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‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’ is the New Bench Mark for Open World RPGs

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About forty-five hours into playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I was tasked with tracking down an old companion of mine who had gone AWOL. The mission began as I met up with another old friend and we discussed the best way to track our missing ally down. Knowing that our mutual friend in question was somewhat of a Lothario, we ran through his diary, split up the names of the women he’d been meeting with, and each went out into the city to begin questioning his various conquests. The quest is partly played for laughs, as the jilted lovers make their anger quite clear, and the women who saw through his lecherous act and spurned him comment on his appalling behavior.

What was most striking about the quest was how it was structured. In any other game of this ilk, this sort of light-hearted side-quest would likely be over in minutes, before getting back to more serious matters. In Wild Hunt, the quest lasts an hour, and involves, but is not limited to, a meeting with four different women across the city, a day at the races, a good old fashioned bar brawl, some fencing lessons, and a live performance from a famous, lute-playing bard. From there, the quest branches, opening up other side quests involving the characters we met, some of which also branch into other quests after that.

This game is absolutely massive.

But what makes The Witcher 3 really, really special is that this enormous, open world role-playing game doesn’t spread itself too thinly. The quest I mentioned before is just one example of dozens of well thought out, fully realized quest-lines that take the player on a journey across multiple towns, meeting scores of fleshed-out characters, in many different scenarios. This isn’t a question of quality versus quantity. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt gives the player both, and it does so with such a confident swagger that it’s nigh-impossible not to be impressed.

Geralt can happen upon all kinds of incidents, and if the player wishes it, he can usually step in.

Geralt can happen upon all kinds of incidents, and if the player wishes it, he can usually step in.

On countless occasions I opened up the map screen to begin deciding where I would head next, only to sit back in my chair aghast at the breadth of the options before me. Some games provide an incredible five hour experience, while others take a weekend or a fortnight to master. After over forty hours of game, I could quite easily double that and still not complete all the quests I’ve unlocked so far. It’s possible some may find the game overwhelming, but for players like me, who relish the opportunity to become invested in a fully realized world, this is gaming heaven. I’m playing it in most of my spare time. When I’m not playing it, I’m thinking about playing it. If you only buy one game this year, so far, this is the one to get.

The Witcher franchise is based on a series of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. One of the greatest strengths of Wild Hunt is the setting created by the author, and the feeling that the world hasn’t just been created for us as a playground; it’s a lived in, war-torn continent inhabited by real people with real issues. So many times in open-world games the towns and cities feel artificial, but not here.

Consider Seattle as represented by inFamous: Second Son. The third inFamous was an enjoyable game, but strolling up to a street corner to see another musician doing the same thing as the musician you saw a few blocks away takes you out of the illusion. It’s an artificial representation of a city, with precious few variations of citizen, each following regimented patterns in a way that is inherently inorganic. The setting of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the most convincing open world settings I’ve ever experienced, and one in which after forty hours I’ve yet to experience a repeat quest or random instance. It might be an artificial world created for our enjoyment, but it feels genuine, and successfully pulling the wool over our eyes makes the experience joyfully unpredictable.

The sorceress Keira Metz is an old friend of Geralt, and like all old friends, comes with her own branching quest-lines.

The sorceress Keira Metz is an old friend of Geralt, and like all old friends, comes with her own branching quest-lines.

For the uninitiated, our hero, Geralt of Rivia, is a witcher. Witchers undergo special training and body modifications as children in order to enable them to battle dangerous creatures and live to tell the tale. Their unconventional upbringing means that some citizens consider them to be freaks or abominations, but throughout the land they are regarded as warriors who can be counted on to complete tasks that mere humans could not. Pay up, and they’ll take care of the monster terrorizing your village. Cross them, and you’ll wish you only had a wraith or a were-wolf to contend with.

Geralt is the gold standard of Witcher; firm but fair, with a dry wit, and an undeniable charm. The scars that mark his body tell you more than any lengthy piece of exposition could, and the way old friends speak with him says a lot about how reliable he is at his job. Getting to know Geralt in Wild Hunt is a slow burning process, and while the character may appear stoic and emotionless at the beginning of the game, unpacking the various facets of his personality through dozens of hours of interactions with other characters reveal that he’s a lot more interesting than those opening minutes might suggest.

The main plot thrust of the game involves Geralt looking for Ciri, an adoptive daughter of sorts, who has gone missing and is presumably in grave danger. The interesting twist on this familiar narrative is that as Geralt learns a little more about what Ciri has been doing through conversation with other characters who’ve met her, the player is allowed to control her in flashbacks, revealing that she’s not a damsel in distress, but rather a highly skilled warrior comparable to Geralt himself.

W4

The Ciri sections are brief but allow us to get to know her, which in turn makes it easy to feel sympathetic to her plight, giving Geralt’s main quest-line to find her a little more emotional heft. Geralt travels to different towns, speaking to many different people and becoming embroiled in their adventures as he strives to find Ciri, and while the main plot might seem to be very simple for a game of this scope, the simplicity actually helps to make sure that the ultimate objective never becomes lost in side-quests, or the larger political landscape.

As Geralt travels the world he’ll unlock many different quests in many different variations. These can be found by checking out a notice board in a town or village, speaking to characters marked with an exclamation mark above their heads, or they can unlock automatically branching out from other quests. Missions can be unlocked at any time, providing the circumstances for unlocking them have been met, and they’re filed in a handy subsection of the main menu that lets you know where the quests are based, and roughly what level you should be at to have a chance of making it out alive. It’s not unusual to have dozens of quests active at any one time, for recommended levels both far in advance and far below your current stature, but the quests are different enough, and the quest-givers fleshed out enough, that the missions mostly avoid feeling rote or by numbers.

Opening the map screen allows the player to keep track of exactly which direction they should be headed in order to complete their current mission, but also reveals places of interest removed from the currently unlocked objectives. These take the form of question marks on the map, and heading to one could reveal buried treasure, bandit camps to eradicate, monster nests to take care of, slaves to free, dangerous beasts to slay, and other activities. While these instances rarely come with a story-based incentive to complete them, they often yield valuable items and experience points, so it behoves the player to make the effort when they come across the opportunity. The main thrust of these mini-objectives is generally to find something, or kill a bunch of creatures, which requires the player to use their “witcher senses” or their combat skills respectively.

Geralt can join a bare-knuckle boxing competition to prove his worth among the peasants.

Geralt can join a bare-knuckle boxing competition to prove his worth among the peasants.

Witcher senses are essentially the detective mode from the Arkham games for witchers. Holding down the L2 button gives the screen a blur effect and allows Geralt to use his heightened senses to locate items of interest, ranging from hidden walls and objects, to tracks, blood or scent trails. Missions frequently require Geralt to use his witcher senses to track a friend or enemy, before ultimately having to deal with whatever the problem may be. While he can deal with many issues diplomatically, or even by using his magic powers to influence someone’s mind, more often than not, he has to deal with his problems the old fashioned way; by whipping out his swords and cutting down whoever, or whatever, stands in his way.

Combat in Wild Hunt feels somewhat akin to combat in Assassin’s Creed, for better or worse. Geralt has two swords – a steel blade for human foes, and a silver one to vanquish magical beasts. Sword fights make use of both quick and strong attacks, careful blocking, as well as countering with a well timed tap of the block button. Like Assassin’s Creed, these battles require careful timing that when mastered can allow the player to feel like a truly powerful warrior. Often, taking a hit isn’t a matter of course, but the result of an ill-timed block or parry attempt, and so success or failure always feels like it’s in the hands of the player, rather than a cheap enemy attack.

Geralt is also in possession of an array of magical skills, such as the ability to conjure a defensive shield, a fiery blast, or to take control one of his foes, forcing them into doing his bidding. Enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses, leading some to be more susceptible to certain types of magic than others, and the bestiary reveals much about how to tackle the various monsters that inhabit the lands. Coating your blades in special oils can buff your weapons with specific properties, and this sort of preparation can mean the difference between making mincemeat of your enemies, scraping through a dungeon by the skin of your teeth, or failing outright.

Geralt's beard grows over the course of the game. Seriously. In fact, for beard lovers everywhere, one of the first pieces of free DLC is a hair/beard style pack, allowing more styles of grooming for all you witchers who like to look good.

Geralt’s beard grows over the course of the game. Seriously. In fact, for beard lovers everywhere, one of the first pieces of free DLC is a hair/beard style pack, allowing more styles of grooming for all you witchers who like to look good.

One of the greatest strengths of the combat in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt actually lies in its brevity. While there are many battles in the game, the size of the world and length of the missions mean that the time spent fighting is comparatively short. Where Assassin’s Creed has similar combat mechanics, that series has a tendency to overwhelm the player with a lot of enemies, which can lead to battles degenerating into button mashing affairs as the player tries desperately to get out of the fight as quickly as possible.

Wild Hunt recognizes that violence is generally most impactful when used sparingly, and so the battles in the game tend be over fairly quickly. Geralt will usually find himself in a pickle that can only be resolved via the sharp end of his blade, and seconds later he’s surrounding by the bloody corpses of his recently slain foes. Like the Japanese movie series Zatoichi, the battles Geralt gets into tend to be intense flurries rather than drawn out affairs, and they’re all the better for it. Combat isn’t perfect, with the lock-on system feeling a little sketchy at times, and hits occasionally not registering when it looks like they should, but on the whole it’s satisfying and engaging.

The variety of missions and the random instances that take place in the game are undoubtedly one of Wild Hunt’s greatest strengths, but also worthwhile of note is the relative inactivity between these moments. The periods of calm as Geralt travels from one town to the next are a treat unto themselves, allowing the player time to absorb the scenery, learn the lay of the land, or even just have a little alone time to think about the task at hand before reaching the next destination. These quieter moments are, in many way, just as important as the flashes of violence or the story progression, as they give the player an opportunity to become more immersed in the wonderful open-world created for them.

If you're a fan of lutes, you're in for a treat in this mission.

If you’re a fan of lutes, you’re in for a treat in this mission.

Riding through a town to a chorus of insults from superstitious peasants that consider witchers a sin against their various gods, it’s hard not to feel something. Wild Hunt has you, the player, take on the role of an outsider, and the animosity some people spew at you based purely on your upbringing can really hit home just how volatile this world is. The political scene is tense and seemingly ready to explode, and Geralt and his witchers are just one of the combustible elements in play. The moments spent observing the common-folk, both amiable and hostile, helps to give the game a real sense of a world inhabited by people with their own thoughts, allegiances, and prejudices.

In a similar vein it’s worth noting that on a technical level, the world created here is nothing short of astonishing. While the graphics aren’t as eye-popping as something like The Order or The Last Of Us, the fact that the world can look half as good as it does given the scale of the maps and the almost complete lack of load times (experienced only when first loading, fast-travelling, or upon death) is incredible. Of particular note is the weather system, which like the time spent among the peasants and lords of the towns and cities, helps portray a world that feels truly alive. Sunsets as seen behind the silhouette of farmland, or wind and rain battering the branches of trees in a small forest are often breathtaking to behold, and among the very best I’ve seen in a video game. Voice acting is also consistently strong, and with all characters fully voiced, side-quests that would otherwise perhaps feel of less importance are often just as compelling as the main plot-line.

The quest that I mentioned at the beginning of this review is worthy of note for more reasons than highlighting just how long Wild Hunt is. I’ve mentioned many different ways in which the game is special, but that mission (and there are many others that I could talk about in this way) represented exactly what I think is the strongest aspect of The Witcher 3, and why it’s a truly special game. The greatest achievement of CD Projekt RED here is the amalgamation of all these separate strengths into a cohesive whole that amounts to more than the sum of its already impressive parts.

Battles are violent, bloody and usually over quickly.

Battles are violent, bloody and usually over quickly.

Tracking a friend via his string of scorned lovers gives the player an opportunity to explore a town, taking in the sights and sounds, before conversing with the aforementioned women leading to further missions. We learn more about Geralt and the world through the interaction with these characters and the women are all completely different and believable, ranging from lowly peasants to high nobility and everything in-between. We learn some of the history of side characters and open up more quest lines. We get into brief bar-room brawls and take part in sword fighting lessons. We try our hand at horse racing. And there’s a wonderful scene in a tavern as we sit back and watch a song played by a bard that is both genuinely entertaining, and offers some well deserved respite. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game that has many strengths, but it’s greatest is in knowing how to use them all together to create something truly memorable.

It’s worth noting here that CD Projekt RED have also, quite magnanimously, vowed to release up to sixteen pieces of free downloadable content for players as well as the obligatory upcoming paid DLC. Given the amount to do already in the game upon release, complimenting it with more free content down the line is a gesture that shouldn’t be ignored, and hopefully one that other publishers will take note of. With dozens of unique missions, hundreds of random encounters and hidden treasures, a fully fledged popular card game to master, a pugilists club, horse racing rackets, dozens of magical beasts to slay, weapons and armor to upgrade, a complex character progression system, alchemy and crafting options, serious decisions to make with real consequences, and romance options to boot, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the quintessential example of how to do open-world gaming properly. There’s no superfluous collecta-thons, and there’s little in the way of repeated missions. The amount of content in this game is borderline ridiculous, and for once the hyperbole regarding how long it will take to uncover all the secrets of the world feels like it might actually be an understatement.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an almost MMO-level commitment, but without the grind associated with that genre. It’s not the sort of game you can dive into for ten minutes here and there, or hope to beat in a weekend. This is the sort of long-form gaming that keeps you busy for a month and does it with such style that it never gets old, or tedious, and never makes you feel like you’re completing busy work or administration. A few technical flaws here and there and some occasionally clunky combat mechanics are about the only issues, but given the weight of positives going against them, they’re barely worth mentioning at all. This is one of the first truly special games of the current generation, and one that we’ll likely still be talking about with reverence for years to come.

This article was originally posted on www.soundonsight.org

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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