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.

Altdeus: Beyond Chronos Review – PSVR

The most visual of visual novels.

Have you ever read a book? You know, those compilations of physical pages that you have to manually read and turn in order to experience a linear plot? I’m going to assume you probably have.

Now, have you ever read a choose-your-own-adventure book? A book that gives you the option to make choices that dramatically affect the course of the plot. Usually it will require you to flip to a particular page where your choice causes the story to branch off in a different direction. Goosebumps books were some of the most popular. It was exhilarating to know the choices I made could make such an impact (even if it mostly resulting in my character dying).

A visual novel (VN) is the evolution of this concept – a digital version of a choose-your-own-adventure book. The visual novel is a staple of modern gaming in Japan and often features intricate plot, strong character development, and branching narratives. The genre emerged in the early ’90s thanks to the advances in computer graphics and continued to increase in popularity well into the early 2000s. Some notable titles in the genre include the tear-jerking Clannad, time-travelling banana scientist in Steins;Gate, and internet favourite dating simulator, Katawa Shojo. As a well-established genre, there are even some visual novels about dating pigeons, or ones I’ve played that I probably shouldn’t mention in public.

Above: Clannad, Steins;Gate, Katawa Shoujo.

Thanks to VR game developer studio MyDearest, who have created VR novels and manga, the visual novel has now moved one step closer to reality. In 2019 their first game Tokyo Chronos became one of the first VNs to enter VR, and was successful enough to justify a sequel. Released initially for the Oculus Quest in 2020, ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos garnered multiple awards and received critical acclaim. Now available for the PSVR, how does this version hold up? And is it good enough that it’ll make you want to throw out all your physical novels?

Plot

The year is 2280. The world has been ravaged by interdimensional aliens called Meteroa, which obliterate all life on the surface with weaponised sound waves. Humanity has been forced to withdraw underground into their last bastion, establishing a digital Tokyo with all of its citizens connected to a server. In attempts to retaliate, a group known as Prometheus recruits pilots for its Evangelion-sized mecha. You play as Chloe, an artificial human designed for the sole purpose of operating the Makhia and defending the remnants of Tokyo from complete annihilation.

Altdeus Beyond Chronos PS4 PS5 PSVR Makhia
Remember folks, if you ever need to pilot a giant robot, be sure to bring an idol with you.

Alongside Chloe at all times is the artificial-intelligence companion, AARC Noa, a part-time pilot, part-time idol, full-time sass machine, modelled off the consciousness of her recently deceased best friend: Coco Coconoe. Though Coco has been gone for 2 years after being devoured by a Meteroa, Chloe has frequent flashbacks of their time spent together, having learned the intricacies of human emotion from their many interactions. At times it feels as if Chloe can still feel her deep connection to Coco, hearing her voice whispering from beyond. Then, only hours into your journey, a fateful encounter with a mysterious Meteroa changes everything that Chloe has been led to believe…

Altdeus Beyond Chronos PS4 PS5 PSVR  Coco
The deep bond formed between Chloe (player) and Coco (pictured) becomes highly emotive.

Arguably the most important aspect of any visual novel is its plot, and ALTDEUS delivers one that is gripping, emotional, and has heavy themes of human connection despite the game’s many artificial characters. Featuring eight separate endings, choices made during character interaction and battle sequences bear significant weight and will drastically change your outcome.

Gameplay

If you’re playing a VN for its gameplay, you’re probably doing it wrong. As I discussed at the beginning of this article, this genre is akin to an interactive story where choices influence the plot. As such, gameplay in ALTDEUS is minimal and consists mostly of dialogue, character interaction, occasional use of the Move Controllers and the odd battle sequence. It’s fairly basic gameplay and completely approachable even to complete newcomers to VR – as most of the game is static, you’re very unlikely to experience any motion-sickness at all.

Altdeus Beyond Chronos PS4 PS5 PSVR Choices
Your choices influence the story. Just like real life!

Scattered throughout the game are sequences in which you pilot the Makhia: a giant robot controlled by a “Neural Link” (your VR headset) and “Mikani Links” (your Move controllers). In connecting with the Makhia, you work alongside idol/AI Noa performing various actions to form shields, analyse the opponent, or charge and launch your rail cannon. Though each of these actions is incredibly simple to perform, your choice and timing will decide how the battle plays out. Initially I was blown away by these sequences, which feel as if you really are in the cockpit of a giant robot, but by the end of the game I had seen the same thing so many times that the novelty had worn off almost completely.

Altdeus Beyond Chronos PS4 PS5 PSVR VR
Get in the robot, S̶h̶i̶n̶j̶i̶ Chloe.

Visuals

A virtual reality game set in a virtual Tokyo should look like a virtual Tokyo, right? Right. During the game you’ll get to stand in the centre of Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Scramble Crossing which is quite surreal; I found myself pausing momentarily to admire my surroundings in 360 degrees despite the low-resolution textures. Most other environments appear quite bland with little detail, though the clean character models with their distinct anime design will draw your attention away from this.

Sadly the game’s visuals are somewhat hindered and result in low-detail, blurry textures due to the limitations of the PSVR, as can be seen below:

Left: PSVR, Right: PC.

There are however a couple of redeeming features to the game’s visuals. Sequences inside of the giant Makhia robots are impressive and look just as anime has led you to imagine: surrounded by with HUDs, screens and warning symbols. I was also blown away by the 360 degree concerts performed by Noa throughout the game, which transport you to a virtual concert space where you are truly immersed in the visuals during her performance as she sings and dances around you. It’s hard to fully describe and must be experienced first-hand.

Altdeus Beyond Chronos PS4 PS5 PSVR 360 Idol Concert
The 360 degree idol concerts are a visual spectacle.

Audio/Soundtrack

If you’re going to read through text for 15 – 20 hours, you may as well do so accompanied by some brilliant music. ALTDEUS’ soundtrack is a collaboration between multiple musicians:
– In-house composer Yosuke Kori.
– J-pop/electro musician kz(livetune) who has composed many anime openings.
– Kunuyuki Takahashi (MONACA), who arranged tracks for NieR and NieR:Automata.
– R!N who is well-known for her powerful voice in Attack on Titan’s vocal tracks.

Many of the background tracks convey a calm, wistful, and sometimes melancholic feeling, which is often reflected in the music that plays during the game’s frequent flashbacks. I’d relate this to the music in other emotional visual novels, think Clannad. This is juxtaposed by the high-tempo, upbeat idol-style songs that are scattered throughout the game’s virtual idol performances. I was most-impressed by the incredibly immersive, 360 degree anime opening that plays in the first hour of the game, which I imagine would be similar to attending a vocaloid concert.

It’s worth noting that the vocal tracks are some of the best I’ve heard in a game and are of such quality that they deserve their own standalone album. Below are a couple of my favourite tracks from the game:

An intense battle theme during the first Meteroa fight:

One of the catchy, upbeat idol tracks that Noa sings:

While I sing the soundtrack’s praises, it’s important that the voice acting too is up to scratch, as for the vast majority of the game you’ll be listening to character dialogue. You’re given the choice between an English and Japanese dub, and me being the weeb I am, I chose the latter. Not once did I tire of hearing any of the voice-acting, which has clear delivery, believable acting and even some serious emotional weight behind it during some of the more touching moments in the game. At times it felt just as if I was watching a quality anime production thanks to the voice acting of the game.

Conclusion

Having never previously played a virtual visual novel, ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos is a PSVR game unlike any other I’ve encountered, and one I would highly recommend for those looking for a unique VR experience. Fans of anime too are also likely to get a kick out of ALTDEUS, as it clearly draws inspiration from series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Macross.

Altdeus Beyond Chronos PS4 PS5 PSVR Makhia
Yeah, I’d definitely skip a meeting to go see a giant robot too.

With 8 separate endings, a branching narrative, and a gripping plot, it will take you approximately 20 hours to reach the true ending which is well-worth it for those willing to commit. Admittedly some choices can be obscure and frustrating, requiring trial and error likely to put off many players. Though it could have simply been made as a normal 2D visual novel, being completely surrounded by the game enhances immersion dramatically, especially during the game’s battles and emotional interactions.

While this may be my first VR VN, having enjoyed ALTDEUS as much as I did, I highly doubt this will be my last. And it could be your first too!

So, should you play it?

  • You’re looking for a game with a gripping, emotional plot.
  • Piloting a mecha has always been your dream.
  • Are you an anime fan with a PSVR gathering dust? Time to dust it off.
  • A necessary game for fans of J-pop and idol music.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Not a big fan of long dialogue sequences or cutscenes? Stay away from VNs as a whole.
  • Playing through the same sequences may frustrate those with little patience.

A PSVR review code (played 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.

Natsuki Chronicles Review – PS4/PS5

The shoot ’em up is still alive and well and flying guns-blazing out of bullet hell.

It’s time to go back in time to an era where sweaty teenagers were jammed into dimly-lit arcades. To a simpler time of basic controls, where a joystick and a couple of buttons was really all you needed. When depleting credits either meant you scrounged for more coins, gave up, or faced the odds through an onslaught of bullets.

This was the age of the shoot ’em up (affectionally termed the shmup). A truly iconic genre and a classic staple of The Golden Age of Video Games. Games that feature the player facing off against waves of enemies, screens littered with bullets, an array of ship upgrades, weapon enhancements, and massive boss battles.

Shoot Em Up Gradius 1942 Ikaruga
Left to right: Gradius III, 1942, Ikaruga.

You’ll probably be familiar with games like the classic Gradius or 1942, or more recent titles like Geometry Wars and the critically-acclaimed Ikaruga. It’s a genre that spans decades, with the highly-influential Space Invaders being considered one of the earliest titles in the genre.

Though shmups aren’t quite as popular as they once were, there are still games that are keeping the genre alive, and today I’m writing about one that completely took me by surprise: Natsuki Chronicles. The developers, Qute Corporation (what a cute name), are quite experienced in creating games of this genre, and this game occurs in parallel to their previous title, Ginga Force.

Natsuki Chronicles PS4 PS5 Boss Fight
Yep, you’re supposed to dodge those. Good luck!

PLOT

You play as budding pilot young Natsuki Sugiura aboard a ship by the name of Dominator and is a new member of the planet’s Rapid Defence Force (RDF). The game follows a story linked to its predecessor and is scattered with character dialogue and short cutscenes at the beginning of each mission. Although the story feels somewhat tacked on and certainly is one of the weaker parts of the game, that’s perfectly fine, because nobody plays a shmup for the story. It’s all about the gameplay. Thankfully this is where Natsuki Chronicles goes above and beyond.

GAMEPLAY

The game has two modes: story and arcade mode. Both take you through 10 main levels, each in a distinct environment with set patterns of enemies, plenty of hazards, and a challenging boss fight at the end. During the story mode you start each stage only being allowed to take 3 hits (which slowly recharge), but as you progress further through the stage this contributes towards stage XP, overall XP, and credit points which you can spend on weapons and upgrades.

With each failure your stage XP increases and unlocks additional shields to use during the level. Every additional shield will allow you to progress slightly further through the level until you reach the perfect point where you have just enough to take down the boss. Some bosses are brutal and will require a full set of shields, but never felt unfair or overly difficult. It’s a perfect way to adapt the difficulty based on the player’s proficiency.

Natsuki Chronicles PS4 PS5 Boss Fight
You’re gonna need every shield you can get.

Over the course of the game you’ll begin to level up and unlock an array of armaments. You can choose to change your main weapon, sub weapon and special weapon with an almost limitless number of combinations. Whether you have a play-style that best suits a hard-hitting focused beam, bullets that spread out and cover the entire screen, or a homing attack so you can focus on dodging instead. There’s something for everyone! Certain weapons are also suited for particular stages: a level with lots of walls requires a weapon that can fire through them, or a level with lots of enemies approaching from behind requires weapons that can fire backwards.

Natsuki Chronicles PS4 PS5 Ship Customisation Equipment
The equipment screen, which allows you to change your weapons prior to the level.

VISUALS

Playing on PS5, the game runs at 4K and maintains a consistently smooth framerate, and as such is highly responsive and looks detailed and clean. Though the game is far from a visual marvel, the environments of each level are a pleasure to look at and the enemies have a distinct cartoonish appearance allowing them to stand against the background. The same goes for your ship: the Dominator; even when the screen is jam-packed with bullets you’ll rarely lose track of yourself. The game also aides you with warning lines to mark the trajectory of incoming bullets, which comes in handy during particularly difficult sections of the game.

Natsuki Chronicles PS4 PS5 Boss Fight Visuals
At least this boss is an easy target!

EXTRAS

During the story mode there are also extra “training missions” and certain levels that allow you to pilot a much larger ship that launches a literal wall of bullets. Each level in the game can also be played on one of four difficulties; I played through the entire game on Normal and felt this was a reasonable challenge. If you’re a bullet hell maniac then by all means play on Hard and above, but I would not recommend this for the regular player.

Natsuki Chronicles PS4 PS5 Boss Fight Extras Arcade Mode
Try throwing dollar coins at the screen during arcade mode for an authentic experience.

Arcade mode also offers a more challenging version of the game, as you collect power-ups while progressing through each level. Getting hit forces you to lose a power-up instead of a shield, meaning that dodging bullets is even more important. Once you aim for the hi-score you’ll be able to upload it onto the global leaderboard in order to gloat to your friends. I got #100 globally after a few tries which was satisfying, so fans of arcade gameplay are likely to get decent replay value out of this mode.

The soundtrack by composer Yousuke Yasui is also one of the game’s best features. Its fast-paced beats, retro style and funky bass lines feel straight out of the ’80s and are incredibly fitting alongside the frantic gameplay. He’s no stranger to shmups, as the composer has created music for a massive list of games including the previous Qute games, multiple Touhou series games, Under Defeat HD, and outside of the genre even 3D Dot Game Heroes! It’s well worth a listen even after having finished the game.

CONCLUSION

Overall the campaign took about 8 hours to complete (with many deaths along the way), and during this I ended up unlocking a majority of the weapons and trophies along the way. It’s quite a lengthy campaign for a shmup game and felt like good value for the time that I committed. The vast options for weaponry along with a clever level-up system and adaptable difficulty make it one of the best modern shmups I’ve encountered. If you’re a fan of the genre you’d be a fool to go past Natsuki Chronicles.

So why should I play it?

  • You enjoy the shoot ’em up genre.
  • Lengthy games are too time-consuming – something quick and engaging is more suitable.
  • Space ships, guns and bullets (lots of them) are your thing.
  • Arcade gaming is a fond memory for you.

But why shouldn’t I play it?

  • You dislike repetition and would rather not play through the same levels repeatedly.
  • Hundreds of bullets on screen at once would give you a heart attack.

Thanks to Rising Star Games and Plan of Attack for providing a PS4 review code for the purpose of this review. The game was played on a PS5 console.

Atelier Ryza 2 PS5 Review

A surp-Ryza-ngly thrilling JRPG!

The Atelier series of games began over 20 years ago, with the first game in the series, Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, releasing all the way back in 1997 for the Sony PlayStation. An “atelier” is a workshop or studio, and this title is definitely reflected in the series, which have a heavy focus on alchemy, collection and creation of items. Thanks to their cute characters and unique gameplay, Atelier games have gained quite a cult following over the last couple of decades.

Atelier Marie Playstation 1 PS1
Atelier Marie, Sony PlayStation, 1997 (Japan only)

Developed by Gust, a division of Koei Tecmo, there are now 22 games in the main series, and numerous spin-offs, remakes and ports. And yet, this is the first time I’ve ever played an Atelier game. What have I been doing wasting my life without these games!? Well weep for me no longer, because I have finally seen the light, and experienced the sweet charm that is cute girls doing alchemy with Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy for Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation PS4/PS5.

A direct sequel to Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout, the game centres around the peppy and spirited Reisalin “T̶h̶i̶g̶h̶z̶a̶ Ryza” Stout: a budding alchemist, teacher, and a friend to absolutely everyone she encounters. In typical JRPG fashion you control Ryza as the main character, and recruit several party members during progression of the game’s story, many of whom are characters from the previous game. Despite not having played the original game, I still managed to gain a decent understanding of who all the characters were and what they meant to Ryza and the game’s story. If possible I would recommend to play the original game first, but if you’re in my situation, I don’t think it detracts much from your overall enjoyment of the game.

Atelier Ryza PS4 PS5 Voluptuous Thighs
Main character, Ryza, known for her voluptuous… personality.

Gameplay is fairly straight-forward: collect items for alchemy from different areas of the map, take them back to your Atelier and use them to craft various items. The more you are able to craft, the more areas of the map you can explore, the more efficient you can become in combat, and the further you can progress the main story and side missions. It’s a very simple concept but incredibly satisfying – coming across that rare item out in the field and bringing it back to be thrown in the cauldron to create something completely different becomes very addicting. There’s also quite a bit of skill needed to synthesise high-quality or complex items, as each ingredient has a particular level of quality and various skills that might be transferred to the synthesised item. This is an essential gameplay mechanic, and certainly enhances other aspects of gameplay such as exploration and combat.

Atelier Ryza PS4 PS5 Synthesis Screen
The synthesis screen, allowing you to add materials to create an array of items.

So the game is completely peaceful, right? No fighting, just strolling around picking flowers and creating items to gift to townspeople?

Wrong. Ryza LOVES to fight.

Adorable sheep, sludgy slimes, rare dragons, immortal suits of armour, Ryza slaughters them all with ease to collect their contents and throw them into the boiling alchemy pot. This is done with the assistance of two other active party members, and another party member that can swap in during combat. You have the option to swap between characters and perform attacks, blocks, special skills, and use items to defeat the helpless creatures. Combat also utilises an “active time battle” system, which makes fighting much more engaging than traditional turn-based JRPG battles. Performing particular skills at the request of your allies will trigger your party’s skills and cause a chain of attacks for massive damage. It’s quite satisfying when a single attack ends up becoming a barrage from all of your characters at once. This means most of the time combat will be an absolute breeze and you won’t even have to consider your actions, but scattered throughout the world and as you progress the story are various bosses, and these can be a bit more of a challenge.

Atelier Ryza PS4 PS5 Combat
The dynamic combat screen, which allows you to swap between characters at any point.

It’s not all about crafting and killing though, as a large component of the game involves exploring ruins, unravelling mysteries, and revealing the truth around a mysterious character who hatched from an egg known as Fi (no, not the talking sword). These essentially acts as “dungeons”: separate areas with a unique visual style, specific enemies to fight and items to collect, and a boss at the end. While exploring the ruins, fighting enemies, and using various crafted items, your goal is to piece together fragments of each area and discover the history of the location through snippets of text. Ryza is also in possession of a magical compass that guides her towards points of interest in each location. How convenient! Overall I found collecting and piecing together these fragments to be a little bit tedious, but the reward is worth the hassle as it allows you to gain points needed to synthesise new items. Exploring these ruins is not an optional part of the game, and is required in order to progress the main story.

Atelier Ryza PS4 PS5 Exploration Underwater City Ruins
One of the game’s ruins: an ancient underwater city. Doesn’t look very ruined to me!

In addition to the main story there is plenty of extra content to keep you hooked on Atelier Ryza. Numerous side quests involving the game’s main characters and townspeople, levelling up the shops located in the town, unlocking new parts of the skill tree, upgrading weapons at the local blacksmith, and befriending and sending out an adorable Puni (slime) on missions to collect alchemy items. There’s even a screenshot mode where you can pose Ryza, other characters and enemies and take some amusing shots (pictured below) – an essential part of any modern video game! I had a thrilling time with all these optional parts of the game, and they definitely add much more gameplay value than just powering through the ruins and main story.

Atelier Ryza PS4 PS5 Photo Mode alchemy pot
Ryza only uses the finest ingredients in her alchemy.

With a crisp anime art-style, 4K resolution on the PS5, vibrant colours and lighting, and detailed character models, Atelier Ryza is one of the best-looking JRPGs I’ve seen yet. Some of the environmental models can look a bit jagged up close, and animations during character interactions are noticeably robotic, but overall it’s a very visually-pleasing game. Combine that with a brilliant acoustic score from composer Kazuki Yanagawa, who has composed music for almost all the main Atelier games, and you’ve got an incredibly charming aesthetic for the game. His music has a refreshing, calm, folky sound with plenty of acoustic instruments and catchy melodies, and the occasional intense upbeat song during the game’s combat and boss fights – it’s a perfect fit for the series.

After playing Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy on PlayStation 5, I’m intrigued by the rest of the series and will certainly be playing some of the earlier titles for more alchemical action. And if you’re like me and have never played an Atelier game before, don’t hesitate to try out Ryza 2, even with it being a direct sequel.

So why should I play it?

  • You enjoy JRPGs, particularly those with a focus on collecting/crafting.
  • You’re an anime fan and enjoy series with cute characters.
  • You’ve never played a game in the Atelier series.
  • You want a decent JRPG to play on the PS5.

But why shouldn’t I play it?

  • You don’t enjoy games with a focus on collecting/crafting.
  • Cute anime girls might make you embarrassed.
  • If you don’t have the time to commit hours to a lengthy JRPG.

A review copy of the game for PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.