EGX Rezzed 2016 – Watchers and Wonders

I can’t believe how time has flown recently. As summer defiantly rushes on (the notion of No Man’s Sky frothily accompanying it no less), the past week has seen my first official event coverage as a journalist, planning regarding University, a whole lot of writing and one isolated occasion on which I was forced to flee for my life as a band of raucous NERF-ers hunted me down Hunger Games-style.

Figuratively, of course, for birthday occasions and death don’t usually mix unless you happen to be an orcish War Chief. But I wasn’t taking any chances. Outside the realms of FPS, my reflexes aren’t all that and I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I resorted to the mud-streaked army crawl on multiple occasions. I was, if nothing else, incredibly well camouflaged by the end.

Back to said event, however. 2016’s been called The Year of VR, and whilst it’s true that this year’s EGX Rezzed housed multiple titles propelling players into the multiverse of the headset, I’m not so sure virtual reality will take off immediately. Rezzed served as partial confirmation of that – highlighting the restrictions the VR headset still proposes with some still quite enthralling and interesting upcoming concepts in their own right.

The event comprised a slew of other promising fare too, though, and ranged from quaking-nostalgic throwbacks to haunting explorations, to pre-released games I wasn’t expecting to enjoy quite so much as I did.

So, in such spirit, I’ll be condensing (if that is the right word given my tangential tendencies) my thoughts into a list not unlike my Most Anticipated Games of 2016, the very first of which will follow shortly.

 

A Level Spiral – Games, Worry and Universe City

There is nothing quite so inconsiderate, inconvenient and immodestly defeating as worry. Countless hours lay tallied up before me, intermingled into the inevitable milestones and benchmarks of my, admittedly, young life- an accumulation more formidably impressive than any of my feverish hoardings across Fallout, The Witcher, and anything even remotely Elder Scrollsian. 

It’s often during these increasingly common moments of sudden awareness – of my irrational flittering like some crazed squirrel with only half an idea of what it really should be doing – that I can observe my attraction to gamerdom. At least partially, that is. Games aren’t always escapist

It’s true that this bothersome, frustratingly human affliction has been increasing recently, for a rather quite logical reason. In just over six months, I’ll be packing up my bags (more importantly everything related to handheld gaming), books and exactly thirty pairs of underpants to venture off to University, like the optimistic young duckling I am.

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And it is exciting, don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to an (well at least more of an) independent lifestyle to what I’m used to – and the prospect of embracing change is now coming as something of a pleasant eventuality, rather than the experience I’ve always associated with losing all my save data on a heavily invested RPG for the second time in six months. Such experiences must’ve hardened me for the outside world. Who said games could never contribute to one’s life?

But as looky-forward to-y it is, it’s also understandably nerve racking. It’s anxiety (often, anyhow) that can cause a person to get into something of an enormous rut. For me, anxiety breeds a desire for predictability, for everything to be nice and expectable, but the methods that often coincide with such pseudo-comfort is a secondary interpretation of feeling ‘trapped’. It’s manageable and predictable, even comfortable, but it’s not necessarily any more pleasant, especially when taken to extremes. And it’s funny that I’ve only now just noticed how much the precious elusivity of the game worlds I retreat into have helped surface that – until now – quite dormant tendency towards structure.

Settlement

It’d be a little rainy, but the reverberation would be stupendous.

Days have passed before now on which the sole itinerary was to subdivide my orchards by fruit and managing my bank account, of all things, on Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Not to mention the literal double-life I lived playing anything sprung from Todd Howard’s brilliantly open-world mind (the Bethesda director will be earning his Lifetime Achievement Award today, as it happens). Most recently, my penchant for all things steel in Fallout 4 has allowed me to build a seven-storey complex that I’m quite sure mimics what I will be staying in at The Ultimate Big School, except containing considerably less washing-up and a quite noticeably stronger aroma of pizza, dish-soap and breath. Not mine, of course. That would be unstudious, and wrong. 

But even in the midst of what can very easily become a timorous spiral into the realms of impending irrationalities and unlikely-likelihoods, it’s oddly my old linear friends that highlight the – in reality – equal opportunity for balance. Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Tomb Raider (both retro and contemporary greats) bring me as much joy in the present moment as they did when I first played them, and those times have always marked incredible periods of balance and contentment, despite various inevitable changes having been made in my life between the now and the then. Somehow they help bring back to light that despite the oncoming ‘Big Change’ (meaning neither the menopausal, nor lycanthropic change, but the moving from home), once it happens, once adjustment, admin and accommodation has been verily sorted out, balance will naturally restore itself. Sometimes it’s difficult to conceive of a better future in the midst of a panic attack, or a period of gloom, but much in contrast to the claims that gaming provides exclusively escape, my Playstation companions have rather encouraged a little more awareness; awareness that can help jog the ‘downward spiral’ to at least keep it level. A level spiral.

And I anticipate many of my regular homecomings will allow me to feel closer to my family than ever before. In addition to ‘separation makes the heart grow fonder etc’ aphorism, I’ll be able to connect with my parents more as an adult, rather than just their child. Because, naturally, I’ll be doing more grown uppy things to supplement my rampant endeavours betwixt the 3DS, PSVita and Steam whilst defiantly alcoved within the folds of some blanket fort or other outside study hours. Perhaps I’m getting fancifully overworked a bit. Blanket.

bill haverchuck

 And I’m sure each of my (what I’ll anticipate now as relatively regular) homecomings will prove times of great re-connection and unity, before I undoubtedly race into my bedroom on the insistence that no one should disturb me, as I engage in some long awaited me-time. Not what you might be thinking, of course, for that particular activity remains one of the most portable practices in the world today – and, might I add, more immersive than the HTC Vive rabidly claims to be.

No, I’ll be taking the DualShock 4 in my extensively textbooked hands after a lengthy separation due to having no television to accomodate it, and launching myself onto one of No Man’s Sky’s 18 quintillion planets, or unintentionally squashing, impaling, shooting, decapitating, drowning or otherwise irking poor Lara Croft as I discover the PS4’s version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. And it won’t be much different than now – except that I’ll get to sit on trains for a while longer and teach my less-than-technologically fluent mother the arcana of Skype.

There is of course the mindlessly hefty financial side to living away. Despite all Fallout 4 has taught me of late, shacking up in a network of cleverly linked tents outside the school accommodations for ‘economical reasons’ tends to be somewhat frowned upon, even in such places as a University. This is where simulator games like Animal Crossing, The Sims and even a production-sim game from yonks ago The Movies (created by none other than the recently shut down Lionhead Studios), come in. Budgets, structures and savings has always come naturally to me, and I wonder how much of that was encouraged by having grown up with these games. Images of stocky anthropomorphic animals, or the anxious protests of my sims as they fled from an unscheduled fire in their kitchen, certainly come to mind when I begin to think about money.

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Would now be a good time to mention that it was my aunt’s game save at the time?

But nevertheless, to one extent or another, they’ve prepared me, at least in an extremely elementary way, to be conscious about my various spendings and prospective irrationalities, so for their alleged contribution to that, I can only be grateful. As Sans of Undertale would probably say: All ’bout the determination, kid,

 

A Link Between Worlds – Possibly the Best Handheld Zelda Game

Zelda, as a whole, is a series I never seem to tire of. As noticeable, distinctive and overtly recognisable the games are, hearing the sprightly trills of The Lost Woods or the assertive jingle of a solved puzzle – no matter how many times I might’ve heard it – gets me as worked up as a caffeinated cucco. So much so, indeed, that I spent two years of my youth sipping beverages almost exclusively from a jar. But although my days of milk-sipping have passed, I look back on the Zelda franchise with an excitement that never appears to waver. Consequently, it’s games like A Link Between Worlds that reassure me that Nintendo are determined to keep the series fresh, and despite its ultimately nostalgic tone, this portable release trumped Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks for flair, character and novelty.

Link Between Worlds Zora Queen

It Knows How to Laugh

From the very beginning, it’s clear to see where Link Between Worlds’ allegiances lie. Overlooking a vibrant 3D rendition of Hyrule’s original design, visuals are the very first to surprise, with wry little nods to previous games surging beneath its newfangled surface. From the original Zelda soundtrack thundering along to your adventures to the unassuming Majora’s Mask hanging in your room, A Link Between Worlds is as just as in love with the series as its fans, whilst distancing itself enough to keep gameplay fresh and innovative.

The story revolves around the main antagonist Yuga, a warlock of amusing evil with a discernible penchant for classic art. After having transformed Link to the Past’s Seven Sages into Romanesque paintings, the revered Hero of Time is called upon once again to free them to defeat Yuga, and thwart his intent to reanimate the unmistakable Beast King, Ganon.

Despite his mostly top-down portrayal, Yuga maintains a scrumptiously wicked facade, and over my time with A Link Between Worlds, I found myself laughing aloud whenever the. It’s plain to see that Nintendo had had a more jovial tone in mind than to say, Majora’s Mask or Twilight Princess, and with campy humour on full-throttle, I found coming to Link Between Worlds from some of the darker or tenser games a positive breath of fresh air.

Link Between Worlds Yuga

It Tickles Your Nostalgia

The art style offers a refreshing contemporary spin on the original, top down Hyrule; something that roots A Link Between Worlds more with the original series than its Wind Waker-esque counterparts of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. As a result, Link Between Worlds felt more like a Zelda game than previous handheld titles – and it’s noticeably more memorable because of it.

Troutish Zora and galumphing moblins all make their reprise in Link Between Worlds, and in fully polygonal form. It’s a joy to watch the foes of my original conquests sprawling about in glorious 3D; even if lock-on and aiming issues still persist, and Link’s elegant, portrait form conjures warm memories of the sprite that housed his original Hylian spirit.

Even if you’re not into the series, it’s a game that represents a variety and ingenuity that first appealed in the Zelda games, allowing it to stand perfectly accessible to series newcomers. From generous pepperings of recognisable Teklites and Sandcrabs, to Hyrule castle’s portraits peering upon the origins of Link himself, A Link Between Worlds respectfully homages its own history, whilst proffering to newcomers a stylish looking-glass into the nostalgic history its ancestors created.

Link Between Worlds Ganon artwork

It’s as Freeing as a Nude Summer Walk

Amidst non-portable ravings over The Witcher 3’s rollicking exploration and Far Cry Primal’s paleolithic expanses, A Link Between Worlds evokes a similar freedom that’s rarely done so well in a handheld title. With no official markers or routes pointing the way, you’re left free to explore the luxurious stretches of Hyrule, adopting ample amounts of Link to the Past’s inquisitive charm.

This being said, this certainly isn’t a mere respectful reboot; the introduction of new systems and strategies invoke a remarkable freshness to A Link Between Worlds’ gameplay. You’re flippantly badgered by Ravio, a bunny-hooded salesman who offers a range of secondary weapons to use at your discretion. You can opt, fo 50 rupees, to rent an item, which must be re-rented once Link dies, or purchase it for upwards of 800. Whilst occasionally you might need to postpone your pursuit of illustrious potions to fund your rented inventory, rupees are abundant enough in Link Between Worlds to ensure the practice doesn’t become grindsome, and the eventual chance to buy a selection of weapons makes level traversal more varied, interesting and ultimately liberating than perhaps it ever has.

A Link Between Worlds’ main gimmick is the Merge mechanic. In this installment, Link can spiritually fuse with numerous walls in the game, allowing the player to edge fluidly . The ease with which merging is made possible opens up new ways to confront discovered territories and across the course of the game, merging becomes less optional accessory, more second-nature. This is made especially admirable by the game’s complimentary level design. Worlds are constructed to conceal hidden treasure, items or realms; so much so that melting into walls becomes as reflexive and as engaging as simply using one’s average, Hylian legs.

Link Between Worlds Portrait

There’s no clear-cut way to clear a palace or wander a dungeon (a notion merging seems to cement), and although puzzles have defined solutions, you’re more than welcome to find other ways to nab keys and unlock chests. For example, a cavern that has you using cuccos to glide safely onto platforms is just as easily navigable – if not more so – by breaking out the Tornado Rod to use instead. Instead of taking intricate tours of mountain surfaces in painting form, you can Hookshot your way unto glory. And treasure.

Another prime difference between A Link Between Worlds and its referenced grandfathers is that secondary weapons can be used infinitely. Whilst prior games had the player scouring the land for ammo or rupees once supplies began to run dry, your only restriction here is the ‘energy bar’, which is depleted each time a weapon is used and takes only a brief time to regenerate. It cut out what often drew me away from past games; I sighed at the notion of annoying fetch quests, and the prospect of scrounging with all my might to gather oh-so-precious bombs began to make me feel ever so slightly woozy. There’s a lot more time to explore in Link Between Worlds because of this, and ultimately it’s the least compromised fun I’ve had with a portable Zelda title.

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It’s Still Zelda, Just Fluffier

I suppose the risk with such a game as A Link Between Worlds is its comparison to the titles it homages. And when doing so, you’re inevitably going to find a few snags. Despite the undeniable beauty of A Link Between Worlds’ vibrant, polygonal world, the sense of majesty I felt trudging the realms of A Link to the Past was noticeably blunted. Of course, the previous angularities of the S/NES sprite are considered obsolete in terms of new Zelda games, but their efficacy at creating a foreboding atmosphere was something that greatly intensified the grace and mystery of the originals, in addition to their innovative features. Whilst there’s certainly no shortage of clever mechanics, intricate design and challenging boss battles in A Link Between Worlds, it’s all decidedly cute, and the softened world somewhat undermined the primitive danger Hyrule possessed prior.

Link to the Past boss

Commendably Caught Between Worlds

Luckily, rarely is Zelda a game enjoyed for visuals alone, and the game’s merits lie far beyond its superficial design. A reverent hark back to its admired predecessors, it’s a game that flaunts its roots whilst striving to build upon the open, freeing conventions the Zelda series forged for itself. Proffering a storyline with uncompromising humour, A Link Between Worlds bursts with the same hallmark sense of character that rendered me incalculably enchanted by Zelda in the first place, albeit with a lighter heart and a sharper grin.

Monster Hunter: Then and Now

Monster Hunter is a painfully misunderstood series. Indeed, I’ve never played a game so adamant to undermine its own gaming ethos through its complicated design choices. But its technical oddities, for many, have contributed to a challenge level many have dedicated their time and sanity to navigating, and with veritable ‘Felyne’ prowess. And yet, I just can’t stay away from it. It’s retained a cultural atmosphere so reassuring that it inspires me to keep fighting, even if those wonky camera controls frustrate and impede.

Monster Hunter 4 1

So having ventured from the realms of the PSP’s Freedom Unite, I went ahead and obtained its younger brother. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the latest installment in the ambivalent franchise to come to the West, and in many ways, the most accessible. But despite making some admirable leaps in some places, it displays much of the challenge and caprice (and distinct frustration) of its Playstation-infused roots.

What’s fair to say of the series is that since the release of Freedom Unite, it’s beguiling to see Capcom having fun with it. Character creation, whilst not Bethesda-esque, is noticeably more varied, sporting some humorously obscure expressions that affords a brief titter before the hunting raucous begins.

You’re equipped with a feline friend to aid your hunting quests now too, and although Felynes could be called upon in Freedom Unite’s times of need, it’s fun and ultimately more beginner-friendly, to know you’ve your own miniature soldier – a Palico – to deploy when times are dire. Mine’s called Crakajak. He’s a ginger tabby. Yes, he wears a waistcoat. And yes, he is adorable.

Also, about that pig. Totally still there.

poogie

A similar friendliness struck me upon the starting quest. Whilst text tutorials still feel unnecessarily lengthy, they’re much more compulsory in 4 Ultimate, presented with a lighter mood that strikes as welcoming to Monster Hunter initiates. Prompts appear over gatherable items and slain enemies, with hunter notes more easily located than Freedom Unite’s elusive how-to’s.

Since the game erupted more as a beloved culture than it has a series, Capcom certainly seemed to have translated a lot of this sense of togetherness into Ultimate’s environment. Understandably, the result is more welcoming than Freedom Unite ever was. The frost-bitten village of Pokke was homely, even welcoming, but there was always a sense of isolation there (perhaps due to technical hindrances at the time) that kept me very much at arm’s length.

Ultimate’s hot-running Val Habar, on the other hand, is a bustling hotchpotch of caravaneers, smithies, chefs, nomads and anthropomorphic Palicoes. You have to side-step to evade incoming traffic, and are caught between glances within the patchwork variety of the townsfolk. It’s not to say that Pokke couldn’t be a home, but there’s a vivacity permeating Val Habar that makes the ‘safety-hub’ of the game more refreshing to return to after a taxing hunt.

There’s plenty of humour canvassing Ultimate’s welcoming abode, too. Ultimate is much heavier in dialogue than its PSP ancestor, but alongside its still quite lengthy tutorial explanations, each conversation is laced with a decidedly anime style. The Caravaneer is playfully exaggerated, whilst the quest-giving Guildmarm will tease you, with an esteemed tendency to call you ‘Doodle’. Outside Ultimate’s more active narrative, you can expect references aplenty as such Nintendo greats as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario make an appearance during optional side quests and DLC.

Monster Hunter 4 Zelda

In terms of controls and progression, the Monster Hunter series has been moving steadily and slowly upward, and in Ultimate, the notion is literal. Whilst Tri, the previous Wii (and subsequent 3DS) release, included underwater combat, Ultimate presents a focus on climbing, encouraging a more lateral approach when it comes to hunting monsters or items. True, Freedom Unite comprised a labyrinth of snow-capped peaks and moss-sodden caves to explore, but they were circulated easily and required laboriously sifting through each zone during Gathering Quests. There’s much remedy to be had in Ultimate; in addition to remembering the gathering spots of your targeted beasties, you’re encouraged to clamber atop overhead canopies and dip down into shrouded alcoves, and discovering each for the first time feels like a cherished, but intensely secret venture. Gatherables generally stick out more within the luxurious environments, allowing you to take in the scenery without needing to scower it. Whilst this reduces difficulty for Gathering Quests, it does mean that Ultimate presents the explorative experience that Freedom Unite had aimed for six years prior.

Movement is also much more fluid in Ultimate, thankfully incorporating greater speed and agility alongside its trademark, pillar-like weapons. Ultimate‘s hunter is a speedier climber, sprinter and gatherer, and it does wonders for the game’s general pacing. You can even spring from various ledges to initiate a valiant jump attack.

With my frustration comparatively lessened, I found myself much more open to the game’s worlds in Ultimate than I had done in Freedom Unite – and more importantly, the study of each of its irrevocably beautiful fauna. Ultimate introduces 10 new monsters to its already formidable roster; not an unpredictable development considering the game’s premise. They are, however, depicted with a crisp, flowing animation that truly shines on the 3DS, and on the New 3DS, they’re even more attractive. Great, spined behemouths like the Shah Dalamadur are as elegant as they are terrifying, but attention to detail isn’t reserved for more pivotal foes. The smaller, more capricious beings of Monster Hunter often transpire as favourites of mine, and observing the skittish deer-folk, the Kelbi frolic amidst the prehistoric world of the hunt, is more enchanting now than ever before. The visual rift between Freedom Unite and Ultimate is impressive, and I’ve begun to make a habit out of alternating between the two. Kid’s gotta have fun, right?

kelbi

It’s these reassuring additions that make the series’ antiquities all the more apparent, however. Six years on, camera angles are as integral to combat here as it had been in Freedom Unite, and still sporting an unintuitive camera and a lack of lock-on features, it’s plain to see that the series hasn’t perhaps progressed as much as it could have. Exuberant glades and archaic caverns are stunning to behold, and the graphical leap is stark, but if the controls obstruct the game’s objectives, it feels like Capcom focused their aims on the wrong aspect of the series.

Across the Monster Hunter series, soundtrack has remained at a veritable constant, and perhaps as to be expected, Ultimate matches the valiant compositions of its predecessors. Grand, rich and orchestral, I usually hear a boss before I see it, and their crafted themes really contribute to the notion of grandeur each mammoth beast deserves.
That, and the notion that I’m going to get my ass kicked.

Monster Hunter still suffers from the issues of its predecessors; issues that – unfortunately – obstruct its crossover into the mainstream audience. But coming from Freedom Unite is a real treat. Despite its evident blots, it’s a series that is at least moving in the right direction. With roaring visuals and a friendlier first impression, Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate rallies with comedy and odyssey driving the boat, and with a fifth release looming (and the possibility of its Western ventures), Ultimate shows some reassuring signs.

The most reassuring of which is the return of that pet pig. I’m head-over-heels for that little guy.

Life is…Weird.

NOTE: If you’re planning on playing Life is Strange or otherwise want to avoid spoilers of any kind, I’d recommend coming back to this post after finishing the game. Because, in the words of Poltergiest’s Carol Ann, they’re heeeere. 

Life is Strange is one of those games that, for all its glaring faults, is unforgivably reccommendable. The challenge level of the puzzles undulates more capriciously than its adolescent subjects, and there’s something intrinsically cringe-worthy about its insistence that ‘hella’ is indeed more valuable than virtually every other word ever to exist, but I’d be a disgusting liar to claim that I wasn’t moved by the messages that underlay Max Caulfield’s increasingly fragile world.

Or…worlds…

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Life is Strange’s premise almost had me rolling my eyes and sighing. You play a decidedly more trusting Holden Caulfield. Max Caulfield is an introspective photography student whose journal is chock-full of teenage anxieties about friendships and identities, documented in vernacular like ‘punny’ and ‘bitchin’, whilst twee polaroid selfies represent some of her most cherished shots.  And yet, however extreme her character appears, I connected right away. I found wry familiarity in her multiple anxious interjections, and agonisation over how others must perceive her, and if I was feeling bold, I’d argue that other players likely felt it too.

And whilst the discovery and experimentation around Max’s suddenly birthed power to rewind time is undeniably important, it’s rather, given in such a narrative-driven genre, how it affects her. How the enormity of the power she holds over others’ lives ultimately convinces her that her despotism can only hurt her, and that being uncertain is okay.

It’s a concept that has been raised throughout history in various films, paintings, perhaps most notably literature, and the gaming scene is steadily getting to grips with such themes around identity.

The notion of time-travelling isn’t seldom-visited. Indeed, having the chance to do-over mistakes you made and take back things you never meant can be undeniably alluring. Generally, a lot of time is spent thinking, pondering over what would have happened if we’d taken control, or convincing ourselves that we had no control over any of it. But what if we did? Would things have been better?

Life is Strange Rail.jpg

Life is Strange gets unignorably optimistic in this regard, despite its incredibly low points. I was reminded that while I could take back the things I didn’t mean, I might not want that kind of responsibility. And what sort of person would I be now if I’d never comprehended the concept of a mistake, loss or misadventure? Pretty damn bored, probably.

After all, our transitional hero – Max – attempts to save her hella-raisin’ friend, Chloe Price, the heartbreak of her father’s death. But after rescuing the man from his sentenced fatal car crash, Max soon discovers that there had to be someone else to fill his shoes – and that someone happened to be Chloe. Chloe’s slightly younger, more robust body certainly took the hit, but instead of killing her, the well-meaning Caulfield is confronted with her best friend’s near-total paralysis, with a collapsing respiratory system that ultimately forces her to beg for euthanasia. There’s just no guarantee that things would have been better if you hadn’t made that mistake – even if they had, would you be prepared for the compromise that came with it?

life is strange ehc

Despite all the nastiness of the world, perhaps it’s necessary. As much as you hate that you ignored sweet Janet Tipperworth or wished you’d punched Lofty Dan for making your Maths class hell, but without them we wouldn’t be the person you are, and who you could’ve been isn’t likely to have been any happier. They, for all intents and purposes, keep the world in balance.

By making most of its choices ambiguous enough to convince you that either decision could lead to devastation, Life is Strange frames the young anxieties about one’s future and how it might be. About oneself and who you might be, and going back and fixing it will likely just have one living for one’s problems.

Again, it’s not a new message, but it was something that stood out to me in Life is Strange, and amidst often schlocky teen characterisation and filler quests, it’s a real strong point of the game.