GAME REVIEW: Boxboy! (HAL Laboratory, 2015)

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A simple idea polished to perfection from a developer with a strong pedigree. Boxboy! is not a revolutionary puzzler, but a very cleverly designed game with plenty of ideas which moves along at a breezy pace. Creating and manipulating boxes is a simple bit intuitive mechanic which conceals more depth than is at first apparent, and HAL build upon these ideas very smartly, with each new world offering up a different type of environmental hazard in a thirty-minute chunk of gameplay.

Having said that, though, I found myself waiting most of the game’s length for HAL to start combining these ideas together and making some really ambitious levels. It isn’t until the very end of the game (and the post-ending puzzles) that all your acquired skills will be put to the test, and its quite possible that many players will miss out on worlds 18-22, which are easily the best in the entire game.

In these stages, you’ll frequently have to think outside the box (couldnt resist, sorry) to traverse some really tricky combos of sticky blocks, moving blocks, falling platforms, portals, lasers, switches, and all manner of obstacles. The final two worlds even grant you the ability to place two sets of blocks at once, as well as access to a costume that doubles your jump height, both of which are slightly game-breaking, but feel like just rewards for having made it all the way to the end.

Time attack and score attack modes are a nice little change of pace, even if many of the other purchasable goodies in the shop are fairly useless. The ‘hint’ system, on the other hand, is more of just a ‘give me the answer’ button and strikes me as a lazy concession to accessibility.

Still, Boxboy! is an exceptionally tidy puzzle platformer that knows where it’s strengths lie, conceling a surprising level of complexity behind its simple but effective art style. Although it’s a shame so much of its best content comes right at the end, Boxboy! is thoroughly worth seeing through to the conclusion of its generous 12-hour runtime, especially given its paltry £3 pricetag.

8.4/10

In Pursuit of Knowledge: Jonathan Blow’s The Witness

 

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“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves like locked doors or books written in a very foreign tongue” – Rainer Maria Rilke

 

About five hours in to Jonathan Blow’s mysterious & cerebral puzzle game The Witness, I had an epiphany. I was picking my way through an abandoned town, full of wild grass and running wires, when I stumbled across a shipping container. It was situated in the centre of a crumbling building, about twenty metres or so from the shoreline of the island upon which the game takes place. On the locked door of this shipping container was a maze, much like all the puzzles that make up The Witness, which was populated by colourful symbols I had never seen before.

I spent a couple of minutes playing around with the puzzle, but eventually decided to leave it and come back later, sure that The Witness would teach me these new pieces of logic when it wanted me to open the door. Sure enough, two or three hours later, I was wandering aimlessly through a swamp when I came across a series of panels which gradually explained (without a single word) how I could trace around yellow blocks to create shapes, and thus find the solution to the maze.

Armed with this new piece of information, I returned to the mysterious shipping container. I solved the tricky puzzle on its door with a fist-pump of triumph, and the door slowly creaked open with a satisfying electrical fizz. But what was inside? Ten pieces of gold? A new shield? A DLC discount?

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No. Inside the shipping container was, of course, nothing but another puzzle. But not just another puzzle – another lesson. The panel innocuously thrown on the floor of the container was a simplified form of yet another mysterious set of symbols I’d seen elsewhere, and by solving it I moved one small step closer to understanding the endless mysteries of the island.

It was at this moment that I realized the utter brilliance of The Witness. This is a game which rewards learning with lessons, a game that is about nothing but the pure pursuit of knowledge, and uses that knowledge alone to gate the player’s progress through its twenty-plus hour runtime. There are no powerups or extra abilities in The Witness. Every bit of progress you make is as a direct result of understanding the rules and logic of the island, and your only reward for this task is the pleasure derived in doing so.

A craftily hidden puzzle on one corner of the island might, upon solving, unlock something in your brain which sends you rushing to its complete opposite end, finally understanding what that weird pyramid-shaped symbol means. And having solved that, you might gain a clue as to what that purple hexagon-shaped thing you encountered three hours ago was trying to ask of you.

The Witness’ gently unfurling structure is truly organic, able to be approached from any angle and at any time. It actively encourages you to leave puzzles you don’t understand and go exploring – the entire town, in fact, which you’ll encounter as probably the third or fourth area of the game, cannot be completed until you understand the rules of all ten other areas, but you won’t know that until you’ve spent some time playing around there.

And what a sense of freedom there is in not knowing, especially in the puzzle genre, which has been in thrall to Portal’s linear test chambers for almost a decade now. Too many devs have borrowed these closed-off, pristine white stages as a means of lazily gating the player to the next puzzle, while making no effort to hide the designer’s hand. The Witness’ crowning achievement and prime innovation is the way it makes its whole world into one enormous interconnected puzzle, then simply sets you free to roam.

And it is such a joy to roam. The Witness’ island is a gorgeous microcosm of the Earth, ranging from arid desert to autumnal woodland and marshy swamps in a dense space that can be traversed within minutes. There are bunkers, castles, temples, shipwrecks, and more secrets than I could begin to count crammed into every inch of geography. Everything in The Witness has a purpose, and one of the great joys of playing it is having your brain slowly rewired to see that purpose everywhere.

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All of this conditioning and learning comes to a head in The Mountain, the game’s final area, which is so challenging it becomes as much about the desperation of unknowing as it is about the cerebral thrill of discovery and understanding. These last puzzles will force you to confront seeming impossibility in order to overcome it – an idea expressed with consummate elegance by an audiolog near the beginning of the area. For anyone who was tempted to commit the ultimate puzzle game sin at this stage and refer to a walkthrough, Blow imparts these words of wisdom:

“Therefore I thank you, my God – because you make it clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me…if, therefore, impossibility is a necessity in your sight, oh Lord, there is nothing your sight does not see” – Nicholas of Cusa, 1453

And sure enough, these brain-melting final puzzles become the most transcendent in the entire game, a gauntlet that push your acquired knowledge and wits to the absolute limit, but feel truly enlightening to solve. The game’s penultimate puzzle had me cutting out and drawing over multiple post-it notes to figure an answer, and when I finally solved it I felt such a flash of elation that I jumped out of my chair.

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There are very few games with the power to instil this emotion, but The Witness achieves it. Jonathan Blow has created a game that constantly forces the player to re-evaluate what they are capable of, to undertake sublimely daunting leaps of logic, and to luxuriate in the complete satisfaction of natural human curiosity. Only the most masterful game designers can teach without words, but Blow has complete trust in and respect for the player’s ability to learn, and it is this that sets his game apart.

Cerebral as philosophy, meticulous as science, but so wildly creative it could be nothing but a work of art – The Witness is the greatest puzzle game of them all, and perhaps the most intelligent video game I have ever played. It is the sort of game that seeps deeply into your psyche, and will have you mentally tracing circle mazes in satellite dishes, roundabouts and road signs. A game that you will not be able to stop thinking about, long after having put it down.

And as for that gorgeous, mysterious ending sequence? Well, whatever interpretation you take from it will be the right one. If there is one lesson The Witness teaches above all else, it is this: the pursuit of knowledge is, in the end, not about the answer, but about learning to ask the right questions.

GAME REVIEW: Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016)

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It isn’t uncommon in the world of video games for the second entry in a franchise to be its best. When a developer has time to iterate upon a new and exciting idea, but before the inspiration becomes a formula – that’s where the best results are often found. We saw it time and time again last generation: Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Dark Souls, Mass Effect 2…

Dishonored, on the other hand, felt like it arrived fully formed. Its emergent blend of stealth, FPS and Deus-Ex style sim gameplay was inspired, letting the player loose in a series of branching levels which could be tackled from any conceivable angle. It was my favourite game of 2012, and I would have been perfectly content with a sequel that just gave me more of it.

Which is, on a first impression, what I thought I was getting from Dishonored 2. The setup to Arkane’s sequel is very similar to that of the original and struck me as a bit unimaginative, while it’s opening levels felt like more of the same – not that that was necessarily a bad thing. That was, however, until I reached the Clockwork Mansion in Dishonored 2’s fourth mission.

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The house belongs to inventor and technician Kirin Jindosh, and at the touch of a button will completely reform itself into a new layout. Huge cogs and wheels will pull the floor from beneath your feet, or strip out a wall and turn it into the ceiling. As the level is transforming around you, you can use your Farreach or Blink powers to slip between the cracks, and thus see it from the inside out, rather like the trick Valve pulled in the second half of Portal.

It’s an inspired piece of level design, and indicative of what makes Dishonored 2 such a fantastic sequel. It chooses to leave the excellent framework of the first game largely intact, and opts against stuffing in more gameplay gimmicks or hours of playtime. Instead, it focuses on increasingly daring and creative individual moments, expanding sideways with some truly unforgettable missions.

The sixth mission, for example, finds the player in the Dust District, and tasks them with breaking into the manor of a gentleman named Aramis Stilton. The door to Stilton’s mansion is locked, and to open it you have three options. Either of two warring factions in the area will provide you with the door code if you kill the opposition leader. Or, you can sit down and solve an absolutely fiendish logic puzzle called the Jindosh Riddle, which will provide you with the door code and let you skip the entire stage.

Again – what an utterly brilliant, brave idea that is. The perfect expression of the game’s ‘play your way’ philosophy, letting you choose to tackle the level with brainpower, stealth or just pure aggression. It took me over an hour to solve the Jindosh Riddle (which is procedurally generated, by the way, so can’t be easily cheated using the internet), but when I finally did, it provided one of the game’s most satisfying moments.

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There are others moments just as brilliant which I don’t want to spoil in this review, including the seventh mission which is possibly the best of them all. Suffice it to say that Dishonored 2 never wants for inspired set pieces and labyrinthine playgrounds to set the player loose in.

I have to say, though, that I did find the new powers for Emily (one of two playable characters) a bit lacking compared to those of the first game. Farreach and Domino are the exception, the former feeling like a more visceral version of Dishonored’s Blink, and the latter allowing you to chain two or more enemies together so they share the same fate. This one will truly push your capacity for creatively murdering people.

But then there is Dark Vision, which is a fairly bog-standard ‘stealth vision’ like those found in most modern stealth games, as well as Mesmerize and Doppelganger, both of which serve a fairly similar decoy purpose. Shadow Walk is fun, allowing you to temporarily become a ghostly shadow-creature which guards struggle to see, but many of these powers feel lacking in the ways they can combine with each other, which is what made those like Possession from Dishonored so special.

The art direction of Dishonored 2, however, is consistently brilliant. Characters, environments, weapons and powers all look and feel incredible, with some particularly gorgeous views and interiors to be found towards the end of the game. The attention to detail in the character design, too, makes the people you’re tasked with assassinating much more real, and much more fun to hunt.

All in all, Dishonored 2 is a fantastic sequel. It expands upon the original game not in size or scope but in pure cunning and creativity, like a true assassin. Though not without a few flaws, the game is elevated to classic status by some truly unforgettable missions and an unwavering confidence throughout. Whether or not we’ll see a third game in the series remains to be seen, but Dishonored 2 would be a fantastic way to bow out if it does prove to be the end.

9.1/10

GAME REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, paradoxically, both the least original Zelda game ever made and a breath of fresh air for the series. As a direct sequel to 1992’s classic Link to the Past, this game is more than content to tread in its predecessors footsteps for the first hour or so. In fact, during that first hour it is so familiar that it seems more remake than sequel.

But what initially seems like purely an exercise in nostalgia soon reveals itself to be more of an exercise in subversion, deconstructing and rearranging the things you thought you knew about Link to the Past, or about Zelda as a whole.

The game’s central wall merge mechanic adds a wonderful element of surprise to a very familiar incarnation of Hyrule, forcing you literally and figuratively to look at the world from another perspective. It is employed in delightfully clever ways across the game’s overworld and many dungeons, where it forms the backbone of the game’s puzzles.

Then there is the item rental system, which is a refreshing change (if not a revolution) to the typical structure of a Zelda game. Rather than building your inventory up one dungeon at a time, here you are given access to almost all of the game’s items within the first hour, courtesy of the pink-bunny-hooded-magician and home-invader Ravio, who will rent items to you for a sum of rupees.

In practice, this means that the player is given a huge amount of freedom to explore the world in whatever order they choose. After the initial three dungeons, the game drops you into Lorule, a rather cheesily-named equivalent of the Dark World, and just says “We know you know what you’re doing, now here’s seven dungeons. Have fun”. It’s a huge contrast to a game like Skyward Sword, whose handholding introductory sequence was so excessively long I’ve still not gotten past it to this day.

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If at any point you ran out of hearts and die, Ravio will take all rented items back from you and you’ll have to purchase them again. This small but brilliant design choice adds real consequence to death within the game, and has the upshot of incentivising the player even further to explore the world and track down its many pieces of heart and other secrets.

In my own playthrough of the game, however, I only died a single time. That was within the first couple of hours, and after that first death I found myself exploring everywhere for pieces of heart and bottles, always making sure I was stocked up on red potions and fairies. Perhaps my familiarity with Link to the Past (being one of my favourite games of all time) was partly to blame, but it has to be said that A Link Between Worlds never felt particularly difficult, and could have pushed its ideas about death and fail states a bit further than it did.

One aspect of A Link Between Worlds that proved a pleasant surprise was its pacing. This is a game that moves along at a very fast clip, with Link’s movement and attack speed being much quicker than in most Zelda games. Its world loads smoothly at a high framerate, and content-wise there is nothing but meat on the bones. No lengthy intro, no pointless side quests, just great dungeons and a densely packed overworld.

My playthrough, collecting every piece of heart and almost every other optional item/secret, clocked in at a modest 15 hours. In some respects, I think this is great. Zelda games don’t all have to be epic 40-hour plus sagas that take weeks and months to finish, and I’m happy to see the series template can accommodate a leaner, more focused kind of game.

But it proves more of an issue alongside what is, in my opinion, the game’s Achilles heel: its narrative. All elements of the world, the quest and the characters in A Link Between Worlds feel quite lazy and by-the-books for the series when compared to the imaginative mechanical and structural ideas within the game.

A shorter length (while not in itself a problem) combined with a rather predictable and dull story, gives A Link Between Worlds a considerably less palpable sense of adventure and wonder. And this, in my opinion, is the one unchangeable element of the Zelda formula, and the thing that just barely holds A Link Between Worlds back from being a truly classic Zelda game.

And yet it comes so close. This is a game as daring as it is derivative, as inventive as it is referential. Like its title suggests, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is simultaneously a bridge to the series’ past, and a glimpse into its potential future. And it’s a bright future indeed.

8.9/10

GAME REVIEW: What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

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What Remains of Edith Finch is the latest entry in a burgeoning genre I like to call the Walkie: interactive storytelling experiences which primarily consist of walking around, exploring an environment and the story to be found within it.

It’s a style of game that has been around for several years now, first introduced with the likes of Dear Esther in 2012, but which has been taken in directions as divergent as Proteus and The Stanley Parable. What Remains of Edith Finch, however, marks the moment of the genre’s sentience: the point at which it has become aware of, and is actively taking inspiration from, its predecessors.

One in particular springs to mind: The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which also features a slowly unravelling family story told by a twenty-something female narrator as she returns to a house she used to live in. Edith Finch certainly has ideas of its own, but I have to say I found it hard to shake an eerie feeling of familiarity as I played through it.

The game’s appealingly tidy structure, which finds you gradually ascending the house as you work your way forwards through several generations of family stories, is not unlike that of Gone Home. And the environmental storytelling, tightly packed into bedrooms and crowded kitchens, is effective if not altogether new.

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Edith Finch’s biggest new ideas are the sequences which tell the story of how each family member met their unfortunate demise, using interactive vignettes of fantasy, memory and imagination. Many of these sequences contain inspired ideas, but just as many are ruined by clunky animations or unclear controls which pulled me straight out of immersion.

Others go off without a hitch, however. One in particular, which tells the story of 11-year old artist Milton’s disappearance through a wordless hand-drawn flipbook, was brilliant. And the lavish, bleak, and occasionally hilarious story of Edith’s brother Lewis was another highlight.

For as effective as some of these vignettes are, however, their collective effect is of spreading the story a bit thin. There are thirteen Finches whose tales are all told throughout the game, and by spending such a short time with each one, none feel truly developed. Edith Finch misses what made Gone Home so special: the way it let the player develop a personal bond with its narrator, Sam, over a number of hours, despite never actually seeing her.

What Edith Finch sometimes lacks in narrative depth, however, it makes up in atmosphere. The house and its surrounding woodland are full of foggy moonlight and the sound of waves, while its minimal soundtrack, though it can feel a bit emotionally manipulative at times, is certainly very affecting during climactic moments of the story.

That story wraps up in a very satisfying way during the game’s final moments, coming full circle and tying all of its loose threads together. And it should be noted, too, that Edith Finch features one of my favourite ever credit sequences in a game. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that it’s goofy, very sweet, and the perfect end to such a personal tale.

My final impression walking away from What Remains of Edith Finch, then, was largely a positive one. This is an imaginative and affecting game which, while a bit derivative in places, is nevertheless worth seeing through to its conclusion. I’m sure developer Giant Sparrow has more great things to come.

7.8/10

GAME REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000)

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Sometimes, creative restrictions can lead to the most elegant solutions. Case in point: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Shigeru Miyamoto set Nintendo EAD the unenviable task of following up Ocarina of Time, still widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, within the space of just one year.

To achieve this impossible task, the team employed some of the most efficient and creative recycling game design has ever seen. Bosses and incidental characters from Ocarina were reimagined and fleshed out with idiosyncratic personalities. Items and powers were subtly changed. But most brilliantly of all, the game’s central time-rewind mechanic allowed the development team to re-use many aspects of the world, creating a huge amount of gameplay depth across a small physical space.

It’s a stroke of genius. The giant, grinning Moon is on a collision course with the game world of Termina, and after three in-game days will make impact, destroying everything in sight and causing the game to end. The player is armed with the ability at any point to rewind back to the start of the three day cycle, but there’s a catch: all non-essential items and events in the world are reset back to how they were at the very beginning.

Making forward progress, then, is about unlocking items, powers and ocarina songs which are permanently written to your inventory, and can be subsequently used to skip everything up until the point at which you acquired them. After descending into the Pirate’s Fortress to acquire the hookshot, for example, you can then grapple right across the whole area without having to traverse through it.

The structure of Majora’s Mask is elliptical, constantly looping back upon itself in delightfully clever ways, and inching forwards a tiny bit closer to the end goal with each time cycle. It strikes me as a precursor to the kind of ideas that fuel roguelikes such as Spelunky, where the inevitability of death constantly forces the player to learn and grow their understanding of the game until they are able to complete it in a single run.

The unique structure of Majora’s Mask also gives it an incredible sense of urgency which few other games can match. Nothing is quite as nerve-wracking as approaching the final boss battle of a dungeon with only a matter of minutes to spare, praying you can kill it before time resets and forces you to trudge all the way through the dungeon to meet it again.

It’s not hard to see how the impending doom of Majora’s development deadline manifested itself in the game’s central time-limit mechanic, and the constant threat of a repeated apocalypse. There are few dev studios out there who could be so daringly creative and cunning as to take a nightmarishly logistical, real-world game-development problem and transform it into the central mechanic of the game itself. Utterly, utterly brilliant.

And while we’re on the subject of nightmares, we have to mention the uniquely dark, unsettling tone of Majora’s Mask, which is still the weirdest Zelda game ever made. Characters and questlines are rife with melancholy, bereavement and guilt. The wonderful soundtrack becomes more and more warped as each time cycle approaches its end, and then there is that unignorable, evil grinning moon face.

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This focus on tone and character, on smaller interactions and stories, bleeds into the gameplay as well. Majora puts a heavy emphasis on side content with only four bespoke dungeons, but all of its side quests are folded into the larger structure of the game with incredible elegance. Some unfurl gently across the span of the entire game, while others which begin as innocuously simple tasks sprawl into world-spanning questlines which require the use of all your accrued knowledge and powers.

The dungeons themselves are perhaps the only point where Majora falls a bit short of other Zelda games. The first two are effective without bringing anything particularly memorable to the table, while the third is a clever spin (literally) on Ocarina’s majestic Water Temple, centred around the flow of water through spinning wheels. The game’s only classic dungeon is its last, the Stone Tower Temple, which deliriously flips upside down at the halfway point, and asks you to traverse it again with the sky beneath your feet.

Moments such as this look fantastic on the New 3DS XL’s huge screen, which is the version of the game I played. It’s nice, also, to finally play a game that makes use of the little camera nubbin above the Y button, and the new head tracking means you can actually go 3D without getting a headache. The concession in Majora 3DS of time-slowing and fast-forwarding songs, however, says a lot about the ever-reducing levels of patience modern devs expect from their audience, and slightly  cheapens the sense of urgency found within the original.

But these are minor quibbles. Majora’s Mask is a truly otherworldly feat of economy and creativity, and one that stands alone in the series. By stripping away large swathes of Zelda mythology, Majora ended up a stranger, more personal, and more alluring adventure. Its practical construction conceals a sprawling, 40-hour epic that matches Ocarina in depth, if not in width. And its influence is still being felt today, even seventeen years later.

9.7/10