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‘Pro Evolution Soccer 2019’ Review: Substance Over Style

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Pro Evolution Soccer is one of the most difficult franchises to review in all of video games. Its position in the market is pretty much locked in now and forever, and despite the fact that I want to convince new players that this is the best football game available, it just doesn’t have the clout to take a slice out of its competitor’s audience. It’s like if I was trying to convince someone that Pepsi is better than Coke, or Burger King is better than McDonald’s – Pepsi and BK may very well have the better product, but Coke and McDonald’s have the market, and that will never change.

PES has been my go-to football franchise since the PS2, although I will admit to having dipped back into FIFA at the beginning of the current generation of consoles. Since PES 2016, however, I’ve been utterly convinced that Konami’s franchise plays a game of football on a completely different level to FIFA, and it irks me more than a little bit that EA’s grip on the football market is such that FIFA will be around long after PES has gone the way of everything else Konami owns – into exile.

The chief reason for this is one that PES will likely never have a handle of – the licences. Unlike the vast majority of American sports games, the powers that control licensed football teams are not as readily open to sharing. If you’ve ever watched a game of Premier League football on Sky Sports, you’ll probably have seen an EA Sports logo pop up next to the official match clock every now and then. This is because EA Sports sponsors the Premier League. If you can’t see where I’m going with this, and why Konami will never be able to snag licences for the most lucrative league in the world, then you’re probably too distracted looking at all the new official kits on FIFA right now.

PES 2019 Review

The mandatory first act of any PES player is to download and import proper kits into the game. Stick that up ya, EA!

PES has had to get by on personality over looks for decades, and this year it was dealt an even bigger blow when it lost the licence for the UEFA Champions League competition. Konami, in its defence, went out and bought up a whole bunch of smaller leagues from around Europe in an attempt to shift its target audience. It’s a move that might actually be for the best, too. Snapping up official licences for teams and leagues from places like Portugal, Scotland and Turkey is much more likely to grow the game’s audience in those territories than having a licence for the biggest club competition in European football. That sounds ludicrous, but I’d imagine the average FIFA player probably didn’t know it lacked the Champions League licence before now, especially as all the teams competing in it were officially licensed on FIFA, and not on PES.

I’m About to Kick Off

Any new fans the game reels in this year will be greeted by a fast-paced, fluid and deep game of football that functions on a much more personal level than ever before. Picking out gameplay enhancements on annual sports titles is usually about as difficult as picking out a weak link in the Manchester City team, but this year’s introduction of special player skills changes the game in both a visual and tangible way. It’s a system that implies that Konami are taking a further step toward creating a football game for the more knowledgeable fan, rather than one to please the masses.

There are 39 of these player skills in the game that are doled out to players based on their real-life abilities. Goalscorers like Harry Kane have special abilities including Dipping Shots, Acrobatic Finishing, First-time Shot, and Penalty Specialist, that show a range of ways in which he can find the net and how to best utilise him on the pitch. Other interesting abilities include Neymar’s Malicia, which mirrors his real-life ability to draw fouls and win free kicks (legally or otherwise – I’ve seen the CPU dive to try and win penalties already), Sergio Ramos’ Captaincy and Fighting Spirit, and Javier Hernandez’s Super-sub skill, where he’s actually more effective if you bring him on late in the game.

PES 2019 Review

As you can see, Messi has an abundance of player skills. Danny Welbeck… not so much

These and the rest of the player skills mean that PES retains its arcade-esque tendencies of fast-paced action (with terrible goalkeepers) and high-scoring fun, but carries a real level of almost hidden depth under all the chaos. Lineups can’t just be set to include the quickest players for guaranteed success, and even the best teams can come a cropper if you don’t know how to play to their strengths. There’s a wonderful nerd-level of tactics to the game, and when you factor in the fluid formations (where you can set how your team lines up when both in and out of possession of the ball) and the advanced instructions like False Number 9 and Attacking Full-backs, it really becomes the thinking man’s beautiful game.

Being a PES fan feels almost like an elite underground club at this point, and I’m fine with that.

Of course, imbuing every player in the game with special skills based on real-life abilities isn’t entirely a bed of roses. It will definitely feel restricting when playing as lower-level teams (sorry, Scotland) as only the best and most well-known players will have a large variety of skills, and some teams won’t have a single skill amongst their entire squad. What this means in terms of gameplay is that if you’re to pick a team without a pinpoint crosser, a strong captain or a potent goalscorer, then the game is going to feel almost broken. Scoring goals from crosses in PES 2019 is hard enough with Gareth Bale whipping in corners (expect a buff to attacking headers in the near future; they’re almost impossible), so attempting to create goals from the wide areas as a 1-star team is a fool’s errand.

The performance of the game on the pitch is undoubtedly its strong point, but it’s not perfect. Balancing around the player skills still needs a little work, and it seems like football game fans might as well give up on ever having competent goalkeeper AI at this rate. PES 2019 still runs off the Fox Engine, and this continues to guarantee incredible player-likenesses and smart animations. There’s definitely been a large number added this year to complement the new skills, with shooting and goalkeeping seemingly receptive of the most. It just looks great, even if it can go a little scatty at times, which is to be expected when 22 individual AIs are trying to recreate professional-level tactics and positioning.

PES 2019 Review

It may be a thinking-man’s game, but the ol’ ‘give it to Messi’ tactic also works

You Ain’t Got No Alibi

Where the game doesn’t look, or even sound, that great is basically everywhere off the pitch. Music is probably the most subjective medium in the world, but even the most open-minded person will surely agree that the soundtrack is auditory garbage. Menus haven’t been changed in about five years, and are depressingly vanilla and tired. That doesn’t mean the on-pitch action can’t be let off scot free either. Commentary apparently has myriad new lines added, but has retained all the old, shitty ones. How Jim Beglin keeps getting work is absolutely beyond me. PES 2019 also has a long way to go in catching up to FIFA’s range of celebrations and skills too. The skills are definitely in the game, but my word are they fiddly. Konami clearly put their work into making the game feel like football, but EA has it absolutely nailed-down on how to make their game look like football.  

It would be harsh to call PES 2019 barebones, but it has been without the introduction of a new mode for years. Master League used to be the best single-player mode in football games, but it’s become horribly stale. I genuinely can’t pick out a single addition to it from last year’s version. Negotiations for new players – the most fun part of any single player mode – are still utterly baffling and restrictive, too. I had several moves for players, who were rated 3/5 for potentially joining my club, suffer from negotiations breaking down without being given a reason why, and with no option to go back in for a second chance.

MyClub remains Konami’s attempt to steal some of the Ultimate Team thunder, and it will remain thunder-less. It’s still too confusing, with player acquisitions performed via agents and scouts leaving things too much up to chance. There are ways to search for players you want, but the convoluted route to getting your desired star is more than a little off-putting, especially when you factor in the need for managers and the limits they impose on setting up your dream team. You can’t change formations or attacking/defending tactics, so if you’re stuck with a manager whose strategy doesn’t work with your players or preferred play style, you’re basically Unai Emery trying to manage 11 Mesut Özils.

PES 2019 Review

Scottish fans can finally take virtual control of their heroes – seen here doing what SPL teams do best

MyClub is unashamedly Ultimate Team-lite, but it’s not terrible. Legend players like David Beckham have been added to the game to spice things up, and once you get your head around the agents, scouts and managers it can be fun to build up a squad and take on the world. In fairness, too, PES 2019 is relatively generous to those starting their first team, dishing out enough chances to sign world-class players to give rookies a chance at being competitive.

It’s without question that PES 2019 is the no-frills alternative to the grandiose spectacle that is FIFA. The game is enjoyed best on a couch alongside a fellow footy-mad mate, against whom you can pit your tactical wits as well as your thumb ability. PES seems content to meander along, living off a superb game engine and an unparalleled level of fun on the pitch. It will never leapfrog FIFA, and this year’s edition feels like an acceptance of that fact. Konami have even made the process of creating kits easier, provided you have a PS4 and can actually download and import them. They can’t give you the real thing, but they sure as hell won’t stop you obtaining it yourself.

PES 2019 is the football game for the tactics book-reading thirty-something, leaving the YouTube generation to go and enjoy their pitch-side selfies with Alex Hunter. Being a PES fan feels almost like an elite underground club at this point, and I’m fine with that. I wish it looked and sounded better in places, and for the love of Glen Hoddle I wish it would let us Westerners play the J-League, but there are very few games I can sit down with a mate and play as repeatedly as this – I just won’t be playing very much by myself.

[penci_review id=”134622″]

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes ranting about the latest gaming news in his weekly column.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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