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‘Assassin’s Creed Origins’ – No Mere Mirage but a Redefining Moment for the Franchise

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In my initial impressions and the first part of this review, I outlined why Assassin’s Creed Origins is a great title. With gameplay that’s smoother than the silt of the Nile Delta and an open world that makes great strides towards completely re-balancing the equation of the established Ubisoft formula, it has so far proved itself to be a game for the ages. At the very least it’s a firm contender for my personal game of the year. However, spectacular visuals and compelling gameplay are not enough to carry a release of this caliber for its entire length. Story is a crucial element of games of this type and that’s what this part of the review is going to focus on.

Ubisoft’s flagship series has always been known for its intricate and complicated lore involving an international conspiracy and proxy war waged between two secret organisations: the Templars, who seek to control mankind with ancient technology left behind by a long extinct precursor civilization, and the Assassin Brotherhood who seek to defend the world from the consequences of abusing powers that are presently beyond mankind’s comprehension. The games have generally been structured so that players experience short sequences of the title specific story interspersed with modern-day segments that tie each release into the Assassin’s Creed meta-narrative. It’s a structure that worked for the last nine main series entries but just as with the refined combat mechanics, overhauled traversal system, and enhanced world building, Ubisoft Montreal opted to take a slightly different approach to narrative design with Origins.

The two primary story arcs of the historical setting and the modern day are still juxtaposed against each other as in previous games, but keenly aware that the latter setting isn’t the main draw of this series, the developers make use of it sparingly. The contemporary setting is utilized as a framing device for Bayek’s story and to create an air of mystery that feels more fitting for the series than the action thriller set pieces that characterized these sections in prior installments. No doubt they certainly added a variation of pace but they were mandatory and often proved to be a jarring intrusion into the historical storylines. What takes their place is an unobtrusive and pared back modern day component that hints at the conspiracy at the core of the entire narrative instead of bombarding players with waves of superfluous exposition.

Layla Hassan, ably voiced by Chantel Riley, is the central character of these segments and even though we only see her a handful of times over the course of the game and know very little about who she is or what she is doing, beyond being an employee of Abstergo with an intense interest in the Animus project, she nevertheless has a strong presence. The main reason she’s so intriguing is precisely that she’s mostly a mystery. Players will naturally wonder and speculate about her which leads them to directly engage with the grander story even after they’ve finished the game. But Layla isn’t just notable because she’s the vanguard of the new direction that Ubisoft are steering Assassin’s Creed in. It’s clear to everyone that modern games have a significant representation imbalance when it comes to the gender, chosen or otherwise, of their protagonists. When Unity was released Ubisoft found themselves under fire for their questionable justifications for the game not featuring any playable female characters.

The inclusion of Evie Frye as an additional main character in Syndicate was largely done to address such criticisms but obviously, it didn’t quite go far enough. Granted the focal point of the story in Origins is most assuredly Bayek, but by electing to use a female lead for the modern day material Ubisoft have clearly stated their intent to re-frame the driving meta-narrative of the franchise. Given the company’s history, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Layla was to be the new face of the series’ modern-day aspects. It sounds strange that even though it’s the current year the industry still has issues with creating truly representative rosters of new gaming icons. I wasn’t so much surprised at the character but more that the company had the courage to make that choice. As a stockholder favorite the Assassin’s Creed franchise is an easy target for the homogenization that results from design by focus group, which is so pernicious in its impact across the entire games industry that even Bioshock Infinite fell prey to it. That Ubisoft would allow its developers to buck the supposed easy-money trend and push such a delicate envelope at this time shows a growing sensitivity to the current social climate regarding gender representation in the media at large. Hopefully, we’re moving ever closer to the day when developers can present stories told from an even broader range of perspectives and where the lead of most games isn’t some minor variation on the theme of a miscellaneous alpha male dudebro.

Ubisoft also took note of the criticisms concerning the protagonists of the historical storylines. The series has bounced between central characters ever since the departure of Ezio, the Florentine aristocrat with a penchant for bounding between rooftops like a 16th century Batman, who fans came to love as the star of Assassin’s Creed 2, Brotherhood, and Revelations. While it’s true that each successive character was distinctly different with their own individual reasons for either joining or betraying the Assassins, none of them ever really had the same presence as Ezio. The re-invigoration of the series continues with the choice of Bayek, the last of Egypt’s Medjay and forerunner of the Assassins, as the central character. Thanks to a remarkable performance by voice actor Abubakar Salim, Bayek has the charisma and strength of character to really make players care about the events that unfold around him.

The over-arching story details the beginning of the Hidden Ones, a prior incarnation of the Assassin Brotherhood, and the start of their crusade against the Order of the Ancients, the shadowy cabal that acts as a direct predecessor of the Templars. Although that nascent conflict gives the story a larger context, in truth it’s really a good old-fashioned tale of revenge. In a brutal twist of fate, Bayek is forced to kill his own son, a tragedy that leaves him understandably broken and wrathful. Abandoning his former life he sets out to claim bloody retribution for his loss. Now, this does just follow the staple trope of a hero avenging the death of a loved one, which seems to be the go-to choice for Ubisoft writing teams these days, but whilst it was somewhat predictable I nevertheless found myself rapidly caught up in Bayek’s struggle for justice. The game takes us through a series of assassinations as Bayek begins to hunt down those responsible for robbing him of his family and his place in Egyptian society. It’s only once he encounters Aya, his estranged wife, and becomes embroiled in the political machinations of Cleopatra and her, encourage that he realizes that there is a much more sinister scheme in play than he first thought. Bayek learns that those responsible for the death of his son are corrupting and tormenting all of Egypt to serve their own nefarious ends. Together the reunited spouses and their royal patron embark on a quest to unmask and eliminate all remaining members of the Order of the Ancients, to finally avenge their son and to liberate their country from the mysterious cadre of would-be tyrants.

From the depths of the desert and the tombs beneath the Giza Plateau all the way to the senate halls of Rome itself, Bayek and Aya travel to some of the most important places in the known ancient world as one by one they catch up with their targets and end their wretched lives. A plot structure dependent on assassination sequences is nothing new for the series, but this is one area where it wasn’t really required to make any drastic changes. The step-by-step approach to assassination as seen in the Hitman series, is part and parcel of the game’s core concept but it could have been made more explicit in this outing. As it stands much of the groundwork for the assassinations and understanding who the targets are is provided in the side quests, so if you want the full experience I’d suggest doing any optional missions in an area before you proceed with the main quests.

Although the story isn’t as transformative for the series as so many other elements of Assassin’s Creed Origins, it is an approachable tale, well and boldly told, that sets a solid foundation for the franchise going forward. That’s something that hasn’t been true of the series for many years and it will be intriguing to see just how dedicated to this new paradigm the company really is. The reveal of Amunet at a certain point in the game also gives me hope that Ubisoft are using her tangential presence in Origins to pave the way for a transition into a sub-set of Assassin’s Creed titles with a dedicated female protagonist. As Tomb Raider has always proven and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice recently reaffirmed, female protagonists have no detrimental effect on a game and it’s absurd that such an irrational perspective has been an accepted part of corporate mentality for decades. For that and all the reasons, I’ve previously discussed Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t just a fantastic game in its own right but serves as a barometer for where the industry currently is and where it’s heading.

Unfortunately, before I offer my final thoughts on the game it’s probably best to deal with the bloated, festering elephant corpse in the corner of the room: loot boxes. Shortly before launch, it was revealed that this game would contain loot boxes but don’t panic it’s not as bad as it sounds. As we’ve seen with the recent backlash against random loot boxes in Shadow of War and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 these kinds of premium cash shop elements in a full-priced AAA game do nothing but foster resentment on the part of the player base because it’s seen as double-dipping for the sake of pure profit. Beyond that their presence usually trivializes entire progression systems and makes games pay-to-win. In Assassin’s Creed Origins these loot boxes are available for purchase with in-game currency (although said currency can be bought with real money as well) and are more akin to those present in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Far from containing pay-to-win items they simply offer small boosts of resources or equipment for the sake of convenience. There are other items that can be directly purchased but, other than the inclusion of some questionably powerful weapons and skill points, they are purely cosmetic and have no impact on gameplay whatsoever. So there’s nothing to fear here, this isn’t the cynical corporate cash-grab you’re looking for. Thank Ra for that.

If Ubisoft had changed nothing about Assassin’s Creed during its two-year hiatus then chances are the writing would be on the wall for the franchise, carved into the very stones that its disappointed fans would have buried it beneath. But they did and here we are with a fresh start not just for fans but for the developers as well. Taking that little bit of extra time to polish and refine the game has made this a must play title that will keep you occupied for upwards of forty hours with the base content alone and thanks to the post-launch content that’s planned I have no doubt that like the pharaohs of old, Assassin’s Creed Origins will be remembered for many gaming generations to come.

Chris is a Cambridge, UK based freelance writer and reviewer. A graduate of English Literature from Goldsmiths College in London he has been composing poetry and prose for most of his life. More than partial to real ale/craft beer and a general fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He first started gaming on a borrowed Mega Drive as a child and has been a passionate enthusiast of the hobby and art form ever since. Never afraid to speak his mind he always aims to tell the unvarnished truth about a game. Favourite genres: RPGs, action adventure and MMOs. Least favourite genre: anything EA Sports related (they're the same games every year!)

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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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