Until Dawn Review

Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4

Recently available to all PlayStation Plus subscribers as a free monthly game, Until Dawn is a standout, unique title in Sony’s console’s library. So if – like me – you waited to jump into this survival horror classic, here’s what you can expect. Point of note, this is a great social game. I played it with my wife over the course of about two weeks; through the ten episodic chapters. 

Like all good horror movies, the game begins with a group of teenagers and an isolated cabin setting. Throughout the game you control the teens at different times playing out parts of the story from their perspectives. If you are familiar with Telltale-style games the control method will feel familiar; including tropes such as quick time events and context sensitive button prompts. At various points in the story, you are given (seemingly) 50/50 choices which impact the story and – in some cases – the health and safety of the characters. 

Throughout the eight hours or so the story takes to run its course, we found ourselves switching which characters we were rooting for and which we found ourselves saying “hope this idiot dies soon”. Tip-toeing around spoilers, Emily, who is a whiny, egocentric brat near the start of the story, has a sequence later on where she shows her resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity – becoming much more likeable. The characters are flawed individuals which is refreshing to see in a video game. Until Dawn is a well written game and the plot, dialogue and direction are all major positives for it to take home. 

Among the game’s minor negatives are the overall length. By the credits, it felt like we’d spent years on this mountain listening to Emily. Also, the first 75% of the game switches between a bingo card collection of horror ghosts and ghouls – like if someone pressed ‘open all’ on the contents of the film Cabin in the Woods. Once the primary threat is revealed, the closing chapters play out a satisfying conclusion but come with reduced scares as you know what is hunting you. These by no means spoil the game experience though.

A great option in the game is the ability to replay chapters to re-try sections and re-make choices. This encourages replayability  as you (hopefully!) strive to keep all the ill-fated teens alive. It emphasises how much of a polished package this is. 

Until Dawn is near the, if not at, the pinnacle of modern survival horror and is great played with a companion with the lights off. 

Netflix

Castlevania the (albeit brief) Netflix series is fantastic. My interest in the franchise has been tepid to put a label on it but last weekend I took a leap of faith (drops breadcrumb) and decided to watch episode 1. This is the kind of thoughtful, takes-itself-seriously video content that games have been crying out for. So, which other games are crying out for streaming serialisation; either animated or live action?

Bioshock – Already a movie project which mirrors Rapture and Columbia’s descent into chaos – Bioshock as a franchise has so much potential. “There’s always a man and there’s always a city” we learn at the end of the appropriately named Bioshock Infinite. Those familiar with Once Upon a Time may see the analogue in a character like Emma with Booker – both fish out of water trying to grasp the rules of the new worlds they find theirselves in. Undoubtably this would have to be an animated production due to the fantastical settings but if nothing else it might give us chance for a new Bioshock game. 

Fallout – A post apocalyptic setting would too demand animation over live action and there is lots of scope for an engaging, mature story. The standard ‘man out of time’ would also be relevent here as the viewer would learn about the world along with the character. Although it would definitely need to be for grown ups only. The series could follow the same structure of the Pokemon anime; loosely tracing the journey in the games. Flashbacks optional.

Metal Gear – Despite cricism by some fans, The Phantom Pain did the right thing by reducing the focus on story. The convoluted, complicated storyline of Metal Gear requires research and note taking to even scratch the surface. Perhaps it is time to collate these and produce it as a coherent (as much as possible) narrative. 

For many, the series truly began with the PS1 classic Metal Gear Solid however this game had many, many callbacks, nods and winks to the original 8bit games. The relationship between the ‘modern’ Metal Gear storyline and the era Big Boss was more prominent lends itself to an Arrow style structure. Season 1 could be Solid Snake on Shadow Moses with flashbacks to Zanzibar – showing how the lessons he learned in the latter impact on the former. Potentially – due to the slower paced story telling – this could be live action. All you would need is an abandoned industrial plant of some kind, a bandana and a gimp mask…

The Legend of Zelda – Recently rumoured to be in existence, this series is ripe for an adaptation. Since the so-90s-it-hurt Super Mario Bros movie, Nintendo has been reluctant to outsource its AAA characters – especially in other forms of media. The recent masterpiece Breath of the Wild is perfect for this with much more story content than previous Zelda games. Time travel is an interesting concept retconned into the series and the multiple timelines would be a unique rabbit warren to tumble down later in the series. Perhaps ‘our’ Link and Zelda could end up in different Hyrules; meeting their counterparts. This could lead to some Toy Story style Buzz meets Buzz shenanigans. Yes, Link may have to speak (note: he does actually speak in most of the games but you just don’t hear it). Either live action or animation is possible too. Hopefully the success of as well as respect shown to Castlevania will give Nintendo the confidence to give us what we want.

Speaking of leaps of faith (picks up breadcrumb), an Assassin’s Creed series is on the way in addition to Season 2 (which is longer!) of Castlevania. The games-to-series trend has started strongly. Let’s see it done justice now! 

The Top 10 Games 2017

Back in the N64 era, I noticed my games collection was slightly imbalanced. The vast majority of games on my shelf were football titles. My teenage self set the target of addressing the balance and making sure I had – in loose terms – one of each genre. What resulted was a mini-golden age of gaming. I could only have one shooter (obviously Goldeneye), one football game etc etc and through trading in and careful curation I made sure I only had the cream of the crop. I have 188 games on my PlayStation 4 through carried over purchases from PlayStation 3 and Vita, PlayStation Plus and hoarding in flash sales. In the download era it would be impossible to purge these games from my account but it got me thinking; what are the best games to play today? Top ten/hundred lists usually start getting predictable near the top, dominated by the likes of Mario 64. So, we are aiming to do something different. What are the best games to play in 2017? Nostalgic feelings and historical impact (we’ve got another list for that) on the industry are not applicable. Yes, San Andreas was important in 2004 but we’ve come a long way since then. Genres are defined by pennilessdads and we’ve also ignored sports titles as we felt that was too broad a heading. We aim to update this list at least 3 times a year. Some genres are unrepresented – sorry in advance!

2D era inspired game – Shovel Knight

The last ten years has seen a resurgence of 2D games and the tip of the spear is Shovel Knight. Riffing on sooo many games of yesteryear, this polished platform – which now has 3 campaigns – is great value. We await to see if August’s Sonic Mania can challenge Shovel Knight’s title. 

First person shooter – Destiny

Since 2014, the question I have asked when playing every game with a hand and a gun is: does it feel like Destiny? This is testament to the quality of Bungie’s epic online playground. As the journey of the original Destiny comes to an end, there’s one last chance to experience this great, genre defining experience. Will Destiny 2 overthrow it?

Racing – Mario Kart 8

Once upon a time, racing games like SEGA Rally, Daytona, Gran Turismo and Ridge Racer were tentpoles of console line ups. These days ‘serious’ racers are no longer at the forefront. The Forza series is arguably the best of these but the Switch’s recent deluxe version of Mario Kart 8 conquers all.

Story based action game – The Last of Us Remastered

There are so many games which could feature here. However, The Last of Us is a standout title and perhaps the game which elevated Naughty Dog to the highest tier of games designers – keeping company with the creme de la creme of games developers.  

3D collectathon platformer – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Following last gen’s trend of semi-sequels, an uncharacteristic Nintendo sequel to the fantastic Super Mario Galaxy is a varied collection of creative challenges which will change the way you think of a Mario game. Yes, Super Mario Odyssey will probably knock Galaxy 2 off its perch but we’ll have to wait until October for that. 

Crafting game – Fallout 4

Controversy! Minecraft inspired this element in many, many games but Fallout 4 has a – much maligned- base crafting feature which gives a nice change of pace with the rest of the game. Every settlement in Fallout 4 I come across now has a much refined plan to create an armoured, impervious foretress (concrete block the perimeter, guns intermittently around, robot protectors). A great aside to a great game which has unfair criticism in my humble opinion. 

High fantasy adventure – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

It was a three horse race between this, Skyrim and Witcher 3. BotW changes everything. This is as close to a perfect game as there has ever been. The end. 

Puzzle – Puyo Puyo Tetris

Harking back to the Gameboy game which catapulted tetrominoes into popular culture, this quirky crossover has a great array of modes and a manic story mode. Multiplayer puzzling has never been as much fun. An honourable mention would be The Witness. 

Turn based role playing – Persona 5

Final Fantasy 13 ushered in a lapse in quality of Square Enix’s epic series. Persona saw the gap at the top and grasped the opportunity. The latest Persona has caught public opinion dominating conversations in and around various games podcasts. Style and substance combined make this the current pinnacle of JRPGs. 

Horror – Until Dawn

The 32bit era sewed the seeds of survival horror with Resident Evil, refining it the point of (then) perfection in the fourth iteration in the next generation. Between 2005 and 2015 though, the genre suffered as the balance between action and scares became more one than the other (clue: it’s not horror). 

Enter Until Dawn. Recently available on PS Plus as one of the free games on PS4, this seemingly by the numbers teen horror movie matters so much more when you’re calling the shots. Within five minutes of starting, you’re already wishing one of the douchebags dead. A great twist on the Telltale style experience and great for couch co-op. 

Mike drop…

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Fast Racing RMX

Version reviewed: Nintendo Switch

Propping up the somewhat lite launch line up of Switch games is a game which is an – perhaps not the – answer to a question asked by many Nintendo fans. Fast Racing RMX is a futuristic Racer in the same vein as Wipeout or F-Zero – specifically the fondly remembered GameCube version; F-Zero GX. An updated, remixed version of the Wii U game, Fast Racing RMX aims to fill the void left by Nintendo’s last home console entry in the genre (made by SEGA FYI) which now stands at 13 years. With fans clamouring for GX 2, this game has a lot of weight on its shoulders…

In the Switch version, there is the usual offering of racing game modes such as time attack, versus and challenges. The Mario Kart-esque Grand Prix over four races is the meat of the game and that is where we’ll start. The aforementioned influences from SEGA’s F-Zero GX are clear in the track design. There are worm-like sections of track, rotating blockades and air-riding jumps which all hark back to the GameCube classic. Anyone who played that game will feel right at home with the controls, feel and structure of the game. The differentiating mechanic is a twist on the traditional boost/shield charge found in F-Zero. You can charge your boost/shield meter over strips as usual however some are orange and some are blue. A tap of the X button switches your ship’s colour between these – with matching its colour to the strip resulting in a boost or recharge. If you lose focus and head into an orange strip with a blue ship (or vice versa), you slow down as if you have gone off piste on Mario Kart. It is a fun mechanic which can be exploited in later tracks to slingshot past opposing racers. The power of the boost though requires further analysis.

When you activate boost – identical to F-Zero in execution – your already speedy ship takes off in an almost indistructable blur. Pretty to look at (especially compared to the Wii U version) and initially thrilling, this quickly dilutes the skill required to progress up the field. It feels perhaps a little too generous sometimes as multiple crash laps can sometimes be redeemed through hitting the orange and blue boost panels. This is a minor gripe but is the distinguishing factor between the quality of F-Zero GX. 

In multiplayer, the game excels too. Popping off the Joy-Cons and playing in split screen mode is comfortable and – most importantly – fun! We played in tabletop mode and had a smooth experience in 2 player again evoking memories of being huddled around N64s and GameCubes. 

It is worth noting this is a ‘budget’ game with a sub-£20 price tag. With F-Zero still on hiatus it snuggly slots into where it should be. The 32/64 bit era was awash with 3D platformers and futuristic racers (Trickstyle, Rollcage, Wipeout…). Now both of these styles of game seem to have fallen out of vogue. With this in mind, the question is: was this enjoyable because it is one of the only examples of the genre currently on release or because it is genuinely good? If Nintendo had granted the developers the F-Zero licence for the game and had the familiar characters and ships etc this would be heralded as a great return for the series and a worthy successor to the previous entry. The fact it is as good as it is without the boost of the iconic F-Zero name speaks volumes. This is a great game with beautiful graphics and is thoroughally recommended to anyone Jonesing for a fully fledged follow up to GX. 

Re-reviewing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

On March 3rd, many of my (non-dad) friends received their shiny new Switches and began the adventure of a lifetime exploring the vast, open expanse of Hyrule. Back over here, I eagerly popped in my disc into my tired, forgotten Wii U. 85 hours later, the game was ‘completed’ (all 4 divine beasts, Master Sword, all memories and Ganon defeated). The game went on eBay, giving me a net spend of £7 for a game I had basically had an affair with for 5 weeks. However fast forward to July and my shiny new Switch needed a game meatier than Fast Racing RMX (which is awesome btw). It was time to return to wake Link up again but could a second play through – so close to my 1st one – be as enjoyable?

After an hour of play, the first thing which stood out was just how hard the opening is. Enemies which I had got used to being one hit Master Sword fodder were giving me a real run for my money. I was REALLY missing my 3 wheel stamina capabilities from my Wii U save file too. Secondly, despite telling myself there was no visible difference in graphics between the two versions, I was wrong. It is worth noting there have been several patch updates in between my playthroughs so the Wii U may have got better but this is what I found. The frame rate and slow down is better on Switch. Busy areas like Kakariko Village and Kokiri Forest ran smoother although the Switch version does seem to have more pop in. The resolution too is visibly crisper on Nintendo’s newest console. Anyway, back to gameplay…

When playing the Wii U version it was a strange sensation. Any moment not playing the game, I was thinking about it. For 20 days in a row I sunk more than an hour an evening into it; as well as ridiculous amounts of time at weekends. Although not dragging me into it’s web of addictiveness this time, playing the game again (65 hours in) is a joy. Upon leaving the Great Plateau, disregarding any sense of direction, I jumped into the unknown – just like I had on Wii U. Despite spending 85 hours previously exploring Hyrule, I found myself finding new areas and secrets which had eluded me before. I was certain I’d spoken to every side quest NPC at the stables but I obviously missed some (a few actually). Obviously the main spine was of the game has remained familiar and has not yielded any surprises but like the best of its peers like Skyrim or the Witcher 3, the weirdest, world-building quests remain off the beaten path in the side quests. Who knew that the largest, most immersive fantasy world ever created was actually even bigger? If you think you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, I’d recommend gliding back in to dig a bit deeper. This is before we’ve even begun taking advantage of the first expansion releasing last week. Many years ago, I would play through Ocarina of Time annually – enjoying every minute. The biggest compliment I can pay this game is it feels the same way. 

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Goty Edition

Version reviewed: PS4

Recently discounted on all formats, with a stay of execution as the sequel has been delayed, this 2014 open world adventure is worth another look.

The premise of this game is work your way up through Sauron’s army to avenge the death of your (a ranger called Talion) family. It is like someone put the film Gladiator in with a Lord of the Rings box set in a blender. Before emptying the mushed up contents though, the designers Monolith threw Rocksteady’s Arkham series in too. The combat of this game, as well as controls and traversal, are straight out of Gotham City. As mentioned in this month’s pennilessdads podcast, the game has some loose links with the films but the strength of the game is not the iconic setting of Middle Earth.

Heavily borrowed fighting mechanics aside, by far and large the most fun is taking out the various levels of Sauron’s minions. Defeating a war chief leaves room at the top for an underling to take his place. Later in the game, you gain the ability to brainwash key members of the forces of Mordor and build your own army. Bugging out from a fight to quickly heal then return and finish off your foe is extremely satisfying and reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 5 which was released a year later.

It would be easy to recommend this package for Tolkien-ites however this is a game which should be compelling for most audiences. This does not include children however. Strong language as well as violent moments – much more adult than either of Peter Jackson’s trilogies – mean this is one for mature players. 

Despite the open world setting, the variety of gameplay missions (stealth, elf-shot bow challenges, brawl arenas etc etc) keeps you occupied between warchiefs. The main story never outstays its welcome and paced nicely. If you want to sink 40+ hours into it you can or you can simply whizz through the story missions. Again, the lore of Lord of the Rings is present yet – like Arkham – the licence enhances the excellent gameplay rather than becomes the main focus. For £11.99 on PSN recently this is essential! 

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga Review

Version reviewed: Xbox 360

LEGO Star Wars – currently available free to Xbox Live Gold subscribers – combines the two games which started it all; allowing players to experience Episodes 1 through 6. In 2005, the original LEGO Star Wars, released to coincide with Revenge of the Sith, introduced us to the world of digital LEGO. I remember fondly playing that game on PS2 to try and discover the events of Ep3 before going to the cinema to watch the film. 

LEGO games have become their own genre, spawning countless sequels and even a toys to life game. The general gist is to play through the level, following a linear path, defeating enemies and collecting as many LEGO studs as possible. The formula 12 years later is familiar, at its heart basic yet akin to comfort food.

LEGO games, especially this one, shine due to the character and humour depicted by the pseudo plastic actors. More recent LEGO games have introduced voice acting whereas these earlier ones play out as comedic silent movies, poking fun at the subject material. Sometimes, in Star Wars’ case, surpassing the acting of the prequel trilogy of films…

With this game now being playable on Xbox One, and Star Wars being back in vogue, this is a great time to have this as a Games with Gold freebie. It goes some way to scratching that Star Wars itch until Battlefront 2 arrives later in the year. The game is great fun to recreate favourite scenes from the movies. It is superior to Star Wars Force Unleashed 2 which has also been available in May for Gold subscribers.

After the familiar story has played out, there’s still plenty to do. Going back to unlock obscure characters from the first 30 years of Star Wars is addictive. Different characters have different abilities and you’ll need to revisit story levels non-canon (for that level) characters to unlock everything. Multiplayer is also present though can create Mario Kart levels of falling out over teamwork or lack thereof.

If there is one complaint, it is the pace and structure of the combined package can feel strange. Like Vader going from space ninja in Rogue One to clunking tank in New Hope five minutes later, playing Episodes 1-3 as Jedi to then have to de-grade almost as pre-lightsaber Luke means the initial portion of the original trilogy does not feel as slick as it should. A solid package though and a great win for Games with Gold.