Ah August, usually the time of year where the videogame release schedule dries up more than a nun's... sense of humor? As a school teacher, it's ironically the time of year when I have the most free time to play videogames, and it's conversely the time when there is usually the least available to play; except for this year. 2016 has bucked the trend somewhat by not only having a high-profile release (No Man's Sky) reserved for August (as a result of delays granted but it was a fortuitous delay for me) but also a load of fantastic indie games, many of which I had preordered in advance. Toss in a few good digital sales too and my summer months have been stuffed with quality titles!! Here is a summary and round-up of all the videogames I've played this summer in order of awesomeness:
Grow Up 7.5/10
Despite downloading the original Grow Home when it was released free on PS+ last year, it wasn't until fairly recently that I played it through for the first time. I awoke one morning to the sound of my wife playing it downstairs, laughing and shouting as she desperately tried to control the ever-inebriated BUD, and stop him for plummeting to his death for the umpteenth time. I joined her on the sofa and we ended up passing the gamepad back and forth all day long, playing through the charming little game together and even completing all the end-game challenges; finding all the star plant seeds, collecting ridiculous trophies, etc. So when the sequel Grow Up came up for preorder, I immediately grabbed it, hoping to recreate the same joyful day of gaming with my wife once again. Well, it didn't really happen that way as she's currently obsessed with EA's Unravel, which we picked up in the summer sale, and so I ended up playing through Grow Up on my own, which has probably led to me turning a more critical eye towards its faults especially when compared with its predecessor. Firstly though, it's worth highlighting all the improvements made to the formula over and above the first game, such as the new planetoid game world. Instead of a small continent surrounded by water, this time the open world is actually a small mario-galaxy style planet that you can fully circumnavigate, and which spins on an axis creating a true night and day cycle. Across the small world are also different biomes; there's a lush jungle area, an arid desert, a springy mushroom filled forest and two ice-cold polar regions, as well as an asteroid belt floating above it all in outer space. The gameplay has been expanded greatly too, as now instead of having to suck-up daisies or leaves to glide and parachute, BUD eventually picks these up as standard tech-drops throughout the world, instead the sucking-up of plant life allows you to build a database of available seeds, which you can poop out at any time to grow springboards, climbing frames, etc.
Unfortunately, it's this expanded gameplay that causes Grow Up to lose some of its predecessor's lustre. The thrill in the original was trying to get the intentionally poorly-controlling robot up the colossal start plant in order to grow out its vines, with one wrong move or slip-up causing you to plummet earthwards, and likely end in your death. This created a very real sense of vertigo and meant that looking back down at how far you'd come felt like a genuine achievement; trying to get that star-seed into MOM at the end was a particularly pant-soiling moment for me. In Grow Up much of these feelings have disappeared, as you always feel safe and comfortable exploring at great heights due to the technology you have at your disposal, with the biggest slip-up being the introduction of propelled flight. Also, growing multiple star plants means that you don't end up with a gigantic colossal one at the end, just a load of moderately sized climbing frames that you've grown in order to reach ship parts earlier in the game. There are also POD challenges scattered throughout the world, which you can't really tackle until you tech-up a bit, and then you will immediately ignore because they seem like throw-away content added to bulk out the open world, and there are the usual collectable crystals, which you'll collect for a while until they break the game somewhat by making you too OP. However, once all is said and done, Grow Up is still immensely enjoyable!! The net result of all these changes to the Grow Home formula is that Grow Up is a much more meditative and chilled game, and I found it very relaxing to glide about the world looking for plants to grow and items to collect; the graphics look gorgeous too (despite looking like every single flat-shaded Unity game does nowadays) as the lighting system seems to have had an overhaul along with the geometry of plants. The music is also great, and playing Grow Up is a nice little distraction away from the explosions and violence associated with triple-A gaming.
Bound is another game that I'd preordered on the PlayStation network, but unlike Grow Up, this particular game was a complete mystery to me. I had no idea what it was about, how it played, etc. All I knew was that it had an interesting art style and looked like one of the experimental art-project style games that Sony likes to throw money at, and which in my opinion differentiates the PlayStation platform from other gaming spaces. Back on the PS3 I had played through Datura, an earlier game by developer Plastic, and there are many similarities in terms of the 'feel' and atmosphere in Bound. It opens with a car pulling up beside a beach and a pregnant women getting out, at which point control is given over to the player without any instructions or onscreen prompts whatsoever. Walking her down the beach a little, towards a large wooden house, causes her to uncomfortably sit down and open up a child's sketchbook, which is the transition point into the heavily-stylised fantasy world seen in the trailer above. This is where the majority of the gameplay takes place, as you take on the role of the Princess in her quest to rid the kingdom of the monster and various other anomalies that are trashing the world and causing chaos. To do this, you engage in some quite rudimentary 3D platforming, as well as stylistic "boss battles" that basically involve holding a button down to dance, and optionally tapping various face buttons to bust some ballet moves out; this is also used throughout levels to repel any hazards to enemies that you encounter along the way. The simplicity of Bound's design is both a blessing and a curse to be honest, and while it avoids the lack-of-gameplay arguments of so-called "walking simulator" games such as Journey (you can infact die in Bound although you're just respawned back onto the nearest platform) it doesn't have anything new or exciting that it brings to the table. It's a *really* basic platformer at heart.
However, more than the sum of its parts, Bound's qualities actually lie within its narrative. The fantasy segments are really more of a metaphor for the pregnant woman working out her psychological issues that have haunted her since childhood, and presumably the sketchbook belongs to either her or her brother, the tearing out of pages after each level being a way of exorcising her many demons. We can see the dysfunctional family dynamic of her childhood through the first person sequences punctuating each level, usually introducing the theme of the boss battle about to ensue, and these sections whilst jarring in their complete change of graphical style so a good job of communicating what happened in the past. As you edge the pregnant woman ever closer to the beach house, the time of day changes and this also affects the visual style of the fantasy world. The levels can actually be tackled in any order, with the time of day in the real world and the secrets you have uncovered in other levels sometimes subtlely changing the 'feel' of the different areas; although they pretty much always look roughly the same - a flat-shaded world of pulsating voxel cubes and shattered polygons. At the end of the game you have a binary choice to make, and how you've interpreted the events in the game (as well as your own ideology) will affect your choice, but there's no payoff for either decision aside from personal satisfaction. I played through the game twice in quick succession, tackling levels in a different order and choosing a different ending each time and was thoroughly captivated by Bound's atmosphere and story, even if some people will find the gameplay lacking.
Oxenfree was sold to me as being similar to Until Dawn, which I absolutely love, and although there are some similarities (kinda) it's really quite a unique videogame both in terms of how it works and how it feels to play. The trailer shown above gives absolutely no hint that for the vast majority of the time you'll be listening to what sometimes seems like endless buckets of dialogue, and that characters in this game like to talk excessively, which might turn some people off and is sometimes hard to handle as you desperately attempt to keep up with conversations whilst simultaneously navigate to wherever you're meant to be going. But let's back up a little. Oxenfree is a game about a bunch of teenagers taking a stereotypical alcohol and magic-mushroom fueled outing to a remote island, where they intend to while away the evening playing "truth or slap" and bitching about each other. As much as the idea of yet another character-driven game involving teenagers galled me, this is actually really well done, as the dialogue is believably written and the voice actors do an absolutely brilliant job in bringing these people to life. It also helped that the production is generally fantastic and the game uses a sort of weird painterly art style, which gives the game an ethereal and dreamlike feel, backed up by the absolutely brilliant soundtrack; a kitschy synth throwback to 80s films. Infact the themes of the game and the music reminded me a lot of The Fog, and playing Oxenfree is immediately appealed to me because of this. Aside from the dialogue trees, which I'll elaborate on later, the other interactive element in the game is using the radio, tuning into different frequencies via the analogue sticks to find hidden transmissions, learn the lore of the island, and open up ghostly portals in time and space. It is the use of this radio in some supposedly haunted caves that trigger the plot of the game, and cause all sorts of ghoulish happenings to begin.
With otherworldly forces unleashed upon the unsuspecting teens it's up to you to make hard decisions about the order you save people, where you go to investigate, and various other choices that litter the game and affect not only how the story unfolds but ultimately the fate of the characters and the ending that you'll receive. As mentioned earlier, this is achieved through branching dialogue trees and at all times you have three options to respond to questions and conversation, which are tied to the square, triangle and circle buttons on the gamepad. Once valid criticism of the game is that it often feels you are rushed into making decisions before you have heard all the dialogue you're meant to. Choices that you can make are timed on screen and slowly disappear, in order to prompt you to think on your feet and go with your gut feeling, but unfortunately they all too often fade out whilst a character is still talking, causing you to cut them off mid-sentence if you choose to respond. Sometimes this feels very unnatural because the game has assumed you've heard all the dialogue when you might have actually been forced to respond because the box was about to disappear! It might seem like a minor complaint but it happens frequently enough to be a design flaw in an otherwise fantastic videogame. The PS4 version is the 'director's cut' of the game, and this means that once all is said and done you can jump back into a second game that is subtly different from your first playthrough, as the protagonist Alex will remember that she has done all this before and comment on the feeling of deja vu she has; leading to some new dialogue and interactions. You've got to enjoy dialogue-heavy games to enjoy Oxenfree, and walking around a lot, but if that's your thing then this is a very clever and enthralling game and one that you should definitely pick up.
ABZU is an absolutely *gorgeous* videogame. The genius behind this is the former art director of PlayStation classics Journey and Flower, and this really shines through with his latest endeavour, which comes across as a sort of mix of both although much more strongly resting on the design sensibilities of the former. Picking up and playing ABZU the comparisons with Journey are unavoidable, and it would be a disservice, albeit quite true sometimes, to called ABZU "Underwater Journey" that that's kinda what it looks and feels like; with the starkly-lit flat-ish shaded environments. Instead of open desert with flappy red cloth all over the place, this time we have large oceanic spaces teeming with marine life, and supposedly the game can render something crazy like 10,000 fish onscreen at once, probably seen when you come across one of those big shoals with predators darting in and out. At times it totally takes your breath away. The music too is once again by Autin Wintory and, although not quite as memorable as Journey, it's definitely one of the *best* videogame soundtracks of the year. So far, so good, and even though it felt overly familiar, when I first started playing I thought "here's a 10/10 videogame right here!" The controls underwater are excellent, and you have a swim-faster button replacing a jump (which by rhythmically tapping you can propel yourself pretty damn fast) and a similar 'chirp' button to Journey that you'll use to interact with the scenery and with the world's inhabitants, including some NPC helper robots that you'll find buried in the sand. Unfortunately, it's here that the game slips up a little and even though I absolutely loved my time with ABZU, it's unfortunately stuck in the shadow of Journey, a shadow of a game that is significantly better for reasons I never realised when I first started.
Simply put, ABZU suffers from not being always-online like its predecessor. In Journey, the solitary beginning of your adventure and crushing loneliness of the desert made you yearn for companionship, and when another player turned up out of the blue it was revelatory; not to mention the fact that the story was kinda tied in with the crutch you felt relying on each other and it delivered a crushing penultimate chapter because of it. ABZU doesn't have that same emotional hook, but it desperately wants to. It beats you over the head with the same rhetoric of technology-killing-nature and of damaging ecology through greed and desire, but it all rings a little flat this time. It's hard not to be swept away by the dramatic story beats and absolutely stunning art direction, but without a true friend to experience it all with, it comes across asa more hollow game. The little robot creatures at the start of the game and the shark at the end presumably are there to fill that role, but they're just NPCs and don't provide the necessarily emotional soundboard. Beat-for-beat ABZU comes across as a lesser Journey, and unlike it's predecessor I have less desire to jump back in multiple times (I'll still crack out Journey every now and again, don my white outfit, and help some new players find the secrets and easter eggs), in fact twice through to pick up some missing trophies and I'm pretty much done with it, at least for a while. For you see, despite the comparison, ABZU is a videogame that technically does almost everything right - it's lavishly produced, powerful in its imagery, and an absolute joy to play - it's a great game, and *almost* a classic. If Journey didn't exist.
There seems to be a running theme here of games that either aren't as good as their predecessors or suffer because of comparison/reiteration. Along with Journey, another of my favourite indie games of all time has to be Playdead's dark and moody puzzle-platformer Limbo, which I originally played back on the PS3 but which has now been ported to pretty much every platform going; if you've not played it then go and do so immediately, you have no excuses. Inside is the long awaited follow-up title, which originally released as a supposed Xbox One exclusive, and which I *almost* bought an XBone S in order to play. It received so many absolutely glowing 10/10 reviews it sounded simply amazing, and it is *amazing*. But it's not as groundbreaking as Limbo. Inside begins in almost exactly the same way as its forebear, with a small boy lost in the woods, only this time he's running for dear life trying desperately to escape the clutches of some nefarious men-in-black looking motherf**kers! It's a great opener and straight away forces you to quickly get to grips with the simple controls, reliance on environmental puzzle-solving, and the need to think fast if you don't want to watch a small boy being torn apart by savage dogs, or shot at, or splat on the ground in a bloody heap. Like Limbo, Inside is never gratuitous with its violence but uses it to punctuate each death so that you really don't want it to happen again. It's a clever way of having trial-and-error gameplay (death really only sets you back a few seconds progress) whilst keeping you invested in keeping the boy alive. As the story progresses it takes on much more sci-fi heavy themes than Limbo and slowly gains its own unique identity, which deals with heavy subject matter such as subjugation, human experimentation, maybe cloning, etc. The narrative isn't overt and is implicit through background environmental detail as well as the actions of both the player character as well as the NPCs in the game. Unlike the previous game, this is not so much a lonely solitary affair, infact you are constantly interacting with other 'people' in some form or another, or running like hell from them!
There is a very definite turning point where Inside switches gears completely and becomes genuinely shocking, the stuff of nightmares if it wasn't a 2D platformer made in the Unity engine. The last segment in the game is quite different from the opening acts and it seems like the game ends very abruptly because of it, with the total play time being about 3 hours, maybe 4 if you're exploring every nook and cranny. And you *should* explore those delicious crannies because there are secrets littered throughout Inside, and these directly relate to the trophies for the game. When I fist finished the game I was borderline horrified that my trophy list still displayed 0%, so I went back in for another playthrough and have now 100% completed the game, finding hidden areas I completely missed first time through (largely because at the time I was running for my life). Going back and getting these secrets also opens up an alternative ending for the game, which is very obscurely hidden, and which is mind-blowingly fourth-wall breaking! I must admit, I needed help from the internet to find this as it has completely eluded me and the only reason I learnt of it was because I was thinking "why hasn't *that* light gone out like the others?". So, this game would be a definite contender for 'Game of the Year' and usually a solid 10/10 for me, but I can't shake the feeling that this sort of experience has been done before, and of course it's the memories of Limbo that keep bubbling to the forefront of my mind. Inside does enough to differentiate itself, and is absolutely phenomenal, but there are little things like the puzzles not being as challenging (unless I've just gotten better as a player), the soundtrack not being as powerful (unless it's just that it sounds too similar) and the ending not being as clever (it probably is but just in a different way) that stop it from reaching those lofty heights.
Hyper Light Drifter 9.5/10
What a f**king game!! I have to admit I was dubious about whether or not I would like Hyper Light Drifter, which was initially sold to me as similar to the original Legend of Zelda or Link to the Past but with a very high level of challenge, which I crave. However, the idea of pixel-art graphics, a chiptune soundtrack, and other more technically impressive games like ABZU coming out made me think twice and I almost cancelled my PS4 preorder... which would have been a *HUGE* mistake as this has (so far) been one of the best videogames I've played all year. Let me correct my assumptions right now, Hyper Light Drifter both looks and sounds amazing. The pixel artwork is phenomenal and I found myself constantly screenshotting the game on my PS4, wearing down the share button and probably irritating my Facebook friends in the process. It's a richly detailed world, with well-designed sprites that stand out well from the background, and some great cutscenes that really set the scene at the start of the game. The soundtrack too, by the artist Disasterpeace whose work I also really enjoyed in the film It Follows (as well as Fez even though I didn't get on well with the game), is one of the best released so far this year and I've listened to it on my phone at night constantly since playing this great game. The plot is a bit obtuse, but basically it's set in a post-apocalyptic world where some sort of artificial intelligence has awoken and irradicated most life, leaving an empty husk of a world in its wake. The protagonist, the titular Drifter, is terminally ill and given visions by some sort of deity for how to end the rule of the rogue AI, and with this knowledge you are unleashed into the world to choose a path and find your way to the AI core. As mentioned above, it's quite obtuse and most lore in the game is implicitly drawn from the environments and enemies that populate them. It has to be said though that this game owes a great deal of stylistic debt to Studio Ghibli's films Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is one of my all-time favourite films; I knew I was in good hands here.
Plopped into the middle of the game's vast and sprawling map, there really is a lot of choice given to the player about where they can go and in what order they wish to tackle the areas and bosses, and it is in this regard that people often compare it to the early Zelda titles. The actual gameplay of Hyper Light Drifter is much more focussed on combat than Zelda though, and there are few if any puzzles inside dungeons, with exploration being tied to finding keys and defeating certain enemies to progress. It's in the combat that the game exhibits its notorious high level of challenge and twitchy gameplay, and it is very easy to get overwhelmed by waves of smaller enemies or crushed by powerful and fast-moving minibosses. The area bosses themselves are very well designed and real difficulty spikes (as they should be!), forcing you to learn their attack patterns to the pixel if you are to stand a chance in defeating them; I'd probably put this game up there with the 'Souls series in terms of well designed and challenging boss battles. Great stuff! The open nature of progression and the abundance of hidden secrets and optional areas give Hyper Light Drifter tons of replay value and I absolutely plan to dive back in at some point and tackle the bosses in a different order. You also spend a lot of time collecting upgrade material for the Drifter and enhancing him with special moves, more powerful weapons, etc. and I still have a few of those I need to unlock and experiment with. Overall, this is just a great videogame and the best one I played this summer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.