Tag Archives: PlayStation 4

On… Dragon Quest Heroes

Even if you didn’t know a thing about the Dragon Quest series, and wouldn’t know a JRPG if it hit you in the face with an amnesiac spiky-haired protagonist, Dragon Quest Heroes gives away its Japanese origins with its unwieldy subtitle: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below. It does make sense and has a bit of a poetic charm to it, but it may as well scream ‘I’m a Japanese video game!’ when you open the box.

Dragon Quest Heroes 1
The king spends half the game laughing at things that just aren’t funny.

Heroes is, like Hyrule Warriors before it (and the forthcoming – at the time of writing – Fire Emblem Warriors), a retooling of the Dynasty Warriors games. This is a series that is based around epic battles with hordes of enemies, overpowered attacks, multiple player characters and much mashing of the square button. If that sounds a bit reductive then, well, perhaps that’s because at its heart Dragon Quest Heroes is a very simple game. If you come into this expecting an RPG like The Witcher 3 then you’re going to be disappointed. Which would be a shame since, actually, DQH is pretty damned good.

Although it’s hard to say why.

It certainly isn’t the story. The plotline is serviceable enough, but is filled one-note characters and features a villain so pantomime-esque that he actually has a sinister curly moustache. You never feel any actual tension as it’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen throughout, and the story is obviously there to provide an excuse for the action. It’s fortunate, then, that the actual playing of the game is great fun. The gameplay loop centres around venturing forth into multiple levels and, basically, kicking the crap out of anything that moves. This turns out to be amazing fun.

Controls are straightforward and fluid, with some customisation to allow for a more strategic mode as opposed to the standard button-mashing layout. No matter which you opt for, there’s plenty of special moves to choose from over the multiple characters both available initially and unlockable as the game progresses. These range from standard versions of Dragon Quest staples such as Sizzle or Crack, to Final Fantasy limit break style attacks that see you do such things as transform into dragons, cast energy vortexes or summon sabrecats to attack your enemies.

Dragon Quest Heroes - 2
See? Here he goes again. I never managed to work out what he was laughing at.

The character roster consists of a selection of characters from mainline DQ titles along with some original characters. There are two main player characters, one male, one female. Whilst you can play as both throughout, you choose at the start your primary character and it’s from their perspective that you experience the game (though if you choose to play as Luceus rather than Aurora, you’ve basically stumped for the most annoying character). The main characters play pretty much the same bar some cosmetic differences, but there’s plenty of variety in the other characters. You have tanks such as Doric, ranged warriors such as Bianca, and magic wielders such as Nerys. The game doesn’t force you to play in a particular way so you can adjust your team of four to suit your play style (though arguably some characters are more overpowered than others).

The game looks lovely, too. The Akira Toriyama design motifs of the series are made to look beautiful on the PS4, with beautifully animated character models and special effects that, whilst they do get a bit tired after the hundredth viewing, never cease to impress. Aurally the game provides a treat for fans of the series, with various remixes of familiar tunes along with some decent original compositions. Voice-acting is pretty terrible, although I can’t help feeling that the DQ scripts are best read quietly in your own head anyway.

DQH isn’t without flaws, of course. Aside from the aforementioned storyline, the major problem is the pacing. The main plot funnels you along a pretty linear path and, whilst there are lots of sub-quests, these are all pretty inconsequential until just before the final battle when you get swamped with a heap of character-based side stories (some of which I couldn’t actually get to complete). This really is quite poor as, by that point, I was pretty much ready to finish the game, but felt that I should do the character stories. Sadly they don’t really add up to much or provide much in the way of insight into the characters, and as such they just feel like unnecessary padding.

The mission variety is slim as well, and there are just far too many ‘tower defence’ type quests where you have to stop hordes of enemies from attacking structures or NPCs with health-bars that are too small. These quickly become frustrating, especially when guarding a character who keeps deciding to throw themselves at enemies. Thankfully the game isn’t too difficult, particularly if you do a bit of side-content to keep your character level up, so you shouldn’t find yourself having to repeatedly fight the same battles again and again. Towards the end-game these ‘protect the idiot’ style missions really do become the gaming equivalent of someone scraping their nails across a blackboard, though, and you begin to loathe the prospect of playing another one.

I haven’t played a proper Dynasty Warriors game, but have seen enough of them and played the likes of Hyrule Warriors to know that Dragon Quest Heroes seems to remove a bit of the strategy from the formula. This is very much an action RPG, with that ‘action’ italicised, embolded, underlined and put inside <blink> tags. You do have to consider the placement of monster minions (friendly creatures you can summon to your side) and how you move around the battlefield, but by and large it’s all about the fighting.

And sometimes, that simplicity is a good thing.

Dragon Quest Heroes isn’t the kind of game that will change your life. It is, however, fun to play and an extremely diverting use of your time.

On… The Last of Us (and Left Behind)

Warning: Some spoilers for The Last of Us and its DLC Left Behind below!

A mere three years after buying it, I’ve finally got around to completing The Last of Us. Since its original PS3 release in 2014, this has widely been held up as a masterpiece of a video game; a high-water-mark in interactive storytelling. So, what did I think of it? Well…

In short, this title deserves all the praise it gets. I’ve been playing video games for longer than I care to remember, and never have I seen such a brilliantly-realised story and group of characters. Set in a United States ravaged by a fungal infection that turns people into zombies in all but name, The Last of Us rises above the somewhat pulpy background and shows us a world not so much dying as gone beyond the control of man. This is a harsh world, filled with people who have had their humanity stripped from them by circumstance and the need to survive. Everything feeds into this, from the visceral combat that is miles away from its Hollywood-style counterpart in developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, to the brutality of the art direction.

You never feel comfortable in the world of The Last of Us. Even in quieter moments, there is a sense that there is some horror behind the next corner. This isn’t a game reliant on jump scares or ghastly monsters to instil disquiet; this is much more about controlled atmosphere and wonderful pacing.

“You know, Ellie, we really are the last of us.”

Really, it’s the characters that bring The Last of Us to life. The burgeoning relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, is so believable and coupled with so much emotional investment that you find yourself oddly distraught in those moments when you fall to a group of infected. Who will look after Ellie now? Thankfully, we don’t have to worry too much as game overs just restart you at the last checkpoint.

Joel isn’t a typical hero. In fact, without spoiling too much of the storyline, he isn’t really a hero at all. He’s a man haunted by his past and shaped into a blunt instrument by the world around him. As a father, it’s easy to identify with the pain he goes through and the choices he makes, leading you to question your own morality.

Ellie, 14 years old at the start, is probably the most wonderfully realised character in any video game to this point. She has known no world other than the post-epidemic one, but yet still sees things with the hope and optimism of youth. The game is really about her journey, even though the majority of the playtime is with Joel, both in a physical sense and an emotional one. Her reactions to the world, in cut-scenes and during gameplay, are so believable that sometimes it’s difficult to remember that she’s only an interactive, scripted character. She seems so real at times, and as a player you develop a palpable need to protect her. I defy anyone not to feel even the slightest of lip quivers the first time Joel calls her ‘baby girl’.

I went into The Last of Us expecting this to be a better story than a game. Whilst there’s no doubt that the narrative would work as a movie (given some appropriate trimming) or TV series, what Naughty Dog have managed to do is take advantage of the immersion you can only get with a video game to help raise The Last of Us above the level of an interactive film. By taking part in the events of the game, you truly feel involved in what’s happening, despite the fact that this isn’t an open-ended RPG with moral choices. The game is linear, but never really feels it. There’s a lot of being funneled down different corridors (in the literal and metaphorical senses) but, for the most part, you never feel confined.

I have to admit that it isn’t always an enjoyable game. This isn’t a title you can relax or unwind with, and the events that occur within it are emotionally exhausting at times. The world is a nasty one, punctuated by only a few moments of sunlight, and the people within it are often brutal. It’s telling, really, that for a game ostensibly featuring ‘zombies’, the real enemies come in the form of normal people. So, no, don’t go into this expecting an easy time of it; I also mean that in a gameplay sense, as even on lower difficulty settings this can be a tough game.

Look at how realistic that water is. Look at it!

Left Behind, bundled with the game in the remastered version I played, is a companion DLC that both fills in a gap in the main storyline and also provides something of a prequel to Ellie’s story in it. I won’t go into this too much, except to say that it is fantastic. In many ways, this might be better than the main game, though it can’t really be played in isolation. The running length is quite short: I completed it in around two hours. This is perfect, however; it really benefits from playing in a single sitting. The story it tells has no less impact than that of the main game, even though it does it in a fraction of the time. By focusing on a younger Ellie as well, it also allows you to explore the world more through the eyes of a young adult and, as such, has in places a lighter tone that contrasts well with the main storyline. The only slight criticism you could throw at it is that the relatively few combat sections feel just a bit forced. I’m not sure that they were needed, though I can understand why it was felt that they probably should be included.

The Last of Us, then, is magnificent. Not, perhaps, a game that you would find yourself replaying often, but one that I imagine will resonate in the mind for a long time to come.

On… Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Deux Ex: Mankind Divided.

Adam Jensen, antagonist of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this it’s sequel, is cool. He looks cool, what with his black trench coat, carbon-fibre death arms and beard so pointy you could cut glass with it. He sounds cool, too, with his delivery drier than the surface of Mars. In fact, he’s probably a bit too cool for his own good, as he often comes across as more an impartial observer of humanity than someone invested in it.

Maybe that’s deliberate: a comment perhaps on how Jensen, augmented with so many cybernetic implants that he’s got more physically in common with a toaster than you or I, has had a portion of his humanity taken away. Or perhaps it’s a way of providing players with a cipher that doesn’t attempt to stamp too much personality onto proceedings.

Whatever the reasoning (if there is one), Jensen’s attitude highlights one of the main problems with Mankind Divided, which otherwise does so much to fix the problems of Human Revolution and emphasise what it did right. On the positive side, this is a game that excels in providing player agency and freedom to make progress the way you want to. Pretty much every scenario in the game has multiple routes to completion. The more gung-ho of us can rattle through the levels obliterating opponents with a mixture of gunfire and augment-enhanced melee, whilst those more inclined to a sneaky-sneakster approach can hide in air vents, surprising enemies with a whack to the head or a tranquiliser dart between the eyes. Where Mankind Divided really shines is not just with the sheer number of options available, but how easily you can shift your strategy as scenarios change. Whilst the AI isn’t always wholly convincing, it does a decent job and the gameplay is the most emergent I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid V. This is no Assassin’s Creed with it’s multiple black-and-white fail-states.

You can tell it's a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.
You can tell it’s a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.

Presentation-wise, MD is also top-notch. The central hub city – Prague – is a beautifully rendered environment, with differing day-and-night states, complete with fantastic lighting effects. Several of the other levels also contain vistas that are worth just sitting back and looking at for a good few minutes. Character models are an improvement on Human Revolution, if still not quite first-class, and the various interface elements of the game are clean, crisp and with a consistent design motif.

Where Mankind Divided falls down is with its plot and the disconnect between game and narrative. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is one of those terms that gamers like to bandy about a lot, mainly because it sounds quite intelligent, and is often applied to titles such as Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s Hollywood-hero aesthetic in cut-scenes fails to mesh convincingly with his crazed-gun-man approach to combat encounters. Here the problem is that Deus Ex provides a world that is realistic, but where the actions of most players won’t be. My first instinct, for instance, when leaving Jensen’s apartment at the beginning of the game was to try and break into everyone else’s rooms in the building. Entering the top-secret Interpol headquarters, before going to my mission objective I preferred to wander around hacking people’s computers whilst they stood about ten feet away. Of course, you can argue that these were my play choices, but by allowing you the freedom to do these things and effectively incentivising them with XP rewards and consumables, the game is pushing you towards actions that don’t sit well with the narrative.

The plot also doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts off quite strong, with Jensen thrown into the middle of a conspiracy and then a terrorist attack, but following this it takes a while to get going again and then, when it does, it pretty much ends without much of a coda. I came away with the distinct feeling that I was missing not just the final chapter, but a whole volume. Perhaps this will come in DLC, though I can’t help but think the amount of story remaining really requires a whole new game.

Much has been made elsewhere of the political overtones of the game, in particular the segregation the narrative presents between augmented and ‘natural’ humans. This didn’t overly bother me, though at times it did seem to be laid on a little thick. Possibly the worst crime the game commits with regards to this is that it doesn’t provide a great deal of commentary to it; arguably this is down to the game’s primary aim to offer you as much agency as possible, but it does still come across as a bit empty.

Despite these nagging issues with the narrative, this is still most definitely a game worth playing. The sheer number of ways to play compensate somewhat for the relatively short length, and the top-notch presentation demonstrate that this is a game that’s had a lot of money spent on it.

Plus, Adam Jensen’s beard is cool.

Great Jensen's beard!
Great Jensen’s beard!

On… The Witcher 3 DLC

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: the DLC for The Witcher 3 is the best example of the form I’ve ever seen. There have been some good pieces of add-on content in the past (Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker, ME3: Citadel, Oblivion: Shivering Isles, etc.) but they are all trampled into the Velen mud by what CD Projekt Red have produced here.

Beware if you wish to read further: spoilers for the main Witcher 3 campaign as well as Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine are contained herein.

Released late last year, Hearts of Stone was the first major piece of DLC and features around 10-15 hours worth of content. At first glance it might seem slightly uninspiring, not least of all because there’s no new area to explore. Well, actually that’s a bit of a lie: the expansion does provide new parts of Velen to traipse around in, but there’s no new ‘whole’ map area as such.

What makes HoS so fantastic though is its storyline. Whilst there are, as you would expect, a number of various sub-quests, the main meat of the package concerns Geralt’s encounters with Gaunter O’Dimm. Rather cleverly, this is a character who initially appeared right at the start of the main campaign in a role so subtle that most people (myself included) would have forgotten about it until reminded by the DLC. The character of Gaunter is fascinating – his exact nature never truly revealed, but there are hints enough that he is an incarnation of evil. Your slow re-introduction to him takes place over a series of quests, initially focusing around new character Olgierd von Everec. To begin with, Olgierd seems to be the antagonist, but it soon becomes apparent that instead he’s something of a sympathetic character, drawn too deep into a situation he can no longer control.

HoS in many ways makes for a better campaign than the Wild Hunt itself did: it has the advantage of taking place over a smaller scale, and thus becomes much more involving for the player. Whilst Wild Hunt was very, very good, the need for it to take in the political machinations of Nilfgaard and Redania (amongst others) often lent it a layer of abstraction. HoS has none of this, really, and instead focuses on a small set of characters whose motivations and actions you come to know intimately. Indeed, the most memorable parts of the DLC are perhaps those that deal with the smallest matters. The wedding scene, for instance, wickedly subverts expectations set by the main campaign and external touch-points like Game of Thrones by being pretty much uneventful. Yet it stays with you because of the wonderful character development it employs, plus a fair amount of humour.

By the time HoS ends you have a completely different view of the world it presented than you did when it started, and that’s much to its credit. The character of O’Dimm will stick long in the mind, his cavalier ambivalence and macabre wit making for one of the best villains I think I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Touissant, not in Arizona.
Touissant, not in Arizona.

The second expansion, Blood and Wine, is a different beast. It’s hard to guage the ‘size’ of it, as mileage can vary, but to me it felt a good two-and-half times as big as HoS. This also adds a new map area, the southern duchy of Touissant. A rich, vibrant land with more than a hint of the Mediterranean about it, Touissant is an area vastly different to the war-torn Velen and the beautiful but harsh Skellige.

Due to the nature of the Wild Hunt’s main storyline, Blood and Wine by necessity needs to take place before the former’s conclusion. Thematically, however, the expansion is very much a coda to Geralt’s adventures. I’d suggest, in fact, if you buy the whole game packaged complete with the DLC, that you finish the main story first before tackling this. Not because of any difficulty issues (although the enemies here are tougher than most in the main game), but simply because the story works better.

Ostensibly, the main plot-line concerns a vampiric beast stalking the duchy, murdering a seemingly unconnected group of nobles. As the story builds, though, it touches more obviously on the topics of home, family and belonging. There is a wondrous juxtaposition between the traditional Geralt, perennial outcast, and the homestead vineyard that he acquires and potentially builds up over the course of the expansion. Additionally, whilst the Witcher series has always been in some ways a dark counterpoint to more traditional high-fantasy fare, here the inversions of tropes are laid bare. Towards the end of the expansion’s main story there’s a wonderful segment where Geralt enters a fairytale world, at first glance seeming peaceful before rapidly showing its corrupted side. Seeing Geralt take part in a dark (well, darker I guess) version of Little Red Riding Hood is a complete joy.

BaW is a campaign that deals with endings, of a sort. Whilst none of us can lay claim to living the life of a Witcher, the questions the game asks regarding where we wish to settle, literally and figuratively, are ones we can all empathise with. At its conclusion you feel as if Geralt’s story is complete. Okay – there could be extra adventures put in if needed – but all the pieces of the jigsaw have been put into place.

Narrative aside, BaW astounds as well because of the sheer generosity of the content it offers. At £15.99, the expansion contains more hours of gaming than most standalone, full-price titles. There are sub-quests galore, additions to character development, new gear sets, and so on. Also, it looks absolutely amazing.

I mean, seriously, it's lovely, isn't it?
I mean, seriously, it’s lovely, isn’t it?

All of this gushing probably makes it obvious that I can’t recommend Witcher 3’s DLC sets highly enough. They take everything that was great about the main game and simultaneously condense it whilst expanding on it. The only word of warning I would give is that, given the length of the main campaign and the DLC, it might not be a good idea to attempt it all in one go, for fear of burning out. I took a break of several months between finishing the main game and approaching both DLCs, and at the end of Blood and Wine I did almost wish I’d had an extra hiatus before it. Still, it seems rather petty to complain about having too much.

The addition of Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine probably make The Witcher 3 the best computer RPG ever. I’ll admit it’s not my favourite (Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate II top it), but as an achievement of narrative, technology and scope it is, quite simple, untouchable.