Puppet Punch – Review

Title Screen
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(Reviewed on iPad)

Punch Drunk

Do you like puppets? Do you like punching? Most importantly, do you like punching puppets repeatedly until they shatter into pieces? If the answer to these three questions is a firm yes, then you might well want to give Puppet Punch a look; it’s a free-to-play iOS game by developer Mech Mocha which is out now on the Apple App Store.

However, while Puppet Punch has satisfying mechanics and inspired art style which are interesting and intriguing at first, unfortunately, the game is let down by repetitive shallow gameplay loops, continuous advert interruptions and a design which, in my opinion, relies a little too heavily on microtransaction support. It’s a solid game, but one that’s let down by questionable design choices and, crucially, one that lacks that vital addictive gameplay left-hook to keep you wanting to punch on.

Pablo: First Wood

Punch and Judy

Puppet Punch is styled as a cartoony puppet theatre-themed action game; our puppet-punching pugilistic protagonist Pablo has to beat down all manner of cartoonishly demonic puppets swooping down and chucking things at him from the theatre’s roof and wings. The aim of the game is simple – batter whatever’s dropping down onto Pablo’s head by tapping on the screen to control Pablo’s flying fists of fury.

Puppet Punch’s touchscreen controls feel particularly tight and well designed – which for a game based around the concept of punching rapidly descending wooden assailants, is certainly a good thing. Punching attacks feel fast, accurate and snappy; tap anywhere on the screen and Pablo will send one of his elastic boxing glove-clad limbs hurtling towards the spot immediately with no discernable lag or delay. The onscreen action is cartoonish and satisfying, and the punch effects and that ever-so satisfying wooden crunch that accompanies your fist smashing through another fragile puppet body is always very pleasing.

Punch

There’s also some basic but slightly more involved tweaks on the basic punching formula introduced early on as well; punching enemies with a spiky shield will damage you, and you have to wait for these to disappear first before hurtling your fists of fury at them. In addition, various power ups will rain down from time to time – punching these will temporarily grant Pablo special abilities, such as invulnerable golden gloves or score multiplying ones, or trigger extra money bags to whirl around the screen for a brief period.

Although the satisfying control and feedback of the punch attacks are absolutely the game’s strength, Puppet Punch’s art direction is also worthy of mention. The art style and character animations all have a great deal of charm to them, and this simplistic visual aesthetic definitely sets it apart from Puppet Punch’s peers despite feeling a bit on the twee side at times.

The game’s essentially an endless puncher – there are no levels per se, but instead each round is themed around a different cultural identity and theme. Each round has a backdrop which is themed to a different region – Europe, Japan or India. These backdrops present various scenes of castles and landscapes from Japan, India and Europe, and each backdrop comes with its own corresponding set of puppets to bash – i.e. you fight Punch and Judy puppets on the European rounds, whilst Asian dragons and demons make up your attackers on the Japanese ones etc.

Octoboss

As a nice end of round climax, a boss puppet will appear for you to engage in gentlemanly fisticuffs with. These are particularly cool looking, and again themed to each stage’s geographical theme. The two I’ve seen are either a multi-headed Hydra-like dragon, or a spider/octopus hybrid, each having their own slightly different attack patterns and move telegraphs to learn.

 Punching Below Its Weight

Spike Punch

Cool, so the punching mechanic is well tuned, and the game looks nice too, the enemies and backdrops are interestingly themed, and there’s frequent boss battles to break up each round. What’s not to like?

Well, although the game is definitely fun, it’s simple design means that you will get tired of it quite quickly. It’s a solid physical action take on the endless runner genre – an endless puncher if you will – but it crucially lacks that addictive ‘just one more go’ quality that make games such as Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride so moreish. Within only a few minutes of play, I personally felt that I’d seen pretty much all the game had to offer, and after several hours of playing, there still just wasn’t enough here to hook me and keep me coming back for another go.

Perhaps the reason for that was because the game doesn’t particularly convey how you’re progressing very well, and when you do get to grips with the progression system, it feels really unsatisfying, and largely slanted towards making microtransaction payments to progress.

What at first looks like a numbered level or world map is actually just the upgrade/ranking tree, and unfortunately it operates in a frustrating way. Here’s how it works; when playing Puppet Punch, you will earn XP, coins (the in-game currency) and, very rarely, ‘Mechs’ (the game’s hard to come by secondary currency, which is more or less only obtainable by paying real world cash, or watching a plethora of ads).

XP Cap

You earn XP naturally as you play, but unfortunately no matter how much you earn it feels rather meaningless, as the problem is that even if you hit the required XP cap, you can’t level up without first completing three specific mission objectives. These are usually something like ‘destroy X number of puppets with Y’ or ‘use power up X on boss Y, Z number of times’. However, unlike say Temple Run, or Jetpack Joyride, where the mission objectives function as bonus incentives for the player to aim for as supplementary rewards, the missions in Puppet Punch are essential to levelling up and making progress, which makes them feel like chores.

Mission Skip

Plus, what’s more, unlike other titles, these can only be skipped by using Mechs/real cash, which can leave you totally ground to a halt if you don’t want to open your wallet to progress. Frustrating to say the least.

Collect All Parts

Collect all the parts…but…

When you actually have got all the required XP and completed the rank missions, that should be it right? Wrong. You actually just unlock the opportunity to buy the upgrade, which after what can be quite a long slog feels incredibly disappointing. These upgrades nearly always seem to require a hefty number of Mechs to unlock, so unless you’re willing to fork out some real world moolah, then you actually can’t access those previous rewards you’ve been working towards.

What’s incredible is that even if you’re lucky enough to win a power up’s constituent parts on the dodgy wheel of fortune, then you still have to buy the power up – even though you have all the parts! There’s this constant feeling that the game is always changing the goalposts while you’re playing, which just feels unfair, and it quickly eroded any determination I had to keep chasing further mission rewards.

Fire Punch

…once you do have them all, you still have to unlock the power up by paying for it with Mechs or Coins – the wheel of fortune and parts system feel practically pointless as a result.

While you can earn more Mechs by completing achievements and chain-watching advertisements, the payout is usually paltry in comparison to the effort and time required to complete the usually ridiculously long-term achievement requirements, and sitting through ad after ad to get a single Mech each time, it just feels unbearably dull. In other words, if you aren’t inclined to open your wallet to Puppet Punch, it’s going to quickly start feeling like you’re not going anywhere…fast.

What’s more, when you do go up a rank, earn the ability to unlock upgrade power up and, finally, purchase it with your hard-earned Mechs, you discover that they are all pretty much one-off temporary boosts. While these boosts are undeniably helpful – such as flame shields to protect Pablo from all attacks for a limited period of time, and blasts which clear all current enemies offscreen – as they are in limited supply and tied directly into the game’s microtransaction system, they just feel like unsatisfying add-ons. You never really earn anything permanent or get new abilities which offer an interesting new spin on the standard punching gameplay.

Bullet Bamm

Having said that, there is one exception to this; you can unlock a special gun hat power up – known as a Bullet Bamm – which adds some new swipe-gestured controlled projectile attacks to Pablo’s standard punching repertoire. In fact, these swipe controls are so much more comfortable on your hands in comparison to having to repeatedly hammer on the screen with your fingers to punch, that it’s a shame that shooting the puppets isn’t the main gameplay mechanic. Nevertheless, even though the Bullet Bamm changes up the formula somewhat, it doesn’t really invigorate things to a massive degree.

Anxious Punch

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game is the fact that although the various puppet enemies are interesting visually and nicely themed to each stage, as they are all just reskins of the same core enemy types you’re essentially just punching away at the same enemies each and every round. The Indian puppets have the same attacks, moves and telegraphs as the European and Japanese ones. With only a couple of different basic enemy types in each round, they quickly become a bit of a blur after a short while.

Boss Punch

It’s the same situation with the boss puppets. Likewise with the standard puppets, there’s not much strategy to fighting these bosses – you just need to rapidly punch them as fast as possible when their shields are down. Over multiple plays, they quickly become more of an irritating nuisance to have to deal with rather than being a fun challenge. Like with the standard enemies, you’ll grow tired of the boss characters just as rapidly.

Unless you’re exceptionally good at the game, or you have deep enough pockets to keep shelling out for more Mechs to buy another continue, then it’s hard to make it past the early rounds without having to resort to spending Mechs and real world cash. Pablo has five heart bars that represent his health, and although you do earn back a heart for every round successfully completed, and your first continue is free (providing you watch yet another advertisement) I personally found it hard to make it past the first few rounds before getting a game over.

Speaking of deaths and game overs, you have to watch an advert if you want to continue after dying, and then after that you have to pay Mechs to keep going.

You have to watch so many ads if you want to keep playing without spending money that it quickly becomes tedious, intrusive and detrimental to the experience. You’re essentially just playing the same stages and fighting the same enemies over and over again for as long as you (or your wallet) can bear.

Looking up at the distant upper echelons of the upgrade progression tree, it’s possible to unlock new backdrops to play on, but from the game’s slow rate of progress, it looks like it would take forever to unlock them without paying cold hard cash, and even though the backdrops are nicely designed, I doubt it’s worth toiling away for them. You just keep going until you die, but as the game feels pretty much the same whether you’re on the first round or the third, there doesn’t feel like much point to continuing after a while.

Punching Out

You Gave Up

Puppet Punch has some really cool things going for it, unfortunately, it’s severely hampered by some pretty big problems. Perhaps if there was less of a focus on microtransactions and pop-up advertisements, and more variety to the levels, enemies and gameplay, then this could have been much more special and unique. It’s a shame, because for all its cheery colourful charm and tight controls, it ends up feeling like just another pay-to-win grindfest. It’s fun, but either your time and patience will take a battering on the ropes whilst you play, or your wallet – you decide which.

World 1-1 – Review

World 1-1 Cropped
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High Scorer

In this age of next-gen online-centric consoles, with 1080p/60fps graphics gripes on almost a daily basis and a plethora of patches, updates and fixes for broken multi-million dollar triple-A games, it’s easy to lose perspective and forget just how far video games have come as a medium. Despite having been around since the late ’40s/early ’50s, video games (and later the games industry itself) are still relatively speaking, a fledgling newcomer in the entertainment industry. In comparison to the more established artistic branches of film, music and literature, video games are rarely treated with anywhere near the same in-depth historical analysis, attention and respect that are so often heaped upon those other arts, despite the fact that games draw from all aspects of those revered aesthetic forms in intricate and interesting ways.

Thankfully then, independent filmmakers Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez have made it their calling to tap into this relatively untapped and rich seam of gaming history to definitively document on film the early years and culture of interactive entertainment. World 1-1 is a Kickstarter-backed documentary put together by the Florida-based duo, the project also being their first feature-length film; the first in an intended series of documentary films about the history of video games, and the interesting people who make them.

As the first chapter in a proposed series, World 1-1 is a seriously impressive starting point for the duo’s monumental documentation project, not to mention an impressive debut effort altogether. As a standalone film in its own right, World 1-1 is a substantial chunk of video game history and culture that acts as a lovingly compiled record and resource of the early ’60s to early ’80s era of gaming – essentially the two decade period where the gaming industry was born out of the primordial post-war soup of science, technology and bright young whizz-kids with big ambitious ideas.

World 1-1 is an exploration of how video games were (and continue to be) a vital stepping stone in the process of our society becoming computer and tech savvy today; it’s an essential watch for anyone with even the slightest passing interest in video games and how they are intrinsically part and parcel of our current and ever-growing technological culture.

At just over two hours in length, there’s certainly a lot to take in, but Garcia and Rodriguez have crafted a gripping narrative of events to deliver an in-depth and definitive visual document of the birth of video games which is both detailed yet accessible; ambitious in its scope yet never losing sight of the human element at the heart of this story of computer chips and gaming visionaries, joypads and eccentric entrepreneurs, motherboards and pioneers of the electronic age.

2600 Joystick

The central focus of the film is fixated firmly upon Atari – “The fastest rising and the fastest falling company in the history of American business”. The documentary charts the company (and by extension, the gaming industry itself) from its humble beginnings through to the meteoric rise during the boom years of the ’70s, all the way up to the eventual implosion and the great exodus of Atari engineers to third party developers, and the eventual oversaturation of the market with the tidal wave of shovelware that led to the subsequent ‘death’ of the industry that followed in the early ’80s.

The majority of the film is made up of a series of talking head vignettes which draw from a myriad of sources from across the industry, which provide a carefully balanced equilibrium to the narrative. There’s big names on the developer side of things who were there at the time, such as (of course) Nolan Bushnell, Owen Rubin and Donna Bailey, alongside prominent public figures from the media side of things, such as Patrick Scott Patterson, IGN head honcho Peer Schneider, the gentle enthusiastic tones of Jared Petty, and my own personal favourite, ex-IGN Senior Editor and Kinda Funny host Colin ‘the pride of Long Island’ Moriarty. His eloquent orations bookend the film, and his regular onscreen appearances, full of his trademark dry and charismatic charm, always brought a smile to my face whilst watching.

As you might imagine, with their overlapping subject matter of Atari, World 1-1 dovetails really nicely with Atari: Game Over – a similar documentary piece (and great film in its own right) released last year by director Zak Penn, which chronicles the video game crash in particular through the eyes of Howard Scott Warshaw, who also features prominently in World 1-1. The developer of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Howard is often (criminally) accredited with the industry crash of ’83, and it’s good to see that he gets significant screen time in both projects, allowing him the opportunity to finally tell his side of the game’s unbelievably unrealistic development story.

Personally, although Atari: Game Over is a project that explores Howard’s story with a slightly more personal and emotional focus (centred around the climactic myth-busting discovery of the buried E.T. cartridges in the fabled New Mexico landfill), I feel that World 1-1 offers a picture of much greater detail and context to the developer’s story, and arguably giving a more substantial account of just how events transpired as they did, and how financial problems and severe time constraints impacted on his work, and ultimately, the entire industry.

The film can be roughly split into two halves – one pre-Atari 2600, the other detailing the iconic console’s development, and the aftermath that followed. Whilst the documentary’s focus is obviously geared towards years of videogames past, there are choice moments woven in throughout the structure of the story where the directors call out to current ongoing and controversial issues of debate in the culture of video games today. For example, contemporary players who’ve ever wondered why there’s such a prevalence of clone titles in the digital markets for example will find that World 1-1 offers some interesting parallels between the industry’s past and present practices.

Whilst certain interesting accounts and experiences were perhaps cut short and left somewhat underdeveloped – accounts of what it was like to be a lone female software engineer in a male dominated industry from Centipede developer Donna Bailey were fascinating, but unfortunately rather brief – modern gamers will no doubt be surprised with what they learn at various points when watching, and will come away with a greater knowledge and understanding of their beloved activity. A particular moment of personal revelation for me was discovering that Sonic the Hedgehog’s sassy finger-wagging, toe-tapping idle animation was almost certainly ‘borrowed’ from Major Havoc.

World 1-1 is available on digital release today, January 15th, and from one video games fan to another, I think the film is definitely up there with David Sheff’s written account of Game Over as one of the most detailed, personable and fascinating accounts of the birth, rise and the (brief) fall of the world’s biggest entertainment industry.

I can’t wait to feast my eyes on future filmic chapters from Garcia & Rodriguez, and from the sound of the post-credits tease, Nintendo are the logical industry corner stone to be up next in the project’s hot seat. So, when that next level has loaded, I’ll be right back – now, if only I could find that warp zone…

Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 – Review

Old Freddy Attack
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(Reviewed on iPad)

BOO!

“Hello, hello hello! Erm…well, if you’re hearing this, then chances are you’ve made a very poor career choice…”

These are the Phone Guy’s first words in the trailer for Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, and he’s certainly not wrong. The sequel to the original Five Nights at Freddy’s, takes everything that you loved/dreaded about the original game and somehow manages to make things even more stressful, tense and overwhelming than ever before. It’s faster, far, FAR more difficult, and there’s even more abhorrent animatronics desperate to thunder down corridors at you than before. In other words, it’s absolutely time to get the brown trousers out.

Whilst the game is quite possibly one of the most stressful heart in mouth experiences I’ve played in a game recently (well up there with Alien: Isolation and Outlast), the ultra fast state of blind panic that the game works you up into actually manages to significantly take away from the things that made the original game such a frighteningly good game in the first place.

At times, it can feel like a brutal rollercoaster of non-stop jumpscares, each one whipping by faster and faster than the last, a macabre merry-go-round of mecha-misery. Overall, there’s just a lot less of the drawn out tension and stomach-churning dread that made the original game so enjoyable.

Title Screen

However, although at first the emphasis on frequent faster furry scares may not appeal, if you’re a fan in any shape or form of the first game, then Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is absolutely worth venturing back into that dark, fascinatingly and creepy restaurant that is developer Scott Cawthon’s mind once again for.

Although it’s perhaps a logical and straightforward evolution of the franchise – more scares, more gameplay mechanics more animatronics etc. – there’s enough brand new creative and twisted changes in the sequel that show there’s a whole new level of fiendishness in its design in comparison to the original formula.

Put simply, if you’re a fan of Five Nights at Freddy’s in any shape or form, then I highly recommend you give the sequel a try. Providing you’ve got the patience of a saint and the gluttony for punishment of a basement-dwelling gimp, then it’s a game that’s absolutely essential to experience if you’re a horror game fan.

So, fancy a second greasy slice of Fazbear pizza?

Not So Bunny This Time Eh?

Help Wanted

Well, whaddayaknow? There’s a brand new Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza that’s opened up in town, and once again you play as another hapless (read: stupid) chump who’s unlucky enough to have snagged a summer job as the restaurant’s night watchman. Over the years, the original animatronic mascot models of the original establishment – Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie the rabbit, Chica the chicken, and Foxy the pirate fox (naturally) – have fallen into a state of disrepair, and a new set of cuter ‘child friendly’ (read: completely unsuitable for children) animatronics have taken their place. These new ‘toy’ models are cuter and more colourful interpretations of the old gang, but they are still just as creepy in their own special/murderous way; looking like brittle porcelain dolls, there’s a classic horror film vibe about them that screams that something’s absolutely not right – no matter how rosy and cute their metallic cheeks might be.

Functionally, the game plays almost identically to the original Five Nights at Freddy’s. Once again, the set up is very simple; as the night-time security guard, you have to monitor the cameras at this new Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza restaurant, surviving your 12:00-6:00am shift and trying to not get stuffed into spare metal-filled animatronic costumes along the way. Scott Cawthon once again provides the voice of the Phone Guy – presumably another recently expired security guard – who leaves you voicemails at the start of each shift in a similar fashion to the first game, dropping new titbits of information vital to your survival as the game progresses. Scott speaks in a manner that both amuses and makes you very anxious in equal measure.

Like the first game, you can’t move, run, or hide; your stoical character remains seated at their desk at all times; the camera feeds are your only way of tracking the animatronics as they stalk you throughout the restaurant. On paper, it’s the same deal as last time; all you’ve got to do is survive the agonisingly long graveyard shift by not letting any of the freaky furries get you. However, on the subject of home office defence, this is where you’ll notice the first cruel deviation from the original game’s drawing board – there’s no doors. Yup, that’s right; those big heavy doors, those beautiful blockers of brutal beasties are stripped away from you this time, leaving you completely exposed and vulnerable.

If that wasn’t bad enough, don’t worry, it gets much worse; there’s now three separate points of entry to your office this time. Directly across from your desk is a long corridor that stretches out into the dark dingy catacombs of the restaurant, and in place of the dearly departed doors there’s now two air conditioning vents to the left and right of you.

So the question you’ll be immediately asking yourself after seeing your new office environs is just how the fuck do I defend myself from animatronics without a god-damned pair of doors? huh? Well? Answer me!

Hide and Shriek

Freddy Head

Well, the good news is that you’re not totally screwed…no scratch that, you are pretty much screwed without those beloved doors of the original, but to paraphrase 28 Days Later, the end isn’t quite so extremely fucking nigh yet either – you do have an alternative final line of defence in your arsenal against the malicious machines. Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 introduces the Freddy head – a spare Freddy Fazbear costume head – that you can put on in order to fool the animatronics who do get into your office into thinking that you’re one of them, and hopefully leaving you alone.

Putting the head on, as you might imagine, really doesn’t give you anywhere near the same level of temporary comfort or that fleeting sense of sanctuary you got from shutting the doors in the first game. Your view is restricted to the head’s small eyeholes, and its a lot harder to hear the ambient audio clues in the environment which tell you whether an animatronic you can hear is bumbling about in the background or ready to pounce on your prone protagonist. Plus, the amplified breathing sounds of your character when in the mask really don’t help matters at all; the muffled, wheezing breaths adding another layer of paranoia to proceedings.

Okay, cool – no doors, but the Fazbear head keeps the robo-ruffians away right? Well, not quite. The bad news is that it doesn’t fool all the animatronics – there’s always one eh? You see, unfortunately, another unpleasant twist to add to the growing tangle of twisted things that is Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is that your old decaying friends from the first game are back. That’s right – the original Freddy, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy are back, and absolutely with a vengeance.

Old Freddy Office

If you thought Freddy, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy were frightening looking before, they look hideously ghoulish now. Bonnie (again, always the animatronic from the first game that freaked me out the most) in particular looks terrifying; the top half of his head has been sheared off, leaving just a row of broken teeth on what remains of his lower jaw, and a devilish pair of glowing red eyes where his face used to be.

These old models have been relegated to the storeroom, and are just kept around and used for their spare parts to keep the newer models up and running. However, you learn pretty early on that these familiar furry furies are unfortunately prone to getting up and having a wander about the restaurant to reacquaint themselves with you once again – with just as much screaming and the same unrelenting determination to force you into a Fazbear costume as before.

Naturally then, in a similar fashion to the first game, the one animatronic from the original bunch which once again throws a giant spanner in the works for you is your ol’ pal Foxy. Sailor of the seven robo-seas and swashbuckling scaremonger extraordinaire, Foxy is wise to your costume-donning antics (he can probably tell you’re human from the pool of urine and tears puddling around your legs) so like in the original game, a different tactic is required to keep him at bay.

Torching Wood

Toy Chica Corridor

The different tactic you need in this case is the flashlight/lights – any animatronic can be temporarily stunned by shining a beam of light from your flashlight on them, and in the case of Foxy, it’s your only form of defence against him and his razor sharp teeth taking a chunk out of your cerebrum.

Touching in the specific box indicated onscreen illuminates a portion of the scene you’re looking at – either putting a feeble light on the darkened corridor stretching out before you, or offering a glimpse at whatever horrors might be lurking in the dark realms of the restaurant.

The flashlight mechanic is essentially a tweaked version of the original game’s Pirate Cove, a mechanic intended to keep you from just monitoring the camera feeds and hiding (and whimpering) in the Freddy head.

Toy Chica Vent

 

Well, to get a bit nitpicky for a second, your (presumably) handheld flashlight and the camera lights all run off the same single battery, but hey – videogames right? Your generous employers have also neglected to provide you with any spare batteries for your nightly cringe-fests, so you have to make your flashlight/camera lights last as long as possible.

Despite only having a limited amount of juice for the lights, it’s still a way better situation than the original game, where everything ran off the ridiculously small petrol generator that provided the original building’s power. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining…and the lining to this ominously dark storm cloud rolling in overhead is the fact that unlike the last pizza premises, this Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza does run on mains power. Whilst your flashlight/camera lights are limited, the cameras and air vent lights can be used indefinitely without them draining your battery power.

This means that you can monitor the cameras for as long as you need to, and you can turn on the vent lights to temporarily freeze anything crawling through them. Hmm…come to think of it, who puts lights in an air vent anyway? I’ve no idea, but obviously someone who’s used to being regularly attacked from them anyway.

Freddy Party Room 3

This change to the way the power system works is a really smart design move on Scott’s part. There’s now a much greater incentive to track the robots as they make their way towards you. To jump back to the way the original game worked, arguably the scariest parts of Five Nights at Freddy’s weren’t particularly the jumpscares per se – it’s all over at that point of course – but rather those moments where you’d be nervously searching through the camera feeds to find where the animatronics were lurking. Peering intently into the grainy static snowstorm of the feeds to try and make out shapes in darkness were incredibly effective moments of the original game; moments which you were technically penalised for with the limited power supply, and moments you’d experience less and less as you got to the later levels, where success tended to come from keeping your camera glances to a bare minimum and holding back your energy for the door and light controls.

Five Night’s at Freddy’s 2 fully embraces those terrifying moments of the original by making the camera feeds more of a help to the player rather than a slight hindrance. As a result, you’re more likely to spend time flicking between the various feeds, desperately trying to find out where all your nocturnal nemeses are and getting all flustered and really worked up in the process, as they slowly and inevitably make their way towards you, George Romero zombie style.

Nocturnal Plate Spinning

The Puppet Prize Corner

So, to recap – no doors, but you’ve got a Freddy head; limited lights but continuous camera feeds and vent lights. If all these additional complications to the original game’s base formula we’ve been through didn’t sound stressful enough already, just wait, it gets even worse. There’s several new animatronics and animatronic mechanics introduced in the sequel which serve to make things in the pizzeria even more stressful and panicky than before. I won’t yak on about these new night-time terrors too much as part of the fun/terror is encountering them for yourself when you’re totally unprepared, but one in particular deserves a more detailed mention.

One of the major proverbial plates that you’ve got to keep spinning during your night shift is to keep checking on the ‘Prize Corner’ area. Instead of having to check on Pirate Cove to keep Foxy in place in the original, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 introduces the Prize Corner’s fiendish music box mechanic. You have to keep winding up this box (somehow performed over the camera feed – videogames again) in order to ‘soothe’ one of the brand new animatronics, The Puppet.

The Puppet Attack

This horrific thing resembles a cross between Marcel Marceau and the Billy the Puppet toy from the SAW films. The Puppet essentially acts as a secondary Foxy – style figure which isn’t affected by your flashlight either. In fact, from my understanding, once The Puppet is out of his box, he isn’t affected by anything; if you go too long without winding the music box, you’re totally screwed. Once this jack is well and truly out of his box, there’s nothing you can do except brace for impact as it hurtles towards you, jangling out the tune of Pop Goes the Weasel like some demented shuttlecock of doom. Basically, The Puppet is terrifying.

On a gameplay mechanics level, the music box works really well in conjunction with the Freddy head. It means that you can’t just rely on pulling on the disguise and desperately hoping to cower away behind your desk until the morning light, or decide to only focus on those threats directly coming for you from the vents or down the corridor.

If the overarching design theme to Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is basically to take everything you loved about the original game, and make it even more frightening and fucked up than before, then it excels with flying colours. Unlike the first game, it’s almost impossible to keep tabs on all the threats out to get you at once. You’ve got to be checking the cameras, stunning animatronics with your lights, jumping into the Freddy head when things are getting hairy and last but by no means at all least, remembering to wind up that god-damned music box.

Brain Drain

Old Chica Attack

Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 does a lot of things right. More animatronics, less office defences and more finely detailed mechanics all add up to create an experience that is bigger and at times, even more frightening than the original game. However, with all these new systems introduced in the sequel, it can get very complicated very quickly. Too complicated in my opinion.

It can be confusing at first just working out what you’re supposed to be doing, even for someone like me who has spent an awful lot of time playing the first game and who’s very familiar with its systems. This is obviously par for the course with horror games – the best ones tend to be those which are challenging and difficult as part of their nature, pushing you onto greater feats – but at times Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 manages to lose sight of what made the original game so effective.

For me, what I personally loved about the first game was its beautiful simplicity. At its very core, Five Nights at Freddy’s could be distilled down to three simple rules:

  • Run out of power – Freddy will get you.
  • Fail to check Pirate Cove frequently enough – Foxy will get you.
  • Don’t check the corridor blindspots – Bonnie/Chica will get you.

In my opinion, it was just the right balance of tension, jumpscares, uncertainty and luck. Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is considerably more complex than its predecessor, which is great as an escalation and expansion on that fantastically simple set of formulae, but also mildly irritating at times. There isn’t quite such a clear-cut set of rules to learn, which is great as it means that events are much more spontaneous and unpredictable, but it can also make it hard to learn from your mistakes. You’ll find yourself quickly getting frustrated and getting stuck in what feels like an impossible luck-based rut far sooner than in comparison to the original game.

Whereas the rhythm of Five Nights at Freddy’s was built on an increasingly tense slow build-up of dread, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is a much faster-paced game that’s all about getting you into a hysterical blind panic. It manages to do this to a truly exceptional degree. Unfortunately as a result though, the creepiness and horror of the original are rapidly lost – the sequel almost goes so fast that you pretty much don’t have time to be frightened once everything is kicking off. Yes, the animatronics are freakish and frightening to look at, but after you see them lurch up into your face time and time again, you quickly get desensitised to their gnashing jaws, glowing red eyes and outstretched metallic paws.

To play devil’s advocate here though, I would have been disappointed if this sequel was simply pretty much the first game again, only in a new restaurant, with no new mechanics or characters etc. It’s the age old paradox with sequels in general, and specifically sequels within the gaming industry – how do you repeat or recapture the experience of the original whilst at the same time making a brand new experience for fans to enjoy? How do you deliver something at once familiar, but at the same time bigger, better, and brand new?

Bearing this in mind, the changes and twists that the sequel makes to the first game’s rules are really well thought out and interesting, giving the old ideas of the first game some refreshing, different and downright devious twists that manage to mess with your head to a successful degree. But they do make things a bit more awkward and harder to get into at first, even for a player like me who’s sunk a lot of time into playing the original game.

Old Bonnie Party Room 1

One of the major stumbles the game makes is that it doesn’t really do a satisfactory job of communicating to the player how and why you’re (repeatedly) failing. Whereas the Five Nights at Freddy’s Phone Guy dispensed tips on a need to know basis, the Phone Guy’s dialogue in the sequel is a bit more explanatory and narrative based. This is great on the one hand as you get to learn more about the horrible history of the restaurant and the cruel fates of the animatronics as you go, but this seems to come at the cost of receiving survival information that’s more relevant to your current predicament. For example, the game only really reiterates how to use the flashlight properly when you’ve reached the second night. As surviving the first night is no mean feat, it feels like a piece of information that needs to be told to the player far sooner into the game.

BB Office

For another example, a major hurdle that happened to me when playing came when I first encountered (slight new animatronic spoiler) Balloon Boy, or BB as he’s known for short. A small human boy animatronic, BB is rather unique in the cast as he’s the only one that won’t directly attack you once he gets inside your office. Instead, his modus operandi is to just giggle incessantly and block the entrance to your office. Whilst blocking up the entrance to your office might actually sound like a useful thing, it’s really not. It means that you can’t shine your flashlight down the corridor at whatever might be lurking there – usually Foxy, who’ll more often than not take the opportunity of BB blocking the corridor to take a running leap at you and perform yet another aerial lobotomy on you. In other words, if BB gets in your office for good, you’re finished, and what’s more, there’s absolutely no way of getting him out.

Foxy Attack

The game never really explains anywhere what BB does at all or how or why you should be worried about him. Until I went online looking for help, I couldn’t understand how I was failing whenever he would show up, or why I couldn’t forcibly remove him from my office. In hindsight, it’s all rather straightforward, and it’s a cool mechanic to keep me extra diligent (and extra panicky) as a player. Obviously, you wouldn’t want the game to handhold you through everything in the way of it’s secretive new animatronics otherwise there would be no challenge or suspense, but some more specific clues from the Phone Guy would have been massively helpful and way less frustrating, particularly on the early levels.

Old Bonnie & Foxy Corridor

In fact, there’s just generally much less discernable correlation between your actions and the environment in Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, both visually and aurally. On the subject of information that the game doesn’t manage to visually communicate effectively to the player, a significant area of murky uncertainty is the dark corridor to the security office. It’s confusing and really difficult to judge when you’re in danger from something lurking down it, or whether you can afford to temporarily divert your attentions elsewhere. An animatronic’s position in the corridor often does little to tell you just how prominent the threat is. It’s often really unclear as to whether you’re safe when an animatronic is right down at the far end, or still alright for the time being. It makes things very unpredictable, which is great at first, but when you realise there seems to be no reason or pattern to their positioning, it just becomes frustratingly vague after yet another flying fox attack from the dark.

BB Vent

While playing the original game with a decent pair of headphones was the preferable way to play, it’s absolutely essential to use them in Five Nights at Freddy’s 2. Whereas the ambient background bangs, clatterings and evil chuckling animatronic noises were mainly there to keep you on edge in the first game, having an acute audial awareness of your surroundings is crucial to surviving into the later nights in the sequel. In a similar manner to Alien: Isolation (a review of which is hurtling towards this blog as you read this), being able to hear when an animatronic attacker is clambering around noisily in the vents, or moving down the corridor could be the key between life and a grisly costume-based death.

However, having said that, the audio quickly becomes indecipherable after only a few minutes into a stage. A strange whining klaxon will start to incessantly play about halfway into each night, which has absolutely no apparent meaning. As a player, I’ve struggled to attribute even a shred of meaning to its prominence in the audio mix. It’s really confusing for the player, as it sounds like it should signal something crucial, but from my personal experience with the game, it’s all rather meaningless. Perhaps there’s something really obvious that I’ve missed, but I can’t for the life of me work out just what this hooting wail means.

Additionally on the topic of audio issues, there’s some admittedly minor but still very annoying grievances I have with some of the sound effect choices in the game. For example, the exact same buzzing audio cue used to denote that you’d taken too long to close a door in the original is confusingly used as a basic error sound when trying to activate your torch in this game. If you heard that buzzing noise in the original when trying to hit one of the door controls, then you knew you’d fucked things up, and you were about to be suit-stuffed momentarily. However, in this game, the sound appears to be used as a general error noise when trying to activate your torch when an animatronic is entering/leaving the corridor.

It’s really confusing and off-putting how the sound effect is used here, as it doesn’t appear to mean that you’ve entered a fail state anymore, rather it’s that you just can’t use the torch just then. It’s a really hard thing to unlearn, and having to fight my mental muscle memory from the first game, I personally found that it made learning the new systems oblique and unnecessarily convoluted at times. Not knowing why your torch is not working one second but then working again the next is scary, but also very frustrating after a while, as there’s no clear reason or discernable meaning behind it.

Night Trapped

Old Bonnie Attack

Overall, I found that Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 just felt too impossibly hard for me to enjoy to the same degree as the original. There’s just so many different variables to keep track of at once that in order to succeed, you’re going to need huge amounts of patience, determination, and above all else, a whole fucktonne of luck. As a result, I found my determination to get past the later nights quickly waned after yet another whirlwind round of lights, music boxes, Freddy heads and flying mechanical foxes tore my resolve to play on to pieces. Whereas in the first game, things felt incredibly stressful but just about manageable, beyond the first few nights of the sequel things feel even more luck-based and just ridiculously cruel.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s darkly hilarious and enjoyable to play, but only the most masochistic and patient players will have the endurance to reach the later levels. Like the pacing of a good horror film, you need moments of uneasy respite and eerie quiet to balance out the adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride of scares; skimp on the tension and the slow builds and you’ll find that the frights and shocks lose their effectiveness faster than an eight-foot animatronic bear can crush you into a metal-filled suit. However, if you’re a fan of the original game, you owe it to yourself to sit down, pour yourself a cuppa, crack open a packet of Hobnobs, and get comfortable in that familiar security guard’s chair for another 12:00-6:00am shift. What could possibly go wrong?

Game Over

Halo: Nightfall – Review

Halo Nightfall - Title Picture
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Darkest Night

In and amongst all the (quite frankly) deserved flak that Halo: The Master Chief Collection has received from both critics and fans alike since its November 11th launch, it’s quite easy to forget about Halo: Nightfall – the latest TV series set in the Halo universe, that came bundled with copies of the game. Produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions in collaboration with 343 Industries, Nightfall is similar in both style and presentation to 2012’s Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. It’s an episodic five-part Halo TV series (accessible via the Xbox One’s Halo Channel, the Xbone’s next-gen replacement for the 360’s Halo Waypoint app) that follows the exploits of new character Jameson Locke (or, as he’s known at this point in time, Lieutenant Commander Locke) and a bunch of ONI operatives on a high-risk covert operation to a blackened and twisted fragment of the Alpha Halo ring from Halo: Combat Evolved.

However, once you have watched it, you start to see why Nightfall is rather easy to forget. Whilst the series is a palatable Halo-flavoured sci-fi action romp with some mild horror elements thrown into the mix for good measure, overall the series just feels generally underwhelming. Similarly to Forward Unto Dawn, the visuals, special effects and aesthetics of Nightfall are for the most part pretty cool; unfortunately though, like its predecessor, Nightfall is let down by a weak script, its shoddy execution and pace and a largely uninteresting cast of characters.

It’s a shame, as there are some cool ideas and concepts in Nightfall, but they’re massively hindered by the series’ truncated structure; the plot never really gets chance to unwind naturally across the limited span of five episodes. Occasional attempts to create any tangible sense of tension or fear in and amongst the bland dialogue – which is completely saturated with cheesy ’80s action film one-liners – largely fall flat, as events are hurried along at such a pace that it becomes hard to connect with or even care about the majority of the cardboard cut-out cast of characters; most of which are either forgettable or played in a laughably bad over the top manner.

Combine all these concerns with some dreary backdrops, some shockingly bad costume/creature designs, and a pretty big clump of narrative loose ends that are just left unsatisfyingly untied by the series finale, and you get a series which unfortunately feels really limp, loose and decidedly lacking.

Unlike The Master Chief Collection, which feels like it was yanked out of the development frying pan far too soon – on the multiplayer side of things, a hideously undercooked and unacceptably red-raw fillet steak of a fuck you to Halo fans – Nightfall instead feels like (to stretch this poor cooking analogy even further) someone tried to force far too much stuffing into a tiny little poussin, then slapped it in the oven for 119 minutes at gas mark 6, and lo and behold, it’s just gone absolutely everywhere. A grisly cacophony of flesh and forcemeat, smeared all over the inside of the oven like a Jackson Pollock painting gone horribly, horribly wrong; a gallimaufric gloop of meat and bone, oozing through the wire shelves before finally congealing into pools of fat and misery on the crusty oven floor. You can see that Nightfall had some cool ideas in the mix, and the potential to get us really excited about 343’s new protagonist ahead of the launch of Halo 5: Guardians, but instead the show feels rather like the Alpha Halo fragment the story takes place on; a lifeless burnt out husk of ash and dust.

Plotholing

Okay, let’s take a step back here for a second, and put my shoddy cooking metaphors to one side for the time being. What’s the series all about I hear you ask?

Halo: Nightfall focuses upon the re-emerging tensions and the old animosity that’s starting to bubble back up the surface between the UNSC and the outer colony worlds since the war with The Covenant ended in an uneasy ceasefire after the events of Halo 3. Set in the year 2556 (placing it on the Halo timeline roughly between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4), the plot of Nightfall takes place just prior to the detonation of a massive chemical bomb on Sedra, an agricultural outer colony planet largely ignored by the UNSC. 343 Industries have said that the events of Nightfall are set to connect the story between Halo 4 and the upcoming Halo 5 – in which Locke is said to be a playable character – and it effectively acts as a vehicle for us to learn about Locke’s origin story as a soldier.

This is a really interesting part of the Halo lore which never really gets explored in the games, and is largely left to the realm of the books – which is a shame really, as this conflict is in my opinion one of the more interesting backstory elements of the entire series, so it’s great that Nightfall is the first major exploration of these themes outside of the printed Halo media.

We first see Locke and his team of ONI operatives as they track and attempt to neutralise a suicide Sanghelli (that’s Covenant for an Elite my dear Watson) but despite their efforts, they are ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the detonation. While there’s no explosion as such, the bomb sends out a massive energy wave which rapidly makes the majority of humans within the blast radius contract a deadly poisonous infection – one which appears to be able to specifically target and break down just human DNA. Upon further analysis, it turns out the deadly chemical element of the dirty bomb came from a loose fragment of the Alpha Halo ring that the Master Chief destroyed in Halo: Combat Evolved, which is now in a low orbit around Sedra’s sun.

Locke and his ONI unit (handily unaffected by the infection, despite being right there at the ground zero of the bomb’s detonation) are then dispatched to the surface of the ring fragment on a secret night operation (hence the name Nightfall). As part of the operation, they are begrudgingly paired up with a group from the Sedran Colonial Guard and its commander, Randall Aiken, to track down this poisonous chemical cache and destroy it with a HAVOK nuke – after all, it’s the only way to be sure.

The catch is that the team only have a couple of hours to get in, destroy the chemical deposits and evac; due to the ring fragment being in a very close orbit to the sun, if they aren’t off the surface by daylight, then they will be burnt to a crisp. Naturally, soon after they touch down, things start to go horribly wrong, and the mission suddenly gets a lot more complicated…

Leatherface or Dr. Who the Fuck is That?

I’m going to kick my critique of Nightfall off properly with what’s admittedly a very trivial point. It’s minor, superficial and quite frankly, it’s a really petty thing for me to have a go at, particularly at such an early stage of the review. But due to the immediacy of the appearance of this problem within the opening moments of the very first episode, it’s that incredibly jarring to the mood and atmosphere which Nightfall tries to establish that I feel it’s entirely appropriate to bring it up right now before we get into the more salient points of discussion.

What might I be alluding to you ask? Well, in the opening scene of Episode 1, we see Locke and his team tracking down a mysterious alien creature, who’s lurking about in the Sedran forests to deliver the dirty bomb to the Elite bomber. This ‘thing’ is a brand new alien race that we’ve not seen yet in the Halo universe and…oh great, it’s just a man in a fucking rubber mask.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, The Halo Channel is currently not my friend (most likely because of the recent DDOS attack, or perhaps due to what I’ve written so far) and is refusing to let me play back the episodes of Nightfall after my initial viewing – hence the reason this review is rather short on relevant imagery. Unfortunately, this also means that I’ve been unable to acquire my own decent images of the new critter to include in this piece, so I’m afraid that you’ll just have to witness the general disappointment of it yourself via YouTube etc. I’ll wait, don’t worry.

Seen it now? Good. It’s pretty rubbish in my opinion – it looks like a cross between a rejected Doctor Who creature and an exploded curd tart (okay that’s the last cooking gag for now, I promise) and it certainly curbed my appetite (No seriously, that really is the last one, I promise) of what to expect from Nightfall pretty early on I have to say. It’s totally immersion breaking; it just looks like a guy in a rubber mask, not some enigmatic new alien race – did the costume department get absolutely shafted in the production’s budget or something? It looks like something out of an amateur student horror film, not a top-end sci-fi production.

What’s really bizarre though is that from a visual effects perspective, Nightfall has some particularly good and tastefully used CGI aliens in my opinion – they look pretty damn good in other words. In particular, the Elite suicide bomber in Episode 1, and without going too much into spoiler territory, the creepy-crawlies that later terrorize the team on the ring look suitably impressive. It’s just a shame that the ‘real’ creature effects look laughable in comparison. Nightfall is quite possibly one of the few times when I’ve watched a TV series/film where the CGI looks way better than real effects used within the same piece of media. Couldn’t the Yohnet have been CGI’d in too?

It’s introduced in an incredibly poor fashion as well – there’s no significant explanation for who or what this brand new creature is in Nightfall, so I had to go look it up online – always a good start. It turns out that these candlewax catastrophes are known as the Yohnet; from my reading around, apparently the Yohnet do make an appearance in the comic Halo: Escalation to be fair, but Nightfall is their first introduction in a feature-length visual piece of content, and arguably, the place where the vast majority of Halo fans will first encounter them. It’s treated right from the off as though this brand new blancmange-faced alien race has always been part of The Covenant, and that the viewers will conveniently know this as well and be instantly familiar with them. Wrong. As a result, you don’t really feel that much empathy with the thing/character when it’s being interrogated by Locke and the ONI/Sedran team in a later scene, it just feels like a nonchalant shoe-in here, a convenient plot device conjured up to plug a gap in the papery thin story.

The Halo universe is renowned for having a vast plethora of uniquely fantastic alien races to draw upon, each with their own distinct cultures, behaviours, thoughts, societal structures and belief systems which are fleshed out to a great extent in the extended Halo universe of the books, comics, anime etc. So why on earth does Nightfall decide to kick things off by thrusting not only a brand new race into the fray without explanation, but a really dull and uninspired one at that? Were the other races not good/rubbery-faced enough?

From the word go, this shoe-horning in of a brand new, uninteresting creature and it’s appallingly tacky on-screen quality just really knocked me sideways. It doesn’t sell you at all on the atmosphere of gritty realism that Nightfall is desperately trying to go for, nor does it draw you in as a viewer; it does the opposite and pushes you further out.

When the creature’s design looks like something you could bodge together yourself in true Blue Peter style, using several swimming caps, countless tubes of PVA glue, a plethora of toilet roll middles, swathes and swathes and swathes of sticky back plastic and a whole fucktonne of Play-Doh to top it off, it’s not good. Oh, and don’t forget a gaint Fairy Liquid bottle too – don’t forget that old chestnut, whatever you do.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that new ideas aren’t welcome in Halo – far from it, I’m personally desperate for new and exciting changes in the Halo series now we’re up to the fifth numbered entry in the games. But the way this new race of rubbery leatherfaces are just casually retconned into existence just feels uncharacteristically sloppy for the otherwise meticulously constructed Halo canon.

Scriptly Come Prancing and Shed Queasiness

Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to some of the more important concerns about Nightfall. Like I said at the start of the piece, the main problem that I found with the series is that while there are some potentially interesting characters in the story, the writing is so cripplingly poor that it does little to make you care about them.

There are good performances here and there; in particular, Christina Chong injects some real passion and grit to the proceedings. She’s the character that’s easiest to identify with in a lot of ways, as the others are mainly just the same typical old macho-man marine hardasses you see in game after game, film after film. In fact, she’s easily the most expressive character in the whole thing; Exuding quiet but steely resistance to the elitist ONI operatives when they assume joint command of the mission in the early episodes, and portraying convincing reactions of fear and fright when things rapidly head south, she pretty much carries the human element of the story throughout the entire series.

Likewise, Steve Waddington brings a gruff solemnity and a charismatic world-weary charm to his character, Randall Aiken (a name no doubt familiar to observant Halo fans), and many of the series’ more emotional scenes are suitably anchored around his character’s poignant arc.

Mike Colter does turn in a decent performance as Locke, but ultimately his character just simply isn’t that interesting. In fact, that’s kind of the problem with Nightfall; the main character is less engaging than his supporting cast. You don’t really get much chance to peek under Locke’s mental bonnet at any point to see what really makes him tick; you have little idea what he’s truly about, what he stands for, what his raison d’être is beyond just following the mission protocol. Nightfall is an origin story that fundamentally fails to tell the protagonist’s origin story; it fails to convey to the audience what exactly makes its protagonist interesting.

Nonetheless, you do root for Locke. I’m still keen to play as him in Halo 5: Guardians (presumably he has an Advanced Warfare style accident which is how he’ll get the necessary Spartan IV augments before the events of Halo 5), if only to have the chance to leave the Master Chief’s bulky MJLONIR shoes for a bit. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s more of a substantial grounding to his character in the upcoming game. In fact, I actually learned far more about Locke from the feature-length video documentary/advertisement that was Remaking The Legend – Halo 2: Anniversary, where in between recording takes in a voice-over session, Mike himself dishes out a few details about his new character in the context of the new game.

Unfortunately though, from what we get to see of him in Nightfall, it looks as though Locke is pretty much written to be the same character as Spartan 117 – bland, stoic and essentially another blank and boring canvas to project yourself onto, another empty set of shoes to fill with little character of his own to explore. I’m hoping 343 will prove me wrong on this of course – playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 was fantastic plot device, one which was almost universally disliked by the majority of fans unfortunately – but from what we get to see in this ‘origin story’, I’m not at all convinced that lightning will strike the secondary character slot twice as it were.

The rest of the performances are particularly lacklustre. One minute the crew are a highly trained bunch of professional soldiers, they touch down on the ring and almost instantly everybody turns on each other like a bunch of headless chickens (just how headless chickens go about turning on each other, I’m not too sure, but trust me, they do). There’s no natural character development; everything feels cut and pasted, scene by scene, episode by episode. You pretty much can spot the typical character stereotypes for what they are in the very first episode even before the proverbial brown hits the proverbial fan blades – which is not necessarily a problem in of itself, but the result is that absolutely nothing will catch you by surprise. The writing feels static and lacklustre, as the majority of the cast show no interesting progression or any significant development throughout the series.

It also doesn’t help that there’s a dirge of cheesy one-liners throughout – “Tonight…we are god!” being a particularly excruciating moment of toe-curling wincery from what I can recall – and some dopey over the top death sequences which give the series a decidedly B-movie tone. All these things keep Nightfall feeling like a sheep in wolf’s clothing; it looks like a slick top-tier production upon first glance, but ultimately feels very video-gamey in a cheap and chintzy way when you barely scratch the surface.

Without spoiling things too much, when it gets going the show’s central conceit is a sort of Lord Of The Flies situation, where the morality and mental stability of the group is gradually worn down over the course of the series until they are essentially just desperate savages. But the pacing of Nightfall’s episodes are just so fast to the point that the isolated cabin fever like pressure-cooker situation that the writers have tried to craft never really manages to take hold. The execution and pacing of the plot just feels rushed and compacted to neatly fit within the five episode arc – it’s a limited vehicle that isn’t particularly suited to building the sustained sense of tension the story required. Perhaps going for a feature length single-sitting movie might have worked better?

Anyway, the slow-burning paranoia that sets in amongst the team of soldiers in the early episodes doesn’t really get the chance to naturally unfold, and instead of things gradually boiling up to an intense breaking point, it just disappointingly fizzles out like a lukewarm opened bottle of coke. Unsurprisingly then, a lot of the drama just feels artificial, dull and boring; again, often to the point where its laughably bad at times.

Dust Bowl

The cinematography in general is pretty good. In particular, the early scenes set on Sedra all look great. With its pouring rain, lush green forests and sprawling futuristic urban metropolis all suitably realised on-screen, these scenes look like they fit into the Halo universe perfectly. The art direction is detailed realistic and familiar; the design of the Sedran city looks just like it could be something straight from the Halo: Reach‘s New Alexandria, or Halo 3: ODST‘s New Mombasa. In other words, the art direction and cinematography of the early episodes feels spot on.

Unfortunately, the later episodes set on the broken Halo fragment just become a blur of charcoal and ash after a while. Although these are impressive and mysterious at first – you get plenty of these awesome wide open shots which are very reminiscent of Scott’s Prometheus, Lynch’s Dune and Cameron’s Aliens – these dusty environments all start to look pretty much exactly the same. Each scene becomes just another variation on watching the same dwindling group of soldiers clamber up and down the same sooty hills again and again. At times, it can be hard to work out what’s more interesting; the barren landscape or the more barren characters.

Classified Intel

As you watch Nightfall, you’ll get prompted to watch additional bonus scenes and ‘second stories’ that act to bulk out the main narrative. They don’t. The bonus scenes that unlock as you watch the episodes range from stuff that should have remained on the cutting room floor, to these frenzied rambling vlogs which are just obtusely boring and impenetrable. They’re just filled with characters giving fish-eye camera lenses a very stern talking to; their scientific logs and video diaries all sound very important, chock full of sci-fi medical jargon, but you can just feel your eyes glazing over the more they go on. With the exception of some of the early additional scenes that depict characters who actually are in the main piece, a great deal of these extra scenes just felt unnecessary and boring. They simply come across as pretentious; the harder they try to push home just how serious and grave whatever subject matter they are waffling on about is, it also becomes less and less interesting to process, which is a real shame.

Everything is heavily censored and classified. After a while, it starts to feel like you’re listening to a confidential blacked out FBI report in audiobook form, and it’s about as entertaining. Even as a longtime Halo fan, listening to these extra sections, straining with freshly peeled ears to hear any little golden nuggets of info that might drop, any easter eggs or cheeky nods to other materials in the Halo canon quickly felt boring, and just not worth the effort after a while.

Before we move on, it’s also worth addressing a whole bunch of questions that are thrown up for hardcore Halo fans to digest. Again, I’m trying my best not to go too far into spoiler territory here, but there’s a lot of loose threads left unsatisfyingly dangling in the breeze that are just never tied up. For example, it’s never really explained just why the main threat on the ring is the way it is. Basically, it’s a variation on the well known creature/organism from the Halo universe, only exhibiting drastically different and uncharacteristic behaviour from anything that we’ve seen before in any of the books, games or TV projects. That in itself is fine – again, I’m all for new ideas in all aspects of Halo – but there’s not even a hint of just why this organism is acting so erratically. It’s just sort of arbitrarily thrown in in similar fashion to the leatherfaced Yohnet; it’s all kicking off because (as Mr. Torgue would say…loudly) reasons. So although the CGI for this organism is cool, the way it’s handled in Nightfall basically renders it as just another poorly used side plot device.

I do understand that 343 don’t want to give away too much information here – after all, a great part of Halo‘s success was due to the mysterious and enigmatic sci-fi tale woven carefully throughout the series – and I appreciate that Nightfall is set to tie into Halo 5: Guardians, where we might well get concrete answers for a lot of the strange shenanigans going on here. However, as a viewer watching this as a standalone piece, the lack of any explanation/resolution is frustrating. In fact, if the soldiers weren’t carrying around the iconic assault rifles, battle rifles and DMRs of past games, you’d struggle to identify Nightfall as having anything remotely to do with Halo at all.

Whilst mystery and intrigue have always been significant parts of the magical Halo formula, they’ve certainly never been enigmatic to the point where any previous media has required a prolonged and carefully sustained analysis (apart from perhaps the exception of Greg Bear’s awesome Forerunner book trilogy) in order to get at their true core meaning.

Lump of Coal

For all it’s faults and my moaning, if you’re prepared to endure through Nightfall‘s plethora of problems, then you will appreciate it as a piece of content designed to function as a hook in the run-up to Halo 5. However, as I’ve indicated here in this piece with all the subtlety of custard pie to the face (sorry but I had to just shoehorn one more cheap food gag in), it’s a shallow, tedious and unrewarding watch at best.

It’s just that, to me, it’s incredibly disappointing to see how poor Nightfall has turned out to be. This should have been much, MUCH more. This should have been a glorious marriage of awesomeness, a sci-fi fan’s sloppily wet dream, a great big fucking triumph of triumphs to be shouted aloud to the heavens (or Halo rings) – Ridley Scott, the king of realistic and gritty sci-fi movies such as Alien and Blade Runner, working on a Halo project, arguably one of the greatest sci-fi video game series ever made. But instead, it just fails spectacularly on the absolute basics it should have easily got right. Uninteresting characters. Weak story. Cheesy dialogue. Bland environments. Poor pacing. Yada yada yada, you get the picture by now – it has none of the hallmarks of quality and excellence that you would expect from either big name.

It’s not like a good Halo TV tie-in can’t be done though – far from it in fact. Halo: Legends in my opinion was absolutely awesome, and without a doubt it’s easily the best DVD/TV offering that has been produced so far. In my eyes, it set the bar high for what to expect from Halo when it comes to extraneous Halo TV content. Yes, it’s not live action, that’s kind of missing the point – what Legends did really well was to take small bite-size self-contained stories from across the Halo universe and put some creative and fresh twists on the familiar material; fleshing out both canonical chapters in non-canonical offshoots and creating new stories that fit the franchise like a glove, totally getting what makes Halo, Halo. Something Nightfall completely missed.

Forward Unto Dawn fell short in a lot of the same places Nightfall does, but credit where credit’s due, Forward Unto Dawn actually did provide an interesting origin story/introduction to a brand new character – again, something Nightfall completely failed to do. In addition, the pacing of Forward Unto Dawn felt just generally better paced and more exciting than what’s on offer in Nightfall, the latter containing both peaks of excitement and quieter moments of calm whilst Nightfall just plateaus out at this steady mediocre level before petering out completely. In particular, the carefully orchestrated set pieces of Forward Unto Dawn were really well executed; the section with stealth elite stalking the young cadets in the locker room, and the final battle with the hunter being particular standout moments.

Anyway, you get the picture – Nightfall is a mere shell of what it could have been. A Halo fan’s dream scenario of epic proportions in theory, but lying in the gutter, gurgling pitifully to itself in a drunken stupor whilst staring at the stars in actuality. To end on a more positive note, let’s collectively hope that whatever the state of play is with Spielberg’s Halo: The Television Series, I just hope that it doesn’t suffer from the same problems that Nightfall has. Just like the dirty bomb that goes off at the start of Nightfall, let’s hope that the problems that infected this series don’t jump and take hold on the next one.

In other news, the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta is now live at the time of writing, (I’m probably playing it in my pants as you read this – an image almost as revolting as the rice pudding-faced Yohnet from Nightfall) so stay tuned and I’ll report back soon with the latest on the Halo 5 front – oh, and happy new year too!