket somebody on the street or eavesdrop on any conversation you like. You'll be restricted to doing it to a few select characters as part of advancing the story. And even then, doing those things is extremely easy and requires virtually no skill from you.
Seeing how all this suggested gameplay variety gets reduced to a number of harmless gimmicks, it's no wonder that the core gameplay of Assassin's Creed quickly becomes extremely repetitive. The entire game is composed of nine assassination missions, which are all built exactly the same way: you go to a city, climb tall buildings to find out what's going on, choose one of the several available mini-games, which repeat themselves over and over again, automatically obtain information about the target, and then perform the actual assassination. Granted, the assassinations themselves can vary, but the way to get there is the same no matter what, and it gets old very quickly.
The platforming action, smooth as it is, is ultimately of little importance, since the game does too many things for you. It's very hard to do something wrong because the game zealously protects you from harm. Jumps don't need to be timed, climbing is nearly automatic, and the routes are always convenient for you. You basically press the two mouse buttons and move them forward, and voila - Altair will do everything for you.
That pretty much defines the game's main problem: it is set in a beautiful environment, but this environment is little more than a backdrop, instead of being something that demands interaction and challenge. You learn all your tricks very early in the game, and after this there is nothing left but follow the depressing routine of assassination missions. You can't do anything else in the game. The few mini-games that were added in the PC version are like tiny snacks offered to a hungry person.
Despite its interesting premise, the story has left me cold. Worse than the narrative itself is the necessity to play as Altair - a thoroughly unlikeable person, a killer who obviously enjoys his work and is not motivated by anything else but personal gain.
The Bottom Line
I'm not very fond of the common phrase "it could have been so much more"; I prefer to think of what I already have, trying to disregard all such "if only" thoughts. But Assassin's Creed can serve as a typical illustration of that phrase. It has a great concept and plenty of interesting ideas, but it seems that the developers didn't really know what to do with them. It's worth checking out, but prepare to be disappointed by a promising game that doesn't exactly keep its promises.
By Unicorn Lynx on August 29, 2018