Offering a more serious approach to Ace Attorney's courtroom battles, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles still offers a host of colourful characters and unlikely methodologies, but comes across as a very different game overall, for both good and bad. Thanks to Ace Attorney's brilliant localisation, The Great Ace Attorney's setup feels like a joke you have to explain to people: your protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo is supposed to be an ancestor of Phoenix Wright, who's originally named Ryuichi Naruhodo. The rename exemplifies a problem that up until very recently wasn't uncommon for Japanese media; the belief that a Japanese work's cultural connotations could confuse or overwhelm western audiences unless adopted as something else. It's a reason that's been used for not localising certain Shin Megami Tensei or Yakuza games, too.
The localisation made Ace Attorney in the west its own cultural product, amping up the silliness with punny names and references to western culture, but The Great Ace Attorney is a decidedly Japanese duology (some characters have still been renamed for that extra bit of punny goodness). It's set in the Japanese Meiji period, or the British Victorian era, a time of pivotal importance to both countries, and I see both games as comment on that time in history, rather than a collection of increasingly dramatic court cases.
Circumstances of the first case thrust the hapless Ryunosuke into the limelight, suddenly required to defend himself in court. You learn all the mechanics of previous Ace Attorney games - you listen to witness testimonies, followed by a cross-examination. During the cross-examination, you can ask witnesses to elaborate on a statement by pressing them on it, potentially gleaning new information in the process. Your court record holds all your current evidence, and once you spot a statement that's inconsistent with the evidence, you present it with the famous shout of "Objection!"
Tokyo is the largest city on the planet, and for my first few trips there, it also felt like the busiest. I mean busiest in the sense of the sheer amount of visual information that lives around you when you walk around Shibuya: signs, screens, lettering, graffiti, municipal mascots. It's a complete delight to take in - maximalist and overwhelming. I'm sure it settles down the longer you spend there, but I've always been in and out. In a way, I don't want it to settle down. And it's this kind of thing that NEO: The World Ends With You is so brilliant at capturing.
The sequel to a glorious DS oddity, Neo is another RPG set in the Shibuya area of Tokyo, fanning out from the iconic Scramble Crossing to take in skyscrapers, crooked shopping lanes, freeway underpasses and much more. Tokyo, a certain kind of Tokyo; this city is vast and multifaceted, is captured in its hectic splendour. This is the same turf that Jet Set Radio explored - at times you can recognise the paving or the cant of a famous building - and it's the same emotional territory too: a world of teens and fashion and brands and shopping and friendship and phone messages and pop culture references.
But that maximalist visual onslaught! You get it twice, I reckon: firstly as you navigate the streets where the game's story and missions play out, and secondly when you're battling - the part of the game where its fiery soul lives. Where to look! The first game on DS had you air-hockeying your attention between the top screen and the bottom as you controlled different fighters with different input methods - button taps on one, stylus swipes on the other - and took on a variety of tattooed frogs and hawks and other wildlife. Neo keeps a lot of this in play. A lot of the enemies are familiar, particularly upfront, and a lot of the attacks you collect and level up, delivered in the form of pin badges, have come across from the earlier game too. But no two screens. No stylus. What to do? Where to look?
Chernobylite may look like it's a cheeki breeki away from being a full-on S.T.A.L.K.E.R tribute act, but The Farm 51's shooter isn't quite a retread of irradiated ground. While aesthetically the two games are interchangeable, sharing core stylistic motifs like mutants, anomalies, oppressive weather, and a certain nuclear power plant that had a bit of a mishap in April 1986, structurally they've mutated in quite different ways.
Where Stalker uses a now-familiar open-word shooter template, Chernobylite has more in common with Metal Gear Solid 5. Its semi-open world is split into several locations that you revisit frequently, environments and enemies evolve over time, and the whole experience is threaded together with an extensive base-building metagame. It's an unusual structure, and it's simultaneously Chernobylite's most interesting feature and the source of all its flaws.
You play as Igor Khymynyuk, a physicist who was employed at the Chernobyl NPP at the time of the disaster on the 26th of April 1986. Also present was Igor's wife, Tatyana, who vanished on the night of the catastrophe. Fast-forward 30 years, and Igor returns to the Exclusion Zone to search for Tatyana after he begins to see visions of her in and around the power plant.
The Ascent teems. Its tiered alien megacity is one of the liveliest cyberpunk settings I've explored, always crawling with people and machines, whether you're massacring mutants in the sewers or gazing out from a boardroom window. Admittedly, it also teems with cliches and callouts to the usual canonical works: William Gibson's phrase "high tech, low life", which flickers on displays throughout like a sorcerer's incantation; Blade Runner's flourescent umbrella handles and melancholy synth score; pirouetting holostrippers from any number of seedy sci-fi saloons; an Oriental faction who worship honour and wield katanas. This is not one of your transgressive, norm-busting punk fictions - even Ruiner, its closest cousin, is a bolt from the blue by comparison. But what The Ascent's world lacks in imagination and bite it almost makes up for in scale and an exhaustive, toymaker's commitment to the fine details.
Take the shops. It's probably the lockdown talking, but I want to live in them. Seriously, you never saw such shops! Armouries fringed by spinning, wireframe weapons. Soylent-green pharmacies and 24 hour kiosks with the fading aura of an impending hangover. Fortified holes-in-the-wall staffed by philosophical robots. Open air markets of steam, textile and clanking metal. Each store is a delicate little treasure box, the lid peeling away when you step inside - neatly patterned with wares, like chips filling a circuit board. And how about that lighting? Polluted, gauzy, shifting, overwhelming. The arcology's hub districts are a battle royale of adboards and Hangul script, a chaos of screens and reflections filtered through smog, the interweaving paths of delivery drones and the shuffling bodies of hundreds of weary NPCs. It's easy to get lost, even when following the breadcrumb trail laid out by the HUD, and I don't mind one bit. The Ascent's city is catnip for digital flâneurs. It craves to be idled in.
The elevated diagonal perspective does a lot of work here, producing a landscape of corners that split the setting into lush, contrasting arrangements of colours and textures. There's a base level of visual fascination to the way floor patterns and buildings map to, or tug against the axes of shooting and exploration suggested by the quasi-isometric viewpoint. The vertical city premise is a bit sleight-of-hand: the world is functionally a series of flat planes linked by loading transitions, one that doesn't even see the need for a jump button. But the game ably cultivates the impression of colossal depth. Chance gaps and reinforced glass floors offer giddy views of hovercars slicing through disorderly canyons of tenements and factories, hundreds of metres beneath. Some of these depths can be accessed by elevator or floating platform - transitions reminiscent of Abe's Oddysee's fore-to-background shifts - but enormous effort has been spent bringing life to places that can't be reached. You'll spot showers of sparks from droids fixing the flanks of walkways, and balconies stuffed with party-goers, just above the navigable plane.
I keep coming back to rhythm with games like this. Rhythm's always had a part to play in action games, where good combat is a dance, and bad a little out-of-step. It's all in the one, two, dodge, the little passive mental counter ticking over from that boss' second smash to the third, the half a beat between the third and the jump.
So it is with Death's Door, a sumptuously beautiful Zelda-like about the immutable beat of time, the rhythm of life and death. Except there's something else, hard to place, that seems to give it something extra. Death's Door has something, like a flavour that maybe isn't actually a flavour, more of a sensation. Umami. What's the umami of dance?
Acid Nerve's last game was Titan Souls, which came out way back in 2015. Titan Souls is one of those games that's all about simplicity - you get one arrow, you die in one hit, you have a world to explore and quite a few bosses to kill, off you go. Its cleverness is the classic indie creative cleverness, where you give yourself an arbitrary restriction to keep things focused, keep the concept pure, and then you just build outwards from there. And it's important context here, because build outwards from Titan Souls and you'll arrive more or less exactly at Death's Door, a game with no restrictions but plenty of restraint. Bosses, combat, a mysterious overworld, some lightly puzzling environments - the totality of the first is the foundation of the next, and so the impression is one of clarity: as a studio, Acid Nerve comes across as having a clear plan, a clear trajectory, but then as a result of that so do its games.
Monday morning I went surfing across a rounded hill of snow, threading a series of large stone hoops together. The hoops were set in the ground, so they resembled arches, and as I moved through each one a light on top of it shone the way towards the next in the sequence. Flap of cloth, rush of wind: the world knew I was there. The final arch lit up a magical panel on a piece of rock - a large piece of rock, I would discover, but it seemed a tiny thing in the distance. I squinted at the rock and saw movement. Getting closer I realised that a mechanism had been triggered, and a strange, invisible force was now picking and placing platforms of stone across the empty air of a nearby chasm, a pathway created for me with the lazy ease of a stranger dealing cards.
Lots of people I've spoken to about Omno recently have told me it looks a bit like Journey or those sorts of games. Empty spaces, just you and the environment, sweeping soundtracks and the various distant cries of carefully arranged nature. Epiphany and a decent light show as your reward for hitting your marks and moving forward. When I look at that opening anecdote I've just written about, it even sounds a bit like Journey or those sorts of games. You can surf over the ground, angling between arches. Magical panels and ancient rock!
Weirdly, as I actually played Omno, I never thought of those kinds of games at all. What did I think about? Omno is a whispering thrill of a game, a dazed afternoon spread out on the soft green grass beneath a tree. The sun is shining, the wind is playful and pleasant, everything feels rich with a gentle sense of potential. You play a friendly sort of character with a staff in your hand and a head that looks a bit like a bulb of garlic. Over the course of the game, you travel across beautiful lands, solving simple puzzles to progress from one area to the next, reading glyphs and learning more of an enigmatic story, and encountering wildlife large and small. There is no combat. There is no story, if you choose not to engage with it. Just spaces and things to do in them. Marry me!
For nearly six months, Nvidia's $329/£299 RTX 3060 has stood alone as the only next-gen graphics card targeting 1080p gaming - the most popular monitor resolution and one that accounts for 67 percent of displays, if the Steam hardware survey is to be believed. Now, AMD has a next-gen 1080p card of its own in the form of the RX 6600 XT, a $379/£329 option that costs $100/£90 less than the previous most affordable RDNA 2 graphics card, the RX 6700 XT.
With a $50/£30 price premium over the RTX 3060, Team Red will be looking to offer demonstrably better performance in most titles, while narrowing the gap in games that use hardware-accelerated ray tracing - a weakness for AMD this generation. The $399/£369 RTX 3060 Ti is also dangerously close to AMD's new GPU, so we'll have to see how these two graphics cards compare as well.
Looking to pick up a new GPU? We've rounded up where to buy the RX 6600 XT in the US and UK here.
Ideology's always been a part of grand, 4X strategy games. It's there in the specific, overt kind of way, as in: turning the "authoritarianism" dial up or down on your empire's ideology screen. And it's also in the layer behind that, ideology as in the ideology of the developer, the thought process, the reasoning, the thing that informs all that, which they may not even be aware of - why they went for an authoritarianism dial in the first place and why it works the way it does.
Say "ideology" too much and you start sounding like Slavoj Žižek stuck on a loop, so I'll move on. The point is in Humankind, the new, Civilization-style historical grand strategy from Endless Legend and Space developer Amplitude, capital-I ideology is handled smartly in a kind of consequential, sliding scale system, and the considered little-I ideology of the developer is regularly felt. Amplitude has wanted to make a game like this since the day it was founded, I'm told, and a desire to do things right, whatever right may be, is front and centre. Regardless of the outcome, I love it for that.
Everything else aside, Humankind plays like the most considered, most philosophical, most historically authentic (if not accurate, obviously) game of its kind. It plays like a group of very intelligent people have sat down in a room together and really thought about doing things in the most true-to-life way possible. In many ways that makes it the 4X game I've always wanted, the one that's systems work in a broadly similar manner to the way they do here in the real world, that's history is aligned, systemically, with actual humankind's. The only problem is having played it now, I'm not sure I actually want that anymore.
Time loop mysteries are enduringly popular - 12 Minutes isn't even the only game featuring a time loop this year, but it sure is the closest to Groundhog Day, that most famous of time loop tales. It wears developer Luis Antonio's love for other forms of storytelling on its sleeve in more ways than that - in the opening sequence, you walk across the hall on the carpet from The Shining, while the set-up feels like a one-room play or, to acknowledge Antonio's love for Hitchcock, like the 1948 "limited-setting" thriller Rope, which takes place entirely in one apartment, just like the game.
It all starts when your character, a nameless man (James McAvoy), comes home from work to the miniscule apartment he shares with his wife (Daisy Ridley). The two have just settled down for a quiet evening together, when a policeman (Wilem Dafoe) burst into their home, and accuses the wife of murder. If you try to interrupt, he knocks you out.
That's how you discover you're in a time loop - from the moment of your mysterious resurrection, you're unable to leave the apartment, and guaranteed to become the perpetual punching bag for someone who's having a very bad day. If you try to fight back, he kills you. If he doesn't get what he wants in the time frame he wants it in, he also kills you. So you begin hunting down what he's looking for - a valuable piece of evidence.
You never just drop a brewery somewhere. No-no-no. Not at first, anyway. At first, you should take it for a walk.
Or rather, you should take it skating. I like to grab a brewery and sort of skim it over the landscape, like a skater describing dreamy arcs on the surface of a frozen pond. It's capitalism - it's potentially even empire-building - but at this stage it's also speculative, a quiet thing of drooped eyelids and keen hearing. You are waiting for the land to speak to you. You are waiting for the land to tell you where the brewery should best be placed.
Ultimately, I like to think of these early stages of Islanders, a city-building game like no other, as if I am dowsing. But that thought journey seems important in itself. Walking, skating, listening, dowsing: this is one of those magical games that is broad enough to be absolutely about what it claims to be about - building civilisations on a series of lonely islands - but can also serve as an analogy for numerous other things. How best to store different teas in a cupboard. How to entertain fractious kids of a long holiday. How to formulate an argument with rigour and a certain kindness, a certain willingness to have your mind changed by something you subsequently learn. (Granted, I was having a pretty cosmic playthrough when this one occurred.) What could be nicer?
Not America, but Petria. Not now, but 1996, a world of cassette tapes to collect, and a place where a story of politics and the masses, and multiple moving parts, can unfold without the awkward intervention of social media. Highways and motels and fast-food joints and cable TV stars.
And yet, this imperfect world showed me at least one perfect place. Early on along life's journey, a desert campsite under the stars, hundreds and thousands of them, blown sugar scattering across the huge glowing sky. The landscape above seemed lit from within. Beneath, fires burning and campers herded up close. A path threading through the vans to a dancing man and a stack of cardboard. I slept for a bit and then went to join a fellow traveller sat on a perch overlooking the whole thing. We played the trombone and were then asked to move on. It was three in the morning, I guess.
A lovely place. I could have stayed there for hours. But that's the point of Road 96: it's a narrative game of scenes and encounters and conversations, but you're always moving. Petria in 1996 is home to an all but totalitarian regime perched on the edge of a fiery election. It's the kind of place where discourse has curdled and where teens are more likely to want to flee for the border - where there's a wall, obviously - than stick around to see what the next government offers. You play a series of those teens, one after the other, making their way to the wall and encountering people along the way as they hitchhike, walk, steal cars, save up for cabs. Each new teen takes you back to the start geographically, a long way from the crossing once more, but the clock keeps ticking. Eventually, you get your last teen to the border and it's election day, and since this is a narrative game like Life is Strange, filled with choices large and small, the outcome is based on the story you didn't always know you were putting together in those scenes and encounters and conversations, the particular recipe it turned out you were following.
I played through the original Psychonauts properly for the first time this year. I've been trying to work out how it would feel to play it at release in 2005, at a horrible time in my life, long before I'd given any structured thought to things like trauma and depression. Would it have offered me any useful insight? I'm undecided. Psychonauts is a clever and caring game but it's hardly a coherent or clinical investigation of mental health, and nor does it claim to be. It's a witty and humanising reworking of clichés of madness and repression, a psychedelic 3D platformer in which you dive into brains and roam mental landscapes that range from Manchurian Candidate suburbia to Oedipal circuses of pulsing meat. With its twisty asylums and literal emotional baggage, it's far more surreal gothic comedy than educational fable. Still, I think 2005 me might have taken solace from its teachers: Sasha Nein and Milla Vodello and yes, even Coach Oleander, who place their all-too-fragile inner worlds at your disposal so that you can hone your skills as a budding psychic agent.
Rolling and bouncing around those brilliant stages, messing with Sasha's tightly-wound neural plumbing and visiting the house fire inside Milla's cerebral disco, I thought of how my own teachers had, in various ways, opened their minds to me, suffered my trampling questions and generally made themselves vulnerable so that I could learn. I don't want to suggest that this is everybody's experience of teaching, or being taught, or that there's no place in teaching for boundaries. But it's surely the kind of connection every teacher hopes to create, and plenty of game developers, too: here is the world of my experience. Spend time with me here and see what you can bring away. Having learned from these worlds, you're then in a position to restore them, helping the owner confront their personal demons and unpack buried truths. It's an idea carried forward into Psychonauts 2 - the same clever and caring game, but slicker, busier and with updated notions of mental health that reflect, not least, the crunch and burn-out of the original's development.
Psychonauts 2 begins just after the events of VR expandalone Rhombus of Ruin, with circus acrobat turned mind-diver Razputin Aquato joining the intern programme at Psychonauts HQ - an Epcot Centre-style hub where you'll find brains in hamster balls and a man haunted by visions of flying bacon. The first thing you do is hack the memories of one Dr Loboto, a character from the original who has links to a legendary psychic megavillain from decades past. The plot is about investigating said megavillain - who, shocker, may be more than a memory - and her relationship to the original founders of the Psychonauts, a collection of traumatised hippy Avengers whose brainscapes are all badly in need of a visit from the janitor.
While undoubtedly a triumph, Alien: Isolation never felt like a true Alien experience to me. Yes. Amanda Ripley is a badass and wholly worthy to carry her similarly badassed mother's name, but creeping around to avoid a single - and singularly terrifying - Alien, I never felt like a real Ripley. Tip-toeing from room to room, cramming myself into lockers to hyperventilate quietly until the monstrosity retreats again just makes me feel cowardly. It makes me feel too much like me.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite? With its gloriously gooey entrails, chunky gunplay, and plentiful frenzied fights, Aliens: Fireteam Elite does let me live out my power fantasies as Ripley - even if we technically have nothing to do with Ripley this time around.
Between us, I didn't expect that going in. The trailers and screenshots looked cool, if a touch generic, sure, but... well, we've been burnt by the Alien franchise before, right? And while Aliens: Fireteam Elite might lack longevity - I can't see many of us sticking around for long after the four-six-ish hours of the main campaign are done, no matter how many different Challenge Cards we apply to spice things up a bit - there's no denying that those four hours are bloody good fun. Literally.
In one of the many, many, many fourth-wall breaking interludes in No More Heroes 3, series star Travis Touchdown guests on a TV show to discuss his deep love and appreciation for the work of Takashi Miike, Japanese cinema's most prolific, varied and plain wildest of directors. It's another self-indulgent pop culture reference in a series that's awash with them, but there's something different here - the sense that series creator Goichi Suda aligns himself somewhat with Miike.
It's something underlined when Travis goes into an extended rant about how a director like Miike - a man whose most notorious film has its opening title spelled out in a splash of semen - went on to create the idol series Girl x Heroines in order to strengthen his production crew. It's something Suda himself did with Travis Strikes Again, the stripped back spin-off he used to educate his young team before they set to work on a No More Heroes game proper.
I detested that particular game for leaning into the excesses of the series while lacking so much of its style, and yet here I am absolutely adoring No More Heroes 3. So what's changed? Well, it helps that this is a proper No More Heroes game, returning to the over-the-shoulder action that sees Travis scythe through small mobs and tackle screen-filling bosses. It's even more of a No More Heroes game than 2010's sequel, with the open world sections that were excised for No More Heroes 2 restored, and with some style too.
I was incredibly annoyed when 2019 arrived. In fact, I've been annoyed ever since. It's not that I'm the most well-informed K-pop fan by any means, but I did immediately recognise the charm of then-new boy band Verivery with their 90s throwback single "Ring Ring Ring". The bright colours, random shapes and yo-yos transported me back to my youth. Unfortunately, very few others have come along for the journey back to the era of California Dreams and The Battle of Seattle, but I imagine many more will jump towards that same magical time period presented via The Big Con.
You play as Ali, a 17-year-old stuck helping her mum (sorry, "mom") out at the video rental store. Deep breath: before internet-based streaming and downloading, people used to buy - or simply rent - films on chunky, plastic video cassettes that were the size of a book. A cassette is a thing that stores data on a roll of thin magnetic tape. They were a pain in the ass. Phew. Unfortunately, while your friends and classmates are all busy with much more interesting summer plans, your mom is sending you off to band camp for a fortnight so you can fulfil her wishes of becoming a famous trombonist.
Unfortunately, again, just before you're set to go, you overhear your mom dealing with loan sharks who are urgently wanting their money back, or else it'll be goodbye to Linda's video shop. Despite the motherly assurances, Ali is so bummed out about what the future may hold by the time she returns from music camp.
What's that? Look closer. It's water: a little eruption of it, a hopping splash of droplets. With each building you place in Townscaper, each new disturbance on its flat ocean, you get a splash of water to go along with the brisk, genial popping sound as you press the button. Pop! A ripple on the surface. And onto the next one.
Townscaper is a simple thing, as simple and clear as the face of a wristwatch. But like the face of a wristwatch, it pulls you in, its own little universe for you to peer down at and ponder for who knows how long. This is a game-like toy, an art tool in which you create - and erase, if you wish - little towns, starting with a still stretch of water and ending with busy centres, suburbs, cathedrals, tower blocks, hamlets, burgs, you name it. One button to place a building, one to remove it. Zoom in, change the colours of the next blocks you put down, drop the whole thing out to white box to make it look truly sculptural, change the position of the sun, take a screenshot, tinker away some more.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting where someone stood up, took a deep breath, and pitched a first-person shooter with portals.
How would you go about convincing someone that the one thing missing from the recent crop of first-person shooters is the star of GLADoS' malevolent funhouse, the portal gun? Me, I don't think I'd even try - and I'm not sure anyone could have convinced me, either. Well. Until I actually sat down and played Splitgate, that is.
For what it's worth, there's a part of me that instinctively (read: stupidly) pushes back against fads and "viral" games. Despite developing the gaming tastes of a 12-year-old in my latter years (all I want to do these days is shoot stuff and watch things explode), Splitgate's marriage of FPS and portals seemed gimmicky - maybe even a touch gauche. After several merry hours with it, however, I can confidently confirm that the hyperbole is not hyperbole at all: Splitgate is astonishingly good fun.
WarioWare has always been the home of proper videogame panic. I mean that in a good way, I think. Tiny games that come at you from all angles, one after another. Read the instruction. Understand the instruction. Navigate the bizarre art. Win the game. Do it all over again. Quicker! Trickier! Chop the carrots! Catch the toast! Shave the eyebrow! Not that eyebrow! Augh!
Ever since the first game, back on the GBA, this is a series that has pared all of gaming history down to the simplest and most satisfying of interactions. That sounds pretty straightforward! But it's also thrown these interactions at you with a relentless pace. And so there is a giddy kind of panic that I only experience when I'm playing WarioWare. Playing it is a bit like getting your coat stuck in a train door as it's pulling away from the platform It's a game that you have to race to keep up with.
This is doubly true of WarioWare: Get It Together! Wario games often have their design agenda set for them by Nintendo's new hardware. That was definitely the case for outings on the DS and the Wii U. So Get it Together looks at the Switch and thinks of all those early lifestyle ads of people playing Mario Kart by rooftop bars or filling the back row of a bus for a quick blast of competitive Tetris. This is a really social spin on WarioWare - even, intriguingly, if you're playing by yourself.
The term 'anime' covers all sorts of sins. Just thinking about the word might bring to mind the humanity-ending crisis and depressive episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or something entirely at the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum like Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? Tales of Arise feels like it's drawing from just about every point of the expansive anime visage.
Bandai Namco's latest anime-aesthetic adventure starts out in the 'serious' section of the anime universe. Tales of Arise is a story about an enslaved race of people, who slowly learn to pick up arms and fight back against the oppressors who've held a vice-like grip around their throats for over three centuries. The Dahnans have been made to suffer unimaginable horrors under the rule of the Renans, who hail from a technologically-advanced world and will stop at nothing to drain this planet's resources and its people for all they're worth, and the action-RPG isn't shying away from studying the exploitation and loss of self that takes hold under slavery.
As the 17th entry in the Tales franchise, Bandai Namco's series has seen more releases in less time than Square Enix's Final Fantasy saga. Still, Tales has never quite risen to such highs worldwide, occupying a more cult-like following compared to the blockbuster successes of the aforementioned series. Despite the rampant release schedule though, Tales of Arise is the first new entry since 2016's Berseria, and is generally viewed as a soft reboot for the series at large, attempting to find footing with a bigger audience than ever before, especially in the west.
Alex Chen arrives in the small Colorado town of Haven Springs to reconnect with her long-lost brother Gabe, after spending years separated from him in the social care system. She now harbours a secret - the power to read and experience other people's intense emotions - and a desperate hope this ability won't spill over unpredictably again. This is meant to be a fresh start, somewhere she can finally fit in and find a home. But tragedy soon strikes - Gabe is killed - and Alex must learn to accept herself and understand her power to discover what Haven Springs has really been hiding.
If all that sounds like classic Life is Strange, you'd be right, and if that's up your small-town Arcadia Bay-style main street, you'll similarly feel at home in Haven Springs. This is a Life is Strange game which has done its homework for what fans wanted and stuck somewhat rigidly to that list of requests. Queue up a charismatic but grounded young female protagonist, the ability to wield a special power yourself, and a return to a small community of characters you'll grow more familiar with as each chapter unfolds. There are clear advancements on show too, with some of the series' best dialogue and its most natural, nuanced on-screen performances to date thanks to stellar turns from the game's key players, plus developer Deck Nine's brilliant character animation.
True Colors also sees the return of fan-favourite Steph, from Deck Nine's top-notch Life is Strange prequel Before the Storm. Here, again, she steals scenes and hearts, now employed as Haven Springs' record store owner and resident radio DJ. Alex also quickly buddies up with Ryan, a soft-spoken local park ranger hunk and best friend of Gabe. Together, Ryan and Steph help investigate the circumstances of Gabe's death, and act as Alex's pair of possible love interests. Other characters in the town play supporting roles: Ryan's father, a revered local hero who gives Alex a room and a job; Gabe's grieving girlfriend who has a young child from a previous relationship; an older local businesswoman grappling with the onset of Alzheimer's; and her daughter whose asshole boyfriend is employed by the town's stereotypically-evil big corporation.
There's something weirdly comforting about repetitive jobs. We've all had one in some form, and the routine of it all can let your mind rest and go on autopilot. Now, some of them are truly horrible, and being a wage-slave is no form of "character building". But postal workers are clearly a different breed, their job being far from menial and of great societal importance, with plenty of surprise and variety possible each day - while somehow still getting all of those steps in.
In Lake, as Meredith Weiss, you have the help of your trusted delivery van to make the rounds. It's a third-person adventure narrative set at the end of the summer of 1986 in a leafy, sleepy village in Oregon, with, yep, a photogenic and peaceful lake at the centre of the community. Meredith, now in her 30s, is taking a short break from her busy city life by returning to her hometown for the first time in years. She's also decided to fill in her dad's postal service role while her parents are on a break of their own in Florida.
After meeting up with Frank, the local post office's manager, your first day begins. A handy clipboard and a friendly-sized map lets you know where the day's envelopes and parcels need to be. Driving around gives you the chance to soak up the serene and dream-like pocket-sized world you find yourself here in Providence Oaks. It also gives you a chance to meet some of the local residents, like the "crazy cat lady" Mildred Jenkins, who you're sure to bug in some way like I did by accident early on.
Deathloop is about killing the people who are killing time. Set in a kind of alternate 1970s that feels more like the far future of Dishonored's Gristol than part of Earth's history, it's a freeform, first-person mix of shooting, assassination, hacking and sorcery in which you wind and rewind a single day both to experiment with tools and manipulate targets such that you can massacre them all before darkness falls.
The lead is Colt Vahn, a hulking amnesiac who - shortly after being hacked to death by a mysterious woman - wakes on a time-locked Arctic island occupied by a hedonistic Bond movie organisation called AEON. To undo the rippling Anomaly keeping the island's never-ending murder-party in motion, Colt must slay the eight "Visionaries" who preside over four, separately loading areas, which also involves digging into the island's buried secrets, slaughtering no end of rank-and-file "Eternalists", and unravelling the riddle of his own presence. Amongst the Visionaries is Julianna, the aforesaid mystery lady, incorrigible nuisance-caller and the game's second playable character, who stars in a multiplayer mode where you invade the worlds of other Colts and kill them for unlocks.
What follows is a stylish, bloodthirsty and considerate reworking of ideas from Arkane's other games, which clears away a little of Dishonored's haughty perfectionism and grants you ample leeway to run amok. This is captured by the art direction, which retains Dishonored's brooding, salt-soaked shorelines but covers them with neon signboards, boutique low-poly statues and jaunty Space Age cabins - an upper cruster's carnival with heady overtones of Tarantino and Wolfenstein, perched atop the ruins of a much less forgiving game. I'm not sure it's Arkane's most adventurous or surprising work - for all the louder presentation, it sometimes pulls its punches. But it might be Arkane's most straightforwardly enjoyable game.
Toem sent me back to my phone, not for the internet and its hints and tips and workarounds, but for the folder that holds my photographs - back to the last few months of my life and a story I didn't realise I had been writing.
It's an odd kind of story, and fairly dull to an outsider, but squint and a narrative of sorts emerges. Snaps of LFT serial numbers and screenshots of train times for a trip to Margate. The tiled floor of a shelter down on the seafront where T.S. Eliot once sat and wrote "On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing." Later, a visit to the Shell Grotto - recommended, possibly essential - and then a series of pictures from the weeks after we got back: a sunflower our neighbour gave us in a new pot, outlines of the murky continent that appeared on the ceiling one weekend when the bathroom above was leaking. Blue sky throughout, people paused and posing for a few seconds to create something throwaway you can then look at for hours. A reminder that we were all in these moments, a reminder that time is moments when you slice it like this with a camera shutter. One picture next to another, the invitation, perhaps, to connect Something with...?
I love Toem. And I should warn you up front Toem has absolutely zero to do with T.S. Eliot. It's profound, in fact, due to its brave and lovable absence of anything that is remotely profound in and of itself. Toem! In a grayscale newsprint world you go on a short journey with a camera, travelling from one bus stop to the next. The pictures you take might solve conundrums for the characters you meet at each stop, and each conundrum solved gives you a stamp that allows you to steadily earn a ticket to the next stop. You travel, meet people, help them out, get a sense of each place and, crucially, move on at the end. And the lasting evidence you've done any of this lies with the roll of photos you've taken along the way.
With so much competition out there in the world of games, those first few attention-grabbing screenshots have maybe never been so important. Without wanting to sound cynical, Chinese developer Pixpil sure knew what they were doing in that regard - the first time I saw Eastward back in 2019 it immediately seared itself into my brain. A giant house, seemingly completely built out of driftwood, framed by nothing but the purest cerulean sky. There is so much detail to this one house - the discolouration of the wood, its crooked windows, boards sticking out left and right. Of course good visuals don't make a good game, and yet this attention to detail tells me so much about Eastward.
The story follows Sam, a small girl with a mane of white hair, and John, who looks a bit like a black Russian terrier - his face completely obscured by his fringe, the rest of his face taken up by his beard. John, who never so much as utters a word, took Sam in after she appeared in the underground community of Potcrock Isle out of nowhere. Even though they're very poor, they enjoy life together, until one day an apparition that looks just like her inspires Sam to break Potcrock's cardinal rule never to travel to the surface. They are expelled and put on a train to the surface. As it turns out, the surface is...mostly fine? But a dangerous substance called Miasma is an ever-present threat, and the reason John and Sam must move onwards rather than settling in the first place they find.
This straightforward setup takes several hours to unfold, because Pixpil made absolutely sure to thoroughly introduce you to John and Sam before sending you off with them. Combat is something of an afterthought and a last resort, because what person who walks around with a little girl would want to regularly get in danger? When the need arises however, John is handy with a small array of weapons - you start off with his trusty frying pan and a set of bombs, and gain a short-range shotgun and a flamethrower over the course of the first few chapters. It's a strange arsenal that sees you through this friendly post-apocalypse, borne of a world that's retained a few technologies and lost many others.
There's a new PlayStation 5 model on the market - a CFI-1100 series unit that replaces the launch model CFI-1000. I've already shared early impressions about the machine, finding that in all practical terms, there is no meaningful difference between PS5s old and new. However, questions remain about the decisions made in how Sony has delivered this new rendition of the PlayStation 5 and ultimately, if there really is any genuine difference between them, particularly in terms of longer-term implications. Crucially, if the cooling assembly has been the subject of a cost-reduction strategy, does the machine run hotter, and if it does, to what extent does that actually matter?
To assess the PlayStation 5 from all dimensions, I spent some time devising a series of performance tests for the console, comparing the new CFI-1100 model to a launch machine. This turned out to be somewhat more challenging than you might imagine because fundamentally, one of the biggest successes of the new wave of consoles is that game performance is generally excellent. Getting meaningful numbers is a case of isolating repeatable situations in a range of games where we can either unlock frame-rate, or bring about sustained drops beneath 60 frames per second. In theory, this testing should be entirely superfluous - because the whole point of a console is that all machines should run in exactly the same way. With that said, it occurred to me that PlayStation 5 does have a boost clock and while its implementation as described by Sony should ensure consistent results from one machine to the next, this has never been comprehensively tested. Meanwhile, some users erroneously believe the boost clock to be similar to a PC implementation, which does adjust frequencies according to temperatures - so why not put it to the test and put the whole matter to bed once and for all?
The second dimension to the testing comes down to the hardware make-up of the machine itself and after my initial report, I was approached by Steve Burke of Gamers Nexus to see about finding a machine for him to test. Gamers Nexus is renowned for the quality of its deep dive hardware analysis and nobody is more thorough in hardware testing, so I was happy to send on my unit - which Steve promptly stripped down to its barebones. The comprehensiveness of the work is such that even though other hardware reports have emerged since the original Austin Evans video that kicked off the controversy, Gamers Nexus' results are the most wide-ranging and exhaustive. I mean, Steve even created a 'Frankenconsole' PS5 to compare temperatures from the same board using both the original and revamped cooling assembly, eliminating potential differences caused by the silicon lottery (where no two chips that leave the production line are totally identical). In the process, we also learn more about the changes Sony made to the internals of the machine.