Cris Tales Review (Nintendo Switch)

If I could tuuuurn back tiiiiiime…

The best video game of all time, in any genre, on any system, is the classic Super Nintendo Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) Chrono Trigger. This is not up for argument, or even civilised discussion – it is just fact. I could talk about the amazing time-travelling adventures of Crono and his friends for hours on end. In fact, if you have never played Chrono Trigger before, just close your browser and go play it right now because it truly is a masterpiece.

This review is not for Chrono Trigger though, this is a review for a new JRPG with time travel elements known as Cris Tales. Well, the style is ‘JRPG’ but the developers Dreams Uncorporated and Syck are both actually based in South America. Can this modern take on one of the oldest genres of video games live up to the legacy of a legendary title like Chrono Trigger?

Plot

The plot of Cris Tales is typical JRPG fare to the point of cliché. The main character, Crisbell, is an innocent teenage girl, and an orphan no less, who is awoken at the start of the game with a strange vision. She sets out on a seemingly innocuous fetch-quest before a strange turn of events thrusts her into the role of world saviour.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Character Crisbell
Rosy cheeks and huge eyes = innocent.

We learn that the evil Time Empress is amassing an army to conquer the world and apparently a young girl is the only person with enough free time to bother doing something about it. Fortunately for Crisbell, she discovers that she has the magical abilities of a ‘time mage‘ after coming across a magical sword that seems destined for her and her alone.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Antagonist Time Empress
Surely her plan can’t be THAT evil…right?

Crisbell makes her way around the world helping the residents of the towns she visits. Only one with the power of a time mage can solve the predicaments that these people find themselves in. Along the way Crisbell is joined by a varied team that matches the typical JRPG crew. It is difficult to go into more detail here without risking some spoilers. I don’t think there was anything mind blowing here – at least nothing particularly new for JRPG or anime fans. The story is solid and wanting to know the secrets of the Time Empress and the mysteries of Crisbell’s past is more than enough to keep you pushing through the game to its satisfying conclusion.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Key Art Style
The crew.

Gameplay

If you have played a JRPG before, then you know what to expect here: visiting towns, completing quests, recruiting party members, solving puzzles, random encounters and crazy boss battles. The standard JRPG package is here with elements of time travel interwoven through almost everything we do.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Quests characters
Let’s go and help some people. Surely the teenage girl can solve the problem the giant armoured knight can’t fix.

A strong and engaging battle system is essential for a JRPG, as typically this is the thing we will spend most of our playtime doing. The basics of classic JRPG turn-based battles are here with some elements borrowed from other games that are welcome quality of life additions. At the top of the screen the turn order is easily seen (similar to Final Fantasy X, Grandia, and other titles) and this order will change in real time if enemies are slowed, or our team is hasted. Furthermore, for almost every physical or magical attack (either dealt by or to our team) if the attack button is pressed at the right time additional damage will be done (or prevented if we are on the receiving end of the attack) – you may remember this from Final Fantasy VIII or Super Mario RPG.

Over the early part of the game one of our crew members, Wilhelm (another time mage), teaches us how we can use our abilities of time manipulation to swing difficult battles in our favour. We can change the scope of time for the enemies on the left side of the screen to the past, or those on the right side to the future. Each enemy type will have a ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ version with different stats and sometimes different strengths and weaknesses. We can also use the passage of time in tandem with skills for additional effect – like poisoning an enemy in the present and then sending them to the future where the poison damage will be significantly multiplied. This is an interesting mechanic, but its usage is very limited to specific situations and it feels like they really didn’t make the most of this interesting idea.

Outside of battle, a froggy friend shows us the ways that manipulating time in the towns we visit can progress our adventure. Yes, Cris Tales also copies Chrono Trigger’s idea of featuring a talking frog as a main character. Matias is not a fighting party member though. He plays the role of our guide as we learn the ways of a time mage, just like Navi from Ocarina of Time except for the fact he is a green frog, with a cute top hat. Similar to battles, our screen view in towns often switches to a triplicate view, where the left side of the screen is the past, the middle is the present, and the right shows us what will befall the town citizens in the future if we do not intervene. A great example is one town that appears to be completely flooded and underwater.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Environment Time Travel
I hope you brought your swimsuit.

It is not us that jumps across the time barriers though, we only have the power to send Matias forward and back in time to speak to people or access items that don’t actually exist in the present. It is a cute system that throws a curveball at the typical puzzles and fetch quests.

Whilst the above does generally sound positive, there are some frustrations here that I need to mention. There is a ‘quest log’ in the pause menu that keeps track of the tasks we are doing (that’s good). However, there is no labelling of towns throughout the game, and the only way that you know the name of a person is by talking to them – the quest log won’t actually tell you where to find them (that’s bad).

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Rojo Character
This is Rojo, I hope you remember where you met him.

Presentation

Where gameplay is somewhat lacking, strong audio-visual presentation is even more important. Fortunately, Cris Tales has excellent and unique presentation that give it a wow factor, particularly when entering new vistas for the first time.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Art style Gorgeous
It looks…magnificent.

The art and graphics are done in a hand drawn style that is like flash animation come anime – I guess anime as seen through the lens of the South American development team. I haven’t seen another game that looks exactly like this before and it is gorgeously striking, particularly during the few ‘cut-scenes’ that play out to expedite the story through our adventure.

Supporting the great visuals is a similarly great quality audio presentation throughout the game. All of the games background music is orchestrated and excellent. I never got bored of the soundtrack, including the battle music which with Cris Tales being a JRPG we hear very often. Cris Tales is also fully voiced, and the voice actors here did an excellent job bringing the traditional and somewhat cliché script to life. The look and sound of the game definitely do a great job in making us want to come back and experience more of the game, even when the gameplay itself starts to drag late into the game.

The main battle theme – you’ll be hearing this one a lot!

One thing that really frustrated me was the god-awful loading times. It is possible that these issues are not present on other versions of the game that are played on more powerful hardware (PC or PS5), however, I found that for the Switch version every screen transition dragged on WAY too long. Given this is a JRPG you will be transitioning screens A LOT. Going into and out of random battles, entering different areas on the world map, and even moving between rooms in buildings and dungeons causes a loading screen wait of 5-10 seconds. Maybe I’ve just been getting too used to the power and insane loading speeds of the PS5, but this was extremely frustrating for me – particularly on return trips to areas I had visited before and entering random encounters that were about as difficult as putting on your underpants in the morning. More than being frustrating, it simply just breaks up the flow of game play.

Another issue that I came across on three occasions over around 30 hours of gameplay was the game actually crashing and forcing a system restart. This happened to me on three separate occasions (completely different areas) through my playthrough, and a cursory read of other journalists work shows that I was not the only person that encountered this issue. For a JRPG that does NOT use an auto-save feature, a bug that can cause the loss of more than 1 hour of gameplay is just not acceptable.

Cris Tales Review Nintendo Switch Main Save Point
Accio savepoint!

Conclusion

Cris Tales is a game that is wonderfully presented. It also brings some new and unique gameplay ideas to the table, but then makes poor decisions in how to flesh these out over a 30+ hour adventure. This is a game that definitely looks and sounds great, but the cracks in the gameplay and functional stability of the game itself create drawbacks that may cause some people to give it up before seeing it through to an exciting, if not somewhat predictable conclusion.

Overall, I did enjoy my time with Cris Tales despite the frustrations that held it back from being considered to be near the top echelon of its JRPG genre. It is definitely no Chrono Trigger, but then again no other game has ever reached those lofty heights.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for the work that these devs release in the future.

So, why should you play it?

  • You want to the ability to fix the mistakes of your past.
  • Looking for some JRPG battles with an interesting new mechanic? It’s right here.
  • Cracking soundtrack and voice acting enjoy while you save the world with your friends.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • JRPGs aren’t your cup of time-travelling tea.
  • The art style in the pictures above rubs you the wrong way for some reason.

A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.

Boomerang X Review: Nintendo Switch

But what if YOU were the Boomerang?

It must be extremely difficult to come up with a “new” idea for a video game. In an entertainment sector, and yes an art form, that has been around now for over 50 years and grown to be so huge internationally there is a truly massive catalogue of games dating way back to the glory days of dedicated home ‘Pong‘ consoles and PCs that ran on DOS.

This study estimates that there are about 50,000 different games in existence, while video game industry statistics reports that there are 25 new games released on Steam EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that I have played any meaningful fraction of all of the games that have ever been made. But I have certainly played a lot. And I can’t remember the last time that I played a game with a concept so simple, but so well executed as Boomerang X.

Plot

Boomerang X isn’t here to engage us with a deep story. In fact, there really isn’t a story here at all. Basically the game starts with a cut scene of our seafaring ship crashing on an unknown beach. We wander throughs a deserted village and chance upon a strange weapon… A Boomerang in the shape of an ‘X’.

How do you actually catch it without losing a finger?

From that stage of the game there is very little exposition. There are a few occurrences when some residents of the island appear between levels and provide a very small amount of information. However, by the end of the game I didn’t feel that there was any real benefit to these interactions. Certainly there is no real ‘mystery’ here. No real obvious goal other than to get to the next level and reach the end of the game.

This is a game that relies on its gameplay to keep you interested and pushing forward. Fortunately, the gameplay here is excellent.

Gameplay

What type of game is Boomerang X you ask? The game creators at studio Dang! describe it as a single player ‘first-person arena combat experience’.

The structure of the game is quite simple. We are thrown into an enclosed room where we must fight multiple waves of enemies. A certain number of enemies will appear with each wave, but there will be specific ‘target’ enemies that must be defeated to pass each wave. The other enemies can be ignored in the sense that they don’t need to be killed, but obviously they will try to attack you if you ignore them. Once the last wave has been defeated, the exit door is unlocked and we can move on to the next room. This process repeats until you complete the game.

We start our primary battle with only the eponymous Boomerang that can be used to defend ourselves in the first arena of the game. This first arena, as might be expected, is a very basic flat circular level with no obstacles. After each section of the game we are provided with some kind of upgrade. Either a shield buff that allows us to receive one additional hit before dying (up to a maximum of 7 by the end of the game), or a new skill or ability that will allow us to plow through the increasingly difficult waves of enemies that appear in the game’s weird and wonderful battle arenas.

Welcome to the ‘Grave of the Yoran Legion’, AKA the Lava Pit.

Overall there are 13 main arenas in which to do battle. Each of them is unique both in structure and style. They require use of different skills in particular ways to successfully complete the challenging waves of enemies that will appear.

The developers here have done an absolutely excellent job in regard to the progression in this game. Each new ability is earned in a specific order and we are given a basic ‘test’ in how to effectively use each ability in the next arena after it is received. Simple skills such as calling the boomerang immediately back to our hand become so intuitive that by the later levels of the game I found myself doing it after each throw without even thinking about it.

Where the game really shines is the genius concept of the ‘Slingshot’ ability. If the ‘throw’ button is pressed a second time before the boomerang returns to our hand, we BECOME the boomerang and are flung across the screen in the direction of the boomerang and it is immediately returned to our hand in the process. This ability creates a battle movement and positioning mechanic that is an pure joy to use. It is almost like having a single shot Portal gun that can throw you anywhere in the arena… with some decent aim. I was somewhat hesitant to use this ability early on due to the unpredictable nature of the boomerang when it bounces off walls and obstacles. However, as Boomerang X does so well, one of the next arenas shortly after receiving the Slingshot ability begs us to learn how to use this skill to its full potential. Where battles were previously completed on relatively small and flat coliseums, we are presented with a massive multilevel forest with platforms and bridges between the trees – think Kashyyyk from Star Wars, but less hairy. Soon after mastering this arena, the Slingshot became my main method of transition, dodging and surprise attack.

The other skill that I found myself using very often was the ‘Flux’ technique which temporarily slows down time. Flux can only be used for very short periods while charging up the boomerang for a long distance throw, but it CAN be used in mid-air. The combination of Slingshot and Flux in particular was one of the most fun experiences I have had in a game in a long time.

The remaining skills typically have a requirement to set them up – such as killing two enemies with the same boomerang throw, or killing three enemies while mid-air (without landing). These abilities when charged provide even more alternatives when charging your way through each arena.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzap!

The enemy design here is also excellent. Early in the game we fight simple bugs (spiders and flies) that require only one single hit delivered from any angle. As we progress through there are squid enemies from the Matrix, enemies that can only be hit from behind, the giant storm caller that shrouds the arena in a lightning storm and more. Once again progressing difficulty of enemies and the techniques that are required to defeat them are perfectly paced to provide the learning environment for your new skills early, and the exact level of challenge that you are looking for late in the game.

Is that the thing from Horizon Zero Dawn?

I have no hesitation here is saying that the gameplay here is just great. It is smooth, fast, and just plain fun.

Presentation

As you can see from the screenshots peppered through this review, the presentation of Boomerang X is quite unique. This simple uses a small number of specific colours over a wide and bright palette to bring each area and arena to life. Green forests, blue/white icy caverns and flowing red lava are able to give each region a unique identity. These bright colours are then offset by the jet black enemies that appear with each wave, making them both very easy to identify and quite menacing when up close at the same time.

Hope you aren’t scared of spider…shadow…things

The music in Boomerang X is again minimalistic but does well to match the aesthetic of the game. The combination of soft oriental strings and tribal percussion give an otherworldly or alien feel to the game, which does match the visuals quite well, but do not always give the fast-paced high intensity aerial battles the urgency they deserve. But there is enough here to provide a pleasing backdrop to the action. Sound effects provide good feedback to what is happening on screen

Conclusion

I do need to state that Boomerang X is not a long game. I completed my first playthrough of each area in one (long) sitting of about 4 hours. The game was a good level of challenge and I did die on multiple occasions throughout this first run. Each death did not feel ‘cheap’, and was clearly due to skill error of the player.

This game is clearly built with repeated plays and speed running in mind. In fact, the game comes with an individual arena and overall speed run timer built in. Each wave of each battle starts in the same way (enemies appearing in the same positions), so I can certainly see this game being popular in the speed run community as players try to find the most efficient pattern of mowing down the enemies as quickly as possible.

On completion of the first playthrough, the option of starting a ‘New Game +’ is provided. This allows the game to be started from the beginning with all of the shields and abilities in place at the start of the game. Other gameplay options are provided as well such as a ‘no shields’ mode for extra challenge, and a ‘no gravity’ mode which completely changes the way each arena can be tackled.

Boomerang X also comes with a number of accessibility options such as a ‘high contrast mode’, and an ‘extra-visible required enemies’ mode. I found playing with these options switched on as a completely different visual experience from the base game. Not a ‘better’ experience necessarily, but it does look cool.

Accessibility activated for aesthetic reasons.

I enjoyed my time with Boomerang X immensely. For me the fire burned brightly, but only for a short period of time. Others looking to invest more time into ‘perfecting’ the game, or even speed running it will definitely find something here to get their hands dirty. The art style and the Slingshot mechanic I feel are unique, and definitely worth the investment for gamers looking to experience something new.

So, why should you play it?

  • You want to experience a fresh single player arena ‘shooter’ with tight controls, an interesting art style and a unique mechanic.
  • My last article about speed running tickled your fancy and you want to dive head-first into a new game to get your name on the leaderboard early.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Fast-paced action isn’t really your cup of tea.
  • Games with no storyline leave you frustrated or uninterested in continuing on.

A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.

Speed Running and Summer Games Done Quick 2021 – Primer

I’d like to take some time here to talk about something a little different today…But don’t worry, the Qualbert team will be back to review the latest games very, very soon.

If you are like me, you have a tendency to love a lot of different things relating to this pastime/hobby/way-of-life that we call gaming.

We all get a kick from the experience of sitting in front of your TV or PC and firing up a game to spend hours in the shoes of a hero exploring some far-off fantastical land, kicking a goal to with the Championship for your team or even just getting the rush of adrenaline from solving that puzzle that has been bugging you for hours.

There is a reason that gaming is now the largest and most profitable arm of the entertainment industry and it isn’t just due to Covid-19 locking many people around the world out of theatres. Even before the virus the advent of high powered devices that fit in our pockets has made gaming accessible to almost everybody. Developers have adapted and nowadays there is a game for literally everybody. Sport, first-person-shooters, puzzle games, RPGs, visual novels…yes even Candy Crush.

But, sometimes you don’t quite feel like playing a game…

Maybe you just finished that 100 hour RPG and need to let the pain of a sad ending wash over you.

Maybe you hit a road-block and just need to take your mind of that puzzle, level or boss fight.

Maybe you just don’t have anything to play right this minute.

Fortunately, due to the importance of gaming to the lives of so many people, and with the sheer abundance of content producers, there are many things available that you can do to still be doing something related to gaming without actually having a controller in your hand.

You could take a few minutes to read a review of the latest release on your favourite website (hopefully that is why you are here). If you are musically inclined, perhaps you might simply go for a walk and listen to a classic game soundtrack or two (we’ll have some articles on this topic in the near future). Or perhaps you will join the masses on Twitch and YouTube and watch other people playing a game.

I’m sure all of us have dabbled with watching gaming streamers here or there. But today I’m here to tell you about a specific subset of streamers. Indeed, a whole section of the gaming world that you may not be aware of… Speed Runners.

What is a Speed Runner?

Quite simply, a speed runner is trying to finish a game as quickly as possible.

75+ Gotta Go Fast Memes Are About Sonic The Hedgehog - GEEKS ON COFFEE

We all want to be the best at something right? Well these speed runners often spend literally thousands of hours playing the same game over and over again to shave off just a few seconds from their personal best and claim that record.

We aren’t just talking about racing games here either (though these are obviously speed run as well). Games considered the ‘most popular’ or ‘best’ games usually have a strong community – examples being Super Mario 64, Super Metroid, various games in the Zelda series and Portal 1 and 2.

There are also a batch of indie games that are extremely popular in speed running, sometimes even developed with speed running in mind – examples in this group include Super Meat Boy, Celeste, VVVVVV and Undertale.

Are there rules to speed running?

Well, maybe…it depends on the game that the speed runner is playing. Indeed, within the speed running community of any one particular game there might be multiple different rule-sets and different ‘leader boards’ of times for each type of game. Taking the example of Super Mario 64, there are the following main categories that can be run:

  • Best time 70 stars = 46 minutes and 59 seconds
  • Best 100% time (120 stars) = 1 hour, 38 minutes and 21 seconds
  • Best ‘any%’ time (0 stars) = 6 minutes and 31 seconds

The first type listed here, and the main type of speed run for most games, is the quickest run through a game without any significant glitches being used. An execution-based run using level planning and pure skill (and prayers to RNGesus) to simply beat the game as quickly as possible.

100% times typically require completing all of the elements of the game. In the case of Mario 64, collecting all 120 stars will meet the 100% requirement. Some games such as Donkey Kong Country 3 on the SNES use an internal method to calculate completion of the game which reads as ‘103%’ when all tasks are done. In that case, getting the ‘103%’ would be required.

Often an ‘any%’ name signifies an ‘anything goes’ variant of speed running. Major game-breaking glitches can be used to knock literally hours off of a standard run. In the Mario 64 example above, you can see that the standard 47 minute time is literally smashed down to only 6 and a half minutes!

Interested in watching some videos of speed runs?
Well you can simply go to speedrun.com where there are vast amounts of videos you can watch.

Want to know what happens when a game is run literally as fast as possible? Faster than human hands are capable of even playing the game?

Then maybe ‘Tool Assisted Speedruns’, or TAS for short, are what you are after.

Using emulators and software that captures inputs on a frame-by-frame basis, TAS runners are able to break a game down into chunks as short as 1/60th of a second to complete input commands into a game. TAS runners are also able to do things that would be otherwise impossible for human hands, such as pressing ‘left’ and ‘right’ on a controller at the same time. TAS runs are insane and can also be hilarious to watch.

Check out TASVideos / Front Page

But what if a speed running community gets almost ‘bored’ of the usual game. Knowing where literally every single item is and playing the best path through the game over and over again must be tiring eventually right?

Well, fear not – because Randomizers are here (and you can even play them yourself).

Randomizers are, as you probably suspect from the name, a method of randomization of items within a game. They can be very difficult to construct because ‘logic’ is required to ensure that whilst all items are placed ‘randomly’ there is still the ability to collect what you need to actually progress through the game.

In Super Metroid, for example, the morph ball is always going to be found in the first handful of items as further progression through the game without it is impossible.

Games with a ‘Metroidvania’ or Zelda style progression system are generally the best for randomizers as the pathway through the game itself will change every time. There is even an insane variant known as SMZ3 – or Super Metroid and Link to the Past Crossover Randomizer. Here there are four portals between specific places on the map in the two games, and the items from both games are randomly shuffled around both titles…craziness

For more information around SMZ3 specifically, you can go to Super Metroid and A Link to the Past Randomizer

Obviously there is a massive speed running community out there, all across the globe. Furthermore, even in the early days of YouTube and streaming, many of these runners were able to eke out a life and earn income by streaming their adventures on Twitch.

Making money from speed running? Yes.

So how can this community actually give back to the world?

Well, about 10 years ago (January 2010) a small group of runners in the US decided to set up an event to raise money for charity. Various speed runners would run their games live in a ‘marathon’ format (back to back) over multiple days without a break. Watchers were able to donate to the chosen charity through Twitch – this Annual event became known as ‘Games Done Quick‘.

The first event was relatively small and run over 3 days, but was able to raise  $10,532 (USD) for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. In 2011 the event was pushed to 5 days, and this time a total of $52,520 (USD) was again raised for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

Awesome Games Done Quick‘ as it is now known (or AGDQ for short) has continued to run every year in January over 7 or 8 days. By 2020 the event was so huge a massive $3,164,002 over the 8 days of the event alone!

Due to the success of the event by just its 2nd year, a second event was started in 2011 and has become known as ‘Summer Games Done Quick‘. This event happens in either July or August each year, with donations from ‘SGDQ’ going to Doctors Without Borders.

The wide reach of gaming has allowed the Games Done Quick team to rack up a whopping 31 million dollars (US) for the two charities since January 2010.

20190927-NGO-05110.jpg
Great work boys, that’s a big donation!

Usually the events are completed live in a function centre, and if you live in the US (or want to travel there) you can attend yourself. Obviously with COVID impacting everyone, the event has changed to an online event with each streamer presenting from their own home – though one could argue this is in fact better as more international streamers can get involved.

The time is upon us again for Summer Games Done Quick. The event will be happening from July 4th to July 11th this year. In 2021 we will get a massive 146 games, run back to back to back, over the 8 days of the event.

It isn’t just the classics here either. Yes we have the usual suspects in Super Metroid, Mario 64, and at least 3 different Zelda games. But you can also find things here that you probably haven’t ever heard of before – what is ‘Manifold Garden‘ and can I eat a ‘Jelly Drift‘??

Pokemon Emerald‘…never heard of it. Must be some niche kiddie game.

Highlights for me at each event include the ‘races’ where multiple runners will play simultaneously for victory and bragging rights. This year some of the races include Mega Man X (SNES), Castlevania 1 (NES), Resident Evil 7 (PC), and Pokemon Black/White (DS).

I’ll definitely be tuning in for the Super Metroid race on the final day – always the most hotly contested part of the event. Other games I’m looking forward to seeing include Outer Wilds, Dead Space, Shadow of the Colossus and the finale game – Kingdom Hearts 2.

You can watch the 2021 SGDQ stream live at GamesDoneQuick – Twitch

Or get more information about the event, including the full game schedule at https://gamesdonequick.com/

Gotta go fast!

King of Seas Review: PlayStation 4

Yo ho, yo ho, is this pirate game for you?
Or, is it scraping the bottom of the pirate game barrel?

King of Seas is a pirate RPG game developed by the team at 3D Clouds and published by Team 17 now available across all platforms (PC, PS4, Xbox and Switch).  Billed as a procedurally generated pirate action role playing game, we are promised a quest-based swashbuckling adventure on the high seas with the ability to partake in ship-based cannon blasting combat.  

I like RPGs and I like pirates, so do I recommend this game?

Plot

The plot here is relatively basic, particularly as far as an RPG goes. At the beginning of the game we are offered the choice of taking on the persona of either Princess Marylou or Prince Luky, heirs to the ‘King of Seas‘ and his kingdom. We are thrown straight into action as the king sends us out on a basic trading mission to learn the ways of the seven seas.

King of Seas PS4 PlayStation 4 Visuals Combat
This guy doesn’t look dodgy at all

Shockingly, or rather – as you were probably expecting under the circumstances – the king is murdered while we are away and furthermore the blame is laid on us…even though we couldn’t possibly have even been there to do the deed. Despite our pleas of innocence, we are sentenced to death by the Royal Navy. They track us down and our ship is destroyed – we are left for dead in the open water. Fortunately, we are found and taken to the hidden refuge of the pirates. We have no choice but to turn our back on our previous royal life and turn to the daring and intrepid way of life as a pirate. YARRR.

King of Seas PS4 PlayStation 4 Visuals Combat

Gameplay

Gameplay is the make or break element of any game. So how does King of Seas fare?

Well, unfortunately not so great.

The game follows a mission-based structure, with your main story events and side missions easily trackable through the menu. Don’t get too excited though, as there are only three types of missions on offer here:

  1. Combat missions (go and sink that ship)
  2. Delivery missions (take this object over there)
  3. Escort missions (follow this ship over there and make sure nobody sinks it)

To start with there is little variation here in the side missions and to make matters worse the game quickly recycles the same named missions.  Because it is ‘procedurally generated’ the same mission will not always be exactly the same – you might even get asked to deliver the package to a different place this time! But that is of little benefit when the sailing itself is just lifeless and boring.

The majority of your time playing this game will be spent sailing on the ocean. Sailing very…very…VERY slowly.

To get from one side of the map to the other, even with the wind blowing your sails in the right direction, will take you at least 5 minutes. I was hoping beyond hope that a ‘fast travel’ option would become available at some stage in the game, but it was not to be. Anyone who has played The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker will know what I am talking about here. The sailing in King of Seas is just not a pleasurable experience. Even with various interludes you will come across in your travels: floating treasure, red ‘X’s hiding on the beach, trader ships you can raid and destroy… it just isn’t fun. It feels like a chore after less than an hour of gameplay and you have a long way to go after that if you want to reach the end of the game.

King of Seas PS4 PlayStation 4 Visuals Combat
Are we there yet???

But wait. It gets worse.

As this is a game based around sailing from point A to point B you will be referring to your map very regularly. But guess what? There is NO MINIMAP. Any time you need to work out where you are or where you are going you need to open up the full map. Which pauses the game. Which makes your travel take EVEN LONGER than it was taking already. It is just a bad development decision and I can’t think of any reason why they would not include a mini-map, or at the very least a general direction marker to help you locate your next port of call.

The combat is not much better. Initial thoughts from the first few battles was that the basic idea here is good. In this ARPG you control your ship as the ‘character’ in battle. You can shoot cannons to the left or right with three types of ammunition, and equip up to 4 different ‘skills’ at the same time. Skills can be either offensive such as blasting fire directly in front of you or RELEASING THE KRAKEN to damage opposing ships, or defensive such as lowering your pirate flag as a stealth/escape manoeuvre. The skills provide a good variety and allow for some different strategies, but the main cannon attacks which are fired perpendicular to your direction of travel are just yet another frustration in this game. Obviously you need to be moving parallel to your enemies to attack them, and they need to be doing the same. It leads to most battles becoming the same type of endless circular dance.

King of Seas PS4 PlayStation 4 Visuals Combat
Fire away…literally

There are multiple different types of ship that you can buy to use with different focuses (trade, speed, attack power), and each ship can be buffed with ‘equipment’ that amounts to the different parts of the ship – figurehead, deck type, cannonball and more. The loot-based equipment, similar to Diablo, does provide a great motivation to keep on playing the game and for me this was one of the better executed game design elements. Glorious pirate booty abounds in King of Seas, you can find it upon sinking enemy ships, simply floating around the sea in lost crates or buried under the classic red ‘X’ on the beach in a hidden cove. Additionally you can receive gifts of loot upon completing any side quest in the game along with gold and experience points. This equipment appears to provide a reasonable level of choice in how you build your ship and plan your combat against the Royal Navy…or innocent passenger ships.

The RPG ‘talent’ progression element of the game, whilst somewhat simple in nature, does give you good control over the style of gameplay you wish to use. Prefer to be a pacifist trader? You can improve your diplomacy and trading skills to take advantage of this. Want to use voodoo skills and magic to trick the Royal Navy on the open seas? Go for it. Don’t have time to muck around and want to just put all of your power into your offensive cannons? Yes please. Each basic talent has multiple stages that you can progress through up to five times with skill points for maximum boost. There are also ‘big’ skills that provide a more significant stat boost but can only be activated once. Nothing ground-breaking here, but the system works well and is easy to understand.

King of Seas PS4 PlayStation 4 Visuals Combat

Presentation

Presentation is another let-down in the King of Seas experience. The introduction to the game is fully voiced, but after that there is no further voice-over work. The initial voice-over has its own problems as well, with what to me felt like a very forced (bad) impression of a pirate accent. The character design looks unique and promising, until you have played for more than 20 minutes and see that other than the main two characters all of the models are highly reused. Graphical assets are decent and some of the islands and structures look very interesting, but again as a procedurally generated game after a while you will start seeing repetition – and a lot of it. There is very little variation in the soundtrack with a couple of good passages that get you excited for the game, until again you have heard these little flourishes too many times. Sound effects are fine with a satisfying ‘bang’ as you fire your cannons, but nothing to write home about. Everything here just feels a bit dry and outdated.

King of Seas PS4 PlayStation 4 Visuals Combat
Ooh, these islands have bridges… like those other ones we just saw.

I can say that one big positive for King of Seas is that there were no bugs that I came across throughout my review gameplay. The game ran smoothly, and there were no issues with any quests, visuals/sound or other gameplay performance.

Conclusion

There is a long history of both good and bad pirate games across a variety of different consoles and genre styles. From the recent Microsoft hit Sea of Thieves going all the way back to 1987 and the original ‘Sid Meyer’s Pirates!’ on Commodore 64, you have probably played a pirate game before and honestly you’ve likely played a better pirate game than this one too.

The game promises an ‘epic adventure’ on the high seas full of treachery and treasure. What it actually gives you is a mish-mash of ideas held back from reaching their full potential with bland presentation, uninspired gameplay choices and frustrating design. King of Seas tries a lot of things that you have probably seen done before in other games, but it executes them poorly and isn’t really trying to do anything new of its own.

Playing King of Seas is a bit like sailing a leaky ship with tattered sails built from the corpses of other games. You need to deal with a bumpy ride over rough seas and spend far too much time digging at that red ‘X’…only to find that what you were hoping would be a treasure chest with the sparkling jewels of a great game is actually an old barrel containing an empty bottle of rum, a rotting peg leg and a stuffed parrot.

King of Seas does have the (skull and cross-) bones of a good game. If you are willing to look past the problems here this isn’t the worst way to spend some time, but it is not the best by a long stretch. The procedurally-generated world, two protagonists and five difficulty levels (two locked until you have beaten the game once) do offer some amount of replayability. But I don’t think anyone other than a masochist would want to play through the game more than once.

My recommendation is to make this one walk the plank, unfortunately that is what it deserves.

So, why should you play it?

  • You have a lot of time to spare and like watching a ship sailing slowly across the ocean.
  • Your Roger is Jolly and your timbers are shivered by anything pirate related.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Repetitive gameplay gets on your nerves.
  • Fast-paced action/combat with a lot of action is more up your alley.

A review code on PlayStation 4 was provided for the purpose of this review. Review gameplay was completed on PS5 console.

Maid of Sker Review: PS5

Will you answer the Siren’s call?

There is a new survival horror game out on PS5 this month (well, a newish next-gen upgraded version of the game anyway), and I’m not talking about Resident Evil. Maid of Sker was previously released by Wales Interactive for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020, and has received the next-gen upgrade treatment for PS5 and Xbox Series consoles. Can the small Indie developer known for trying to bring back the ‘FMV’ style of game (baaaaaad idea) find some success with a game in a more mainstream genre? Read on my friends, read on…

Plot

The story of Maid of Sker bears little resemblance to the original Welsh folk song (or the novel of the same name). The game is set in 1898 in Wales and we embody Thomas, a silent protagonist (unless you consider grunts and screams as speaking). He is sent a letter by his lady friend Elisabeth along with her mother’s musical locket. Elisabeth requests that Thomas write a song, indeed a ‘counter song’ to the melody played by the locket (whatever that is), and to bring his music to her in the Sker Hotel managed by her father. Unfortunately, she cannot provide any further detail in her letter…how convenient.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
Welcome to Silent H… I mean the house of Lady Dime… I mean the Sker Hotel.

Thomas of course obliges to Elisabeth’s request and rushes to the hotel via train. On arrival, Thomas is greeted not by a thankful Elisabeth, but by a ringing telephone in the lobby of a dilapidated hotel filled with crazy cult members. Upon answering the phone, Thomas is pleased to hear that Elisabeth is on the other end of the line. She explains that she has barricaded herself in the attic to protect herself from her father, her uncle, and the strange people now inhabiting the hotel. She tasks Thomas with locating four musical cylinders hidden throughout the hotel that if played on the organ/harmonium in the hotel ballroom will turn everything back to normal. What is it that needs to be turned back to normal you ask? The ‘Quiet Ones‘ – staff and guests of the hotel that have been driven insane. They roam the grounds with sacks over their heads, viciously attacking anything that makes a sound.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
Play me a song my darling Elisabeth.

Thomas is generally left to his own devices to complete the game’s quest and other than some brief phone conversations with Elisabeth there are no other verbal interactions of which to speak. However, there are a number of clues scattered around the hotel in journals and on scraps of paper that provide further plot exposition. Elisabeth’s family has been part of a cult for generations, after her ancestors appear to have encountered the mythical Siren out in the open sea when sailing back to Wales. What was it about the Siren’s song that was so alluring?

Gameplay

The main story mode of Maid of Sker can be best described as a survival/stealth horror game. We control Thomas from a 1st person perspective as he skulks around the hotel finding clues, solving puzzles and picking up the musical cylinders without being discovered by the Quiet Ones. Fortunately, the Quiet Ones wear sacks over their heads and are for all intents and purposes blind. They can only locate you when you are silly enough to bump into furniture or try to walk through a dust cloud and cough your lungs out when they are in earshot. Unfortunately, in what may be a frustrating choice for some players, for the majority of the game we are literally defenseless. Even when the game is nice enough to provide a ‘weapon,’ this can only be used to temporarily stun enemies and cannot kill them, and in typical style the ammo for this weapon is extremely limited. More frustratingly, there is a point when this weapon is simply taken away from you for the rest of the game.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
How do you know I’m standing here? Oh, I forgot deodorant this morning you say? It is only 1898 after all.

Whilst I must admit to finding this complete lack of any offensive power incredibly frustrating in the early going, by the later game it does provide you with some tense moments. Thomas does control well enough, and there were never any moments where I felt a death in the game was caused by anything other than my own poor choices.

The puzzles in the game are all intuitive enough to solve without needing to look up a guide, and there are typically ample clues around to help you if you get stuck. In truth I would have liked a bit more variety in the puzzles here, and there is nothing ground-breaking that you haven’t seen done in similar games elsewhere. Find item X to open secret passageway Y that leads you to key Z etc. etc. That being said, the offering here is solid and if you like this style of game, then it is an enjoyable way to pass some time.

I must point out that the main story is relatively short even for survival horror, and can be completed in about 4-6 hours (more if you want to find all of the collectable items and uncover the full backstory). Originally released as an Indie title by Wales Interactive for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020, the team have gone above and beyond in providing something new for this next-gen upgrade with a collection of completely new game modes.

These 4 modes whilst all somewhat similar in their goal (escape the hotel with a limited number of lives/deaths) and do show that the game developers listened to some of the complaints of the original game. The two main differences in these additional ‘Challenges’ as they are called are:

  1. You now have access to 4 different weapons (Axe, Handgun, Shotgun, Rifle).
  2. There are a number of different enemy types that you need to mow down on your way out of the hotel.

The new experiences do give you that feeling of power that you severely miss in the main story and are worth a bit more of your time. But they probably won’t be something that significantly extends your time with the game as the FPS style controls and gameplay are just not up to par with dedicated FPS games.

Certainly my favourite element of the gameplay is the way that music and sound are utilised throughout the adventure. The crescendoing shrieks of a dissonant string orchestra will warn you of danger nearby. Alternatively, a simple change in the background music to a music box tune will alert you to an important item or save point nearby. What is that you hear? The rattle of a key turning a lock in the distance? You go to investigate… you have now opened the door to the next section of the review.

Presentation

Presentation is both a strength and a weakness of Maid of Sker. On the negative side, and as we might reasonably expect from an indie title with a small development team, the visuals here are rough around the edges. This was a late generation PS4 game, but it really wouldn’t look out of place on a PS3 when you compare it to the big AAA games on that platform (think Last of Us and Uncharted 3). Similarly to the lack of variety in the gameplay, there is also a similar deficiency here. The one main type of enemy is very bland looking and their animation is a bit janky, and the main boss is not much better.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5

That being said, there has clearly been a lot of care and attention to detail here in regards to the environmental details here such as the trimmings of the hotel, the art on the walls and the furniture strewn around the rooms. There are a number of brief/small set-pieces that made me stop and say ‘that was sick‘ (in a good way), whereas other moments seem to fall flat, or almost appear comical in nature due to the animation. Despite the game’s clear limitations in terms of visuals, the gritty, dark Sker Hotel and surrounding grounds provide a great atmosphere particularly when combined with the aforementioned best element of the game – the sound design.

Audio

I was blown away by the quality of the sound and music in this game. It is by no means perfect, but clearly sound design is the highlight of the Maid of Sker experience. Given that ‘music’ is a core aspect of the game’s story and gameplay, it is obvious that the developers really put some effort in to this part of the game. The soundtrack is haunting and the perfect fit to this game, particularly in the build up to the game’s finale. Sound effects are also generally good, but can occasionally be a little more miss than hit, for example some of Thomas’ falling/death screams seeming more funny/hilarious than scary. Thomas is silent throughout the game other than his breathing, screaming and yelling. Elisabeth, however, is fully voiced during the numerous phone calls with her, and the Gramophones that are used as this game’s save point (like the Typewriter in Resident Evil) will also play a recorded voice clip of Elisabeth and her family.

Maid of Sker PS5 PlayStation 5
If the screech of this device upsets you, wait until you hear me falling.

Some PS5 features also helped improve the experience such as the fast loading times and the utilisation of the Dual Sense controller’s haptic feedback. Thomas’ heart rate will increase and become stronger depending on the situation he finds himself. It is subtle but again helps build on the game’s strong atmosphere and overall experience.

Conclusion

Maid of Sker was made by a small core team of less than 15 people, and at times it does show. As noted above, the base game is very short for a modern game. Even in this game’s genre, this one feels a little bit short for me. This may be as a result of the repetitiveness in the enemies and the puzzles.

That being said, the atmosphere that is built though the soundscape of this game is excellent. You can feel the pressure and tension of sneaking past groups of enemies, and the relief of snatching the item that you need to progress without being found.

There is nothing here that can be considered broken or otherwise gamebreaking. The game is a solid package and everything works. I played through the full story and multiple attempts at the challenge content and did not come across any bugs or crashes on PS5. Maid of Sker can’t compete at the level of a game like Resident Evil: Village – but we have to accept that a AAA game would have had at least 10 times the number of staff working on the game as Maid of Sker.

For what it is Maid of Sker is an enjoyable, if not short, experience that provides an intriguing story, a creepy atmosphere with some occasional jump scares and a cracking soundtrack.

So, why should you play it?

  • You are a survival/horror buff and want to experience a different and unique story.
  • Zombies, Vampires and other common horror tropes bore you and you want something more.
  • Not much time to play? No worries with this, you can get through it easily without too much of a time sink.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • BOO! (did that scare you?)
  • You prefer a game that you can engage with for a long period of time.

A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.

Judgement Review: PlayStation 5

In the Japanese criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The detectives who investigate crime, and the lawyers who prosecute the offenders.

Actually, in this case it is just one man.

This is his story _DUN DUN_

The Yakuza series is a mainstay of the PlayStation library. The first title was released in Japan way back in 2005 for the PlayStation 2. Since that time a total of 8 main-line games and 3 spin-off titles made by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have been released outside of Japan with even more spin-off games available in Japan only. Initially the series could only be found on the PlayStation console family but now all of the titles can be found on Xbox/Windows as well.

There is a lot of convoluted history and backstory in the main Yakuza series, and with even the ‘shortest’ game in the series typically taking 20+ hours for a first playthrough. It can be a bit daunting for new players to just jump in to a Yakuza game. However, the spin-offs and Judgement in particular, are the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the setting, gameplay and storytelling that the made the Yakuza games so popular. 

Yakuza Series PS4 PS5
The main Yakuza series is a story that spans across multiple games.

Judgement does not have any characters returning from the main series and I believe this helps the game come across as fresh and allows it to maintain an individual identity despite the setting itself being very familiar. It also allows newcomers to fully enjoy the game without needing to play through 200+ hours of previous Yakuza games. So, what is Judgement actually about?

PLOT

Judgement is set in the Yakuza series’ staple fictional district of Kamurocho in Tokyo, Japan. Kamurocho doesn’t actually exist, but is based on the real-world red-light district of Kabukicho. Here we take the role of lawyer-come-private-detective Takayuki Yagami, using his full skillset from both occupations to solve a serial murder case involving the warring Yakuza clans that reside in Kamurocho. Early on in Judgement we are presented with Yagami’s tragic backstory that explains his decision to leave the uptight legal profession and become a cool, leather jacket-wearing private detective.

After the prologue we get started with Yagami taking on the investigation of a death in the ranks of Kamurocho’s Yakuza. This is the third Yakuza death with a heinous modus operandi involving removal of the eyes with an ice pick. Initially, Yagami is hired by the Tojo Clan to find evidence to exonerate a clan Captain of the latest murder. Through his investigations, Yagami discovers something much more sinister at play. The plot is well written and involves some twists and turns that do surprise, but without ever feeling forced or ‘unrealistic’ – as was sometimes the case in the mainline Yakuza series. It is difficult to go into much detail without spoiling the story (which I won’t do here), but at times it does feel like you are playing through an episode of Law and Order. Except in Japan…with an ex-yakuza sidekick…and parkour street fights.

Yagami Kaito Judgement PS5
Main character Yagami (left) and ex-Yakuza lieutenant, Kaito (right).

Yagami is assisted by a varied cast of unique characters including his ex-Yakuza sidekick Kaito, a crooked cop and the team from his former Legal firm. All of the main cast are extremely well-written and fleshed out with backstories that are drip fed to the player throughout the game. Yagami and Kaito in particular are very likable characters who have some great quality banter. Despite being a serious game with a serious plot there is plenty of humour here as well.

GAMEPLAY

The Yakuza series is known for its hard-hitting beat ’em up battle systems, and Judgement is no different. Combat is most definitely a strength of this game with Yagami having mastered two different fighting styles – the Crane style that is focussed on crowd control, and the Tiger style which is best suited for combat mano-e-mano. As usual there is no end to the number of environmental objects that can be used to your advantage, from traffic cones and trash cans to shop signs and bicycles – anything you can pick up can be smashed into your opponent’s face. Yagami is much more agile and athletic than Kiryu (the protagonist of the 6 main Yakuza games) and this allows for a fighting move-set that utilises parkour-style actions such as wall running before flinging yourself towards an opponent with a back flipping axe kick. Also returning are the ‘EX‘ finishing moves that cause devastating damage and look absolutely brutal.

Judgement PS5 PlayStation5 Combat

Personally, I played through the game on ‘Normal’ mode and did find throughout the game that the majority of fights were a little on the easy side. With the various support items available and the ability to pause the game and use them anytime it is difficult to get a ‘game over’, and even if you do the game is very generous in allowing you to retry the fight immediately. Still, the combat looks great, feels great, and doesn’t get boring as you keep unlocking new moves and actions as you gain experience.

Judgement continues the trend of what Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has become known for with the Yakuza series: content, side quests, mini games and LOTS of them. Alongside the usual mini-game culprits in the SEGA arcade games, baseball batting cage, darts, casino games, shogi and Mahjong; Judgement provides some a couple of new flavours in 3D Drone Racing and a virtual board game. You can spend many hours getting distracted from Yagami’s quest (just like I got distracted from completing my play-through for this review) because there is so much to do here and it is all well made and fun to play.

The SEGA arcade options this time include the full arcade ports of: Fighting Vipers, Viruta Fighter 5 – Final Showdown, Puyo Puyo, Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, Motor Raid, and ‘Kamuro of the Dead’ which is a shooting game similar to House of the Dead.

Judgement PS5 PlayStation 5 Arcade

Judgement definitely has that feeling of ‘just one more side-quest’, ‘I need to go out on one more date with Sana-Chan’, or ‘damn it I’m not turning this off until I win that last item out of the crane game’.

There are some elements to Judgement’s gameplay that are new to the series, though to me these are some of the weaker parts of the game. The majority of these are introduced early, but do not really evolve as you play through the game. First up is a ‘search mode’ where you are presented with either a crime scene or a still photo and need to find clues to progress your investigation by zooming in and highlighting the clue – not particularly exciting or engaging. There is an extension of this mode where you need to sneakily photo a suspect in a compromising position but still not really a section of the game you can look forward to.

Judgement PS5 PlayStation 5 Search Mode

Secondly there is a ‘tailing mode’ where Yagami must follow a suspect or person of interest through the streets of Kamurocho without being identified. This fares a little better than the search mode, but often just feels like the game is being slowed down or padded out. That being said, it can get your heart racing if you lose your mark and need to quickly locate them again.

Judgement PS5 PlayStation 5 Tailing Mode

Finally there is the ‘chase mode’ where Yagami must chase a person (or object) though the streets of Kamurocho. This is much more frantic than the other new modes, but really it is only a glorified quick-time-event button-press-a-thon.

Overall, the new modes do strengthen the feel of Yagami being a private detective, but there is no real challenge or even an ability to fail these sections. I do appreciate that the developers tried something a bit different, and there is certainly scope here to build on these for future games.

VISUALS

Anyone familiar with the recent Yakuza games will know what they are in for here. The ‘Dragon’ engine previously used for Yakuza 6 returns here and brings the bustling streets of Kamurocho to life. Kamurocho is designed in gorgeous detail and you can see the effort that has been put in to every aspect of the buildings, streets and neon signs of this red-light district. From the bright lights of the SEGA arcade to the gritty alley-way behind a dodgy bar, Kamurocho looks as good here as it ever has before. It really feels like you are walking the streets of busy Tokyo.

Judgement PS5 PlayStation 5 Kabukicho Kamurocho

The people you meet on your quest are also drawn with extremely life-like qualities. For me, other than Naughty Dog I think the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku had some of the best facial animations that could be found on the PS4, and these have been further enhanced to beautiful 4K60FPS visuals on the PS5.

Combat also puts the PS5 to the test with various objects and particle effects flying around. Despite this I never encountered any observable issues with frame rate dips. Throughout my time with Judgement there were never any obvious issues with the visuals that dragged me out of the experience. My only minor quip was the colour choices for some of the mini-map tracking that I found difficult to see clearly (I am partially colour blind) but it definitely wasn’t a game-breaking issue.

Being an upgraded PS4 game this isn’t going to be the best looking game available for next-gen, but it is certainly no slouch.

AUDIO

One of my favourite parts of Judgement is the original Japanese voice acting. It is stellar. Yes, you can play the game with English voice acting if you wish, and it is serviceable, but it just doesn’t bring the same gravitas. If you are playing a Yakuza game with English voice acting, just like with anime, you are doing it wrong. Personally for me the Japanese is the best option from the perspective of audio-visual engagement – because the character animations are synced up with the Japanese audio and it can look very weird with the English turned on.

Elsewhere, the ambient sounds of Kamurocho help bring the town to life. Traffic, the murmur of people as you walk past and the cacophony of noise emerging from Pachinko parlours really make you feel like you are in Tokyo.  The sound effects in combat work to pass on the severe impact when you strike your opponents (and when you are struck yourself).

The soundtrack and background music are never in your face, but help to build the tension of Yagami’s investigation and the developing story. At other times the subtle melancholic and noir-esque jazz tracks can help you relax and enjoy the city when you are not rushing to complete story based tasks.

CONCLUSION

Judgement is yet another killer entry into the Yakuza series, but it can be enjoyed alone without any prior experience required. The cast of characters are well-written and more importantly the Japanese voice acting is top-notch. The story draws you in with intrigue and never feels predictable or cliché.

Playing only the main story quests will still give you a good 20+ hour experience, but with everything you can do here there is well over 80 hours of gameplay. The amount of side content and mini-games mean there is really about five different games’ worth of entertainment here. I must have spent at least 3 hours alone playing Fantasy Zone in the SEGA arcade. If you are looking for ‘value for money’, this is a game for you.

What started in the west as a very niche Action/Adventure/Beat-em-up PS2 title has grown into a triple A series that is now moving into different genres (the RPG insanity of Like A Dragon). Judgement is not only a great place to start for new people wanting to dip a toe into the franchise, but it is an excellent standalone game that has been upgraded to take advantage of the power of the PS5. It is still worth a play on the PS4 if you aren’t one of the 5 people that own a PS5, and if you are eventually lucky enough to find one you can take advantage of the PS5 upgrade for free.

In the 24 hours before completion of this review, the news broke that the sequel to Judgement is coming VERY soon. ‘Lost Judgement‘ will release internationally on 24 September 2021. I can’t wait.

Lost Judgement PS5 PlayStation 5

So, why should you play it?

  • You are already a fan of the Yakuza series and want to experience more of the dark underworld of Kamurocho.
  • You love anything Japan.
  • As a lawyer/detective you have always wanted to knee a Yakuza in the face.
  • You enjoy procrastinating from the task at hand with darts, Drone racing or classic Sega Arcade games.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Gratuitous violence isn’t really your thing.
  • You prefer a more linear streamlined experience with no distractions.

A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.

Rez Infinite Review – PS4/PS5

Take a trip through the infinite to experience true synaesthesia.

As most PlayStation 4 and 5 owners will (hopefully) be aware – Sony are encouraging people to do the right thing during the COVID-19 global pandemic by giving out a stack of 11 free games to motivate people around the world to stay safe by staying at home. The best part of this deal is that you don’t even need to be a PlayStation Plus subscriber to take advantage of this generous offer. Amazingly, as long as you add the games to your library while the offer is up, the games will be remain available for you permanently to download and play at any time in the future.

By the time you are reading this you have likely missed out on the first available game, Ratchet and Clank 2016, as this was only available to 31 March 2021. But this is your warning to get off your arse and go add the current batch of 9 games to your library RIGHT NOW…so you can sit back down on your arse to get in some quality gaming. Even if you don’t currently have access to a PSVR headset, there is literally no reason to not add the VR only games including the first appearance of the lovable PS5 mascot Astro Bot in Astro Bot Rescue Mission (a great game in its own right).

In addition to the aforementioned Ratchet and Clank 2016 there are some absolute winners here in Sony’s offering that deserve your attention. The survival indie classic Subnautica, atmospheric mystery/puzzler The Witness and bullet-hell rouge-like dungeon-crawler Enter the Gungeon are all high-quality games that have scored well with both critics and player communities alike. Even more crazily, from 19 April 2021 the game-of-the-generation contender Horizon Zero Dawn will also be FREE to download – and that is the ‘Complete Edition’ with additional DLC included!

But what I’m here today to tell you is that there is a better game on the free list. A game that in my mind is an outright classic across the entire history of video games. Yes, a game that is better than Ratchet and Clank, better than Subnautica and BETTER THAN HORIZON ZERO DAWN (I said it)- and that game is Rez Infinite.

Play at Home 2021 update: 10 free games to download this Spring
It is the first game on the list. Sony knows what’s up.

I should clarify that Rez Infinite is not the type of game that everyone will enjoy. The ‘on-rails shooter’ genre died out a long time ago as technology passed it by. But Rez it is a truly unique gaming experience that makes the most of the human senses of sight, hearing and touch to invite the player to enter the trance-like state known as ‘flow’ more than anything else this lifelong gamer has had the pleasure of playing.

Rez was originally released on the Sega Dreamcast and PS2 in Japan in November 2001, with western releases following on those consoles through early 2002. The original game saw an HD remaster release in January 2008 that was only available on the Xbox 360.

The version now available as part of the Play at Home package is the fully updated PlayStation 4 release ‘Rez Infinite’, which includes full PlayStation VR compatibility and a whole new game area created specifically for the Rez Infinite version that provides a whole new way of playing the game while also making the most of current technology of Unreal Engine 4. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to PSVR (or Oculus, where Rez Infinite is also playable) so I can’t provide comment on that mode of play. But I can say that when I do eventually enter the VR world, Rez Infinite will be the first thing I play.

PLOT

The plot of Rez is as bare bones as you can get. Set in the near future, an online network known as “K Project” is created to manage the massive amounts of data through the power of an AI called Eden. As you might guess, the AI is unable to understand the evil and corruption of the human race and begins to doubt its purpose and existence. Rather than going all Skynet, Eden escapes to the depths of cyberspace and shuts down. You play as a hacker attempting to ‘rescue’ Eden from digital infection (viruses) and wake her to fulfil her role in helping humanity.

…Lets be honest, you aren’t playing Rez for the Plot.

What does it want? To stop you moving forward. Why? I dunno…

GAMEPLAY

The simple controls of Rez have not been changed over the past 20 years. The left stick moves the small targeting reticule around the screen, when over your target you press X to shoot a single shot, or hold X to charge up to 8 shots across up to 8 separate targets. All shots ‘home’ in on your enemies or powerups, but don’t think that makes the game easy. This system comes with an inbuilt risk/reward play style. If you always try and charge to the maximum 8 shots then you might not have time to get another shot out to hit that newly spawned projectile coming your way. However, the process of charging is much faster than mashing out 8 individual shots, especially for the enemies that take multiple hits – some more than 8.

Locked on and charging up.

Through each level you may be lucky enough to pick up ‘Overdrive’ charges. Overdrive charges are your typical ‘bomb’ attack that will take out everything on the screen for about 5 seconds. You can hold up to 4 Overdrive charges at once, and there are some sections of the game where you will absolutely need these if you want to avoid taking a hit.

Old-school controls come with old school difficulty. There are no gameplay difficulty settings available here to make things easier for you. Starting from Area 1 your avatar will be level 1, meaning you can take a maximum of two hits. As you play through the game and shoot down your enemies, they will occasionally drop ‘progress nodes’. Collecting 8 progress nodes will allow your avatar to level up to a maximum of level 5, with each level allowing you to take another hit before dying.

Sometimes the enemy itself is the least of your problems.

There are 5 Areas in the base game each with its own unique boss. Each boss battle actually comes in three difficulty levels (Mega, Giga and Tera) which are based on your performance though the Area – the game adjusts somewhat to your skill level in terms of boss difficulty, though the easier ‘Mega’ bosses can still pack a punch. The Bosses are definitely a highlight of the game and challenge you while never feeling unfair.

Area 1 boss battle. Form of: psychedelic disco octopus.

On completion of the base game and reaching specific score ratings, you will unlock additional game modes such as boss rush and score attack. It will take new players, particularly those new to this sub-genre of games, multiple attempts to even finish the areas beyond Area 1, and even longer to get ‘100%’ completion ratings. At its core, like any shooter, Rez is an exercise in pattern recognition, memory, and visual awareness. The more you play the better you get, and the more of this magnificent title you get to experience.

The addition of ‘Area X’ to the PlayStation 4 version provides a new way to play Rez. Not only are the visuals and audio massively upgraded (even beyond the HD update), but you are no longer confined to the one-directional ‘on-rails’ control scheme, and can now rotate in full 360 degrees. There was clearly a lot of love put into the latest update to the team, and Area X almost feels like a sequel in terms of quality.

VISUALS/DESIGN/SOUND

THIS is where Rez truly shines. For this title it is impossible to separate visuals, design and sound due to the way they are so intricately intertwined. Furthermore, every element of the gameplay builds upon the core focus the game – to immerse you in the sights and sounds of Rez.

At the start of each Area the soundtrack, sound effects and visuals are minimal. As you progress each button you press, each shot that you fire and each enemy that you destroy builds upon the soundscape and atmosphere. Each Area contains 10 sections known as ‘Layers’. Cracking each progressive layer of security will further enhance the sound and visual experience of the Area, always for the better.

Unlocking the next layer, unlocking the beats.

What starts as the occasional snare drum hit and synth chord evolves as you play into a full-blown tune. And I mean TUNE. New instruments can be added to the soundtrack, the additional sounds you trigger when shooting enemies will change and the wire-frame visuals will twist and morph from simple lines into pulsating pyramids, forests and temples. All of the tracks are electronic music and that might not be your jam. But if you like a lick of EDM, a dash of Drum and Bass, or a sliver of psy-trance – this game is for you.

I find myself uncontrollably becoming a member of the Night at the Roxbury crew so often when playing Rez that I fear I will wake up the next day needing a solid physiotherapy session.

See the source image


Each of the core game’s 5 Areas and Area X contain a discrete audio-visual experience. Effectively giving you the feeling that you are inside a computer. Think along the lines of Tron…has anybody seen the movie Tron?

The pure sense of synaesthesia is most apparent the in the original Rez’s breathtaking final Area. It is one of my favourite levels in all of video games and it deserves to be preserved in an art gallery for future generations.

CONCLUSION

Rez Infinite is not a new game. It is a remastered version of a game from 20 years ago that was pretty much the swansong of its genre.

It is a niche retro experience that in all honesty is not for everyone. It can, at times, be brutally difficult. But if you enjoy a great shooter, if you are an audio-visual buff, or if anything said above piques your interest in the slightest, I urge you to give Rez Infinite a try.

Rez Infinite is simply the pinnacle of the rail shooter genre.

So, why should you play it?

  • Electronic music is your thing
  • You want to experience unmatched audio-visual synaesthesia
  • Um, its FREE

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  •  …uh, maybe if you don’t own (or have access to) a PS4 or PS5

People, its FREE.

The current Play at Home selection of 9 games, including Rez Infinite, will be free right through to 22 April 2021, so what the hell are you waiting for?!

Note: I own this game on PS2 and I also paid for the Rez Infinite version loooong before the Play at Home games were announced.