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. 

Sonic Mania Review

Version Reviewed: Xbox One

In the opening cinematic to Sonic Mania, a countdown timer goes from 1 to 2 to 3 then Knuckles before arriving on Mania. Sonic 4 (both episodes), the plethora of 3D adventures and werewolves are left at the door. The question everyone wants to know upon this games’ release; is this really the successor to the evangelised – by some – Megadrive games?

Upon booting up Sonic Mania, the nostalgia strings of your heart are pulled. The game, which begins the only way it can, follows Sonic (with or without twin-tailed sidekick) hunting Dr. Robotnik across a mix of newly created zones – some based on themes from earlier games. Hydro City- one of my most despised Zones from Sonic 3 – is present yet feels completely different from its 16 bit ancestor. As with all of the ‘remixed’ zones there are familiar traps, architecture and enemy placement which rekindle forgotten memories of yesteryear. Each feels fresh and exciting whilst have a warm sense of happy familiarity. 

The moment to moment gameplay is exceptional for two reasons. Firstly, the game understands what makes Sonic fun. When uncertain of the road ahead the blue blur throws caution into the wind and speeds towards adventure whilst never feeling on-rails. Secondly, the game removes many of the grievances of past Sonic games. Our hero’s struggles in 3D aside, the Megadrive games have not aged well – particularly the pace and structure of the levels. Sonic Mania rectifies this by ironically taking a few lessons from the Mario school of game design. In the same way the environments in Mario guide and teach you the rules of the world, Mania’s subtle design choices do the same. In one zone, Sonic can be frozen in an ice cube which can be shaken off with a few presses of the jump button or moving. Instinctive, yet a puzzle in this level requires you to use the ice to forge ahead. There’s a cleverness and confidence in the level design which has been missing from many of Sonic’s 21st Century outings. Plus it excels in one area more than others.

Without spoiling the best parts of this game, the boss fights are inspired. Fan favourites – and we mean hardcore fans’ – return in unexpected places with possibly the most creative, smile-spreading end of level battles ever created. To give examples would rob you of this but trust us; they are good! As with Sonic 3 and Knuckles, each act has a boss. Each level has you sat on the edge of your seat waiting to see what concoction of terror awaits; like a furry, sugar coated My Little Pony/Saw mash up.

As with Sonic 3 and Knuckles, players can choose different combinations of the three (best) Sonic heroes to play as. The game plays homage to the above games’ special stages and the ‘UFO’ style stages from Sonic CD. These help to vary the gameplay though it is always welcome to return to the main body of the game. Also, if you remember the Sky Chase Zone from Sonic 2 or Sonic Adventure, a brief homage is made in the Mirage Saloon Zone. Again it looks like we remember Sonic 2 but upon closer inspection extra details and better animations are present. In this review, I’ve tried to steer clear of comparisons with previous Sonic games but this is perhaps unavoidable; this is the best Sonic game to play today. 

Every corner of this game oozes with the developers’ love and passion for this series. Despite the 16 bit stylings, the game is anything but. Like Shovel Knight, the animations are detailed and sleek. The original music and backgrounds have added layers which pop in 2017 HD. Added visual effects like fallen rings hurtling in and out of the screen add to the high production values in this game. Having recently revisited Sonic 3 & Knuckles on Xbox 360/One, PC and Nintendo DS, it is worth identifying that Mania’s controls are tighter than its predecessors. No death feels unfair – another stark difference to the Megadrive games. Again akin to Shovel Knight, the addition of further remixed stages to play through as Knuckles adds value to what is already a substantial package – the game is much bigger than Sonic 3 FYI…

Having spent much of 1993 reading Sonic the Comic or Mean Machines SEGA gawping at screenshots of Sonic 3, I remember scraping enough money through odd jobs to buy the game on its release. The same buzz of popping that game into my Megadrive is felt when loading up Sonic Mania. It understands why that era of gaming is special. There is something about Sonic which appeals to the child at heart. Playing Mania for review with my 1 year old son, he too was mesmerised by every loop, spin and dash. Sonic Mania is a masterpiece which is successful in every goal it has set out to achieve. It is the Sonic 4 fans have dreamt of for decades. In the same way many DC fans say Batman V Superman is the perfect film for them, there is no better reward for Sonic-ites hungry to see his return to glory. And crucially, at under £20, it is outstanding value for money. Highly, highly recommended. If you owned a Megadrive, this game is essential! 

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…

If you disagree, correct us in the comments on the site or on Twitter @pennilessdads

Switching Lanes

More and more devs are Switching (shnarf!) to Nintendo’s new console. Rocket League, FIFA 18 and rumours of Overwatch have raised optimism for the home/handheld hybrid. But what is missing from Switch’s lineup and what would elevate it to truly compete with Xbox One and PlayStation 4?

Injustice 2

The sequel to Nether-realm’s DC toy box fighter was released earlier this year on the two main home consoles. It featured deep customisation options as well as -like the original – a wacky, original story. Injustice 1 was released slightly down-scaled on PS Vita so there is no reason the sequel couldn’t be ported to Switch. With Arms, Ultra Street Fighter 2 and a possible Smash game, Switch could become the place for grappling fans. Arms sold more in its first week than the latest Tekken and Street Fighter did on X1 or PS4…

Crash Bandicoot N’Sane Trilogy

Recently released as an ambiguous PS4 ‘exclusive’, Crash would be at home on Nintendo’s portable paradise. The game updates the graphics and some gameplay elements to drag the bandicoot into the 21st Century. Reviewing well on PS4, a system with this, Yooka-Laylee and Mario Odyssey would rubber stamp the mini-renaissance of collect-a-thon platformers. Now we just need Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg!

Speaking of which…

Sonic Classic Collection

Last year, we got this as a humble bundle on PC for about £11. It included Sonic 1, 2, 3, Sonic & Knuckles (all with lock on compatibility), Sonic Spinball, Dr. Robotnik’s (not Eggman…) Mean Bean Machine and Sonic 3D from the Megadrive/Genesis. Also: Sonic CD, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Lost World, Sonic Generations, Sonic and SEGA Allstars Racing and its sequel. Missing in action were the Wii Sonic games: Secret Rings, Black Knight, Colours and the 2006 360/PS3 garbage truck on fire Sonic the Hedgehog. Put them all together though and there’s a whole lotta game there. Put it in the £30-£40 bracket and we’d be sold!

Metal Gear Solid

In the Wii era, I was convinced there was going to be a Twin Snakes-engine-with-waggle-controls remake of Metal Gear (Solid Snake v Big Boss). The HD collection from last generation was a success – particularly on PS3 where you could play all the games in the series. Konami likes money – as we know – so a Switch MGS would be an easy way to make more of it. A port of Phantom Pain (it came out on PS3 and X360 remember), a HD bundle or something new would all be welcome to play at home or on the go.

Destiny

Why can’t Destiny work on Switch? The game can be scaled as we have seen with the PC and X1X versions. Even if Switch players had to play on their own servers or had limited functionality it would be a success. Destiny takes over lives and this can be a problem in a busy household where tv rights are at a premium. We’d even take a complementary experience to play alongside the full-fat versions elsewhere. With Microsoft’s willingness to work alongside Nintendo (Minecraft, cross platform play) you never know. We might be striking and raiding in the living room before heading out to patrol missions at the bus stop.

Which games would you like to see on Switch? 

Speeding Towards Adventure

First of all, kudos if you get the article title. 2017 is amongst other things the return of the mascot platformer/collect-a-thon. Yooka-Laylee, Crash Bandicoot and Mario Odyssey make up a holy trinity of games which hark back to the foggy days of PS1, Dreamcast and N64. In between these releases comes a double-edged spike ball of fury (furry?); Sonic. Could this finally be the return to glory for one of gaming’s original trend setters?

In the 90s, 2D Sonic arguably peaked with Sonic 3 & Knuckles – the ‘complete’ version of Sonic 3. The game refined power ups and level variety whilst having the best balance of furry sidekicks which would in later games get out of hand. The transition to 3D was as awkward as a human-hedgehog romantic relationship. Sonic Adventure wasn’t Mario 64 quality and is difficult to play in 2017 due to some extremely clunky 3D work. However, it was fun and had some memorable, iconic moments. The 3D games got progressively worse – always trying to shoehorn in alternate mechanics which were at odds with Sonic’s simplicity. No wonder Knuckles always loses the Master Emerald if all he has is that annoying blinking radar thing. 

Over in 2D Sonic world, there has been more consistent content. Sonic Advance and its sequels were good and were followed up with strong Nintendo DS games. However, monstrosities like Sonic 4 (both episodes) and the first Sonic Boom smart like spring jumping straight into a Buzz Bomber. 

Back in 3D land, things got weirder. Sonic became a werewolf, went to Camelot and vastly expanded his band of forgettable sidekicks. For the record, the Chaotix crew is where the line should be. Shadow, Silver and any other X the Z diluted the already diminished quality of the series. False dawns like Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 rubbed salt in the wounds of SEGA fans who had already begun to accept the seemingly inevitable. Occasionally a game gave a speck of hope. Sonic and the Secret Rings on Wii begun the ‘rollercoaster’ style game style and was built on in Colors and Sonic Unleashed. An uneasy balance was finally found in Sonic Generations which reimagined stages from all eras of Sonic, mixing 2D and 3D gameplay. It was great fun and most importantly wasn’t a chore to play. All non-Sonic shenanigans were optional. This all brings us to 2017’s offerings…

By the year’s end, we should have 2D retro-inspired sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles; Sonic Mania as well as Generations-esque Sonic Forces. Between the two games there looks to be something for everyone and – hopefully – games which finally restore the honour to Sonic’s name. Like Mario, it was once a symbol of quality and you knew exactly what you were going to get. The faux 16-bit graphics of Mania will draw the attention of lapsed gamer 30-somethings who will instantly recognise the blue blur. Plus for a sub-£20 price tag it is a no brainier purchase. Sonic Forces aims to build on Generations’ more consistent 3D environments and deliver a 2017 Sonic adventure. Interestingly the ‘build your own sidekick’ feature seems like a master stroke. No one can moan of the suspect supporting cast if they are user created. It gives big kids like us the chance to recreate great characters like those from the UK’s now defunct Sonic the Comic or more recent fan-favourites like Big the Cat. 

We wait with bated breath to see if these two Sonics can deliver after 20 years of false starts. As the Sonic Adventure theme says: 

‘Gotta open your heart!

Can’t hold on much longer!

But I will never let go!

I know it’s a one way track!

Tell me now how long this’ll last!

I’m not gonna think this way!

Nor will I count on others!

Close my eyes and feel it burn!

Now I see what I gotta do!

Open your heart, it’s gonna be alright! Yeah!’

We hope! 

Out with the old…

2016-17 has seen an increasing number of ‘retro’ boxes released or announced; Atari’s mysterious machine, NES/SNES Classic and SEGA’s new Megadrive/Genesis. What this draws attention to – among other things – is how far the industry has travelled in a relatively short space of time. With this thought in mind, it has become apparent that much of our lexicon has become outdated. Similar to plastic guitar periphals, motion controls and Bubsy the Bobcat, certain words and phrases used everyday in gaming forums (literal and figurative) are archaic and in need of updating. 

Adventure – Once confined to 90’s PCs, ‘adventure’ games (inclusive of point and click) have enjoyed a recent resurgence. Grim Fandango along with several other Lucasarts titles have been pointed, clicked and dragged into the 21st Century. Obtuse gameplay with one linear yet baffling pathway usually defined these games – requiring the player to put together the random assortment of paraphernalia to trigger the next part of the adventure in question. The term ‘adventure’ encompasses more than these though. The spiritual successor to these games are surely the Telltale Games series which apes the point and click mechanic albeit with more choice over the story elements. Perhaps these games are more greatly defined by their slow-burning, intricate stories and the term ‘adventure’ is in lieu of saying so. Yet the label ‘adventure’ is not always indicative of this as exemplified by Sonic Adventure (cheap shot I know – love it really!). So what is an adventure game? What should we call games like Discworld, Minecraft Story Mode or Life is Strange? ‘Walking simulator’ doesn’t seem to cut it…

Arcade – This is a place we went to in our youths to pay money to play games. It is not – I repeat, not – a genre. A common tag line of certain games is it boasts ‘arcade’ style gameplay. Highly doubtful as the last game I played like this – Fast Racing RMX – didn’t create the urge to ram 50p into my Switch or make a rude username to appear in the lap time records. Perhaps this though is the spirit of the term: chasing high scores. Playing through bite size chunks of gameplay and repeating until one refined the experience. Should then, the term be ‘high-score-a-thon’? ‘Arcade’ covers too much to encompass all it consumes at present; racing, fighters, sports…the list goes on. 

dlc – The worst offender on the list. I’m not going to talk about horse armour but just think how silly this sounds. My PS4, Xbox One and Switch are crammed with fully fledged retail games which were downloaded. Fallout 4, Destiny and Mario Kart 8 all sit shackled to my consoles yet free from the constraints of physical media – safe in the knowledge they can never be traded in. They are all downloaded content. So why is an expansion referred to as ‘dlc’? Why have we not got a more elegant name for a term which – in addition – has got some quite negative connotations? Then there’s cloud based games like PlayStation Now which has games advertised with ‘all dlc included’ yet you never download the game or the additional material. Think about it. 

Indie – Taking root in the now defunct Xbox Live Arcade era and blossoming through last gen and now, smaller games (or downloadable content…) seem to be tagged with the term ‘indie’. This happens in music too. ‘Indie’ is an abbreviation of ‘independent’ meaning the band – or game – is being created sans a record label or publisher. An accurate example of an ‘indie’ game would be Thomas was Alone or Super Meat Boy. However, larger studios have got in on the act challenging the notion that all games must be £45 upon entry. These include Child of Light or Journey. They are not independent, rather the opposite. What they have in common with many ‘indies’ is the smaller game size. 

Platformer – Sonic and Mario are different. You can almost see the design meeting SEGA had when establishing their mascot. Sonic is fast and Mario is slow in comparison. Mario is red with blue clothes so Sonic is blue with red clothes (sneakers). Mario is the anti-hero, the everyman thrust into danger to save the girl, whereas Sonic is bold with an attitude. It doesn’t matter who or what he’s saving he just does it – like a Nike advert. In fact, the original Sonic 1 instruction booklet translated the back story incorrectly. Japanese players thought the Green Hill Zone took place on Earth yet in the West we believed it to be the fictional world of Mobius. I digress. The thing they have in common, is jumping on platforms. Fast forward twenty years though and the worlds – whatever they are – they inhabit are hard pushed to be described as ‘platformers’. A term which has been coined to describe the 3D iterations of these games has been ‘collect-a-thon’. In Super Mario 64 you had to collect the stars to restore power to the castle which unlocked more doors so you could unlock more stars to find more doors which led to Bowser. In Banjo-Kazooie you found Jiggies which were the missing pieces in paintings which when complete allowed you to enter said world and find more Jiggies in order to…you get the idea. In 3D Sonic games you collect Sonic Emblems just because. Anyway, the platforming elements of these games have fallen by the wayside – especially in 3D Sonic which would be better classified as ‘rollercoaster’. 2D platformer sits fine but what do we call the 3D ones: adventure games? 

RPG – ‘Role Playing Game’ encompasses everything. When I picked up a Pong paddle, I was playing a role. When I play Virtua Tennis, I’m playing a role. To be more specific, the ‘role playing’ part is generally attributed to the development of skills and powers throughout the game. This is why many games are described as having ‘RPG elements’; open world stealth with RPG elements or sports simulation with RPG elements. So what then is an RPG if most games these days could be classified as having features of them? Skyrim: Elf simulation with RPG elements? The term has transitioned from a genre to a mechanic. What is it which defines a game with RPG mechanics – like Darksiders 2 – from a RPG like Final Fantasy 15? What is Zelda: Breath of the Wild? 
Which games-related terms would you like to see changed? What will we be describing, classifying and labelling games in 10 years time? Who decides them? Who watches the deciders? 

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!