Some Of My Favourite Indie Games

Indie games have become quite the force to be reckoned with in recent years, with something of a resurgence in the 2010s. Many years ago, particularly in the UK, a huge number of “bedroom coders” created games that have since gone on to be legends. I shan’t focus on those old ones today – instead I’m going to discuss a few of my favourite indie games from this new golden age.

Super Meat Boy – I may as well start strong… Super Meat boy is one of my favourite games of all time! Well-polished, with excellent music, varied stages, tight controls, and an amusing array of characters, the game has you, as the titular Meat Boy, navigate increasingly deadly stages to save your girlfriend, Bandage Girl. Spinning saw blades, lasers, spikes, salt, hypodermic needles, lava…. there are many obstacles in your way – and they all kill you. Many times. Complete a stage within a quick (but unpublished) time limit to achieve an A+ rating. Certain levels contain hidden bandages (plasters to us Brits) to be collected, and yet others contain warp zones which take you away to weird and wonderful lands drawn in the style of retro consoles – notably Super Nintendo and Game Boy – which present new challenges and physics for a laugh. In a game full of genius moments, perhaps the greatest is that upon completion of each stage you are presented with a replay of every attempt you made – enabling you to watch sometimes dozens of Meat Boys meat their sticky end. These replays can be saved for posterity!

Originally slated as a Wii exclusive, the game never came to that console. It did, however, come to both Wii U and Switch, Xbox 360 (backwards compatible on One), PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and the usual PC operating systems. To give you an idea of how much I love the game I have bought it on every single one of those systems!

supermeatboy

Shovel Knight – Honestly I didn’t enjoy this one a lot the first time round, but given time it has worn away at my scepticism and become another favourite. Yet another retro-styled game, with graphics and music that wouldn’t be possible on retro consoles but still evoke the memory of olden-times gaming, this one has you play as Shovel Knight as he seeks to save his partner in adventuring – Shield Knight – who is under a curse. As his (or her – you can sex swap any major character in the game, why not) name implies, our hero’s weapon of choice is, rather unconventionally, a shovel! Use it to strike enemies in the usual manner, or in a downward attack reminiscent of Scrooge McDuck’s pogo attack in Duck Tales, you will adventure through (quite long) stages as you overthrow various other knights who stand in your way.

A secondary objective is the collection of treasure, found in chests, dropped by enemies, and dug out of the ground with your trusty shovel. Die during a level and a portion of your treasure is left behind, waiting for you to collect it – unless you die again then it’s gone forever! Oh No! Each stage has a few checkpoints at which you will continue after death, but you could choose to destroy a checkpoint and gain a nice amount of extra treasure. A nice risk/reward mechanic that can be used to your advantage once you’ve learned your way around the stages.

Bosses are ostensibly the same throughout, with most of them vanquished by holding down throughout and drop attacking them over and over until they fall. Once you get the rhythm of things there isn’t too much challenge, and you can afford to lose a little health as you fight.

The main game is long enough to present great value for money, and when you add in the (free) DLC packs that have you play as other (enemy) character with their own play style, it’s something of a no-brainer for fans of old-school platform fun.

shovelknight

The Swindle – I first got hold of this one via Sony’s PlayStation Plus service, but loved it so much I’ve since purchased it on Switch. Break into houses, steal all the money you find therein, hack computers to syphon money to your bank account, and avoid guard robots along the way – all with the intention to prevent Scotland Yard from launching a new initiative that will end your line of work forever.

You have a 100 days to achieve your goal, with each new heist counting as one day. Get killed by a guard (or a mis-step) and you get no swag from that day’s efforts. Spend the money you earn on upgrades to your toolset, and to unlock new areas with bigger houses and grander hauls – but also with better security. It’s a tense game and one I’ve yet to complete though it’s exciting to progress a little further as your skill improves.

theswindle

Sally’s Law – A strange one this. It tells two tales, which come to converge. I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say I found this one to be quite moving. It made me think. Its quite a short game, a couple of hours or so, and gameplay is relatively simple, but the narrative pulls it along expertly. Essential for those who are fatigued by the fast pace and big bangs of modern gaming.

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Axiom Verge – Sitting firmly in the Metroidvania genre, Axiom verge is another not-quite-retro-styled game. Explore the large map, shooting beasties and gaining new weapons that unlock new paths. You know the drill. What makes Axiom Verge stand out is the fantastic sense of style – from the graphics, animation and design to the fantastic soundtrack. Seriously, I’m not one for listening to video game soundtracks when I’m not playing, but this is an exception. Find it on Spotify and hopefully you’ll agree with me that it’s a thing of beauty.

Another thing it does incredibly well is to give a sense of power as you progress – but the end you feel like a superhuman, with massive guns and other augmentations leaving the weedy peashooter of the early game a distant memory.

Available on every platform, I recommend you pick up the Multiverse Edition which comes with an artbook, poster, making-of DVD and (Switch only) a soundtrack CD – all for a great price. I don’t know why the soundtrack is only with the Switch version, but I imagine they’re using it as a sweetener for the extra €10 of Nintendo tax you’ll pay for that edition. Well worth it.

axiomverge

Not A Hero – A fun game in which your main goal is to assassinate various gang leaders, with each stage hiding a selection of optional bonus objectives. Different characters have different strengths that will affect your approach (and sometimes your chance of success). Highly-stylised, with a great cast, this is an outlyer that you will often find for a very cheap price.

notahero

There you have a few of my very favourite indie games from the last few years. It’s a good time for indie devs. Except that guy who made Fez then snapped. It’s not a good time for him. So, what do you think? Have you played any of the above? Loved them? Got any other “essential” titles you’d add to the list? Let me know below, or find me on Twitter @BitlandGaming. Peace.

Gaming PC? Probably Not

I last built a gaming PC in 2009, to play Left 4 Dead in a clan I had then recently joined. It costs £1000 and lasted until I gave it to a friend near the end of 2014, before I left the UK, still running new games at least at 1080p60 on medium to high settings. It was fun, I always loved to sit at my desk, isolating myself in a digital realm and getting away from the real world, a feeling that console gaming on a sofa doesn’t quite achieve. Since I gave it away I haven’t had much desire to replace it.

Things have changed a lot in console gaming over the last decade. Starting with Xbox’s launch, and continuing through the seventh and now eighth generations of video game consoles, we’ve seen the gap between console and PC gaming close. Once upon a time, games on DOS were quite different to those on Nintendo’s consoles, which were again different to Sega’s. Not just in terms of graphics and sound; the style of gameplay itself was different. As we moved into the early days of 3D gaming in the mid-1990s, things didn’t change. Each manufacturer (including Sony once they joined in, and Sega until they stopped) had their own way of going about things that was reflected in the games released on their systems. Look at PlayStation or N64 for example. Two systems doing much the same thing at the same time, but if you saw a screenshot you’d likely immediately recognise the flavour of the system, and therefore know what system the still was from.

Roll on to today, and there is little to distinguish a game on any of the two major consoles, or Windows. Sure, there will forever be someone running comparisons of graphics across the three, and sure Windows will always win… but if you take this away, the games are the same. No scenes are cut to fit the game onto a disc, or levels reduced due to RAM limitations. The only tangible difference comes down to how important those graphics are to you, and your choice of controls.

This ignores console exclusive games, which may or may not be a selling point. They may influence your decision to choose one system over another, but they don’t fundamentally change the fact that the experience is similar throughout. I’m also discounting Nintendo consoles because they don’t quite fall under the remit of this article; Nintendo have been, and continue to be, on their own path basically since they joined the race.

In respect of the Xbox One, many of the games I play include cross-buy, meaning if you buy a game on Xbox One, it is also playable on Windows 10. This assumes you bought the digital license, and is not applicable to discs for whatever reason.

Ultimately my point is: I don’t need a gaming PC, with its high outlay, to enjoy the games I want to play. Sure they don’t look as nice, but the current consoles sure look great at 1080p, sitting 3 metres away from my TV, even before you consider Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. It’s far more comfortable to sit back on my sofa, controller in hand, with carefully optimised surround sound.

Since I ran a Left 4 Dead team I’ve suffered long-term effects of repetitive strain injury, making keyboard and mouse use difficult, but a controller remains comfortable. Sometimes it helps to turn of vibration, but that’s a small concession. I’ve become quite adept at playing the games I want with a controller, and game developers have at the same time become quite adept at satisfactorily using the controllers.

Thanks to my iPad and my Switch I can also enjoy a game whilst sitting on the sofa with my family – no need to isolate myself in a separate room any more.

My PC used to double as a workstation, using a Wacom tablet (sometimes just a mouse) to create art. When I discovered iPad Pro and Apple Pencil a little over a year ago, this role (that had in any case been perfectly filled in the interim by a Mac Mini) became redundant. GarageBand on my Mac Mini (and at a pinch on iPad) has become my choice of software when recording songs, and my USB interface works perfectly with both. Entertainment is handled by the iPad, with apps for Netflix, Youtube and Spotify keeping me going. I can mirror these apps to Apple TV while I work, or plug my iPad into any HDMI port via an adapter – useful on trips.

I’m struggling as I write this to come up with a single reason to purchase a gaming PC. It seems the only reason is improved graphics. And, if it means anything to you, the use of mouse and keyboard. And maybe a few games that aren’t available on consoles.

Anyway, there’s no point to this post. I just feel like writing. If, however, you feel like sharing your feelings – please do, either below, or find me at Twitter @BitlandGaming. Cheers.

RetroRam’s Games and Lames of the Year 2018

It may be a little early to be considering my favourite games of the year, here in the middle of November, but the simple fact is I’ve done my game purchasing for the year, with the exception of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which comes out on disc in a couple of weeks. I am not expecting that to make this list, and I may even cancel my pre-order because right now I’m not in a gaming kind of mood.

This year has been one of transition for me as a gamer. I’ve been playing less, due to familial commitments. I dumped my PlayStation 4 and allowed my Xbox One S to become my main gaming machine. I finally accepted that Xbox Game Pass (and similar products) have a place in the world, and signed up for it using a discounted membership I bought elsewhere. So, without further ado, here are my games and lames of this year – which was 2018.

Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One) – Recently released, this is the latest in one of my favourite series. I love cars, I love racing games, and whilst I prefer the more orderly progression of the Forza Motorsport games, there’s a lot of fun to be had tearing about the countryside in a Ferrari F40, smashing through walls and collecting bonus boards all over. FH4 is set in the UK, albeit mainly the northern parts of it, which for a Brit like me is a nice touch. It’s nice enough racing around digital approximations of other countries, but to see familiar landmarks in a game is quite a feeling. It’s not the best of the series, indeed it has a few issues that I won’t go into here, but they’re hardly game-breaking, and the overall product is wonderful.

Celeste (Xbox One & Nintendo Switch) – Yes, I liked this game so much I bought it twice! On the surface yet another retro-styled game; the difference is, this one has class. Beautifully presented, the graphics are well thought out, and the music is amongst the very best you’ll find in an indie game, modern or otherwise. The story follows Celeste as she attempts to climb a mountain, struggling to overcome her own inner demons as much as she struggles to overcome the physical obstacles in her way. It’s a touching tale, the emotional impact only strengthened by that soundtrack and by some clever narrative choices. The game is tough as nails, with plenty of replayability in the shape of collectible strawberries hidden throughout, and each stage has a hidden casette (won by completing a smart rhythm-based section) which unlocks a harder “B-Side” (and later C-Side) version of the level. One of my games of the decade.

Dark Souls Remastered (Xbox One & Nintendo Switch) – Another game that I bought twice, having previously fallen in love with the original game on PC and PS3. One I’m not only happy to return to every few years, but in this case I’m paying both Remastered editions concurrently, more or less keeping up with myself in each copy! The Xbox One edition is truly fantastic, running super smooth and looking great. Sure, it looks like a game that is a few years old (because it is), but it does a lot to improve what we saw previously, even over the previous PC version. The Switch version deserves a mention because (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post) it is simply wonderful to experience the game on the handheld console. It makes some concessions with the graphics, particularly you’ll notice that spells and fire look far less impressive, but the fact that it is running with a quite steady framerate here is impressive. I’d put it next to Skyrim as a technical achievement for Nintendo’s famously underpowered console. Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, and this is simply the best way to enjoy it today.

The Messenger (Nintendo Switch) – In a similar vein to Celeste, this game has a retro style, and places you against difficult odds, expecting you to improve through repeated trial and error. It’s another well-made retro-styled game, with a great aesthetic and compelling gameplay. Well worth a play.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Nintendo Switch) – Not strictly a new game, this Wii U port came to Switch earlier this year, and it’s a great game either way. Essentially creating a full game from the Captain Toad bonus stages from Super Mario 3D World, this collection of puzzles has a delightful style and simple execution. Captain Toad can move in all directions, but he can’t jump. You must guide him to collect all the stars in a level and make it to the end, using the environment to your advantage. Each stage has a bonus goal, such as collecting a set number of coins or finding a hidden bonus item, and further replayability as you go back into a level and must locate a hidden piece of pixel art similar to those found in Super Mario Odyssey. The cutesy presentation hides a puzzler that becomes increasingly difficult as you progress, but never becomes infuriatingly obtuse. Switch is a natural home for this type of game, which was originally designed with Wii U’s Gamepad in mind.

Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition (Nintendo Switch) – I really wanted to love Final Fantasy XV. I’m not sure why, honestly, because besides 7 and perhaps 8 and 9 I’ve found the series to be absurd and.. well, a bit naff. XV does have a great look to it, and after some adjustment I came to quite enjoy the new combat system. Pocket Edition strips the game of many side quests and a lot of the boring exploration, replaces the shiny “real world” graphics with a cartoon, chibi style, and streamlines the experience, originally for smartphones. It’s a fantastic idea, and has opened the game up for those of us who, simply, can’t be bothered to pay through the tens of hours of the main game, but still want to enjoy the story and basic gameplay.

Super Meat Boy (Nintendo Switch) – Yet another game I’ve purchased more times than is sane, Super Meat Boy is another of my all-time favourites, so when it surprised me by appearing on the Nintendo eShop I had to grab it again. A super-polished game that tasks you with navigating perilous stages to save your girlfriend, there is great humour to be found here. Stages have no time limit, but to meet a target time grants you “A+” status on each level, and each world has a number of hidden bandages (plasters to us Brits) to find and warpzones to uncover – these transport you to some very clever retro-inspired stages, in the style of Game Boy or SNES games. Various characters are unlockable as you progress, based on other indie games of recent years, and each controls differently with their own special power that can help you collect bandages that are just out of reach, or simply complete the stages in a different way. One of my essential games.

Labo (Nintendo Switch) – “Nintendo charging for cardboard,” they said. Right. Just as I gave Mini thousands of Euros for “some metal and plastic”. I felt compelled to add this one to balance the negativity in my review of Nintendo Switch Online (below), as Labo is in fact quite ingenious. Two packs came at launch; the one I bought was a general pack including a number of toys to be built, but there was also a massive wearable (for kids) robot, and more packs coming in the future I believe. When I got the pack home I spent a couple of hours building the piano. Well-designed and easy to build, using video instructions provided on the game cartridge, the final product is solid and has proved a conversation piece since. With the switch in place, you can… play piano on it. Multiple methods are available to alter the sounds the piano makes (through the console), and you are encouraged to experiment with your own solutions (such as cutting a piece of paper into random shapes to control the waveform produced). Other toys in the set include a fishing game and motorbike handlebars, which can be used as a controller for Mario Kart 8 DX! Now I’m just going to wait a few years for my son to be ready for it, and we’ll have great fun exploring the rest of the cardboard fun.

Those are some of my very favourite games from the past year. I can hardly end this without a bit of negativity, so here follow a selection of big disappointments, sure to stir some controversy. Whatever, this is my list.

Shenmue Collection (Xbox One) – I’ll be fair and say that this review relates only to the first game of the pair, as I’ve been unable to consider trying the second. The opening cutscene is laughably terrible, like a bad old martial arts movie, but without the charm. Once you gain control you find things don’t improve much, as the crappy dialogue is so poorly recorded and compressed that it makes your speakers buzz even at low volumes. The controls are of the kind best left forgotten in the new millennium, and the game’s attempts at presenting a real world are also very much of their time – with no place in today’s world. I bet you love me now, don’t you.

Flashback (Nintendo Switch) – I mean this isn’t a terrible game. It’s very good. For 1992. Not as timeless as some would like you to believe, this game is at times confusing, hard to control, and generally not as much fun as it should be at the price they released it for on Switch.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (Xbox One) – I really didn’t want to put this game here. Rockstar so rarely misstep for me, and I had high hopes for this one. GTA V, their previous release, is one of my all time favourite games. I’ve played through it three times at >40 hours a go, and never been bored. RDR2 however managed to bore me even during the introductary scenes. Once it’s over and you’re in the game proper, I just haven’t been compelled to progress. A handful of missions done (10% apparently) and I’ve basically been phoning it in. The game is beautiful, really doing good things with current generation hardware, and has all the hallmarks of Rockstar’s attention to detail and their version of realism. I didn’t really enjoy the previous Red Dead game either, until it started to click on about the fourth restart. I played that one to the end, ultimately enjoying the experience, but I guess the setting works less for me than one in the modern world, such as GTA presents. Ho hum.

Nintendo Switch Online (Nintendo Switch) – Something of an honourable mention, Nintendo Switch Online is terrible. The few online games I’ve tried to have of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe have been plagued by lag which means I have been hit from behind by someone in front of me, and failed to hit someone ahead of me with a red shell because they’re not actually there. Pretty annoying. The complementary NES games are something of an insult, or at least a disappointment. The same old games that have Nintendo sitting on their Laurels, repackaged for subscribers. Nothing but NES games. Before the system even launched, Nintendo had us teased with suggestions of a Virtual Console to include a back catalogue up to GameCube. This should certainly be possible on the console, and imagine how great it would be to revisit some of those games – except it appears Nintendo have realised they can re-issue these old games on a cartridge and charge top dollar, negating the need to sell them for a fair price online. This is becoming something of a rant. So strong are my feelings on this matter. The simple fact is, if you want to charge money for something – particularly something that was previously provided for free – you ought to make sure it works first. It’s not like there aren’t two decades of competing services to draw lessons from.

There you go. Some highs and lows of my year in gaming. You may agree with all or some of these, or you may not. Either way look me up on Twitter and we’ll chat about it! @BitlandGaming.

PlayStation Classic – My Thoughts

“Just get a Raspberry Pi, Braaaaaaah.” No. This is not that kind of smug commentary, where I try to prove I know something you don’t, and that you’re stupid for that. But there are some alternatives to the PlayStation Classic, a mini version of the first PlayStation that comes with two replica controllers and 20 built-in games. Here I discuss my thoughts on the machine.

First of all, I feel I should say this is the first of the recent rash of mini consoles that I have had zero excitement for. NES, SNES, C64 all caught me in their hype bubble, but all three ultimately disappointed me. NES Mini was the best of the bunch, but I’m just not that interested in its library. SNES Mini has slowdown in most games I tried, which left me preferring OpenEmu on my Mac, and the C64 Mini… well let’s just say the games have aged, mostly terribly, and the mini has tarnished my fine memories of the system! But this repeated disappointment in reliving games from my past is not the main reason I have no wish to buy the PS Classic – that would be due to the selection of “classic” games being presented.

Sure, these things are subjective, but that list is… disappointing. Resident Evil Directors Cut, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII are the only two that really stand out to me, and I have them already on my PS3 (having sold most of my PS discs some time ago). Others may have their eye on a few of the other games, but to me they’re nothing more than curios of a bygone age, where they should stay. Even an old favourite of mine, Syphon Filter, is a mess of a game by modern standards. I tried it recently and got tired of it quickly.

Licensing is clearly an issue for this, and similar units. Activision’s license to sell Tony Hawk games famously expired a couple of years ago (leading to the rushed, awful Tony Hawk’s 5, which can never be released again (with the game actually on the disc rather than downloaded, using the disc as proof of license), nor fixed, because they’re not allowed to sell it ever again. This rules out four fantastic games from the series that were released on PlayStation from appearing here. Undoubtedly other games and series are unavailable to Sony for similar reasons – particularly sports games that rely heavily on short-term licensing, or games with licensed music (remember when Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was updated, removing several songs from the soundtrack even for people who already owned the game. Gran Turismo is another obvious example, with cars and music licensed to appear in the original release.

Other games for which Sony hold a license (Crash Bandicoot and Spyro for example, for which games from both series are available on the PlayStation Store on PS3) are absent presumably for one reason – in an attempt to not interfere with sales of their “remastered” collections. Likewise Resident Evil 2, for which a remake is due in a couple of months. I don’t personally believe that this rings true. In fact, I find it likely that to have included at least the first of each series of Crash and Spyro would add tremendous value to PS Classic, whilst allowing people who haven’t played them to see what they’re all about – and possibly lead to more sales of the trilogy remasters.

The PlayStation was home to a great new breed of rhythm games – Parappa The Rapper, Vib Ribbon, Bust A Groove. Any of these would be welcome additions to the PS Classic, except perhaps Vib Ribbon, which relied heavily on its ability to build levels from your own CDs. There is, however, a bit of a problem. Due to latency issues introduced by modern LCD and similar televisions, the games are largely unplayable today! The few milliseconds of delay in a typical modern television’s processing are enough to through your timing off and lead to a failed song. Want proof? Try and play either Parappa or Patapon Remastered on your PS4 through HDMI. It doesn’t work.

So, there are (mostly flimsy, financially-led) reasons why the game selection is so weak, with many of the true classic of the system being absent. Why Sony decided not to, for example, include more of the Resident Evil or Final Fantasy games is beyond me. Tomb Raider, Soul Reaver, Tenchu, Silent Hill, Parasite Eve (available on the Japanese release!), Doom, Quake 2, Driver, any number of Street Fighter and RPG games are all conspicuous in their absence.

Which leads to a solution, one that certainly works for me, and may perhaps for you too. It’s a simple solution, and one that ultimately grants you exactly the same experience as the PlayStation in terms of using an official controller and a modern HDMI connection to your modern TV set, albeit with a customised list of games.

I simply went onto the PlayStation store and bought myself the games I wanted, which I then downloaded to my PS3 and my PS Vita. I can play the games on my TV when I fancy it, or on the go with the Vita. With PS3 I can, of course, use an official DualShock 3 controller (not too dissimilar to the PlayStation controller) and output with several scaling options at 1080p. Those games that aren’t available on the PlayStation Store, or for those of you who prefer a physical representation of your games library, are widely available to buy on disc – PS3 is compatible with PS discs, and will emulate a memory card to save your progress.

All in all this renders the PS Classic obsolete before it even launches. Which is a shame. If only Sony had put a little more thought and effort into the product, maybe I would have been more excited by it. As it is, it can go sit in a special, dark, damp place previously occupied solely by @Games Mega Drive replicas.

These are my thoughts on the PlayStation Classic. Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps not. Either way, look me up on Twitter to continue to chat @BitlandGaming!

Five Perfectly-Realised Game Worlds

Video games can be really quite beautiful, the graphics and sound design working in combination to create an atmosphere quite impossible in other media. Here we will look at five fantastic video game worlds that evoke a strong sense of awe and wonder, in no particular order.

Dark Souls – Lordran

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The game that inspired this article after I spent a couple of hours this morning grinding for souls in Anor Londo, Dark Souls (and its sequels) have such a strong sense of self that their imitators just can’t capture. The Remastered edition on current consoles improves on every aspect of the original release, even on the lowly Nintendo Switch, and this is our focus today.

I’ve already mentioned Anor Londo, and this is hands down my favourite zone in Dark Souls, and encapsulates the point of me writing today. Massive, intimidating gothic architecture stands before a beautiful sunset. Coming immediately after the closed-in, claustrophobic Sen’s Fortress, this is a real high point in this game. The area itself is massive, requiring some hefty detours to find its bonfires and to open shortcuts to probably my favourite bosses in the game – Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. I defeated them for the umpteenth time just before I sat down to write this, and after several playthroughs it remains a favourite section not just of Dark Souls, but of all games. On the way to the bosses you will face many silver knights, which will really test your combat skills, and highlight the main design of the game – a zone full of incredibly difficult enemies, whose only goal in life (or undeath at the least) is to make life hard for you in the way to the almost impossible bosses.

Besides Anor Londo, the rest of the game is simply beautifully designed. A Medieval aesthetic is used throughout, with many cathedrals and fortresses to explore, punctuated by stone sewers and dense forests. As you progress you will unlock shortcuts between the different areas, learning the quickest way between any two points (and that’s even before you unlock the ability to warp between key bonfires), and this helps you to build a map inside your head, creating a sense of connection in the world that is unparalleled. Revisiting previously conquered areas after having gained several levels and many hours of experience is refreshing, as previously tough enemies are now felled with one hit, and rarely feels like a chore.

Then there’s the plot, which essentially has you begin as a nobody with no hope, tasked to rid the world of its oppressive rulers and take their place. It’s a true David and Goliath story, which ends with you effectively replacing Goliath!

Enslaved – Odyssey to the West

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Often mentioned in hidden gems lists, I can attest to the greatness of this game, which arrived fairly early in generation seven, available on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. A retelling of the Chinese story Journey to the West, the game tasks you as Monkey (motion-captured by Andy Serkis), as you journey (against your will) to the west with Trip, through a post-apocalyptic future in which nature has taken ahold of the cities. Not dissimilar in visual style to The Last of Us, the game plays more like another Naughty Dogs game – Uncharted, albeit with a focus on melee combat versus robot enemies rather than gunplay against human assailants. The two main characters are tied together such that each needs the other to survive, lending an urgency and a strong incentive to persevere, whilst enabling a narrative during which their relationship can grow.

Add solving puzzles to progress to beating enemies to a pulp, you have the beginnings of a fine game. Top that all with a beautiful world and compelling story, and you have a winner. Enslaved’s world is gorgeous – ignoring the trend for brown and grey that marked the era, the world here is lush and green as vegetation takes back the world claimed by the humans. It’s a humbling sight, and one that helps to highlight just how much humans have affected the world as they build it to their needs.

Fallout 3 – The Wasteland

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Honestly, this could apply to any of the 3D Fallout games, but 3 was the one I particularly enjoyed, and the only one I finished, and it was also the first that brought the ideas to the third dimension.

The game begins within the confines of an underground vault, one that you’re never supposed to leave. You learn the basics of gameplay, build your character based on various stats, and then.. you leave. The first time you step out into the daylight and see the world sprawling before you is a hugely memorable moment for many gamers. Sure, we’re back to brown and grey design here, but in this case that amplifies the sense of the destruction that led to your being born in the vault. This world is dead beyond all doubt, with infertile soil unable to sustain any but the hardiest vegetation.

Following a nuclear war, the titular fallout has created some fearsome varieties of enemies, and the game leaves you free to explore the wasteland as you see fit – the story missions being largely optional as you go off on side missions, or just have a look around. Look in the wrong place though, and you’ll want to hightail back to a place of safety!

Narrative is king here, with a strong lore, multiple warring factions, sides to pick. Much like its stablemate, The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout litters its world with discoverable journals and the like to give you insight into events in the Wasteland before you arrived, accessed through computer terminals and sometimes requiring successful completion of a hacking minigame. Hauntingly atmospheric, there are few people that haven’t enjoyed at least one of these games.

The Last of Us

thelastofus

Ok, there’s a clear bias in this list towards the oppressive, post-apocalyptic world design. I admit, I’m a sucker for such things, and it’s why I’ve always enjoyed a good zombie film, and why at least the first two Terminator films have such a place in my heart. The idea of a world in which the last few remaining humans struggle to survive against a disaster that has removed the rest of humanity from the earth, whilst nature tries to recover her control of things, is fascinating to me.

Another future setting, this one following a fungal infection that has killed much of the human race, leaving many of the remainder as infected, violent zombies, The Last of Us begins during the beginning stages of the end. Tragedy hits, and we jump forward some years to a brave new world in which our player character is tasked with taking a young girl to safety – a young girl who just may hold the secrets to a vaccine against the disease.

By allowing you to play the beginning stage as events unfold, you are given not only a tangible sense of your place in the world, but also made to care about the safety of Joel and his ward, Ellie. Once again we see a world in which nature is reclaiming its dominance, with the juxtaposition of cold, grey human architecture with the lush, green plantlife regrowing in the cracks being especially effective.

The story is framed by the differing attitudes of Joel, who remembers the world as it was, and Ellie who grew up knowing nothing different to the current state of affairs, and perhaps has a different sense of the dangers around them. It all comes together to make a beautiful game, one of my favourites of recent years, and one worth experiencing for yourself – particularly the Remastered edition on Playstation 4.

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past – Hyrule

zelda

Right. Something a bit different. Though now I think about it, this is ANOTHER post-apocalyptic game, at least in its second act! Oh well, nevermind!

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past is a game just about everyone must be familiar with, cited by many (myself included) as the best entry in the series. It certainly succeeds in building a strong world and giving you a reason to want to save it. Another underdog story, you early on find yourself tasked with saving Princess Zelda from her castle’s dungeon, before she is kidnapped by the wizard Agahnim, who wishes to use her power and that of the descendants of seven sages to free Ganon and take control of the world.

First-time players must find three pendants scattered across Hyrule to prove their worth, before claiming their prize – the Master Sword, and using it to defeat Agahnim. Upon completing this quest, thinking you’ve finished the game, you may be surprised to find that you’ve barely scratched the surface! Drawn into the Dark World, you find a version of Hyrule bent by Ganon’s evil. Essentially doubling the playable area of the game, this is A Link to the Past’s master turn, now giving you a new mission – to save the seven maidens and defeat Ganon. This second act is, predictably, considerably larger than the first, requiring you to explore both the Dark and Light World versions of Hyrule to unlock access to the seven dungeons and defeat the bosses found therein.

Hidden secrets are dotted throughout both maps, leading to a fully powered-up Link carrying 20 hearts, powered up clothing, shield, sword, boomerang, and extended carrying capacity for arrows, bombs and magic. Each upgrade makes your mission slightly less perilous, and adds a sense of growth to the character, without resorting to the RPG standard of grinding and levelling up.

Besides the beautiful graphical design of the game, and the sense of completeness in the game map, special comment has to be made about the music. The series has simply some of the greatest music to be found in video games, and this one I think does much of it the best. The SNES sound chip is a fantastic thing, and it is used here to create much emotion and atmosphere. Never boring, each piece of music is fantastic in its own right – and on completion of the game you find they saved the best til last, with a truly triumphant fanfare signalling your success.

Ultimately this game took what had come before, and made it into a cohesive game, with a somewhat improved sense of progression, and just the right amount of handholding to make it enjoyable without removing the challenge in progression and exploration.

So there you have five of the best-realised worlds in video games. There are many more I could have mentioned in this list. How about you? What are your favourite game worlds, the ones in which you can get lost in the details? Let me know in the comments here, or find me on Twitter for a chat!

Art Commissions Open!

Having recently had some fun creating some RetroRam avatars for my Twitter account, I’ve decided to open up commissions for anyone who wants my help with a unique avatar for themselves!

He-Ram
He-Ram and the Baaaasters of the Universe

€10 / $10 / £8 will get you a custom avatar in the style of the pictures in this post, to use on Twitter or any forum you wish. Prints are also available starting at €15 / $15 / £12 plus p&p per print in standard photo size (4 x 6″ or 10 x 15cm).

Ram-bo
Ram-bo

Depending on your needs, there are plenty of other options of art style. Check my portfolio at DeviantArt for an idea of what I’m good at and perhaps some inspiration.

Ram-ona Flowers
Ram-ona Flowers

Besides avatars, please contact me if you’re interested in larger prints. Naturally the price for these will be higher – particularly for a custom one-off, but we can discuss that separately. Most of my work on DeviantArt is also available as a print directly from my profile there.

Jean-Claude Van Ramme
Jean-Claude Van Ramme

Find me on twitter @BitlandGaming, or email me BitlandGaming@gmail.com to discuss further. Payment through PayPal.

Dark Souls Remastered (Switch) – half-baked semi-review

One of the finest action games ever made, that’s how I’d describe Dark Souls if I were short of time. I’m not, so I’ll say some more.

After a few month’s delay the Remastered version of the game (released on PS4, Xbox One and PC in May of 2018) came to Switch on October 19th. I’d read no official reason for the delay, but were I a cynic I might assume it was due to the imminent release of Nintendo Switch Online, a paid service that is required to enjoy the fullness of Dark Souls with its often-frustrating PvP system and sometimes-helpful messaging and player bloodstains that may offer hints as to how others have died horribly so that you may avoid their fate.

Whatever the reason for the delay, I have to say the result was worth the wait. I was concerned about the Switch’s capabilities for this game. It runs, frankly, pretty badly on PlayStation 3 and even PC in its original state, so I imagined something similarly unimpressive here. But what do you know, I was wrong. This is truly an impressive port.

Because of the delay to this version, I bought it on Xbox One. Anyone that has played that version and the original will know how it was improved – not just in obvious graphical ways, but also with a higher, stable framerate. As far as remasters go, it is one of the greats. The Switch version is not quite up there with its big cousins, but it’s not very different at all. A few particle effects are absent. Bonfires are less impressively animated. But overall, once you’re playing, the game runs smoothly and is easily amongst the best looking games on the system’s lovely little screen. Battery life suffers as you’d expect, with 10%!disappearing in a short play session. Similar to Breath of the Wild, so I’d assume about 3 hours of battery-fuelled playtime. I haven’t yet had a chance to play it docked, so can’t comment on how it performs there, only to posit that it would be at least as good as in handheld mode.

I’ve played so far through Undead Burg and Undead Parish, defeating the Bell Gargoyles before I called it a night. Everything is where you know it to be from other versions, and whilst I have noticed a small amount of slowdown a couple of times, it’s never been enough to distract. Blighttown is one area that was plagued with slowdown in the original version, but as I’m not there yet I’ll have to trust other reviews that suggest this isn’t the case in Switch.

The controls are surprisingly good too – using the Joycons. I had assumed they’d not be up to the task, and was prepared to return the game if I couldn’t enjoy it fully in handheld mode (the only reason I bought this) but I needn’t have been worried. Those tiny, stubby joysticks are not ideal, but I’ve also had no problems adjusting to them. The only problem I’ve had is with the L and R buttons, used for blocking and light attacks respectively. With my big hands on those tiny buttons I’ve found myself unguarded as my finger has randomly stopped pressing down. Further adjustment is needed I suppose.

Another minor issue with the game, though an understandable one, is that you can’t use sleep mode. This is also true of the other consoles. Put the console to sleep and it shuts down network access. Lose network access and the game kicks you to the title screen, forcing you to reload (but your position is saved). The nature of the game means you should really be quitting to title before sleeping the console anyway, lest something nasty come get you while you’re away.

Fortunately load times are incredibly fast. Some games on Switch take twice as long as their other console versions to load, but not here. A few seconds and you’re ready to continue where you left off. They’ve truly optimised the game for the system, in a way few developers seem to care about.

There’s not really a lot else to say about it. I have Dark Souls (original version) on PC and PS3, and the remaster on Xbox One and have played it through once on each. It’s a fantastic game, and this is a fantastic version of it. If you have an Xbox One, a PlayStation 4, or a PC, and don’t care about being able to play the game in handheld mode, then those are (slightly) superior ports. Otherwise you won’t go wrong with this one, a nice upgrade on the original release with the benefits of the Switch console added to the mix.