EGX 2015 – PlayStation VR, Kitchen Demo

PlayStation VR
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The Morning after the Fright Before

Picture the scene. You groggily come to, bleary-eyed, and find yourself in a dark, grimy kitchen. You try to get up and move, only to discover that your hands and legs are bound with rope to the chair you’re slumped in. The unblinking glassy eye of a camcorder stares back at you from atop a creaking tripod, recording your every wince and struggle against your restraints. A dishevelled man in a dirty suit lies sprawled out across the greasy tiles, and you can’t tell if he’s unconscious, dead or somewhere in-between the two sorry states. A typical morning after the night before in Huddersfield, you might say.

But no, this isn’t the morning after a particularly sordid night of bacchanal northern excess, or the opening to a new SAW film, but rather the opening to Kitchen, Capcom’s virtual reality horror demo for Sony’s PlayStation VR. While in Birmingham for EGX 2015, I got the chance to try out this sleek blue-tinged helmet to see what Sony is bringing to the virtual reality table…and find out what horrors were waiting for me in Capcom’s scary scullery.

Though I’m still yet to be truly swayed about VR gaming in general, from my hands-on with Kitchen I can safely say that there are some very cool things to be excited about if you’re even just the slightest bit interested in the marriage of horror and virtual reality. Particularly so if, like me, you’re also a cheery masochist who happens to enjoy having virtual sharp pointy objects thrust close to your virtual eyeballs from time to time, Dead Space style. Oh yes.

Before we get to the juicy bits though (quite literally in this instance) it’s time for a quick recap on Sony’s VR device itself. Initially revealed to the world at the 2014 Game Developers Conference as Project Morpheus (named after the Grecian God of dreams, and sadly not Lawrence Fishburne’s pill-popping pugilist), PlayStation VR is an in-development virtual reality visor designed for use in conjunction with the PS4 and due out in the first half of 2016. With a 1920×1080 display capable of running at speeds of 120fps, it’s a beefy piece of kit, and one that many of Sony’s first and second party studios are busy creating games and experiences for. There’s already a fair few decently fleshed out VR demos that are currently available to play on the device, many of which have been doing the rounds at previous events such as E3 and Gamescom. Sony followed suit with EGX in the UK, and so the usual suspects such as The London Heist and Battlezone were among the titles available for people to try out over the course of the event.

Sadly, due to the way the public appointments were scheduled, you couldn’t actually choose which demo you’d like to try in your PlayStation VR demo slot. Instead, it was simply down to the potluck of getting whatever demo just so happened to be free at the moment you strolled up for your allotted time. Luckily for me however, finding out that I’d be sampling Kitchen was pretty much the ideal personal scenario; after hearing Lucy O’Brien positively detailing her experience with the demo on the IGN AU Pubcast, I was keen to strap on a mental apron of bravery and check out this kinky kitchenette simulator for myself.

There’s an Onryo in My Kitchen, What am I Gonna Do?

Kitchen

Okay, so here’s how things played out. After an extensive wait in a Sony holding pen (seriously), I’m eventually collected, stripped, sheared, hosed down and deloused (not seriously) before finally being seated for my demo session. As my demo assistant carefully adjusted the PSVR unit for my noggin, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the PSVR headset is way less bulky and heavy than I expected. Although the only other hands-on experience I’ve had with VR tech was with the Oculus Rift earlier in the year at March’s Rezzed event, I can’t exactly remember an awful lot of how the Rift physically felt on my head, but that’s most likely because I was having a lot of fun running for my virtual life in the fantastic Monstrum at the time, but I digress. Having said that, the PSVR felt both lighter and comfier than the Rift from what I can remember. Of particular note is the fact that Sony’s headset has an adjustable slider to set the position of the internal cushioning around your nose and eyes, which is great if you’ve got a bit of a wonky ol’ konk like mine.

With eyes, ears and proboscis all sealed in my virtual sarcophagus of headset and headphones, it’s finally time for the fun to begin. A brief title screen appears, which is quickly replaced with the decrepit kitchen of my first paragraph. I’m told to hold my hands out, and shortly after I feel the warm clammy contours of a DualShock 4 placed in my palms – nice. I’m then instructed to keep hold of the controller with my hands loosely held together in my lap (to simulate being kinkily tied up), and to gesture forwards with it to begin the demo. I thrust my hands forward, clattering the camera tripod to the floor, and an unfortunate set of events are slowly set in motion.

So yeah, you’re sat in this grungy kitchen (think something along the aesthetic lines of The Evil Within‘s environments and you’re on the right track), and for a while, nothing happens – which is good, as this gives you ample time to have a good look around. Looking down at my virtual body, I see that yes, my hands (and also presumably my virtual feet) are trussed up, hence my current immobility.

However, unlike my virtual body, my physical one is under no such restrictions, so I can actually turn round in my seat and get a 360-degree view of the room. It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this basic motion is, even though it’s an extremely basic tenet of pretty much any VR experience, but it really is quite something. Even though it is sort of immersion breaking in this instance – surely if these bonds are loose enough for me to fully rotate around in my chair, I could wriggle out of them in no time right?

Another small point on the visuals was that while the overall fluidity of motion of PlayStation VR was very slick, the picture quality of the display did seem a tad grainy and fuzzier than what I had previously experienced in Oculus. This may well have just been a visual filter added for a gritty horror aesthetic in just the Kitchen demo itself, but it was hard to say for sure.

Anyway, I’m just nit picking here – time to go back to the demo. Eventually, the man on the floor slowly starts to get to his feet, looking dazed, confused and, perhaps most importantly, not hostile. In fact, he looks scared. No idea why though, as nothing has clearly gone wrong already, and surely nothing could continue to go wrong in a kitchen in such fine upkeep as this. Nonetheless, he picks up a rusty knife off the floor and gestures for me to hold out my hands – AKA the controller – that he can cut my bonds. Gulp.

As someone who gets a bit queasy thinking about things like wrists being in close proximity to rusty knives, this next section is a tad uncomfortable to say the least. Holding up the DualShock 4 doesn’t really feel like holding one’s bound hands together at all, yet somehow the sensation of holding the controller out in front of you whilst your eyes are simultaneously seeing your virtual hands held aloft in the visor is surprisingly immersive.

This immersion becomes even more effective when this dude starts hacking away at the messy tangle of rope lashed between your wrists. Seeing the blunt knife slip and slide through the thick ropey cords in quick jerky motions suddenly makes what you’re seeing feel all the more tangible and distressing. It’s easily one of the more uncomfortable bits of the demo, and it still makes me feel a bit queasy just thinking about it now as I write this. To make matters worse, with no warning at all, suddenly a ghostly Onryo woman raises up out of the floor behind your rescuer and shanks him up pretty badly before cutting off his head. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

From here on out, the final minutes of the demo involve this Hisako lookalike fiendishly toying with you in a number of dastardly ways, the most memorable of which happens in another uncomfortable section where this ghastly ghoul slowly points the business end of the knife closer and closer towards your eye. Even though it’s an ancient 3D film cliché at this point, it’s still effective and really unsettling to see something come within inches of your face. There’s a few more moments of her scuttling around the room while you rapidly try to locate her position, but eventually, a cold grey hand covers your eyes from behind, and it’s game over man. Game over.

Ghosts Versus Cockneys

VR Dude

The PlayStation VR unit in use by a bearded Zelda-loving chap (AKA not me), wielding a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, probably for The London Heist. Cockney rhyming slang not included.

So, what did I think to PlayStation VR and Kitchen? Overall, they’re both pretty neat. The PlayStation VR unit itself is an impressive (and surprisingly comfortable) piece of tech, and though it’s just a basic demo at this point, Kitchen certainly does make a compelling case for full-on VR horror experiences very nicely indeed. But…

Okay, so I’ve got a couple of issues here. First, there’s the classic problem of VR motion sickness. Just like with the Oculus, PlayStation VR it’s a device that seems to quite frequently make a significant number of its users feel sick, including yours truly. I started to feel pretty queasy only a few moments into the Kitchen experience – definitely from motion sickness I might add, and not the grimy aesthetic of the demo – and I continued to feel pretty grim for some time afterwards. Although Sony claim that the fast refresh rate (120Hz) of the PlayStation VR greatly reduces motion sickness in comparison to other VR headsets, I personally didn’t feel any noticeable difference on a user level and quickly found my stomach roiling with waves of nausea in no time at all. But hey, this technical wizardry is beyond my tiny little pea brain, and I’m sure this is the sort of the thing that will eventually be solved given the inevitable march of progress, technology and time.

Secondly on a software level, although Kitchen was a lot of daft fun, it wasn’t really what I’d consider an interactive experience by any stretch of the imagination. The only sort of interaction the game required of me as a player was to roughly gesture forwards with the controller on two occasions – that’s it. It’s immersive and visually impressive certainly, but Kitchen is basically just a short VR horror film. Not exactly the killer app you’re looking for in a new piece of gaming-specific hardware, right?

Perhaps if I’d got to try out Sony London’s The London Heist for example, my opinions here might be slightly different. In that game, I’d have needed to duck and crouch on the spot in reality in order to pop in and out of virtual cover in the game, and use PlayStation Move controllers to point and shoot weapons at incoming enemies. That’s while I’m also Benny Hill slapping burly Statham-like skinheads on their shiny domes, slurping down great salty bowlfuls of jellied eels and yelling “Cor blimey mate, get down them apples ‘n’ pears, faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaackin’ ‘ell!” between each briny mouthful of moray. Typical video game stuff, in other words.

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty standard faire to want to shoot endless hordes of goons in a video game, but at least The London Heist‘s gameplay actually requires a significant level of interaction from me as a player, as opposed having me sit still as a passive observer like in Kitchen. A VR experience like that with a few basic mechanics and gameplay elements in play might have sold me on the use of PlayStation VR as a serious gaming platform, and not just a fancy supplementary VR cinema contraption. The small vignette demos and experiences on the PlayStation VR right now are very cool and exciting, but personally I need to see something more involved, more interesting and way more interactive to seriously consider buying a finished retail unit in the future (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky).

Speaking of which, there’s the cost issue. PlayStation VR is certainly a flash and exciting device for the PlayStation 4, and going forward we’re probably going to see Sony put a much greater emphasis on its VR headset as a premium way of enjoying its burgeoning catalogue of games. But damn, what a premium it’s going to be. The latest news on the pricing is that PlayStation VR will retail at somewhere around the $300-$400 mark, after Andrew House (President of Sony Computer Entertainment International) suggested to the press that the headset would have a price point comparative to the cost of a new next-gen console, and would be marketed as such. That’s one hell of a lot of money to spend on what’s essentially still just a console accessory, no matter how revolutionary it may be.

Obviously, developing this VR stuff is expensive – I’m an idiot (that’s a given) but I do understand that developing tech like this costs a lot of money. Hell, you could even say that the headset being priced at the equivalent of a new console is actually cheap considering how advanced this VR visor actually is. But the fact remains that $300-$400 for a secondary PS4 device is still a hefty price tag for the average consumer, no matter which way you cut it.

However, even with all those whiney concerns of mine, there’s still an awful lot to be excited about with PlayStation VR and the whole VR industry in general. If you’ve read this far (you poor misguided sod), you’ll have no doubt realised by this point that one of the inherent problems with trying to explain all this VR stuff lexically is that it’s a massive injustice to the whole concept. Particularly when it’s an idiot like me who’s the one typing all these lexemes out for you to read. VR is an experience which you really have to see for yourself in order to grasp it’s full potential – you have to get your head inside a VR unit and nearly have your eyes poked out by a knife-wielding wraith to see why it’s such an exciting concept. It’s way more fun than it actually sounds, trust me.

While I personally think a great game will draw in and immerse a player in its world regardless of whether they’re experiencing it with a VR headset on their cranium or not, I’m sure that one day VR will probably be the way most people experience and play video games. It’s a cool and exciting future, definitely, but I think for most of us, that future is still a way off from being a practical and affordable reality any time soon. In the meantime, I’m happy to be stabbed by ghosts and shot at by Cockneys in the place where I’ve always enjoyed those activities – on the TV. Now where did I put those jellied eels…

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – Review

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(Reviewed on PS4 and Xbox One)

No Alf Measures With This Fresh Meat

17 years ago, the gaming world was presented with one of its most unlikely yet most loveable mascots. Blue, alien, dopey, and most certainly odd, Abe the Mudokon made his debut in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation. Developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, figure-headed by series creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, the game introduced players all over the world to the eponymous loveable blue stitch-lipped hero of the title, and his quest to save his enslaved Mudokon people from becoming tasty snacks at the…well, figurative hands at least, of the industrial Glukkons.

A 2D side-scrolling action adventure game, Oddysee was renowned at the time for its unique art direction, detailed environments, cinematic CG cutscenes, challenging difficulty, and, of course, its oddball characters. The game’s story followed Abe, a Mudokon slave labourer (think cute blue and green aliens with rather fetching ponytails) working as a lowly floor waxer in Rupture Farms; a shady and dangerous meat packing plant run by Molluck the Glukkon (think a purple suit wearing greedy Octopus and you’re on the right lines). Hard at work waxing the factory floors late one night, Abe eavesdrops in on a Glukkon profit meeting, only to discover that Mudokon slaves are next on the menu to be chopped up and served as tasty pie fillings. Yikes!

Hearing this fantastic news, our petrified hero goes on the run and begins his adventure. Over the course of the game, Abe escapes the meat plant, seeks out his hidden power by braving two shamanistic rites of passage out in the wilds of Eastern Mudos before returning to Rupture Farms to use his new-found power to free his fellow enslaved Mudokons. Simple right? Well, not quite. You see, as far as video game characters go, Abe was just a wee bit underpowered in comparison to your regular gun slinging action hero. Unlike your typical armed to the teeth space-marine clichés, he had no guns or any physical means of defending himself; instead, all you had to rely on were your quick wits, Abe’s handy but limited possession ability and his noisy bowel (seriously) to make it through each screen in one piece…and not in several smaller bloodier ones.

Anxious Abe

Abe, our loveable schmuck/hero finds out that Mudokons are next on the menu. Gulp!

Players would need to guide Abe on his journey through traps and environmental obstacles, and past trigger-happy guards and vicious wildlife all out to kill him in a variety of increasingly unpleasant ways. Because of his positioning as a hapless everyman-sort of character (only with far-from ordinary flatulence problems) Abe became a popular mascot for the PlayStation brand back in the late ’90s. A sequel, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus followed in 1998, before Oddworld Inhabitants moved development on new games in the series over to the big green Xbox machine, starting with Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee in 2001 and later Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath in 2005.

Anyway, I digress. Jump forward all those years to today, and our loveable blue chump has made the transition to PC and next-gen consoles in Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – a complete HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee, with development this time being carried out by Otley-based studio Just Add Water. So, as Abe would say, “Follow me” and let’s get stuck in.

Boardroom

Molluck the Glukkon, along with the rest of Rupture Farms’ shady executives.

The gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty is simple. Just like its 1997 predecessor, the aim of the game is to guide our hapless blue hero through each dangerous area alive. Landmines, trapdoors, electric chambers, meat grinders, flying landmines and many other horrific hazards are strewn liberally throughout the environments, usually in deadly combination with each other. Slig guards (think robotic trouser-wearing slugs with machine guns) march around with incredibly itchy trigger fingers, eager to mercilessly gun you down on sight, snickering loudly when they do (the swines), and dangerous wildlife that are more than happy to devour you become very present and real threats as you progress into the later levels. In other words, there’s a lot to worry about, and one wrong move is usually fatal.

However, it’s not just all about getting Abe out alive. Throughout the course of the game, you can choose to try and save as many fellow Mudokons as possible, simply ignore them, or, for those especially black-hearted gamers out there, actively go out of your way to kill them. How many you save/ignore/kill affects your Karma, or ‘Quarma’ as the game likes to call it, which ultimately influences which ending you’ll get. If navigating through all those previous hazards and enemies sounded difficult solo, trust me, it can be even harder with several Mudokons in tow. Saving your fellow Muds is tricky, but getting them to follow you is in fact incredibly easy; you just need to talk to them.

Chatting to your fellow Mudokons is done by using the ‘Gamespeak’ function; pressing the d-pad directional buttons when standing next to fellow Muds lets you interact using simple greetings and imperatives. This was a core feature of the original game, and it returns here with several small improvements, such as multiple variations on each response, and most importantly, a dynamic randomised library of fart sounds, which are both hilarious and actually essential to progression in certain areas of the game.

Additionally, this is the first of many fantastic improvements that Just Add Water have made to the original game. Whereas you could only give commands to one Mud at a time in Oddysee, you can now address multiple Muds at once in New ‘n’ Tasty – a feature which was only later introduced in Abe’s Exoddus. This removes a lot of the tedium that plagued the original game when you’d have to individually lead every single Mud in an area to the bird portal escape, before going back and braving all the obstacles you and your previous Mud just successfully navigated to do it all over again with the next escapee.

Bird Portal

Abe opening a bird portal for Mudokons to escape. Impressive stuff, feathery friends!

All the levels that you’ll be, running, jumping, sneaking and farting your way through have been carefully updated from the Oddysee, and some have been ever so slightly redesigned in order to better fit with the new screen mechanics. This is because one of the major changes from Abe’s Oddysee to New ‘n’ Tasty in terms of overall gameplay design is the conversion from a flip-screen camera to a scrolling one. In this sense, it’s almost like an entirely new game on a mechanical level, as all the original environments and puzzles have been built to accommodate this new change. It’s an incredibly awesome alteration to the original design that I absolutely adore; not only does it remove the small but irritating delays you’d get when moving from screen to screen in Oddysee, but it really helps the strange and wonderfully bizarre environments you’re moving through feel much more intricate and cohesive.

Don’t worry though, the new scrolling camera doesn’t suddenly make the game unfairly punishing. There’s plenty of ambient audio noises and helpful visual cues that clue you into what nearby enemies and hazards lie ahead so that you’re not constantly worried about bumping into some unseen threat that’s not currently onscreen. For example, the Sligs now have a radar-like scan ability on their visors, which keeps them challenging and effective with this new screen change; it effectively lets them search areas outside of their screen bounds. In the original, you could generally escape them by just running offscreen and hiding, whereas in New ‘n’ Tasty, they will give chase but now also stop to scan the environment when they lose you. It’s a cool mechanic, as it keeps them deadly and prevents you from running (and farting) rings around them without deviating too much from Oddysee‘s blueprint.

Slig Shooting

Watch out for Sligs, they can chase and scan for you offscreen now in New ‘n’ Tasty.

On a contrasting note, New ‘n’ Tasty does deviate from the original game’s template when it comes to difficulty, as there are now three difficulty modes to choose from when starting a new game. Rather than sticking slavishly to the Oddysee‘s challenging difficulty, which inspired Marmite style love it/hate it responses from gamers when it originally released, New ‘n’ Tasty opens things up for those completely new to the franchise. Although this might be something that returning hardcore fans of the Oddworld franchise might initially scoff at, in my opinion, offering the player a choice of difficulty options is a very considerate design decision.

On easy or medium difficulty, Abe has a health meter represented by a flock of birds (which can be viewed by pressing the Triangle/Y button), and can take a couple of bullets from a Slig before going down, as opposed to the one-shot kill of hard mode. It’s not a huge advantage; Abe still can’t take much punishment, and certain things will still kill in one hit, such as those annoying flying landmines, but this small concession to include a health meter makes many of the enemy encounters much more palatable for an unfamiliar and new audience.

Difficulty Select

The ability to choose your preferred difficulty level is a great move, giving newcomers to the series an accessible and gentler starting point without diluting the original challenge for returning hardcore fans.

New ‘n’ Tasty also implements an inspired solution to Oddysee’s spread out checkpoint system. The original game could feel incredibly punishing at times, often sending you a significantly long way back in a level upon each unlucky death. Thankfully then, the new game allows players to make their own ‘QuikSave’ checkpoints as they play, eliminating much of the frustration from a game in which difficulty and repeated deaths reign supreme. Simply tap the DualShock 4’s touchpad/Xbox One controller’s View button once to make a QuikSave, and then when things inevitably go wrong and you don’t quite time that jump right, or that pesky Slig manages to riddle Abe with bullets, never fear! Just hold the button down to instantly load your last QuikSave and you can seamlessly carry on as if that hideous yet darkly comedic death never happened.

This change to the checkpoint system doesn’t make the game significantly easier; it just makes it significantly more enjoyable to play. This is an Oddworld game afterall, and a violent death awaits Abe around every corner. Throughout your adventure with your loveable blue chum, Abe will get shot, electrocuted, minced by grinders, ripped apart by hostile wildlife and experience many other pleasant ways to go; being able to cut out the tedium of having to wait for a lengthy checkpoint load lends the game a more fast paced and arcade-y feel which suits it perfectly.

Speaking of hideously comical deaths, the fun and humour in New ‘n’ Tasty feels much more prominent this time round compared to the original game (hell, even the online manual is a hilarious read). The new ragdoll physics in play now mean that when things do go wrong (and trust me, they often do), the results are gloriously daft. Seeing Abe get shot mid-leap by a Slig, only to then flop down onto a tightly-packed pile of landmines below is both humiliating and amusing in equal measure. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the way the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their Mudokon loincloths. You will die a lot whilst playing New ‘n’ Tasty, but you’ll also be cracking up just as much, as each fantastically ridiculous demise plays out before you.

Scrab

Abe face to…well, beak, with a fearsome Scrab.

Graphically, it’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. Having played the game on both the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s worth pointing out here that while the PS4 version remained smooth throughout, the Xbox One version did seem to repeatedly struggle to keep at steady 60. I’m no expert on framerates and I have a hard time distinguishing frame rate dips and such with the naked eye, but playing both versions of the game side by side, things did feel noticeably slower and not quite as snappy on the Xbox side of things unfortunately. However, it’s only a small disappointment, and the gameplay still manages to feel fast and enjoyable on both platforms (I haven’t personally played the PC version, but I’m sure that it’s probably closer to the PS4 version in terms of smoothness).

The Oddworld games are known for the grotesquely beautiful art direction, and New ‘n’ Tasty absolutely delivers on that front. It’s one of the first things that you’ll notice when you fire up the game, and it creates a pleasantly weird dichotomy; the levels look at once both nostalgically familiar yet also excitingly different, bursting with a vibrancy and brightness that the original sorely lacked. Even the menu screen looks fantastic, which displays Abe in all his HD glory.

Rupture Farms Escape

Even the interior shots of Rupture Farms look really vibrant and colourful.

All of New ‘n’ Tasty’s environments have been painstakingly recreated in a full 3D engine (Unity to be precise), as opposed to the pre-rendered backdrops of Oddysee, and the world looks far more interesting and detailed as a result. Oddworld itself looks nothing short of beautiful, particularly so in the more rural levels of Paramonia and Scrabania.

Paramonia

The outdoor areas are real graphical treats for your eyeballs.

The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms, the colours and lighting effects still manage to pop out at you. The early moments inside the plant showcase great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. The twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside is another visually jaw-dropping moment, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages of the Stockyards.

Slig Foreground

Each level has plenty of intricate things going on in both the background and foreground.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. At various points in the game you can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling about (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and on a more grisly note, Scrab and Paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms levels. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

Additionally, new camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Rupture Farms Exterior

Rupture Farms, in all its orangey, industrial glory.

On the topic of moving through the lovely environments, back when the game launched in July last year on the PS4, I initially did have a couple of specific issues with New ‘n’ Tasty‘s controls, though thankfully these have since been addressed. The game’s default control scheme has been configured with today’s gamers in mind first and foremost; the original title’s controls have sensibly been revised and brought into line with what brand new players to the franchise would typically expect a platformer to handle like today.

One of these revisions is a change to the way the jump controls operate; When you pressed jump in Oddysee, it would make Abe hop forwards in the direction he’s facing; pressing jump in New ‘n’ Tasty now makes Abe jump vertically straight up in the air. This took a while to get used to as a big fan of the original Oddworld platformers, and it was hard to unlearn Abe’s original behaviours that I’d become so familiar with over the years. For other returning old school Oddworlders like me then, it can take a bit of practice to get the timing down for the hop (pressing the jump button ever so slightly before the desired direction seems to do the trick), but it’s not a massive hurdle, and likely something that a new player wouldn’t even think twice about.

Abe Hop

Whatever you do, don’t look down!

A slightly more frustrating concern however was that originally all of Abe’s movement in New ‘n’ Tasty was governed by how much pressure was applied to the left stick. Pressing the stick fully to the left or right made Abe run at full tilt, whilst applying gentler pressure caused him to plod along with his characteristic walk. Due to the overall faster pace of gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty, having both the walk and run controls assigned on a continuum of sensitivity to the same controller input made sense for the most part, and perhaps made things a bit more intuitive for a new player who hadn’t previously played the originals.

Scrab Chase

The chase sequences and puzzles feel faster (and far more terrifying) than ever before.

However, without a clear tactile distinction between running and walking, a lot of the more intricate platforming sections quickly started to make the new movement controls feel maddeningly imprecise. I spent a decent chunk of my early hours in New ‘n’ Tasty desperately fighting my own ingrained 17-year old muscle memory until I could start to develop a feel for the appropriate walk/run sensitivity needed to make a pixel-perfect precision movement between obstacles under pressure.

For example, while navigating through the more meticulous meat drill puzzles in some of the game’s challenging secret areas, it could sometimes feel incredibly inaccurate and frustrating when I’d just slightly overshoot/undershoot the correct left stick pressure and repeatedly send Abe careening into the gnashing blades of death over and over again. After only a few such sections, I really missed being able to toggle running on and off with a separate button like you could in Oddysee.

Meat Drills

Watch your step Abe!

Thankfully though, in a very neat move, Just Add Water later patched in an optional control setting which gives you the option to assign the run control to a separate shoulder button press, just like in the original game. Problem solved – and now I have absolutely no excuse for my terrible platforming skills…sorry Abe.

Finally, to top off the whole New ‘n’ Tasty experience, Just Add Water have also not only revamped Oddysee, but added their own piece of unique content to the franchise as well. Alf’s Escape is a brand new piece of DLC that tasks players with a rather unique and interesting spin on the main game’s platforming mechanics.

Unlike the main game, you’ve only got the one Mudokon to rescue here, and it’s none other than the fan favourite, mailbag-checking, amateur shrink and barista extraordinaire of Oddworld Inhabitants himself -yup, Alf from Alf’s Rehab and Tea fame of course. The DLC is essentially an intricate and extended obstacle course for two, an elaborate Oddworld version of Takeshi’s Castle if you will, in which you first have to navigate through successfully solo, before reaching Alf’s bar and making back to the start of the level in tandem in order to escape.

The action here can get insanely fast and can require some particularly quick thinking to pull off. Having to coordinate your movements so that both Abe and Alf can escape uneviscerated is challenging, requiring both quick reactions and nimble finger dexterity in equal measure. There’s also some cool easter eggs for observant oddballs to ogle along the way, so remember to keep your eyes figuratively peeled and not literally peeled as you dodge the myriad of meat drills, swinging buzzsaws and many other nasty, sharp pointy objects that are in your way.

Abe Grin

Overall, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a bit of a paradox. It feels like a completely fresh and brand new experience whilst also delivering a heady rush of nostalgia for fans of the original game. It’s faithful to the original’s legacy, whilst also carefully taking thoughtful creative liberties here and there when necessary. The smooth framerate and responsive controls make the game a real pleasure to play, and without the flipscreen changes of the original, there’s a faster and more enjoyable rhythm to the gameplay thanks to the on the go QuikSave system. If you’ve already guided Abe out of Rupture Farms (and beyond) all those years ago, then New ‘n’ Tasty will far surpass your expectations. If you’re new to the series, then get ready for a whacky and delightful adventure into the world of Odd.

Retro Collect: Video Game Market 2 – Leeds Town Hall, 7th February 2015

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Leeds Town Hall

Today, it’s really easy to take for granted just how far the games industry has come, and in such a relatively short period of time too. While it’s cool that our shiny new always online modern consoles are busily purring away, automatically downloading the latest patches, system updates and all manner of other digital shots in the arm that are part and parcel of today’s gaming landscape, it’s a really nice change to once in a while step back in time and blow the dust out of the thick plastic cartridges of yesteryear.

This is exactly what a lot of West Yorkshire retro gaming fans did this past weekend. Retro Collect’s Video Game Market 2 took over Leeds town hall on Saturday 7th February, transforming the stately civic venue into a vintage gamer’s dream.

I popped down to the event to grab a few cheeky snaps and peruse all the lovely old school gaming delights on offer…and, of course, to snag some sweet loot along the way.

Retro gaming fans flooded en masse to the event to buy, browse and button-mash their way through over 40+ shop stalls spread out across the main room and off into the twisting passages and corridors of the town hall. There was an exciting  and at times almost mysterious buzzing atmosphere in the air, like you’d stumbled into the gaming equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave; was that a NES Zapper over there or is it just my eyes? Is that a copy of Zool for the Mega Drive I spy with my little eye? What’s that – An Altered Beast t-shirt? Wow, look, a pimped out Game Boy Colour! Oh hell yes.

In other words, to use a modern gaming analogy, it felt rather like walking straight into The Tower in Destiny, only way WAY busier, with far more interesting shops to browse and no miserly Cryptarch skulking about in the corner, doling out shoddy green engrams left, right and centre.

Video Game Market 2 had something for practically anyone who’s been even remotely interested in console and PC gaming of years gone by, and thankfully, unlike Destiny, the only currency to worry about was cold hard sterling, no fancy-schmancy marks or emblems and whatnot. The scope of gaming history packed into the town hall was really impressive, and between all the various shops and stalls displaying their wares, practically every era PC and console gaming was covered; with Atari 2600 games and Commodore 64 keyboard units snuggled up cosily against Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s of this past console cycle.

It was a really cool sight to see, and this juxtaposition of the old machines alongside the new got me thinking about the retro scene with regards to this current console generation. Standing in amongst the buzzing throng of the eager crowd, fawning over the various treasures and trinkets on sale, I found myself pondering whether today’s consoles will have anything like the lifespan or legacy of their predecessors. My gut feeling is that no, they won’t…but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Food for thought, right? Personally, I think it’s hard to imagine just what sort of retro revisiting will be possible in the future, what with the current console generation’s reliance on online infrastructure as an integral part of their basic operation and the industry’s gradual move to more multiplayer-centric always online experiences in general.

Whether today’s consoles will still be able to generate the same level of fan appeal and interest once their time is up in the spotlight, and we’re all playing on our PlayStation 5s and our Xbox Twos etc. remains to be seen. In fact, will our current PS4s and Xbox Ones even work once the servers and the all-powerful omniscient ‘cloud’ finally gets unplugged? As the holiday attacks on Xbox Live and PSN by Lizard Squad unfortunately demonstrated, the inevitability of an always online gaming ecosystem is slowly but surely becoming a reality, and even a temporary inability to connect to online infrastructures can grind pretty much all activity on these consoles to a complete halt.

For a very real example of this, consider a game like Titanfall. Whilst it’s an awesome game (one that I’ve sunk an unhealthy number of hours into), it’s a completely online multiplayer title with no traditional singleplayer campaign component. Almost a year after its launch in March 2014 however, the game hasn’t really been able to retain its player base as effectively as we once hoped, and now the player population is a tiny fraction of what it originally was.

With the exception of the subsequently patched in Frontier Defence mode (Titanfall’s robotically-themed equivalent of Gears of War‘s classic horde mode), which albeit can be just about played solo (the mode doesn’t scale the difficulty according to party size, meaning you’ll have to slug it out on your own against near-impossible odds on some maps), Titanfall fundamentally requires an always present internet connection and a full set of active players in order to even function.

Due to its ever-dwindling player base, future players of the game on the Xbox One are essentially going to be left with an unplayable shell of the original experience. Once the last players have moved on for good and the servers are finally shut down, that’s it. Finito. No more Titanfall. All that remains will be an obsolescent global graveyard of cracked green plastic cases of the physical copies, with their sun-bleached covers caked thick with dust, and a community’s collective memories of smart-pistoling Spectres, gunning down Grunts  and rodeoing Titans to their heart’s content; all a long time ago in a virtual galaxy far, far away…

But hey, they will probably have Titanfall 2 or 3 in their greasy mitts by this point, so you know…swings and roundabouts.

Of course, I’d love to be mistaken, but I just doubt whether current consoles and their game libraries will be able to sustain themselves for anywhere near as long as their offline predecessors have been able to.

By its very nature as a technological industry, gaming is  a constantly moving and forward-looking form of entertainment. There’s almost always something new to get excited about, that next big thing that’s just around the corner; some elusive, flashy new carrot that’s provocatively dangled in front of you at an E3 show to keep you salivating and desperate to get your hands on, even though it’s still many months and sometimes years away.

With each new major release in the gaming calendar inexorably sweeping up the player populations of older titles, we’re no doubt going to see more and more examples of these types of gaming experiences; ones which require a buzzing hive of online players to keep the blood pumping through their virtual online veins.

Anyway, with thoughts of all these extraneous online issues floating around, there’s something really delightful in being able to go back and revisit gaming’s past at an event like this. Even if it’s something as fleeting and momentary an experience as looking at the crumbling papery boxes and artwork of early cartridge games, or feeling the chunky controllers and garish peripherals of the past in your hands once again.

Resident Evil 2

Amongst all the delights on offer, a personal triumph for me was that I managed to find a Gamecube copy of Resident Evil 2 – the only game in the series that I (shamefully) haven’t been able to play…until now. I’d been searching for a reasonably priced copy of the game for absolutely ages, so I pretty much lunged for it like a crazed Black Friday shopper when I saw it on one of the stands, clutching it to my chest like my life depended on it. It did though, seriously, it really did.

I’ll absolutely be streaming Leon and Claire’s adventures through the wonderful tourist hotspot that is (or, perhaps more accurately after the events of Resident Evil 3, was) Raccoon City at somepoint in the near future on my Twitch channel – so stay tuned if you’re a fan of zombies, side-swept long blonde fringes and delightfully wonky dialogue from time to time.

So, as much as I love my modern consoles and this era of interconnected online experiences, there’s something particularly comforting in knowing that say in ten years time, I could dig out my treasured purple gamecube – itself already fourteen years old at this point – hook it up to an old CRT TV, pop in Resident Evil 2 and desperately try and escape Raccoon City one more time. Alone, anxious and desperately short of ink ribbons.

Destiny Review

Destiny - Title Screen
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In space, no one can hear you grind.

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

Destiny, the fantastical new always-online sci-fi shooter adventure dreamt up by the original Halo developer Bungie, along with publisher Activision, is a bit of a mixed bag. Despite all my own excited desperation to play it prior to launch, and the buzz and hype about it in the gaming press leading up to its release, I have to say that Destiny is one of the most disappointing games that I’ve played in quite some time. Yet, it’s also one of the most enjoyable; it’s a game that I can’t stop sinking hour after enjoyable hour into, blasting away aliens and greedily snatching up that precious loot they drop. In fact, even as I type this opening paragraph, I’m really having to fight the urge to go and fire up the Xbox right now and get back into the action.

It’s hard to say exactly what the ever-evolving future of Destiny will be; whether that’s with regard to how it appears now in this initial representation, or when it has presumably grown into a larger extended franchise further down the line. Indeed, Bungie have promised to curate and support the game and its universe over an impressive ten year period. However, from playing what’s on offer in the game’s debut form, Destiny doesn’t quite yet feel like the brave new world we all so desperately wanted it to be.

On one hand, it has the fantastic first person shooter gameplay that a longtime Bungie fan craves, but on the other, it’s without a story of any similar depth or quality to their previous legacy. It has compelling and addictive loot mechanics, inspired in part by games like Borderlands 2 and Diablo III, but, sadly, these become frustratingly chancey and ever more confusingly unreliable as you get towards the level-cap and end-game content. However, despite some major stumbles, the game’s core shooting mechanics combined with an impressive social shared world experience with a strong focus on co-operative play make for a winning combo.

In a galaxy, far far away…

Destiny - Planetary Map

Pick a planet…any planet.

Destiny‘s narrative set up is as follows. In the present day, Mankind discover an otherworldly being on the planet Mars, a giant white orb known as ‘The Traveller’. The discovery of The Traveller sparks off a golden age of technological innovation and scientific prosperity for humanity, and upon making its home in a low orbit in the Earth’s atmosphere like a giant pale disco ball, The Traveller accelerates our growth across the solar system; terraforming other planets, tripling the average human lifespan, improving our tech and other such flashy miracles that giant space ball deities tend to do. However, it’s not long before an evil force, imaginatively named ‘The Darkness’ (no, don’t worry, it’s not Justin Hawkins’ band), comes to wipe out The Traveller and humanity. Not good. The Traveller sacrifices itself and manages to save the last human city beneath it, where the remains of our civilisation are surviving, before going dormant.

Some time after this catastrophic collapse, the game kicks off for you, the player, when a ghost – a robotic AI machine created by The Traveller – revives your long dead body (this is never really explained anywhere, so just go with it for now), and sets you out on your adventure as a Guardian. The Guardians are special warriors that can wield The Traveller’s light – in other words, kick some major ass and, you know, save the galaxy along the way and whatnot. You shoot your way through the tutorial mission, and upon finding your first rickety wreck of a spaceship, you head out on your epic quest to save the last remnants of humanity and The Traveller from the evil forces of darkness that are drawing ever closer…

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Destiny - Titan and The Traveller

The Traveller, hovering in all its vaguely hinted at glory.

So what exactly is Destiny then I hear you ask? Is it a first person shooter? Is it an MMO? Hell, could it be an MMORPG? Is it none of these things and instead just a figment of our collective imaginations?

Let’s start by going over some of the basics. Bungie describe Destiny as a ‘shared world shooter’, so let’s break down what this phrase actually means. The game is an FPS – First Person Shooter – where the player controls their Guardian character from a first person perspective, as in games such as the Halo and Call of Duty series. The shared world part means that the game is built around social interactions with other players in the game world, much like an MMO or MMORPG. Examples of MMOs – Massively Multiplayer Online games – and MMORPGs – Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games – are games like World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls Online or Guild Wars; these are games in which the player builds and customises their personal character and plays online with other players in a persistent online space.

In MMOs/MMORPGs, players typically complete quests, go on raids, craft items and take part in many other activities, all the while grinding merrily away and levelling up their character to make them more powerful. While many MMO players do like to play solo, these are games in which co-operation with other players is highly encouraged, and in most cases, essential to progress through the game fully. Players in these games can team up and interact with each other, to explore and fight their way through areas together in PVE (Player Versus Enemy) modes and even fight against each other in specific PVP (Player Versus Player) zones if they so desire. The game world in which all these activities take place is a persistent online space, which can change over time, and react to each player’s presence on the fly.

Bungie certainly drew direct inspirations and influences from the structure of MMOs when developing Destiny, which, on the whole, work well; in fact it’s arguably more of an MMO than a FPS in some key ways. Before we go into what works well and what doesn’t, let’s talk about the Guardian classes.

Classically trained

Each player in Destiny gets to create their own unique guardian; the idea being that every new player brings their own superhero-like space demon slayer to the fray to save the galaxy as a collective. Your Guardian’s character choices are purely aesthetic ones – do you want to be male/female, have short hair/long hair, do you want to be a human, robot, or space elf etc. (I’ve got more to say on these races, and their lack of any real background shortly), – but your choice of class is important, as it influences what style of combat you’re going to be best suited to when the shooting starts. You’ve got three different classes to choose from when starting the game – Titan, Warlock or Hunter.

Destiny - Titan

Titan.

The trio of classes operate like the typical classes you’d find in an MMO/Action RPG; the Titan is your Tank unit, which is exactly what it sounds like – a well-armoured tough-as-nails brute. Titans can take a lot of damage and deal it out in large amounts as well, and they’re generally most useful at dealing with large groups of standard enemies using powerful area of effect attacks.

Destiny - Hunter

Hunter.

The Hunter is your long ranged high DPS (Damage Per Second) character, who typically attacks from range, favouring sniper rifles and scout rifles; they also have some nifty throwing knives and special grenades to fling about, as well as a powerful golden gun attack which let’s them inflict massive damage to enemies for a short period of time. Naturally, this makes them crucial to taking down tougher enemies and boss characters quickly.

Destiny - Warlock

Warlock.

Last, but certainly not least, the Warlock is a sort of mix between a support character and what’s known in these circles as a ‘glass cannon’ – ie. a character capable of very high damage output at the cost of being rather fragile itself. They fill in the middle ground between Hunter and Titan, capable of dishing out plenty of pain one moment and providing support and resources for the other Guardians the next.

Despite each class being naturally geared to a specific type of combat, each class can be tweaked to your own personal preferences. Each Guardian class has two ‘Supers’ (think special moves) which they can equip, each with their own separate skill trees to level up. Only one ‘Super’ can be equipped at once, and they operate in an offensive/defensive pairing.

Destiny - Ward of Dawn

The Titan’s defensive Super in action – Ward of Dawn.

Through careful tweaking of each Super’s individual skill tree, all of the three classes can be largely customised to operate effectively in most combat roles, alone or as part of a fireteam (for the most part, fireteams are three-person max groups of players that you can adventure through the missions together as).

For example, you could design your normally slow and heavy Titan to be super quick and speedy at the cost of its armour, and likewise, you could tweak your normally fragile Warlock to be super tough and more bullet resistant at the cost of its speed and damage output. It’s all down to what works best for you. All guns can be used by all classes; however, some classes are naturally suited to wield certain weapon types over others, and will usually receive appropriate bonuses to their intended combat style through their class armour – for example, a Hunter’s armour will likely give boosts that support the use of sniper rifles, whilst a Titan’s armour will usually grant advantages with machine guns.

While it’s good that the classes are designed to be flexible in this way, unfortunately, this also means that when fully levelled up, each class can start to feel indifferent to each other. Combined with the fact that every class can wield every gun, and it soon becomes apparent that it’s not particularly important to have a balanced team of different skills and talents to overcome the alien hordes with; no, just make sure everyone in the fireteam brings their biggest and best guns and you’ll be just fine.

This isn’t a major problem as such, but it does undermine the idea of putting together a holy trinity of the three classes as a single cohesive combat unit – you’re just as likely to get through the same story mission with three armed to the teeth Warlocks as you are having a fireteam made up of all different classes. Oh, and speaking of the story missions…

Halo darkness my old friend…

Destiny - Hive Acolyte

A Hive Acolyte – far too close for comfort.

Remember earlier when I was telling you about Destiny‘s plot? The Traveller, The Darkness, evil space aliens, doom and gloom and all of that jazz – so far, so good right? Well, all of this is explained in the game’s opening cutscene. Make sure you’re paying attention to this cutscene, however, as that’s pretty much the extent of the story you’re going to get for the entire game! Yes, really!

This, to me, was personally my biggest disappointment with Destiny, and it’s something that I’m sure other players familiar with Bungie’s output over the years will pick up on pretty quickly when playing the game, so I thought I’d address it early on.

As a long-time Halo fan, I was both saddened and confused at how little the narrative barebones of this potentially very interesting plot set-up are actually fleshed out. In fact, upon getting about halfway through the game, despite seeing a few scant cutscenes here and there that might have at one point suggested otherwise, the horrifying realisation that no, there still isn’t anything resembling a story at this late stage felt very much like a brutal gut-punch to me as a player.

From the very start of the game, to the surprisingly quick end (the story mode can be played through in about 6-8 hours), I found myself asking largely the same old questions I had at the very beginning; What exactly is The Traveller? Why are there suddenly robots (the Exo) and shiny blue space elves (the Awoken) being nonchalantly classed as part of humanity as if we’ve always had them? Why have I not met any other significant characters yet? I know Bungie are planning to run and support this franchise for a decade, but come on, I need some characters and plot to go on in the meantime, or I’m just not going to have any real interest right now, let alone in ten years’ time.

Destiny - Mars City

The ruined cities of Mars. Despite finishing the story, I’ve still not got any idea as to how they actually got ruined unfortunately.

To be fair here, as much as I’ve loved the stories and plots of the wider Halo universe, the stories told in the Halo games haven’t exactly been the most original and ground-breaking things ever (the extra lore in the books and other media have expanded significantly on the small scope that the games cover, but that’s for another article). Yes, you’ve got the usual space marine clichés, and at times the cheesy military gung-ho attitude bursting forth at the game’s power armour clad seams might be a bit ridiculous, but the stories were delivered in a well polished manner and, like the Master Chief himself, stuck to their (many) guns, delivering a linear yet exciting dramatic space opera in the process.

However, I’m sure that even for those Destiny players who haven’t played the Halo series, the weak threads of Destiny‘s story will still be a bit of a major let-down to say the very least, no matter what your stance on narrative in games is.

 Letter of the lore

Destiny - Ghost Grimoire Card

The Grimoire Ghost Card. This is from the Destiny Companion App – you can’t access these from the game whatsoever right now.

As you play through Destiny, notices will pop up after killing enemies, collecting loot, completing story missions and finding items, saying that you’re unlocking new Grimoire cards. “But lo – what are these Grimoire cards of which you speak Reviewer?”, I hear you cry. Well, these cards are essentially lore cards that give extra information on the enemies, locations and weapons etc. that you’ll come across as you play through the game.

From what I’ve read myself, the lore itself is interesting and nicely ambiguous, and from what I’ve gathered from other players’ more extensive reading, there’s now some cool theories circulating online about just what exactly is going on in this sci-fi universe, and whether everything is as it narratively seems to be – but it’s all entirely separate from the actual game. There’s no way to access any of this content from within the game itself; you instead have to log into a Bungie.net account or fire up the Bungie Companion App to read your collection of lore cards, which seems like a massive oversight in my opinion. Even just having the utility to access your Grimoire cards in some out of the way options menu would have been adequate, but to make the player have to go and read up on the lore via a separate app, or through the Bungie.net website to get the story that didn’t make it into the final game seems like a really counter-intuitive decision.

Upon completing the main story missions, I’ve still not felt compelled to go back and read up on the lore, and this is coming from someone who has, overall, really enjoyed their time with Destiny. It’s a real shame, because at times, with the beautiful art direction, evocative soundtrack and the shared world social interactions between players, Destiny gets very close to capturing that sense of awe and wonder that Bungie really nailed when you first set your amour-clad foot upon the eponymous ringworld of Halo: Combat Evolved. There’s certainly plenty of mysteries out there in Destiny‘s universe, but you won’t be getting engrossed and drawn into them by playing the game at the moment, that’s for sure. Luckily, you won’t need to be.

Why Halo there

Destiny - Vex Minotaur

A Vex Minotaur, coming in close for some gentlemanly fisticuffs.

While Destiny has little to no story or characters, its real strength is in its engaging and satisfying gunplay. Anybody who’s played the Halo games will instantly feel right at home here; from the power and handling of the guns themselves with their thunderous reverberating gunshots, to the nuanced design, look and behaviours of the enemy alien species you’ll be riddling holes in with said powerful guns, the gun-toting gameplay in Destiny feels unmistakably Bungie, and thus, unmistakably fantastic.

Whilst the same unfortunately can’t be said for the story, the raw gameplay DNA of that defining first person shooter experience that Bungie pioneered in Halo: Combat Evolved is still delightfully intact and as satisfying as ever. It’s absolutely central to Destiny‘s genetic makeup. The gunplay is the key thing to what makes Destiny so compelling an experience – it’s rock solid and incredibly satisfying; it’s what will keep you coming back for more and more and more. The guns are all similar staples of ones found in the Halo universe; you’ve got such classics as all-out assault rifles, versatile three-burst pulse rifles, precise single shot DMR-like scout rifles, alongside fan favourite power weapons such as sniper rifles, shotguns and rocket launchers. Each gun has its own particular chunky feel, sound and weight, and you’ll amass a whole plethora of different armaments to mix and match with as you see fit on your inter-planetary jaunts.

The loot system is the other big draw, and it’s how you’ll be acquiring the vast majority of your weapons and gear in the game. For the most part, the loot drops work well for the majority of the game. All the loot in your game is unique to you; each player gets their own independent loot stream, which is a great design choice, as it means no more squabbling over who gets that shiny new gun or helmet a boss has dropped, as was prone to happen on a frequent basis in games like Diablo III or Borderlands 2. Although there are some flaws with the way the loot system works as you near the level-cap (more on this coming up later), generally, it works well.

Destiny - Cabal Combat

A full-frontal Cabal assault. In a word; painful.

The different enemy AIs are generally good; enemies usually require a good blend of strategy to overcome, and their decent AI programming for the most part stops them from feeling like simple bullet sponges. Destiny‘s enemies comprise four different alien races, each with their own unique abilities and tactics. Although all the four races have their own interesting combat strategies, weaknesses, enemy types and class hierarchies, it’s the last two you’ll encounter – the robotic Vex and the lumbering highly-armoured Cabal – that prove the most challenging and interesting to fight. The Cabal in particular are great for co-op play, as many of their troops carry impenetrable shields, requiring you to co-ordinate with your teammates and flank them in order to take them down successfully.

As the game is designed like an MMO however, with separate instances – an ‘instance’ is a term in MMOs for a specific portion of the world map that a particular bunch of players are currently in – when players move off, the enemies will routinely spawn back in and head back to predetermined spots, which undermines their otherwise good intelligence, and at times, can remind you that you’re not exactly playing a first person shooter or an MMO – it’s a blend of the two, a hybrid, which comes with definite pros and cons. In fact, as a result of this, at times, very predictable enemy behaviour, there’s now a growing number of players that have found so-called ‘loot caves’ to farm; places where enemies will constantly respawn over and over again after being killed, allowing players to repeatedly grind away, killing them repeatedly in the hope of acquiring loot at a faster pace than otherwise possible. It’s not a massive thing, but it does undermine the feeling somewhat that you’re playing against smart and responsive enemies from time to time.

Destiny - Vex Goblins Combat

A horde of pesky Vex Goblins. Vexing indeed.

Last but not least, with all this talk of good Halo-esque comparisons, the soundtrack deserves particular credit for building and sustaining Destiny‘s atmosphere. Martin O’Donnell’s superb scores work wonderfully well to establish the world and environments with atmosphere and character…which is just as well, as there are practically no other characters in the story aside from you and your Ghost, AKA the Dinkbot.

Game of drones

Destiny - Titan and Ghost

Guardian and Dinklebot; the ultimate duo in intergalactic crime fighting.

The Ghost is voiced by Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, and he’s your main companion on your adventures throughout the solar system. In fact, with a couple of exceptions towards the end of the game, he’s practically the only other character you have any meaningful narrative interaction with.

As a result, there’s no foundation for any sort of character development at all. Try as you might, even your own Guardian feels rather bland once that post character creation buzz has worn off, no matter how many colourful robes, cool knee guards or amazing technicolour dreamcoats you swaddle them in.

I know it’s been parodied to death already on the internet, but I’ve got to bring it up if we’re talking about the Ghost – Peter Dinklage’s wooden delivery of his lines leaves you really wanting more. From my experience, yes, whilst it’s true that the Dinkbot isn’t the most charismatic companion that will ever accompany you across a virtual landscape, I feel that it’s the poor quality of the material that he’s got to work with that lets his performance down, and not his acting ability per se.

To bang on about it once again, with no other characters to significantly interact with, and with a great deal of the narrative stripped out of the game and put into the Grimoire cards as external lore, the weak writing is laid painfully bare, time and time again. Again, the universe and lore of Destiny is definitely intriguing; it’s just that so much of the plot development is relayed to you via big ungainly exposition dumps from Dinkbot, which you’ll quickly become tired with.

Also, despite Destiny‘s strong focus on continually connected online multiplayer, co-operative play and the shared stories that emerge from playing and interacting together, it’s strange that, on the rare occasions when you do get a story cutscene to watch, only your character is displayed, and none of your fellow fireteam members appear with you. It’s not a big thing, but nonetheless it is a bit jarring if you aren’t playing solo. Considering that arguably the absolute core tenet of the game is to join up with your fellow gamers and tackle the story’s villainous mobs of aliens together, it feels like a bit of a confusing misstep to isolate you from your friends during the cinematic moments.

Destiny - Ghost in Hand

“Fly me to the moon, let me…hover, among the stars…”

Apart from these very occasionally occurring cutscenes, most of the game is spent wandering around the various planetary vistas with your own personal robo-Dink in tow. Unfortunately, despite how beautiful these areas are, they feel lifeless and hollow; there’s nothing really going on in them apart from them being home to endlessly respawning monster closets – spewing out hordes of enemies every few minutes, which eagerly rush back into their set positions to once again be slain over and over again ad infinitum.

So, the weak story, combined with a very repetitive mission structure, begins to quickly feel stale and tired after only a few missions in. At times, Destiny‘s missions can be so formulaic in structure it’s laughable. A typical story mission usually goes as follows:

  1.  Start of mission. Cue a substantial exposition dump of woolly information/backstory from Dinkbot to set you on your way.
  2. Go to objective location.
  3. Kill enemies.
  4. Go to next area, cue more story waffle.
  5. Kill enemies in this location, go to new location.
  6. Kill last bunch of enemies, maybe slaying a few tougher enemies along the way and possibly even a boss character to finish.
  7. End of mission. Cue breakdancing and teabagging a plenty.
  8. Return to planetary orbit. Go to Tower. Cash in engrams with Cryptarch, cash in completed bounties, and buy new gear and supplies if neccessary.
  9. Head back into orbit, pick new destination and mission.
  10. Rinse and repeat.

On reflection though, perhaps it was naïve of me to go in expecting a story comparable to that of Halo‘s. Afterall, the game isn’t a straightforward singleplayer game, in a lot of ways, it’s more akin to an MMO in terms of its structure than a FPS. Once I shifted my perspective away from what I would normally hope to get from a typical FPS experience, and I thought about the game more along the lines of how an MMO operates, then I somewhat let my gripes about a lack of meaningful story slide a bit. To bring up Diablo III as a point of reference again, I absolutely loved that game for it’s great gameplay and didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at its dark and serious storyline, and the same applies here for Destiny. It’s not about what or why you’re doing the things you’re up to in Destiny, it’s about who you’re doing them with. Once you come to this epiphany of a realisation, the game really steps up a gear and comes to life.

A little help from my friends

Destiny - Guardians at Tower

Guardians at the Tower, ready to go off a-questin’.

Having played the game both solo and with friends, it’s pretty clear to say that Destiny is a far more engrossing adventure with other Guardians in your fireteam who are also along for the ride. The social shared world aspects of the game, and the ability to bump into friends and other adventuring players on your travels really transforms what otherwise might have been a bland regular shooter into something truly unique and fresh. A lack of local co-op is a tad disappointing, although it’s perhaps unsurprising considering the general direction of multiplayer in the industry these days, so you’ll need other online friends on the same platform to go on your merry loot hunting adventures with.

The Tower is possibly one of the greatest things about the game. It’s essentially the main game hub; you’ll use the Tower as a place where you can meet up with your friends, buy new gear, and decrypt engrams you find (think bright colourful footballs containing mystery gear) from the Cryptarch. You’re normally coming to and from the Tower with a specific purpose in mind, but some of the best moments are when you are just waiting around and mingling with the other players.

Mingling is easy; the D-pad lets you perform simple gestures, allowing you to communicate non-verbally with your fellow Guardians, including waves, points, sitting down (to show when you are AFC, or ‘Away From Console’) and, of course, dance routines; naturally, this leads to some daft player interactions. Seeing a mass breakdance party kick off in front of one of the Tower vendors is always funny, always unpredictable and always incredibly charming.

As much as these gestures are greatly entertaining ways of interacting with your fellow Guardians, it’s the spontaneous way that you will naturally stumble across other players going about their own business while out on your own individual missions that make the biggest impression.

Destiny - Sparrow Racing

The Sparrow, your Guardian’s very own Star Wars-esque speeder bike, makes getting across levels a real thrill.

The emergent stories that arise from players coming across each other out in the wilds of the shared worlds are some of my own personal highlights from the game, and I imagine it’s this sort of storytelling that Bungie is counting on players experiencing when they go off adventuring as a fireteam.

When these special moments of spontaneous player interaction happen, they feel nothing short of magical. At their very best, you can experience some spur of the moment instances that feel like something carefully scripted, something you might expect to find in expansive and detailed open world games like Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.

On one occasion, after wandering off the beaten path on a basic story mission on the Moon, I soon found myself lost deep within the Hive-infested tunnels below the surface. Think wandering around in the mines of Morria from The Lord of The Rings, only with space zombies, space knights and a cave troll-like Ogre that can rapid-fire lasers from its face, and you’re in the right ball park.

Destiny - Hive Ogre

Fee-fi-fo-RUN!

I fought for my virtual life throughout these gloomy dank catacombs for absolutely ages, hoping to find some secrets or perhaps just another way out, only to be greeted at every turn by hordes and hordes of enemies keen to make my acquaintance. This felt wonderfully oppressive (as strange as that sounds) and it created a heavy atmosphere of desperation, horror and dread that managed to draw me into the game world in a visceral and gripping way that the story completely failed to do. Being lost and on your own in a game normally swarming with other players makes you feel anxious yet electrifyingly engaged.

It took a long time, and an awful lot of bullets, but I eventually found a way out. Upon finally stumbling back outside onto the dusty lunar plains, my relief at seeing other players milling about and merrily dancing around each other was such a sublime moment of release. After being truly alone for a good hour or so, it’s hard to express how special it felt to be around other players again – it’s easy to take the shared experience feel of the game world for granted.

Destiny - Vex Goblins Combat 2

“I’m, too Vex-y for my shirt…erm, power armour.”

Another time, I was making my way through the Aztec-like ruins on the planet Venus (as you do) when I stumbled across a large group of players fighting off swarms of teleporting Vex machines. At first I had no idea what they were doing, but they were getting bombarded on all sides, so feeling the pull of bystander intervention, I shouldered my auto rifle and joined the fray. As it turned out, this was a raiding group I had stumbled across, and they were currently in the process of raising a spire to gain access to the Vault of Glass – Destiny’s first raid mission. Although I was a tad underlevelled in comparison to the rest of the group, I lent my firepower to their cause, helping them to hold the incoming Vex troopers off whilst defending the spire platforms in order to get the massive vault door open. It was an absolutely exhilarating battle to have just spontaneously walked into off the cuff. Sadly, although I couldn’t progress further into the Vault of Glass with them, it felt incredibly satisfying to have played a bit part in helping them on their way.

The Crucible

Destiny - Crucible Team Shot

Guardians strutting their stuff in the Crucible. I’m the one holding the flag – the team mascot, in other words.

Once you feel like you’ve slain your fair share of gruesome space ogres and time-travelling robotic war machines for the day, it’s time to kick back and head into the Crucible for a while. This is Destiny‘s PVP mode, where Guardians can battle each other for experience points, Crucible marks (one of the game’s special currencies) and, of course, fancy loot.

While perhaps not the most unique competitive multiplayer experience out there, the Crucible is fast-paced, exhilarating and a lot of fun. Most importantly though, it’s simplicity makes it a very accessible place to start for those who might otherwise not have bothered with a competitive shooter experience before.

The interplay between the Crucible and the regular co-op missions works brilliantly. Bungie have wisely allowed players to decide how and what they want to play in Destiny, gently encouraging them to try new experiences without forcing players into a painful grind in modes that they won’t enjoy.

Everything applies back to your character, so any cool gear or guns you earn in one mode can be used to help you out in another. All the gear and guns you earn in the game work in both PVP and PVE modes, so all the progress and rewards you earn in the Crucible you can carry over and use in the co-operative story mode also. I personally found this to be incredibly appealing; I’m not the biggest competitive shooter fan, so I’ve naturally spent the majority of my time in Destiny in the co-operative modes. But being able to bring across my favourite guns and gear from the story to the Crucible and vice versa definitely makes a big difference to me, and it gives an added incentive to jump into the Crucible from time to time to see how I measure up to the other Guardians.

Although players are complaining that the competitive multiplayer doesn’t completely balance out weapon stats – the game apparently only balances out the basic stats, and not some of the additional special effects the legendary and exotic weapons come with – I’ve personally not come across this problem myself. From my own experience of the Crucible, regularly playing at different experience levels with different combinations of weapons and gear, I found that, much like other competitive games with ranking systems, a player’s number or rank is just an indicator of how long they’ve been playing the game, and this doesn’t necessarily correlate to their true skill. Unless you’re playing an Iron Banner event (a special limited availability competitive mode that was playable in the Beta, where gear and gun advantages aren’t levelled out), then generally you don’t have to worry about other players having unfair advantages over you; the Crucible still manages to be a fair test of player skill for the most part, and an enjoyable PVP alternative to the story/co-op missions.

High level competitive first person shooter players have voiced their complaints at the lack of private lobbies however, and the lack of other features that they’ve come to expect from similar competitive online first person shooter games, so unless these are patched in quickly, the game will likely not catch on significantly in the pro/e-sports communities.

Light at the end of the (ambiguously long) tunnel

Destiny - Glimmer Chest

Loot, glorious loot.

With all these story missions and Crucible matches under your belt, you’ll soon find your Guardian levelling up at a delightfully fast rate. The upgrades come thick and fast, and you’ll have amassed a decent pile of guns and gear in your inventory. In fact, levelling up happens so fast, that you’ll find yourself at the level max rather more quickly than you may have anticipated.

Destiny has a relatively low experience level ‘soft-cap’ which can be reached with only a few hours on the clock. Although this itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the level cap of 20 has been repeatedly stated by the developers to be only the start of things with regard to the end-game activities – this is by all means a relatively low level cap in comparison to other big loot and grinding games such as, you guessed it, Borderlands 2 and Diablo III. Reaching the cap in those games can take hundreds of hours of play, whereas you’ll reach level 20 in Destiny in a mere fraction of that time.

Obviously, just having to grind for grinding’s sake does not a good game make, but your climb up the experience ladder in Destiny will most likely feel a bit anticlimactic to say the least. Combined with a relatively small number of unique missions and things to do, this does leave a bit of a bitter question mark hanging over the player’s head, with an unpleasant lingering notion of “Is that really it?” Well…not quite.

Destiny - Light Ratings

Finding gear with more light requires both patience and luck…lots of luck.

I say there’s a soft-cap of 20, because in actual fact, you can go past it. To level up past 20, you need to start acquiring wearable armour and gear for your character that have ‘light’ in them. This appears as a new statistic on the wearable gear you’ll find going forward, which you’ll need to move up into the post-20 levels (level 30 being the final cap for the time being). It’s at this point that the loot system goes from working nicely to being a cheap lucky-dip apple bobbing contest in a hand cannon’s muzzle flash.

The loot, armour and guns you’ll find while playing and that you’ll receive as mission rewards are, as far as I can tell, entirely luck based. You’ll still earn experience points as you did before, but once you’re at level 20, they only count towards levelling up your currently equipped gear, special ability and guns. From here on out, it’s totally down to lady luck as to if and when you get gear with better light ratings. Get a high enough light rating from your gear and you’ll go up a level. Don’t find anything with higher light ratings and, well…you could be stuck there for some time, and there’s nothing you can do about it except to get that plucky nose of yours back to the grindstone. All of a sudden, this turns levelling up from a smooth gradual incline of progress into a jagged stop-start purgatory-like traffic jam.

Destiny - Cryptarch

The Cryptarch. Helping and scamming players in equal measure. Somebody call Watchdog…

In fact, in some ways, the loot system is actually currently broken in a few key ways. Remember a whole bunch of paragraphs ago when I was saying that the system works well for the most part? Well, it does, but as you’re levelling up and playing the game, you’ll be dealing with this friendly blue chap in the tower called the Cryptarch. You might even come to grow fond of him; he’s an elderly Awoken mystic who is only too eager to help turn those glowing colourful engram balls you’ve hoarded into shiny new things for you to use on your next cosmic adventure.

For the majority of your game, you’ll be turning in green and blue engrams, which, by and large, give green (uncommon) and blue (rare) items, as you might expect from their corresponding colour scheme. However, once you’ve reached the level cap, you’ll be starting to find your first purple (legendary) engrams, which as the name suggests, you would think to contain legendary items. Nope. What it actually means is that it could be a legendary item…but it probably won’t be.

You might have been grinding for hours to get that purple engram, but there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get a legendary gun or piece of armour from it once it’s decoded. Needless to say, this can feel very cheap and frustrating – which, like I briefly mentioned earlier, has lead to a bunch of Destiny players spending all day farming loot caves in the hope of lucking out on rare items. This is apparently being patched by Bungie in an upcoming update to make sure that you definitely get the correct level of loot from the engrams you turn in, but it’s made advancing through the levels for current Destiny players a bit of a chore in the meantime.

Essentially, once you’re at the soft-cap the loot system degenerates into a game of chance. At level 20 and beyond, whether you’re playing in The Crucible or carrying out story/co-op missions, you’re playing with your fingers crossed at all times, hoping that any loot you come across has more light. There’s no other way to progress.

With all this chance involved in getting past the soft-cap, you might well ask “What’s the point in doing all this extra levelling up past 20? If it’s all down to luck, why spend hours grinding trying to go any further?” Well, it becomes particularly important if you want to experience the end-game content such as the raids. These are the key features of the game that Bungie are keen to impress upon players as the best bits of the entire Destiny experience.

Raiding between the lines

Destiny - Devil Walker

The fearsome Fallen Devil Walker can be a particularly tough nut to crack.

Raids are particularly difficult missions that require a team of six players to come together and tackle gruelling enemies and massive bosses, much like MMO raid players do in games like World of Warcraft, in order to get their hands on some of the most rare and powerful loot and weapons in the game for their characters. Raid missions require fireteams to have unrivalled communication skills, co-operation and teamwork in order to pull off these most difficult of missions successfully.

Here’s why levelling up is important past the soft-cap. It’s suggested that players need to be at least level 26 minimum to be in a decent position to start tackling the raids, and about level 28 in order to competently take part. The bottom line; these raids are pretty damn hard. To even begin thinking about tackling a raid before getting to the higher post-20 level is pretty much suicide, hence why you’ll need to spend a good portion of time beforehand grinding away for better gear, and hoping you’ll chance across enough decent gear with light in it.

Destiny‘s apparently hard-as-nails endgame content sounds terribly exciting. I say ‘apparently’, and ‘sounds terribly exciting’, because as of yet, I haven’t been able to play them. I’m essentially twiddling my virtual thumbs as I wait for my friends to level up. I’m a level 26 Titan myself (lucky me), but I’ve got to wait for my five other friends to have the same luck with light-filled loot that I’ve had, because here’s a bombshell – there’s no matchmaking system in place for the raids, and the weekly heroic/nightfall challenges (these are also pretty tough).

This means that unless you have five other highly-levelled and tooled-up friends playing Destiny, you won’t be able to get access to arguably some of the best gameplay and experiences that the game has to offer.

Why offer extensive and technically impressive matchmaking systems throughout the majority of Destiny, only to snatch them away for what are supposed to be the best bits of your game? In fact, as far as I’m aware, the game doesn’t actually tell you anywhere how to start up your own in-game clan (Destiny‘s integrated online team system, designed to help you organise raid dates and times etc. with all of your clan members as a whole). I’m only aware of the clan system and how it works from my previous experience with Bungie’s Halo clan systems over the years. I can only imagine that there’s going to be lots of people out there who won’t ever get to experience what’s touted as Destiny‘s best content as it’s not sufficiently explained to them in-game.

Destiny - Sepiks Prime

Sepiks Prime – AKA that giant electric floating eyeball thing, is also quite a brute on the harder difficulties.

I’ve found from my own personal experience with Bungie’s Halo games that they can be particularly heavy-handed when it comes to how they want you to play their games online. I can totally understand why they want you to just solely play the raids with people you have in your clan/friends list to some extent – you’re more likely to talk and communicate with people you know, players are less likely to unexpectedly drop out, and overall you’ll generally be more comfortable and more likely to get into the heat of the action as you navigate through these difficult dungeons together, where real-time tactics and communication are no doubt keys to success.

Friends-only raiding is absolutely a nice idea in some ways, but it feels impractical, and very prescriptive considering how open and flexible the rest of the game is. Bungie’s stance on the raids, unfortunately, seems to be unnecessarily difficult and officious. It’s like trying to get into a nightclub with a particularly stubborn bouncer on the door, who point blank refuses to let you in for some petty reason, even though you’re obeying the dress code and being perfectly charming.

They seem to have this overblown romantic idea of how you’re supposed to be playing alongside your online friends. You and these fine, brave men and women you’ve banded together with on your epic journey; these noble warriors of old, armour clad and powerful, standing tall with the galaxy’s finest weaponry in their hands.

Actually, no, not quite – I just want to play a raid for a few hours if that’s quite all right Bungie? Pretty please? I would of course prefer to play with my friends when possible, but I’d also like to just jump into a raid with strangers from time to time and see how we all get on if my online gaming friends aren’t available. Is that too much to ask Big Brother?

Does it really matter if we fail hopelessly at a raid? Can I not be allowed to try and fail on my own terms? I couldn’t care less if I repeatedly failed, or the team doesn’t communicate properly, or we just simply can’t pull it off in the end because people want to breakdance all the time – isn’t it the taking part that counts after all? Anyway, enough of these rhetoricals – to the Batcave! No wait, that’s not right – to the conclusion!

To Infinity, and beyond

Destiny - Ship Vortex

Set the controls for the heart of the sun…actually, on second thought, let’s go back to Earth instead.

So that’s Destiny, in an admittedly rather large planetary-sized nutshell. The game is fantastic and ground breaking in a lot of ways, but it has so many critical problems at its foundation. Some of these are just so inconceivably basic, especially so when you consider the amount of money that was reportedly pumped into the game – a whopping $500 million was the original (later said to be inaccurate) figure.

As a result, you’ll find yourself asking, “How did they manage to get this so wrong?” at times, only to be blown away mere seconds later by some ridiculously exciting spontaneous event that kicks off and gets everybody in the area playing together and having a genuinely good time. There’s moments where you’ll be truly amazed by what’s going on in Destiny, marvelling at how fresh and exciting this socially connected playing space is, only to find out how fragile and stale it is in places, like an abandoned flimsy cardboard film set, with no actors in sight for miles.

Despite the flaws, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Destiny, and I plan on spending many more hours looting and shooting my way back and forth across the solar system for a long time yet. In terms of new content coming to the game over in the near future, there’s two paid expansion packs that have been announced as part of the Destiny Season Pass – The Dark Below and House of Wolves, with another two unannounced packs to follow, and free updates and patches for the game are rolling out on a pretty regular basis, so you clearly feel that the game has a great deal of support right from the off.

For me though, when I think about Destiny, it’s all about the guns and gameplay. The shooting mechanics in Destiny are an example of Bungie at it’s finest – from the moment you pick up that first ancient and rusted assault rifle in Old Russia, you know you’re in for something special. So special, in fact, that longtime Bungie fans will swear that they’re holding their gun in some very familiar green MJOLNIR power armoured hands.

Destiny - Green Titan

Cough, cough *Master Chief* cough cough.

Destined for greatness with its solid gunplay and next-gen co-op and social features, but significant flaws with the story and loot system prevent Destiny from truly becoming legend.

Pros Cons
+ Gunplay is fantastic. – Story is a complete mess.
+ Hunting for loot is exciting and addictive. – The action gets very repetitive, very quickly
+ Shared world areas lend themselves to moments of fantastic spontaneity and player interaction. – No matchmaking for key modes in an always-online multiplayer game is baffling.

Stewart Gilray Interview & Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty Preview

Abe
Standard

Hey All’ya!

If I could go back in time using some new-fangled time-travelling device of sorts, and tell the seven year old me, that one day, I would have the opportunity to go to the studio that would be working on the Oddworld series of games, he would have most likely stared at me in disbelief… before enviously setting a pack of ravenous Slogs upon me, chuckling noisily to himself like a malicious Slig. What a nasty little seven year old eh?

Luckily for me then, no such device exists, and no time-bending paradoxical meeting with a past version of myself (with an over-developed sense of vengeance) ever took place, and thus, I live to tell the tale of my very pleasant and exciting interview with Stewart Gilray, CEO of Just Add Water and Business Development Director of Oddworld Inhabitants.

Here I am, un-savaged by Slogs, on a sunny June morning in Otley, West Yorkshire, on my way to interview Stewart about himself, Otley, the origins of Just Add Water as a development studio, and of course, the new game. Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a proper HD remake of Oddworld Inhabitants’ 1997 classic Abe’s Oddysee, about to be imminently released at the end of July for PlayStation 4, with other console versions to follow later in the year.

I gaze up at the Wharfebank Business Centre, the home of Just Add Water as I cross the car park; the building itself is a grandiose old textile mill turned groovy office complex, and I can’t help but let a small, wry smile play out across my face at the irony that New ‘n’ Tasty is being made here. A game about a hero, Abe, freeing his oppressed and enslaved Mudokon people from the greedy industrial Glukkons of the Magog Cartel, is being developed in an old mill of the real life industrial revolution, infamous in the 19th Century for their appalling working conditions and high casualty rates. If Abe were here today, he’d be running for his life out of the industrial behemoth of a building standing before me, and not trepidatiously wandering into it like I am.

Don’t get me wrong though, this is certainly no Rupture Farms, or SoulStorm Brewery. Oh no, quite the opposite. The sunlight gently dapples against the majestic stone of the mill, giving it a warm and gentle golden-yellow hue against the horizon. Big leafy trees surround the outer edges of the car park and sway gently in the breeze. I pause at the edge of the riverbank, the spongy grass of the bank nestled right up to the tarmac at the far side of the car park, and gaze out at the River Wharf. Listening to the tranquil body of water, quietly but contentedly rippling along as it flows downstream, I watch the passage of the river make its way under a majestic canopy of green foliage before gradually curving out of sight. The scene is picturesque, and about as far away from the dark Satanic mills of Blake’s poem as one can imagine.

I find my way inside, and after cunningly sneaking past their Slog pens and Slig patrols, I find myself at Just Add Water’s offices. I knock on the door, and almost immediately have to resist the near-overwhelming urge to greet the friendly JAW employee that opens it with my best impression of ol’ stitch lips’ classic “Hewow” greeting. Thinking back to the original game, I half expect to have to perform a Monsaic Lines call and response style whistle and fart combination in order to be allowed to cross the hallowed threshold. Luckily for me, no such response is required, and I’m ushered deep into the land of Odd.

Out of all the treasures in the room before me, my eyes were immediately drawn to the glass table next to the sign-in book. There on the table before me, lay the original PlayStation manuals for Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus. Two bibles, if you will, of my gaming youth. I remembered pawing through these important scriptures… erm, manuals upon getting the original games when I was but a wee child, back in a now all but forgotten era when reading a game manual was the first ritualistic step to getting immersed in a new game. I quickly scrawled my name in my usual angular and spidery handwriting, eager to get a better look.

Seeing these two slim but mighty tomes of virtual wisdom on all things odd on the sign-in table just shattered what little resolve I had left mentally to remain a somewhat-respectable functioning adult and I felt myself devolve back into that seven year old Oddworld-obsessed oddity of years past (minus vicious Slog pack of course). With great difficulty, I managed to pull my gaze away from the manuals and ’90s original PlayStation beside them (no guesses as to which game was currently in the disc tray) and cast my eyes around the rest of the open plan office area.

I was in an Oddworld fan’s dream. Liberally splayed out across the walls and drawing boards are pages and pages of artwork, early concept drawings and design documents, featuring beautifully detailed artistic pieces from all the games in the Quintology so far. Jokey slogans adorn the doors, with quotes pulled directly from the games and amusingly re-appropriated for office life (‘You escape and all 28 employees in this office die!’). Awards, accolades and trophies (real shiny ones, not just those coveted virtual ones) line the shelves and are modestly nestled in amongst various magazines, props, and games consoles of years past. The passion in the room is almost overwhelming at times; part hardworking office and part glorious gaming shrine.

The office has the relaxed camaraderie of a probably very tired but undoubtedly hard working team. The JAW staff are poised at their desks, simultaneously quietly chatting away and clattering away at their computer keyboards. I try to glance at their computer monitors, hoping to catch a cheeky in-game glimpse of any characters. Abe, Elum, Mullock, hell, even a pantless Slig from Exoddus will do… but alas, my C in GCSE maths cannot decipher the strange codes of numbers and programs on their screens, no matter how much I squint at them.

With the latest E3 demo of New ‘n’ Tasty whisked away to the mystical land of LA the day before, the atmosphere here is that of the quiet but temporal eye of the storm; the release date of the remake is racing up ever closer in just over a month’s time – July 22nd in America, while we Brits across the pond get it a day later on the 23rd. The finish line is in sight, but it’s getting down to final crunch time.

In all my wide-eyed lollygagging and finding myself in this nirvana-like state of pleasant dumbfound-ness, Stewart arrives and is ready to talk. Dressed in a Star Wars t-shirt and jeans, he has a relaxed and cool confident air for someone who’s probably been under increasingly mounting pressure and rapidly looming deadlines whilst getting the E3 demo ready to go out to the States. We shake hands and I plod after him, like one of the green worker Mudokons from the game faithfully following Abe, to a quiet office where I can fling my questions at him from my word-crossbow, Stranger’s Wrath style, like a bundle of knowledge-hungry Fuzzles out for information rather than outlaw blood.

So, that’s quite enough of my yakking and incessant Oddworld reference dropping for now, without further ado, let’s hear from the main man himself.

Stewart Gilray Interview

Mullock

Tom Bennett: First of all, I wanted to know how did you yourself get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?

Stewart Gilray: Oh god… I’ve been working in the business now since ’88, so this is my 26th year, but I started off as programmer on the Atari ST and [Commodore] Amiga back in the day. (Adopts Yorkshire accent) Back in’t day! I literally did it from school, I got into computers when I was 13/14, did a bit on the [ZX] Spectrum and then went onto the ST, Amiga and learned how to program, and wrote a couple of games on there. So it’s been a long haul, and a lot of years.

TB: What was the first kind of game you made then?

SG: Well the first thing we did which was published was actually the introduction sequence for the game Powermonger, by EA/Bullfrog. We were hired to do the introduction sequence, which we did, and then we were hired to do the introduction sequence for the game Birds Of Prey on Amiga. We did a Populous 2 one but it wasn’t used in the end because EA cut the budget for the manufacturing of the discs, so instead of having two discs in the box they only had one disc in the box, so our intro was cut.

TB: Aww!

SG: Nevermind. But then at the same time I was writing a game called Rubicon on the ST and Amiga for 21st Century Entertainment, and that was finished in January ’91 and it came out in February/March ’91. I did a couple of other projects on the side, and then I worked for 21st Century Entertainment as an In-House Junior Producer. I did that from ’93-’97. In ’97 I joined Grolier Interactive as an External Producer working on external projects – at the time it was David Braben’s V-2000, and a couple of other ones. Then after that I went to work at Revolution Software in York, and I worked on the very end of Broken Sword 2 American version and In Cold Blood as Development Director and Gold and Glory: The Road to El Dorado, which was a licence they did. Then I left there to work at Runecraft in Dewsbury, and there I did the Soldier of Fortune game on Dreamcast and Spec Ops Ranger Elite on PS1. I left there about a year or so later, and took a couple years out the industry… no I didn’t, I tell a lie! I started up my own company, Binary9 Studios, did that for a year or so, left the industry for a couple of years, came back in to start up a job in October 2006, and here we are eight years later.

TB: Wow, so quite a plethora of different styles and games there!

SG: Hmmm! I was asked recently to give my full back catalogue of what I’ve worked on, and I worked out that including different platforms, it’s 75 titles, so it’s like (nervously laughs).

TB: Wow. That’s-

SG: A lot!

TB: Yeah that’s an impressive track record there – well, following on from that, what made you want to actually start developing games as opposed to just say, consuming them and playing them?

SG: I think in the ’80s it was different, I think if you played games you wanted to know how they worked, and you thought, there’s a game, I want to play this game, but this game doesn’t exist – I’ll write it, you know? In the ’80s, programmers, well developers were programmers, artists and musicians in one. People like Stephen Crow who did Starquake and Firelord, he did everything himself, and John Phillips as well, he did everything himself. I think it was born out of that industry, in the way it was in the ’80s, and that was it really. I just wanted to make games, and my mate Richard, who’s now at Zynga in San Francisco, we grew up together from the age of 10, he did art, I did programming, and that was it really.

TB: Wow, like you say it’s very different from today isn’t it, where you’ve got highly specific development teams made up of-

SG: Thousands, yes! Yeah I mean we [Just Add Water] employ 17 people. Out of that, I’d say 13 or 14 are development. Audio in-house, we’ve got, 6 artists, 4 programmers, a producer, a QA, office people and stuff you know, so it’s busy!

TB: Well you’ve kind of partially answered my next question; I was going to ask how many people make up Just Add Water in total and what was the inspiration behind the name?

SG: Oh the name! My wife came up with the name, but I kind of took the holistic hippy-ish view to it that human beings are 70% water; so to make something you have to add humans to it, so you’re adding water to it… too much Pink Floyd in there!

TB: No no, I don’t think you can ever have too much Pink Floyd in anything!

SG: But yeah that’s where the name came from really. As for having people, there’s 16 or 17 now, you know, a couple of people have changed, coming and leaving and stuff, things like that you know, and it’s maintained at around 16 or 17 people.

TB: Nice! What was the process in getting all these people together and how did that come about; Have you just picked up people from other various projects you’ve worked on over the years?

SG: No, well, I mean Steve our CTO, he and I worked together at Runecraft, and when I started JAW in 2006, it was just me at first, and Steve came to do some freelance work back in 2009, and then, you know, he became a member of staff properly and actually later a co-owner with me in April 2011. But since then, we’ve built up and we had 4 people in April 2011, when we did this sort of reboot if you like of the company. We hired more people, and I think over that time we hire for what we need. We’d probably like to get some more programmers in, I’d like to have 6 programmers in full-time, we’ve currently got 4 as I said, so yeah, we’re getting there. I think that the number we’ll stick at for a while is 20 people.

TB: That’s kind of a comfortable size is it?

SG: Yeah… otherwise it gets too expensive!

TB: Of course, of course! What were the reasons behind deciding to locate Just Add Water to Otley?

SG:I live here! That is it entirely! I came up here at the end of 1999, to work at Revolution in York, my wife’s family was in Otley at the time, so she wanted to come back here from Oxford, so yeah we bought a house not far from here. That was it really, but I didn’t work in Otley until 2006. Everything else was away from Otley. In 2006 when we started the company up and we started work in Otley, JAW was at the house for the first 6 months, and then it was based in an office in the middle of Otley, then an office downstairs here, and now we’re up here in this one. So we’ve had 4 moves really as a company. But you know it’s been alright; If we had to move from here it would be a right pain in the backside, because when we came up here we only had 9 people and we’ve now got like I say 17 and lots more equipment!

TB: There aren’t a lot of development studios up north are there really, a lot of them are kind of mainly down south.

SG: You’d be surprised – there’s a lot in Yorkshire, of course you’ve got Rockstar Leeds, Team 17, members of Chinese Room, some of them are based in Leeds. There’s Game Republic, which is like an overhang if you like, it used to be part of Screen Yorkshire, but then the Government binned all that stuff. We, a lot of developers put money in to keep Game Republic going – it’s basically, I won’t say governing body, but its a sort of umbrella across all of us and they’d get people up first to meet us like Sony or Microsoft would come up to meet the indies. In total there’s something like 65 members in Game Republic, and that’s companies, members of the republic. Then you’ve got Ga-Ma-Yo, which is run by Andrew Crawshaw, who is part of Chinese Room – he is 260 members as individuals. So there’s a lot of developers in Leeds!

TB: So I basically need to do better research really then! (Laughs nervously).

SG: Well, no but you’re right it’s hard to work out because you wouldn’t think it; there’s Revolution in York still, they’ve just done Broken Sword 5, [and] there’s other developers not in Leeds themselves who are just individuals, you know.

The Boardroom

TB: So, what attracted you to the Oddworld series in the first place?

SG: I mean I was a fan back in ’97, when Abe’s Oddysee first came out, I was playing it, and my cat who’s no longer with us, he used to sit and watch us playing it. He used to sit and watch the telly like this and go left and right as he watched Abe run around on the screen on a big 32-inch CRT.

A friend of mine, Dan, moved out to America in 2006/7, and he met Lorne Lanning [Oddworld Inhabitants CCO and Co-Founder] before that, and I kept saying to Dan “You should get Lorne to remake Abe’s Oddysee or do a 2.5D game”, but he said he doesn’t want to do games anymore, and then I was actually introduced by Dan to Lorne in GDC 2009 and we kind of stayed in touch via email and things.

Then in June 2009, he asked us to do some stuff for him, we which gladly did, but then in April 2010, they had some problems with the developer they hired to do the game Stranger’s Wrath on PC, so we kind of took over that. Steve and I did that; Steve did 95% of it and I did the other 5%. So two of us did a PC port in five months basically, which got some slack and flack when it came out in December 2010. We did some patches and some updates for it which fixed it, but then we started doing a PS3 version of Stranger’s Wrath in… well, the art actually started in September ’10. We didn’t start coding until the end of March/beginning of April ’11, and we released it in December 2011. So the relationship came out of the fact of we were looking for work, Oddworld Inhabitants were looking for some people who they could trust, you know, the people they had before, they just kept breaking their promises and deliveries and stuff. We said, “Look, we’ll do it for cost price for you, here you go” and they went ok, and we went from there really, and our first project, it was let’s say $50,000 budget, the next one was $250,000. This one, New ‘n’ Tasty, is $2 million so it’s escalating scale, you know, and it’s gone alright, we’re awfully successful at that.

TB: Yeah I mean New ‘n’ Tasty is certainly a hyped game isn’t it, there’s a lot of people that are excited for it – me included!

SG: Yeah, we’ve got some pods in the Sony Booth at E3, and the trailer – well you know the Sony America are putting the press conference in theatres in the states? We’ve got the New ‘n’ Tasty trailer playing in the theatres before the press conference, which is cool. Sony of America are definitely behind us and we’re still dealing with Sony Europe on some stuff but yeah it’s good. We’ve not got a lot of time left, you know, a few weeks left to be completely finished, you know, but the E3 build is testament to us, the fact that we’re almost there. So it’s literally just bug-fixing and final balancing now, and then we’ll be done hopefully very shortly. So then the fans can get it in their greasy mitts!

TB: That’s what it’s all about!

SG: Hopefully it will do well!

Stockyards 2

TB: It’s really good to see Abe making a return because back in the early days of the PlayStation he was one of the main faces of the brand. You had Crash Bandicoot, who was kind of like the main Sony mascot and there was also Abe, and people have kind of forgotten about him, but it’s good to see he’s coming back to his original levels of popularity.

SG: Yeah I mean, what’s quite funny is that when people who haven’t seen the news in the past two years that New ‘n’ Tasty is coming out suddenly see a trailer and go “Oh wow, that’s like Abe’s Oddysee” – it’s like “Where’ve you been?” (Laughs).

It’s interesting, there’s enough things that are different in the game for it to be a brand new experience to a lot of people, including people who played the original ones. We’ve added some stuff in there, some mini-levels and things, which will and do make it different from the original. Some of the mechanics and the way they work have made it different as well, we’ve had to introduce some other mechanics to get past some of the design changes because of moving from the flip screen to scrolling environment system.

TB: I was going to ask you about that yeah.

SG: So yeah there are a few differences, but not massively. Most people will go “Oh I know that bit” – of course you do, it’s based on the original game – apart from that it’s a complete re-build from the ground up – there’s nothing in there that exists from the original game at all, which is nice.

Rupture Farms Wanted Abe SignTB: Right well yeah that’s a nice little segue into the next question! How did you first get started on remaking Abe’s Oddysee? Was there an obvious place to start or did you have to experiment and see what would be the best way into it?

SG: Well, I had a vision in my head of what it would all look like and play like, and I’ve been bugging Lorne for ages and with calls and stuff, and I said “Let’s do Abe”, and he said “Ah I don’t want to do it” and I said “Why?”I remember one conference call I had was me, Lorne, Dan and Larry [the old President of Oddworld Inhabitants] and Lorne and I were chatting non-stop about what to do in Abe for about 10 minutes and Larry just went “Would you two guys shut up and come back to topic please?”

Obviously we we’re starting to get charged up with ideas and things, but that was 2010, and we’d started pre-production on ideas and stuff probably mid-late 2011, and then we didn’t get more people in properly until 2012 so we’ve been working on it for over 2 years now. So it’s been a long time in coming and the problem is the longer a project is, the bigger the blues are at the end of the project. You know it’s going and you think, “Just one more thing”, those things, you know?

TB: It’s your baby.

SG: Yeah, it’s hard at the moment because a few of us are feeling fatigued, but also (in a sad voice) “Oh it’s going” you know? It makes it… not difficult but emotional I guess. It’s strange putting your baby out in the world and hoping that people don’t rip it apart! (Laughs).

This week at E3 our press guys have got the wall-to-wall E3 presentations and interviews with the press, so I think we’ll know later this week what people think! Even if it’s not reviews it’s previews still, so euuugh!

(Well, the previews are out by now of course, and they’re pretty damn good!)

Rupture Farms Furnace

TB: I know what you mean – from what I’ve seen it does look fantastic. New ‘n’ Tasty features a floating/scrolling camera now, as opposed to a flipscreen one in the original. I remember in the original you could get slight delay when running from screen to screen which would give you a slight split-second advantage over pursuing Sligs, and other creatures, I was wondering how that sort of thing works now?

SG: We’ve made some changes; there are three difficulty modes now. If you play it in hard mode, you know, it’s one shot – you’re dead. If you choose easy, Abe’s got life energy basically, so you can take two or three shots before you die.

TB: That’s interesting.

SG: We’ve done that for the players who probably don’t want to experience how raw the difficulty was in the original game, because the original game was criticised for being overly hard. Some people thought that was great because it was too hard, so experienced players will want to go in at hard mode but people who are not so much from that era can play easy or medium first.

It opens it up gameplay-wise, so there are areas where you’re being chased by Sligs and maybe a Slig gets a shot off and he hits you, you know, or you can tease them a bit more now than you could do in the original. They’re not so draconian shall we say, so you can almost climb up on a ledge and go “Wooooo!” and then run away again, and they’ll go “Arrrrrrgh!” and try and shoot you! So you’ve got a bit more fun and play involved this time.

I mean, this is because the game is in full 3D now, there’s a lot more animations going on, and with ragdoll physics as well when characters die too. Today I was playing it, and I’d climbed up, jumped over a ledge and didn’t realise there was a Slig there – he turned around and he shot me and just as I landed, Abe went flying backwards and got shot in the head and fell down a gap – I thought “Ah you bugger!” But we were laughing more than anything else, as it looks ridiculous, but in a good way! That’s been the biggest thing, the biggest challenge is to make sure that fun and laughter is still there.

TB: Yeah that was a huge part of the original – I was going to ask you later on, but on the topic of humour, can Abe still fart in the new game?

SG: (Said indignantly) Of course he can! You can’t possess the farts though, that’s Exoddus [Abe’s Exoddus, the sequel game released in 1999, introduced the highly underrated gameplay mechanic of possessing your own farts], but in Oddysee, in fact, there’s one part where… you have to fart!

TB: I see!

SG: But I won’t say why, you’ll find out when you play.

TB: Oh nice, a little teaser there! With the new trailer, I noticed that there’s quite a few cutscenes in there that weren’t in the original game.

SG: Yeah we’ve added two or three new ones. Well actually, one of them was in the original game, but it’s now completely different. That was because Lorne felt that the original version was just never what he wanted to see, so kind of in some ways, this is almost like a director’s cut of the first game, there’s things that they couldn’t get in the original development because of memory and other PS1 stuff that they couldn’t do, where we have now been able to pull them out of the design archive and use them effectively.

So we’ve done a bit of that, there’s also all these designs in the levels and environments as well that they couldn’t use in the original game because there’s no memory or they couldn’t work out how to do it, but because we’ve got live 3D we can do it all in real-time 3D now. So we’ve pulled some of the things out from the archives, for example the original 1993/4 sketches of the Elum bell [a giant rustic bell used to summon Abe’s trusty camel-like steed] from the start of Scrabania. We recreated that, so it’s now as the original design looked.

Abe, Pipe and Scrab

TB: Ah right, so is that massively different from the one in the original game then?

SG: It’s bigger! That’s all I’m going to say is that’s bigger! It looks like “Woah! That’s huge!” now. That’s been fun, and having built real-time camera transitions and stuff now, literally screwing with the camera, so for example at the start of Paramonia in the original game, you originally start at a standard 90 degree position to the environment. Now in New ‘n’ Tasty, Abe drops down the chute at the start and you’re looking at him up close and personal at 10 degrees, and as you start to walk forwards, the camera pans out gradually. It’s things like that you couldn’t do before, but that’s all real-time, they’re not pre-canned CG, it’s all real-time now. That’s nice. Even the transitions on the lifts too are real-time, and in the original game, when you would go in a door, it would be just movie-playback. One particular moment I’m thinking of is at the start of the game – that’s now a huge cargo lift, Half-Life style, where it’s all real-time. Abe puts his hand on the button.

TB: Ah yeah the three finger-

SG: Four!

TB: Ah woops, my apologies, four, sorry!

SG: Ah, the Japanese version was three.

TB: Ah of course, sorry!

SG: He’s got four fingers again – yay! Abe puts his paw on the pad and as the lift starts going down, the camera pulls and tracks out – all in real-time. So that’s nice.

Stockyards

TB: How much creative control did you have to add any new elements and ideas to the game or was it more a case of did you have to stick to what Lorne had wanted?

SG: Actually, the biggest change that we’ve made is to the jump mechanism. In the original game, you pressed X and you hopped forwards. Modern players don’t expect that. Modern players expect when you press X that you just jump straight up vertically in the air, not perform a forward hop. So we’ve changed it a little bit. When you’re pressing jump now, he starts to crouch down to his jump position, and at that time if you press right, if he’s facing right, then you’ll do the hop to the right.

There’s a few changes like that. They’re more aimed towards modern game players and the new generation who maybe didn’t play the original game and don’t know about the original hop jump, so we’ve done little things like that, but nothing that will make people go “This is rubbish!” and throw away the joystick – it’s not like that. It’s more about… I’ve kind of seen it as more bringing the original into the 21st Century, to meet expectations from today’s players rather than anything else.

TB: Just to leap back a few questions, when you were talking about the difficulty, one of the things I really liked about the original game was the fact that it was hard, it was like trial and death, as opposed to trial and error; you had to try each obstacle a few times and eventually several grisly deaths later you would work out what to do – you can see how that kind of idea of needing to die and fail repeatedly to find success has influenced other games such as Limbo, et cetera. I find it interesting that you’ve allowed players to choose an easier difficulty setting; did you not feel that would dilute the original game’s feel too much?

SG: Well there is still a lot of trial and death in it. But there are some places where I think modern players will think “I know how to do that” and work out some of the puzzle/obstacle solutions right away, as it’s… formulaic to some degree, but there’s not much of that in there. There’s a lot of the game where we’ve made changes; for example, because the problem you’ve got with the original game was that if you were one screen away from patrolling Sligs, you could still hear the Sligs, and you might also be able see them occasionally, but they couldn’t see you unless they were chasing you. But now of course, because we’ve got a scrolling camera, you can literally be in the original point, where you would have originally had a left screen and right screen and now it’s literally just one screen because your camera is halfway between the two of them. So what do you do now with the Sligs then? Well, what we’ve done with the Sligs is we’ve given them radars on their visors basically.

TB: (In awe) Oh wow!

SG: So when they stop and look, they scan out with their radars, and there’s a little beam that comes out of their visors-

TB: Like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica?

SG: Hmm, kind of, but it shows the distance of how far they can see, so as long as you don’t move within that area, you’re fine.

Abe, Sligs and Sign

TB: I see, and it’s like a motion sensor is it?

SG: Yeah kind of, so we’ve had to do that because of the problem with the camera, but the nice thing is that the view distance is the same from the original game. It’s just that we’ve had to visualise it now because we haven’t got the added bonus of having the flipscreen where you can just go offscreen and reset everything again. Things like that we’ve had to do, but it’s not… I don’t think it’s going to be alien, in fact people have told me that die-hard fans of the Oddworld Inhabitants forums, have gone “I don’t like this!” and then, scrolling down, you see four posts later “Actually, I get that now” and then after that the next five posts “Yeah that’s fine now”. They kind of argue themselves into liking it, but at first they are like “Noooo what have you done!” Pitchforks at dawn! Calm down, you know!

Slig ShootingIt’s been alright actually – if those guys get it, and if people who remember the original game do too, then that’s good. The weird thing is, the amount of people I know in life who know I make video games, they’ll say to me what are you working on these days, and I’ll say I’m remaking Abe’s Oddysee and they’ll go (shocked voice) “Oh I remember playing Abe back on the PS1!” That’s cool!

The original game sold about 3.5 million copies, which for the mid ’90s was unheard of, you know, so that’s nice. There’s a huge fanbase there for it, and I just hope that what we’ve done is respectful enough that they’ll enjoy it… and buy it! (Laughs).

TB: I think it was Rod Fergusson [Studio Manager of Black Tusk studios, currently remaking Gears of War for Xbox One] who came out with an interesting comment recently about the fact that when you’re rebooting a game or franchise, in a way you’ve almost got to betray the hardcore fanbase in a way in order to innovate and try something new and ultimately win back their trust again.

SG: Yes, yeah that’s it, there’s an adage of looking at what die-hard fans want and thinking – it’s not quite screw them but it’s just a case of… what’s more important to us is, introducing the game to a new generation because some of the people who played the original in ’97 won’t be gamers anymore, because they’ve moved on. It’s been almost twenty years since the original came out, so some people will be playing the games now who weren’t even born when the first one came out, you know? The whole thought of downloading a PS1 emulated game on their PS3 might be (in mopey voice) “Ah I don’t wanna do that”. So we have to appeal to a brand new audience that have never heard of it or played it before.

We were going to release the Wii U version of Stranger’s Wrath first and then do the Abe games afterwards, but Nintendo advised us against that because you might get people who don’t know what Abe’s Oddysee is, or what New ‘n’ Tasty is, and they might just play Stranger, see a new Oddworld title coming out and think “Oh I don’t want that because I didn’t like Stranger, I don’t want to play FPS games”, and not realise that they’re entirely different genres. So they’ve advised us, for example, to do New ‘n’ Tasty first and do Stranger’s Wrath afterwards, because of that perception.

Stranger's Wrath Title Screen

I mean I hated Stranger’s Wrath when it first came out on Xbox back in 2005. I thought, I don’t like this, but having to remake it and port it to other machines, now it’s… well I’ve come to love it! I see the first quarter of the game as pretty ‘meh’ and the last three quarters is fantastic, but you know when you’re playing a game and you don’t get past that first quarter, it’s just like “Urgh, yeah whatever” and if you get that impression stuck in your mind that that’s what all Oddworld games are like, which they’re not, then that’s the problem, so it’s trying to get rid of that perception by negating it.

TB: I suppose Stranger is kind of like the slightly odd one out isn’t it, because even Munch’s Oddysee [the third game in the Oddworld series, orignally released on Xbox in 2001] was still mainly about platforming and exploration wasn’t it?

SG: Munch’s Oddysee was still Abe and Munch, and Stranger… well there’s only two characters types in Stranger’s Wrath from the other games, which are Fuzzles and Slogs [Vykkers too actually I think, with Doc’s character]. Slogs are in every Oddworld game. In fact, speaking of Slogs there’s some funny moments in New ‘n’ Tasty actually – when you electrocute a Slog, it just cracks me up every time I see it. There’s things like that, so yeah it’s definitely a unique game and a new experience, and that’s the thing that got me to want to do it in the first place. I think the big thing, the reason why I wanted to remake Abe’s Oddysee was not that there was anything wrong with the first one, but there’s something missing from the first one for me, and that was – and this is a bit of a cheesy link, but – do you remember the original Ridge Racer?

TB: Erm, yes, er – I’m rusty but-

SG:It was basically an arcade racing game, pure and simple, but off the track, you had things happening – you had planes flying overhead, and diggers and stuff.

TB: That’s right yeah!

SG: So in Abe, I wanted to bring the environments to life, and have things happen in the background, which were nothing to do with the game. So that’s what we’ve done a lot of; there’s flocks of birds flying everywhere in Scrabania in the backgrounds and stuff, there’s Sligs patrolling parts of Rupture Farms that you couldn’t see before but they’re there now, there’s furnace areas with huge fires and big furnaces and things, there’s machines in the background mincing Scrabs and Paramites. You see them going into the machine in a cage and coming out as meat, so we’ve added all that kind of stuff, which does nothing to the gameplay, but it really brings the environments to life! It makes it more… captivating.

Rupture Farms Grinders

TB: Well yeah I think a large part of the Oddworld games is the characters like you say, and characterisation that goes into the environments and even the enemies too; you’re often terrified running from a Scrab, but you’re almost thinking “Oh wow, look at that thing!” You’re kind of fascinated by them as well as terrified in equal measure.

SG: You were in Munch because obviously you had flocks of Scrabs and Paramites chasing you in 3D! Whereas in Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus, you didn’t have so much of that because it was still flat 2D, we’ve been able to bin that choice in some respects. Now, even the secret levels in New ‘n’ Tasty are based on the original secret levels but with some slight changes. With some of the secret levels, there’s still 2-play depth to them but we’ve also got the background as well behind that. In the original game the background would be static and nothing happened, but there’s now things going on, like there’s bits where you can run along a long bit of secret level and the environment behind it, it just looks the business! It really does, I mean, we’ve got 4 environment artists and they’ve done the entire game, you know in pretty much 18 months and that’s just… ooooph, they deserve a medal frankly! Fantastic job.

Secret Area

TB: I don’t know what you can say about the secret areas exactly, but as a fan I have to ask, do you still have the one in the very first screen that’s hidden behind the barrel?

SG: Oh yeah! All the Rupture Farms secret areas are still there; they might not look the same as the original ones, but they are still there!

TB: Nice, I had to ask that one! There’s about three or four Mudokons in that first secret area you’ve got to save – I remember on my completionist playthrough attempt back in the day I was like I’m pretty sure I got them all, but oh no I missed the ones hidden in the very first screen! (Laughs).

SG: There’s a secret area in what was the original second screen, a secret area in the bit with the mines you’ve got to jump across, there’s a secret area after the electric gates, and there’s a secret area a bit further on.

TB: Good, I’m glad that they’re still there! With regard to the gamespeak function, at the time of the original release that was, well it still is really, a revolutionary kind of interesting gameplay mechanic; have you made any changes to Abe’s dialogue?

SG: Yes we’ve kind of made changes, but we’ve kind of also made the system a little bit more like Exoddus. So in Oddysee you can control one Mudokon at a time, in Exoddus you control multiple. So we’ve now made it so that you can control multiple Muds in New ‘n’ Tasty. Which makes it a lot easier and lot less frustrating, having to go back and forth rescuing them one at a time. If you’ve got four Muds in a straight line, you can do it in groups now, but we’ve also made it so at the start of the game, Abe starts off with (in Abe voice) “Hello”, but the more you go on he starts going “Hi”, and “Hey”, so it’s the same instruction, it’s just we’ve added more lines.

Rupture Farm Walking Muds

TB: Oh wow, that’s really cool!

SG: We’ve done that kind of stuff, and that’s brought it to life. Also, with the Muds as well, before you rescue them, they’re sitting there doing their jobs like scrubbing the floors and stuff, they’ll start talking to themselves. “Why is he employee of the month?”

TB: (Laughs).

SG: “Oh, not again, more mess” – all this kind of stuff, but also when you rescue them, some of them go “Yay, I’m freeeeeeee!” as they jump through the gates. Things like that. There’s even some standing there whistling. We’ve got some cameo voices in there, and one of them whistles the theme tune for the TV show he used to be in, which is quite funny.

Rupture Farms Escaping Muds

TB: Oh nice! (Laughs) Just as little nods to them?

SG: Yeah, and there’s an awesome one, but I’ve not actually found him in the bloody game yet! There’s an awesome one, which I want to find because we recorded his voice twice, and we had to re-record it a third time. We recorded the first one twice, he did two different versions of the voice, and then he did a take of another voice which was completely different, as a homage to something. We heard that, and we thought “Oh my god, we’ve got to get it in!” So we hired a studio in LA for him to go in and re-do everything again, based on that third voice, and I haven’t heard it in the game yet!

TB: I see, you’re desperate to find it!

SG: Yeah I don’t know where it is actually I’m going to have to ask him later on. Anyway, yeah so we’ve also got 20-odd (pun very much intended) fans I think it was who’ve provided voices as well. We held a competition, and we got people to use their voices and all these people have their voices listed in the credits, so it’s definitely a fan collaboration. A guy came up with a logo, another came up with a background painting, the box pack shot as a basic, and we went from there. There’s the song by Elodie Adams [her single ‘Born to Love You’ is featured in the E3 trailer for New ‘n’ Tasty], she was a fan and she reached out to us you know. There are celebrities in the game. They’re fans – I mean I remember [that] I asked one of them if [he] would like to do a voiced videogame, and he replied with “As long as it’s Oddworld!”

TB: There you go – that’s what you want to hear!

SG: That says it all!

TB: Perfect!

SG: We’re doing another Oddworld project sometime later this year/next year and that guy’s doing a big character in that for us. I sent him the concept documents and stuff and he just went “Yeah I’m there, signed up”. Cool! Really? Yay!

Rupture Farms Creeping

TB: Check! Talking about Mudokons and stuff, are there any new Slig variants, because Exoddus had the flying ones, Munch had the Big Bro Sligs, have you got any special ones in New ‘n’ Tasty?

SG: There’s no Big Bros, there’s no flying ones, there is a special Slig somewhere, and again I don’t know where he is – I can’t even tell you because I don’t know where he is. The guys in the office will talk about it and I’ll say “Where is it?” and they’ll be like “Ah I’m not telling you” (annoyed grumbling). I think die-hard fans will recognise him as soon as they see it, but there you go.

TB: Nice, I’ll look forward to that one. Have you made any changes to the morality system – again that was quite a new unique thing in games at the time, and now every game has got some kind of morality system running through it, like “Press left for the good option and press right for the bad one”.

SG: Yeah, but those options are more like you choose it, aren’t they? In this, you choose it by not rescuing Muds, you know, so the more you rescue the better you are, the better karma, the less you rescue, the worse you are. So that’s as it was.

TB: Does that impact on what you were saying earlier about how the dialogue variations can change between Muds, do your actions impact on the conversation lines?

SG: It doesn’t, I have to say, and I think that’s something that we wanted to do, we just didn’t have time to do it. I mean, to be honest, we’re nine months late already anyway, so it’s kind of “Woah!” So there’s plenty of features on the wall we wanted to put in but we couldn’t do which will likely be in a future game, if we do decide to do Exoddus it’ll be in that, but we don’t know yet.

Rupture Farms Glukkon Head Ball

TB: Yeah I see, cool. With the PS4 and PS Vita, you’ve obviously got the new touch interfaces on these devices, have you reworked any-

SG: No-

TB: controls or-

SG: No!

TB: (Laughs) Next question?

SG: No, I mean we did Stranger on Vita a couple of years ago, in fact, 18 months ago we did Stranger on Vita, we released it with the ability to punch on the back panel, but we noticed that if you’ve got big hands, you kind of want to hold the back panels, so it’s a bit of a negative. So we ended up releasing a patch, 6 weeks later, which removed that as a default, but still gave you the option to switch it on or off in the options menu. Most people I know now play it without touching the back panel, so whilst Sony did well to add the back panel, (laughs) it’s not something we actively encourage anymore, because it’s just as soon as you become an adult, your hands just get to this size, and it’s not comfortable to hold the edge of the thing with big hands.

TB: You want to get a good grip don’t you?

SG: Yeah, and the only way to do that is to put your hands on the back bloody panel! So if you’ve got something and you’re touching it, you’re going  “Ah, forget it”.

TB: Just constantly punching! (Laughs).

SG: It’s a pain, so we decided not to use the back panel. For the front panel… we have had to use a bit of front panel on Vita, not much though. For the PS4, there were a couple of ideas we had a while ago which I don’t think we put in, which was the faster you move your finger in a circle on the front touchpad of the Dual Shock 4, the faster Abe did the chant, so you could go faster and slower, but then it became too awkward to try and get it right every time, so we binned that idea. I think at the minute, you press the touchpad button and it comes up with the pause menu! (Laughs).

That’s pretty much it, you know, truth be told, the option button on the PS4 is pretty awkward. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony changed that for a next version of the Dual Shock 4 if they do do it, but you know at the minute, for a lot of games, if you push the pad button it brings up the pause menu. It’s a big button, you can’t miss it – bang!

TB: Well, every game needs a pause menu! (Laughs) You’ve got Gravity Crash Ultra coming out in July – what specifically is it about, well you’ve already touched on it – well, touch, nice one (laughs) – cheesy pun aside, what makes you want to develop for the Vita specifically and how does it differ developing for handhold versus a console?

SG: Well… as a game or as a platform?

TB: As a platform when you’re developing for it.

SG: To be honest with you, there’s not that much of a difference; the Vita’s just a small console. It sounds a twee thing to say but it’s true! What we’re conscious of today though is that Sony last year released the Vita TV in Japan and I wouldn’t be surprised if they announced it at E3 for Europe and America (This indeed did happen, with the announcement of PlayStation TV – good predictions Stewart). So, you know we have to now think about developing games for Vita which can have touch, but as a secondary option. So, from that point of view, it is literally just a small console, but a very powerful console, which happens to be a PlayStation linked to the PlayStation Network which means we can share things between different versions.

When we decided to do Gravity Crash Ultra, that literally started off as me saying to Pete, the main programmer on Stranger’s Wrath Vita, “Go on, have a bash at putting Gravity Crash on the Vita”. He finished Stranger’s Wrath off, and he had the first playable alpha of Gravity Crash Ultra running within 5/6 weeks. I sent that to friends at Sony and said “What do you think of this?”, and they went, “Yeah great idea – who’s going to publish it?” I said that we’ll publish it if we can do, because the rights to the PS3 version are owned by Sony. We sold the rights to them for large sums of money… if only it was large sums of money! But you know I said “Look, I would like to publish the Vita version.” They went okay, and we literally agreed the deal on Twitter; Shahid and I [Shahid Ahmad, Senior Business Development Manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe], in tweets, private DMs on twitter, in February last year. We started doing the legwork properly in March/April time but because we had licensed music from Tim Wright, CoLD SToRAGE, for it, we had to re-do and re-license it all again and that took 6 MONTHS to sort out!

TB: Ooph!

SG: So we didn’t actually start properly – we announced it at Gamescom last year, the contract wasn’t signed until mid-October last year (laughs) and we started it in the first week in November and we pretty much finished it in February this year apart from some moderation stuff, because we can create and share levels, and then it went to Sony’s submission, two weeks ago. I made a cock-up in the paperwork, so it went back in again! (Laughs).

TB: Oh no!

SG: The idea is to have it released in July. So that’s nice, but as a platform as it goes, you know in some respects it’s more powerful than the PS3. It’s got more memory than a PS3 – well, that’s not exactly true, it’s got the same amount of memory, it’s that the difference is the PS Vita’s memory is accessible by all, whereas the PS3 is 256MB of video and 256MB of system RAM. Vita’s got 512MB megs, so it makes it a bit easier, the Vita’s also got a 4-core processor where technically, the PS3’s got a single-core processor, apart from the sound chip which has got 6 or 7 cores that you can use and SPUs, but you have to program those dedicatedly. When you do Vita stuff, because it’s made basically as a single CPU with 4 cores in it, you can write proper multi-threading core technology and it goes and does it itself and things now, you don’t have to worry about it. So we’re kind of now at that stuff. I mean we’ve been working on PlayStation stuff since the PS1 days, so [when the] PS1 came along, Sony gave you libraries and you could just go write your game, it was fairly easy. PS2 came along and it was like “Oh my god!” Not that it was hard, or it was bad to program for; it was just different to program for. It was the same with the PS3, then the Vita came along and it’s just like you plug it in and you’re off – like “Wow! Really? That was what? What!”

PS4 is exactly the same again, you plug it in and you’re off within minutes really. There’s nothing like “Oh my god how do I make… oh, that’s how you do it!” You know? It’s all fairly simple. Sony have really grown up as a company and I think a lot of that’s down to Mark Cerny, who designed the PS4, but he also was made one of the leads on the Vita as well, so his involvement with Vita and PS4 is very obvious to developers. It’s been amazing from that point of view and it’s… I have to say, you know, working on Vita has been pretty good. We’ve got New ‘n’ Tasty to get done on Vita yet, and then I think we might do one other thing on Vita after that, but at the moment it’s nothing really big on Vita to come from us I think. Not saying we’re walking away from it, but we’re trying to spend more of our time on PS4 stuff, which is, because it’s a full-blown console, you have to create bigger and better experiences than you do for a handheld, and that’s what we’re doing. You know we’ve got, as a company, two other projects, which we’re prepping early work on ourselves, and you know, one of them will take us 2 years probably to do, but it’s not Oddworld, you know, and that’s going to be interesting to do and that’s been designed for PS4, so that’ll be good. (Pause) I hope I answered that in some shape or form.

MGSV: GZ Snake Goggles

TB: Yeah that was great! I remember reading a while ago that Just Add Water had appealed to Hideo Kojima-

SG: (Groans) Oh god!

TB: Yeah here we go, the Metal Gear question! Basically what I want to know is, is Solid Snake coming to Otley anytime soon?

SG: No – well not from us it’s not! The weird thing with that is, right, it started off, I kid you not, it started off as “[Do] you want something to do on the FOX engine?” Cool – we could never do that, we’re too small, I know we could never do it. “Oh you should just ask him [Hideo Kojima] for a crack at it” – that’s what it started off as, it was never meant to be serious!

TB: I remember reading your open letter at the time.

SG: Our PR guy at the time, he wrote this thing up. I said that [he should] take out line three maybe because, you know, it’s not true, well it is true in the sense that it would be cool to do it, but we’re making no bones about it we aren’t the size of company to do it, so it’s more of a case of it’s a love letter to the game and Kojima, it would be great to get the game on the platform, but not something we would actively be interested in doing ourselves on a serious level. It went out, with the note that we really really want to do it. And I literally, I kid you not, went out for a meeting with some people from Amazon, and I came back and I emailed some Oddworld CEO and heard people saying “What the fuck are you talking about?” “What? What press, I don’t know what you’re talking about? What?”

It was literally two weeks after E3 had finished, it was the Wednesday, that I kid you not, there was no other bloody news that day, and as a result, every site on the entire planet picked it up and I just went “Oh Christ!” Friends at Eurogamer said to me that if you’d released this news on Tuesday, it would have been ignored completely, but because there was nothing else on Wednesday, it got picked up! So no, we honestly have no interest in doing it – it would be cool if, but as a company we know we’re not tooled up or the size or capability of doing that project, you know? It was literally just like a love letter to Kojima, and it was never meant to be taken seriously! As it happens, I’ve heard rumours that someone else has been taken up on it… so we’ll see.

TB: It would be nice to see a decent HD remake of the original Metal Gear Solid as they’ve released the HD collection with Snake Eater-

SG: Well they’re just straight ports though aren’t they? But the thing that really got me was in Metal Gear Solid 4, when you went back to Shadow Moses, I was like “Yaaaaaaay!” I remember this and it looks good! I have to say I think Metal Gear Solid 2,3 and 4, and to some degree Ground Zeroes, they are all kind of ‘meh’ in comparison to the original Metal Gear Solid, because MGS 1 was just phenomenal. It was the first game to do those things, and the problem is he’s [Kojima] done them now so you can’t re-do them again. Like the whole thing about Psycho Mantis reading your mind and using the second controller port to beat him, you can’t do that anymore because players will expect that sort of thing now. The whole thing about reading your mind, “You’ve been playing Ape Escape“, reading your saved games off the memory card – you can’t do that anymore because it’s been done. For those things alone, the original Metal Gear Solid holds a special place in my heart. The series went too cutscene-y for me, the fact that the final cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 are an hour and fifteen minutes long in total! It’s like really? Oh please! Too much man! Step away from the director’s chair!

TB: Have you played Peace Walker?

SG: No, I never got on with the PSP [PlayStation Portable]. I mean we did a couple of games on it, but I never got on with it at all. I’ve still got my original launch PSP in my drawer actually, but I could never go back to it. I know a couple of guys have got it on PS3, was it the PS3 it came out on?

TB: That’s right yeah, it came out with the HD collection for PS3 and Xbox 360.

SG: Yeah, and you know… (pause) my idea of remakes, I think when you do remakes and ports, I still think you have to make it platform centric. Despite the fact I loved Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus on the PS2, I think Bluepoint Games screwed it up on PS3, I really do. There’s no reason for those games to be running at 60 frames per second and they’re running at 30. No reason at all. The other thing they didn’t do as part of Sony’s TRC regulations is ‘X is accept, Circle is back’ – that’s in the documentation, but no no, they made it as X to confirm, and Triangle to go back, which was the same as the PS2 days. Now, it would have taken them an hour to swap that around to be current platform PS3 certified, and they didn’t, so to me that was shoddy work. Lazy work. I played it and I just thought it doesn’t feel the same, it doesn’t feel like it did on the PS2. I know it’s rose-tinted glasses but from when we did Stranger’s Wrath on PS3, we ramped the crap out of that. The main character went from 3000 polygons to 20,000 polygons – there’s more polygons in Stranger than there is in the main characters from Beyond Two Souls for Christ’s sake!

Stranger Close-Up

There’s more polygons in Stranger than there is in an Uncharted 1 & 2 character, because we had passion and care for it, so we ramped it up, we did the controls properly, all this kind of stuff, we remade the whole UI for it, you know, we went through the levels and put higher-res detail maps in there, we took care of it. We didn’t just say, “Lift it from that platform, put it on that one, ship it!” If you’re going to port a game, you don’t just move it from platform to platform, you have to do it properly; it needs to be a proper remake, especially if you’re labelling it as a ‘Remaster’ on the box – you’re not, you’ve just ported it. The thing with Metal Gear Solid HD Collection was, when I came to play Metal Gear Solid 2 on PS3, I just didn’t like it because I got so used to changes they made to the way the gameplay works in Metal Gear Solid 4, that Bluepoint again, they made a step backwards to what was on the PS2. No – you have to grow with your audience. If your audience has grown up and got used to something else, you don’t send them back 6 years. (Pause) I’m done now! It’s a pet peeve basically, if you’re going to do something, you do it properly; you don’t just lift it and drop it.

TB: Well, you’ve dropped a few hints, but what’s next for Just Add Water? Are you wanting to go straight into another Oddworld game; is Exoddus on the horizon?

SG: We want to see how New ‘n’ Tasty does first. We’ve said that publicly a couple of time now. If New ‘n’ Tasty doesn’t sell, which I can’t see, but if it doesn’t sell, then there is no money to make an Exoddus. We don’t have publisher money. JAW/Oddworld Inhabitants are the publishers and developers, so to make the next game we have to make money from the current game. We went over budget with this one by a huge amount because we spent an extra 9 months on it, so we’ve spent the budget for pre-production of Exoddus kind of already, so we’re going to be waiting 3-6 months to see how New ‘n’ Tasty does before we make the decision about doing Exoddus. Yeah we’d like to do Exoddus. If we do decide to do it, because we’re doing our non-Oddworld projects next, we will have to ramp up to twice the size probably to do that, because Exoddus, even though it’s the same game engine and the same gameplay, as you mentioned earlier, you’ve got flying Sligs, and there are a few other things that are different, possessing farts-

TB: Yeah, that’s crucial!

SG: But the big thing is that there are twice the number of locations, so you need more artists, so it’s chicken and egg. Before we commit to doing Exoddus, we have to make sure though that there’s enough money in the bank from ‘New ‘n’ Tasty to make sure we can do Exoddus and do it right. We’ve got a couple of other projects ourselves, I think there will be an announcement at Gamescom for one of them… touch wood. I’m talking to people on Wednesday at Sony about something else as well, we’ve already pitched another project to Sony Europe, which is the 2-year project I mentioned to you, but that will be more of a case of… we want to greenlight that, but we want to greenlight it at the right time, so we’re going to go through all our steps for Sony Europe first and make sure we come up with a project that’s right, and we’re not just wasting our time with it because it’s a big one. It’s a complete departure from anything we’ve done before, so that might surprise some people if we do go ahead with it. On top of that there’s another mini-ish nine month project that I’m hoping to greenlight by the end of June/beginning of July, so we’re going to be busy. We’ve got a new website coming as well, and it’s got 6 project icons on the front page, and two of them just say ‘unannounced’, so that will be interesting to see those when they can be announced!

TB: A few teasers there then?

SG: Yes, well we like teasing people. I get in trouble for it. Our PR guy, Alex, keeps giving me grief – “Shut your mouth!” Sorry! (Laughs) “I know you’re the boss but shut your mouth!” Okay! I’ll hide in the corner now, whoops! (Laughs).

TB: Brilliant! Well, thank you very much for your time Stewart!

SG: Not a problem at all.

E3 Demo Impressions

Rupture Farms Electricity

After the interview, I had the pleasure of seeing the full E3 demo of New ‘n’ Tasty’, which again got my heart racing. Moving to a room complete with a massive flatscreen TV and surround sound system, I set myself down into one of the chairs while Stewart grabbed a Dual Shock 4 and fired up the dev kit skulking on the coffee table below the TV like a great silvery beetle. “Wait, that’s not a PS4!” I cry, both unsettled and fascinated by the big bulky box on the table before us.

The dev kit boots up, and there on the PS4 interface is the menu picture for New ‘n’ Tasty. It felt incredibly exciting seeing how things look on the developer side of things as opposed to the fan’s side of the fence, and that difference really hit home when I saw the main logo. Seeing it there, perched on the screen made the game feel tantalisingly closer and yet still so far away.

The game loads up, and we’re presented with Abe’s apologetically smiling face leaning out at us from the Oddworld Inhabitants sign, just like he’s always done in Abe’s Oddysee. It’s as if he’s been patiently waiting here for us to return to play for the last 17 years, with that loveable yet lonely wide-eyed expression and once again I’m feeling both emotional tinges of melancholia and desperate unabashed excitement in equal measure.

Stewart points out the three difficulty options players have to choose from when starting a new game, and then we’re off. The game starts and launches into the opening cinematic, which is even more awe-inspiring and beautiful looking than I had imagined it to be. Everything looks brighter and much more vibrant, whilst still retaining that same fearsome dark and gloomy aesthetic of the original meat packing plant we ran through with Abe all those years ago.

Lorne has re-recorded his opening monologue as Abe, and he impeccably nails every line and inflection with the same precise yet comedic delivery that I remember from all those years ago. I point out to Stewart that the Glukkons sound different; they seem to have a much lower voice, which makes them sound even more gruff and menacing. Stewart laughs and says well that’s down to Lorne getting older and changing vocal chords and whatnot. Mullock’s dismissive grunt of “Watch” to the other Glukkons in the boardroom sounds much darker and more threatening compared to the original take.

The cutscene ends and we’re thrust into the opening chase sequence. The game looks stunning. Absolutely stunning. Abe dashes across the screen on a long catwalk, the classic large ‘Wanted’ sign flashes up on the screen behind him as he passes, and there’s a pack of gun-toting Sligs hot on his tail. It’s at once very familiar whilst at the same time it looks like an incredibly new and fresh experience. The camera then pulls away from the chase scene and swoops down to that familiar wall of barrels from the original game’s first screen as our blue hero descends on a large lift as Stewart mentioned earlier.

It’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. The character animations and ragdoll physics combined with the super smooth frame rate makes the gameplay look so much more fluid. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop, which will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their… ah Mudokons don’t have shoes… loincloths then. Their loincloths.

Stewart shows me the secret area in what was originally the second screen. Instead of hoisting himself down onto a hidden ledge and dropping down into the screen below in the old game, Abe now performs a new animation where he pulls open a trap door in the factory floor before jumping through. It’s small touches like these that really make you see the attention to detail JAW have brought to the project, in addition to their ingenious and playful twists on the original source material.

Rupture Farms Chanting

Before long we encounter our first Sligs, in fact immediately before we leave the first room they come charging in, and they look just as freaky and menacing as they did all those years ago as they hiss and clank about on the screen. Complete with their motion detecting visor radars, they look set to even the advantage the player now has with the scrolling screen. Stewart navigates through the early screens, demonstrating the way they scan out with their radars and look for you when you’ve eluded them, and how on lower difficulties Abe can take a couple of shots from a Slig’s machine gun before going down.

Hearing about this feature during the interview, I wasn’t massively convinced about this choice being a stubborn fan of the original, but seeing it in action I can see that it was a sensible and considered way to let players pick the difficulty that’s right for them. After all, death is never far away in New ‘n’ Tasty, and it’s easy to see how a new player could get discouraged after repeated failure to get past those pesky trigger-happy Sligs on the original one hit and you’re dead hardcore difficulty setting.

Like Stewart brought up during the interview, the game seems to strike a good balance between catering to those who are completely new to the series, whilst also still appealing to those most die-hard of Oddworld fans. Along with giving the player a choice of difficulty modes, this ethic can be seen very prominently in the improved checkpoint system. Checkpoints now appear throughout the game far more frequently; one of the complaints often levelled at the original game in comparison to it’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, is that the sequel had a much better checkpoint/autosave system. In Abe’s Exodus, if you so desired (as I often did) you could neck a bottle of SoulStorm Brew, let rip with a noisy stomach-churner of a fart, and possess it before blowing yourself into a nice ‘n’ tasty pile of Mudokon chunks without fear of losing much progress – the checkpoints were effectively spread out and regular.

If you mis-timed a jump or couldn’t quite outrun that vicious Scrab in Abe’s Oddysee you were usually faced with a respawn quite significantly further back in the level from where you died, which could be quite annoying. The resulting slog (sorry, I’ll stop with the puns now) back through the level to where you originally died gave Oddysee a harder and more unforgiving feel in comparison to Exoddus.

New ‘n’ Tasty addresses that issue head on; in the demonstration I saw, checkpoints were much more plentiful. Each checkpoint is aesthetically designed to match its environs too; the ones in Rupture Farms are electronic with TV screens built in – changing from the stern unflinching gaze of Mullock the Glukkon to the dopey yet loveable mug of our stitch-lipped blue friend. The ones in the more rural areas of the game are all organic and resemble totemic witchdoctor-esque poles complete with blue gems – I must say, I do like a good blue gem.

Free-Fire Zone Mines

What’s more, when you do get torn to shreds by a pack of hungry Slogs (what a way to go) or get pounced on by Paramites, you’re respawned instantly, so there’s no hanging around staring at the screen and waiting for the game to load as there sometimes was in the original. It’s good to see how the checkpoints have been updated to accommodate an unfamiliar new player to the game and it’s systems, while simultaneously making the game much more enjoyable to play for returning players.

Having said that, you will find yourself staring at the screen an awful lot anyway, as the graphics and visuals look incredible. The combination of a graphical powerhouse like the PS4 and the fantastic art direction is a perfect match and the results look phenomenal. The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms.

Rupture Farms Slig Meat Room

Great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. Out in the Stockyards, the twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside Rupture Farms is a real highlight, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. You can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and the aforementioned Scrab and paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms scenes. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

New camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Stockyards 3

A particularly impressive camera moment in the demo presented itself when Abe is escaping from Rupture Farms for the first time and navigating past the Scrab pens and motion-sensor laser gates in the Stockyard. Just before you exit the area to go the Free-Fire Zone, the camera pulls back and frames Abe against the full backdrop of Rupture Farms; the resulting view is both equally beautiful and horrifying. The full sight of the pulsating, smoke-belching sepulchral mass of metal and steel that is Rupture Farms engulfs the screen in its enormity, and it gives a great sense of scale to the hideous meat plant that was never quite visually achieved in the original game – it utterly dominates the horizon. Seeing the entire plant in all it’s horrifying glory at the end of the level is a fantastic move as it only encourages you to quickly hightail it out of there as fast as you can!

Free-Fire Zone Creeping

We’re now in the Free-Fire Zone, the atmospheric (but still very dangerous) area just after the Stockyards, with its beautiful star-lit night sky complete with numerous moons. This area was particularly dark in the original, but here, the environment really benefits from being a bit brighter. Splashes of turquoise from the clumps of luminescent fungi growing on the ground add much-needed bursts of colour to the almost entirely black foreground, and they work well with the ambient motes of light from the fireflies which guide Abe’s way. Campfires along the path add small areas of contrasting warmth to the environment, and the dynamic lighting from their flames cast flickering shadows on the rock walls. With the full expanse of the dark blue night sky framing everything, these small artistic additions and graphical tweaks give the environment a much greater sense of atmosphere and mystery as opposed to the original design.

Naturally then, this is the perfect time to check out the stealthy new additions to Abe’s moveset. Our favourite blue chump now has the ability to shuffle forward whilst crouching, in addition to his normal forward roll. This looks to be an incredibly useful way of quietly sneaking through an area in addition to just the standard tip-toe sneaking of previous games. Stewart navigated Abe through a particularly dense flying minefield at the start of the Free-Fire Zone, using the crouching shuffle, and it will be interesting to see how this move is utilised in other no doubt just as sadomasochistically difficult sections of the game.

Free-Fire Zone

Although during the interview Stewart said that Solid Snake won’t be infiltrating the picturesque town of Otley anytime soon, Abe has certainly learnt a few tricks from Kojima’s stealthy hero in the passing years, specifically Snake’s use of empty magazine cases as noise making distractions. Taking a leaf out of the Foxhound agent’s stealth playbook, Abe now has an unlimited supply of bottle caps (presumably SoulStorm brew bottle caps no doubt), which he can throw to distract Sligs. The trade-off to having an unlimited supply of these handy noise-makers is that they can’t be used to inflict damage to enemies or trigger off mines and explosives – you still need to source out rocks and grenades just like in Oddysee to get the pyrotechnics going.

Rupture Farms Lift & Mines

We reach the end of the Free-Fire Zone, and the E3 demo draws to a close. It’s time for me to go, and let Stewart and the rest of the team get back to work. Try as I might to desperately think of cunning ways to prolong my stay in the JAW offices for a bit longer, my well and truly blown-mind fails to come up with suitable shenanigans. We head back to the front door, and my eyes feverishly look for a place to hide and stowaway somewhere out of sight until everyone in the office has gone so I can play some more New ‘n’ Tasty.

However, with each anguished step bringing me closer to the front door that leads to reality and the outside world, such genius childish ideas start to dissolve and ebb away, and with regret and some sadness, I feel my (only ever so slightly) more mature 24 year old mind-set reassert itself. Just in time actually, as at that moment I find I need to say my goodbyes. With a Steef upper lip, I smile and graciously thank Stewart, who reciprocates, before opening up a Mudokon bird portal for me to exit through. A friendly handshake and a running leap through the portal later, and I once again find myself standing outside of JAW’s offices, Otley’s ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of gaming goodness if you will.

As I make my way back outside, even though I’m well aware I’m in a bit of a post-adrenaline/excitement slump, I can’t help but notice how… well… just how un-odd everything is on the outside. I trudge back across the car park, expecting to find a great big dopey Elum waiting for me at the side of the road to saddle up and ride home, but alas there’s just my car parked up instead. I sigh, and unlock the door, get in and start the drive home.

However, what little sadness I felt at my wonderful experience at JAW being over, I’m extremely heartened that one of the most beloved games from my childhood is, without a shadow doubt, in the best possible hands. The passion, care and loving attention to the smallest of details that JAW have brought with them to the project, combined with their own inspired artistic touches, have managed to bring Abe’s classic adventure into the modern day.

I’m so happy that Abe’s back, and I’m very much looking forward to going on more fantastical adventures with my blue childhood friend and hero once again in the near future. “Follow me”; of course I will Abe.

Abe Hoover

Entwined Review

Entwined Title
Standard

(Reviewed on PS4)

Entwined is one of the few games that has been simultaneously unveiled and released at the same time. Announced as part of Sony’s E3 2014 press conference,the game, made by a small team of graduate developers known as Pixel Opus, was shown off on the big screens onstage, and, in a surprising and very pleasant move, was revealed to be immediately downloadable for the PS4. Sony fans had a way of getting a piece of the E3 action right here, right now.

This was a pretty exciting and inspired move on the part of Pixel Opus and Sony. Entwined being available to download that evening (very early morning for us Brits actually) was a welcome contrast to the announcements made for other upcoming games, which for the most part,are still a long way off in terms of the development cycle. Having stayed up ’till the wee small hours to watch the Sony press conference, this was a nice little morsel of E3 goodness to get into my greedy mitts and start playing in an effort to feel like I too was in LA fawning over the demo booths, and lollygagging around with the rest of the world’s gaming press.

I liked the look of the simplistic style and vibrant vibe (good alliteration there if I do say so myself) of the game, so before hitting the sack that night I hopped over to the PlayStation Store, flung the contents of my Sony wallet at Entwined to get the download going, ready to tackle it later. Here are the findings from said wallet-flinging for you to examine in written form.

Which came first, the Fish or the Bird?

Entwined First Lifetime

Entwined is an on-rails racer of sorts, where you control two characters simultaneously, an orange fish, and a blue bird. The character designs are bright and colourful with intricate parts and very origami-like style and presentation. The game’s story, about two souls – said fish and bird – in love but “forever apart, always together” is apparently based on an ancient Chinese myth, and you can see the influence of it in almost all aspects of the design.  The result is an interesting portmanteau of ancient Japanese and Chinese cultures, which is pleasantly unusual.

The main gameplay on offer here is simple, yet quite absorbing. Each of the analogue control sticks on the Dual Shock 4 controls one of the characters. The left stick controls the fish, the right stick controls the bird. Each character can only move on their half of the screen; the bird can only move around on the right half, and the fish on the left. Using both sticks simultaneously, the player has to move the two characters, as they continually move forward, through colour-coded shapes that appear in each level, whilst collecting orb-like…well, orbs, on the way.

The game is, overall, incredibly emotive. It feels engaging and enthralling throughout the nine levels, or lifetimes, as the game likes to call them. However, before I go into more detail on the emotive aspects of the game, these simple controls quickly became one of the game’s biggest annoyances for me personally, so I thought it would be best to expound first and foremost on the issue of the controls pretty early on as it is THE main mechanic of the game.

Entwined Main Menu

 Sore thumbs and sore losers

You are told in the ‘how to play’ section that you are supposed to hold the analogue control sticks on the Dual Shock 4 by lightly resting the edges of your thumbs on the outer edges of each stick, as opposed to normally firmly planting the pad of your thumb over the centre. Okay I thought to myself, not a problem. This at first does feel like a good tip, as you can move the characters around much quicker and with less effort. However, while this gives you a slight advantage to rolling the fish and bird around the screen at faster speeds, I found that the trade off you get by lightly resting on the edges of the sticks is both imprecise and uncomfortable after only short periods of play. Having your thumbs poised lightly on the outer edges of the sticks can quickly become quite a strain for your hands, even for a lifelong gamer like me, who has probably spent more time wrestling with gamepads than I’ve had hot dinners…no wait that’s probably a lie, forgive me. Playing for anything longer than about 20-30 minutes can feel like agony on your thumbs, so I advise players who don’t want to take a trip down the carpal tunnel of love with their stinging, distended digits in tow to play in short and sweet sessions.

As a result, it can be hard to settle in and get into the game’s evocative mood, when your thumbs are practically screaming at you to stop – I personally would have liked to have played through the whole of story mode in a single evening, but I found I had to stop and take a break after each level or two. As someone who can (and will, don’t tempt me) spend days sitting around in nothing but my pants, wallowing in my lack of personal hygiene and filth whilst playing games till the wee small hours, the process of taking breaks from playing a game was quite a change from my usual modus operandi.

Time for a minor but relevant detour; Entwined isn’t the first game to use both sticks as a means of controlling two separate characters in, excuse the paradox here, a multiplayer singleplayer game. Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, a fantastic game by Starbreeze Studios, tasks the player with controlling the two (yup, you guessed it) brothers by assigning each brother one half of the controller, in a similar fashion to Entwined. The older brother is controlled using the left stick and performs actions using left trigger, whilst the younger brother is controlled with the right stick and performs actions using the right trigger. What was utterly genius about Brothers was the fact that the designers recognised and accounted for the fact that players would have a leading/stronger gaming thumb than the other – typically the left, which normally controls a character’s movement in games. This was perfectly mirrored in that game’s story and mechanics by having the older brother’s control on the left, and the younger on the right; the result of this configuration was that players would let the older, more mature brother lead the way without consciously thinking about it as it would be their stronger thumb controlling the left stick, and have the younger brother (being controlled by the weaker thumb) follow. Without going into spoilers, this paid off HUGELY in the story, with an incredibly powerful delivery that arose directly because of the game’s asymmetrical control scheme.

Entwined Fourth Lifetime

Unlike Brothers though, the controls in Entwined just feel downright awkward at times – I was always stronger with my left stick, AKA the fish, but even after sinking several hours into the game’s story and challenge modes, my right stick controlling the bird never really improved. I would routinely perform agile quick movements through difficult patterns of shapes with my left stick, and continually cock-up even the most basic of manoeuvres with the right.

The controls in Brothers took into account the imbalance of your thumbs’ preferences, habits and strengths and used those tendencies to craft a well-thought out control system. In contrast, during its most difficult sections, Entwined insists that you have equal strength and dexterity with both of your main gaming digits – something I don’t have, and something I’m sure most gamers won’t have either. Pixel Opus might well have designed it this way intentionally, perhaps suggesting through player’s asymmetrical and unequal control over the bird and the fish, a metaphor of sorts along the lines of the asymmetrical distribution of a couple’s love for one another. But if so, it’s not very apparent or particularly conducive to the style of an on-rails racer.

Freebird

Entwined Green Hills

Story mode sees you play through nine lifetimes, each one themed around a different element and emotion. The environments are abstract and relaxing in their simplistic yet elegant beauty, and whilst there are few chances to properly take in the background visuals whilst playing, when you do, everything looks suitably impressive. The lighting and particle effects amongst other such graphical wizardry really bring what would otherwise be dull endless tunnels to life.

The mood and feel of each section is varied too; I expected most of the levels to feel sad and lonely due to the longing Romeo and Juliet style love story angle of the two characters, but there’s a full gamut of moods and feelings that run throughout all nine lifetimes. Often you’ll find yourself just drifting off (in a good absorbed way, not a tired sleepy way) and just drinking in the mood of a level without consciously thinking about it, and these are some of the best bits of the game. When you find yourself lost in a zen-like sense of flow, the game excels, whilst also taking your thoughts away from your aching thumbs.

At times, the game delivers some truly exhilarating moments to experience – a testament to the game’s simplistic visuals and design. When you’ve passed through enough coloured shapes and orbs in a lifetime, you are prompted to press L1 + R1 to start the eponymous entwining process between the fish and the bird. Cue flashing lights, a dramatic increase in speed and thumping drums and music – the game shifts up a gear, and you now have to navigate through the final sequences, with each successful motion threading the two characters closer together with intertwining strands of colour and light.

Entwined Entwining

These sections feel extremely powerful; with my headphones turned up loud and my eyes glued to the screen, the overpoweringly emotional sensations these entwining sections would stir in me would often send the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and have me break out in goosebumps – in only a good way of course. The sensation of going faster and faster, and with the rousing music swelling around you and in your ears, it feels absolutely electrifying. Think the trippy ending sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only with more fun and exhilaration rather than ominous alien obelisks and giant foetal space babies. Powerful stuff indeed for a simple on-rails tunnel racer.

Entwined Green DragonOnce you’ve completed the entwining, you find yourself controlling a big majestic green dragon, which, upon closer inspection, you can see is made up of the component parts of the fish and bird in a cool Lego/Meccano sort of way. The sections with the combined dragon are really emotive – I found myself feeling peaceful and relaxed, yet with bittersweet undertones of melancholia upon completing each lifetime. In contrast to the intense build-up of the entwining sections, here you can peacefully glide around a picturesque scene as you collect more orbs to start the next lifetime. It’s often quite nice to just spend some time quietly drifting about and taking in all the scenery; simply being able to drift around the open world sections as the dragon felt surprisingly special and stirring.  The controls are slightly different for the dragon, requiring both sticks to turn and manoeuvre it around in the sky, but it feels effortless and smooth, and it’s certainly a good opportunity to let your aching thumbs rest for a while. You can swoop and soar around to your heart’s content before making a beautiful sky trail to the next lifetime.

Entwined Dragon First Lifetime

Pulling off the required shapes and patterns in the on-rails sections is incredibly satisfying as they come towards you, when everything is going well control wise. The game’s sound design is tailored to the style of each level which is a nice touch; passing through a water drop shape on the water themed lifetime makes a nice drip effect, whilst passing through a squiggly cloud-like shape in the air lifetime makes a satisfying yet appropriate squeaky pop. Each sound effect and note is suitably co-ordinated to the onscreen visuals rapidly hurtling towards you.

Speaking of sound design, the musical score is rousing and dynamic – it responds to how you’re playing à la Rockband/Guitar Hero style, with more layers and timbres joining in when you make progress, and dropping out when you make mistakes. It feels lively and emotive, both overwhelming and symphonically massive, yet knowing when to take a backseat and provide moody and simplistically introspective pads and tones. Like I mentioned earlier, particularly impressive soundscapes come into play during the entwining sections; as a bass guitar player, hearing the low powerful bass tones lock in with loud drums that appear dramatically from the ambient aural landscapes as the speed increases made me grin from ear to ear at times. Nothing musically ever gets in the way of the gameplay experience; it’s there to enhance the gameplay experience. The music itself, the overall effect of it on you as you play, combined with its execution and responsiveness to the player’s actions is nothing short of fantastic, and contributed massively to my personal emotional connection to the game.

Entwined Dragon Ice

The overall story told is emotional and stirring whilst remaining abstract and minimal. The fact that the game gets you to run through a wide palette of varying tender emotions whilst playing, just through gameplay and without a single line of dialogue is very impressive. Whilst there’s not much here that particularly stands out as exceptional storytelling in itself, the moments you’ll experience while travelling through the nine lifetimes are memorable and evocative; you’ll remember the moods, spaces and thoughts that your mind drifted off into whilst playing rather than any major specific events themselves…except, perhaps, you might remember a couple of unpleasant things of course…

Swimming with the fishes

Entwined Rock SpiralWhy such a pessimistic subtitle and change in direction I hear you ask? Well, the major downside that I found to the story mode is the odd pacing and structure of it. Specifically, the game can quickly spike in difficulty in places, in sudden unexpected and startling points for a game with such a simplistic premise. It makes for a disjointed feeling experience, where you don’t feel a sense of progression or accomplishment at getting further, usually just an overwhelming sense of relief after major roadblocks of frustration.

The difficulty can spike arbitrarily, and not on a nice steady upward linear incline. Rather than starting off easy and gradually increasing the challenge as the player progresses through each of the nine lifetimes, the difficulty can suddenly shoot up in certain sections, and then fizzle out whimperingly in the places where the game feels as though it’s building up to a natural cumulative climax of sorts. Sections either feel controller-destroyingly frustrating or almost too easy, with no happy medium in between, and what’s more, they come in the wrong order, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying experience.

Maybe this is what they were going for with the story mode, to break up the difficult sections in an unusual or different way…or maybe I just suck at Entwined. I’m not sure. I found that I would breeze through some of the later sections of the game with nary a mistake from my colourful duo, whereas I consistently hit some serious roadblocks very early on in the early lifetimes. I soared through some stages which upon first glance, looked like they would give me a sudden apoplectic fit due to the number of shapes bombarding the screen at once with their sheer visual complexity and speed, whilst struggling immensely and repeatedly with what looked like easy and overly-simplistic groupings of shapes in the very early levels. A gradual ramping up of the complexity in each lifetime would have been more to my liking, with more of a concerted gameplay challenge coming at the denouement of the game rather than within the first few tentative steps of the journey.

Having said that, there’s no penalty for missing the shapes in story mode, so thankfully there’s no way to lose and there’s no lengthy reloads to go back to a checkpoint, the game just keeps on rolling. However, because of this, you can quickly end up in a demoralising loop of frustration after a while of repeatedly missing upcoming shapes. Every time you miss a shape, you lose a small chunk of the progression bars at the top of the screen (orange and blue for the fish and bird respectively), which means that continued mistakes will send you backward – both in terms of game progression and mental state. This means that on difficult sections, you can feel your will to keep playing drain almost as quickly as the progression bars slowly dwindle back down to the start.

Entwined Dragon Sunset

The core problem I found when playing Entwined was that the game asks you to pull off movements with the two sticks that feel either too fast or too precise for you to pull off with both sticks going at once. I know this sounds like a tedious or perhaps mistaken point for a gamer to argue about, but I would find myself repeatedly struggling to pull off the manoeuvres necessary to get through the shapes the game thrust towards me, with the speed and level of accuracy that it demanded. Factor into this the fact that the controls feel distended and awkward on your precious thumbs after only a relatively short period of time and this can quickly convince you that you’ve fallen into some Dante-esque coloured circle of hell, albeit with blue and orange obstacles flying at you instead of, presumably, flesh-eating demons. Your thumbs get tired from gripping onto the edges for dear life, so your precision to navigate through the next obstacles diminishes. You grit your teeth in frustration, and grip on tighter to the sticks, only for them to further ache in disappointment after yet another dropped shape which sets you back even further.

This might be again just a personal preference thing; for me, I find the Xbox One controller, with it’s higher offset left stick far more comfortable to use than the Dual Shock 4. The Xbox One controller makes playing for hours at a time feel very comfortable and easy on your hands, and as I’m more familiar with the Xbox consoles, this unsurprisingly feels most naturally to me. The central low down placement of the left and right sticks, positioned right next to each other on the Dual Shock 4 is often quite an uncomfortable playing position for someone like me who has more of an Xbox playing heritage; I feel that holding my thumbs consistently on the edge of the sticks in this position for extended periods just didn’t agree with me (or my tendons) if I wanted to play for longer than about 20 minutes.

Entwined Circle Shapes

If I were not such a black-hearted achievement/trophy hunting scumbag, I would have quickly lost the will to get past lifetime three, which for me, quickly became the bain of my existence whilst playing this game. Each lifetime has it’s own visual style or traits to set them apart. In my case, which I’m sure others have found out playing Entwined for themselves too, that the levels where I got stuck repeatedly, such as that pesky rock/earth themed fouth lifetime, were ones where I had to make short sharp jerky motions with the sticks to reach jagged pairs of shapes set at sharp angles away from each other, as opposed to lifetimes that required smooth controlled motions.

To this day, that fourth lifetime continues to give me grief each time I’ve gone back to replay it, and it becomes an irritating roadblock to my enjoyment of what is overall a very relaxing and enjoyable gameplay experience. I could cope with the longer twisting curving tunnels sections of repeated shapes where regular small minute adjustments were required for extended periods of time, which are in theory harder to pull off as there’s more shapes to pass through, whereas I never got the hang of those which required single rapid angular movements, usually from one extreme of the screen to another.  The speed at which you are required to spin your thumbs around the edges of the sticks feels near impossible at times to successfully pull off.

Other more minor things that got to me were that on some levels, it can be extremely hard to see past one or two shapes in advance of your current position. Obviously, this is what makes the game challenging to some extent, but it can get to the point that there’s so many layers of shapes going on it can be extremely hard to see what you need to do or where you’ve gone wrong. Whether you get through them or not feels more down to fluky panicked jerks on the control sticks rather than your skill/responsiveness at navigating through the hordes of shapes flying at you during the difficult sections.

Entwined Dragon Fairground

However, to play devil’s advocate with myself here (try it sometime, it’s pretty good fun), as I got more acclimatised to the game, my thoughts on the difficulty fluctuated somewhat. Having spent a decent chunk of time with the game, playing through the story mode several times, I’m a bit more forgiving of the problems I had in comparison to my initial frustrated impressions.

I’m writing this review bearing in mind that a large part of what could be considered difficult or frustrating for me will undoubtedly differ from player to player, and therefore may not apply to your own experience. As the majority of my gripes with Entwined are rooted in the control system and with analogue sticks of the PS4, and my inability to move said analogue sticks at the required speeds without whinging and moaning about getting cramped up thumbs, I’m perhaps going too far off into the realms of dogmatic rambling, somewhat close to diligent verbal self-flagellation rather than critical reviewing. Like I say, this could all be total poppycock as it were when you play, and you might not have any such issues, you supple thumb warrior you.

As the game is extremely visual based by nature, and simple and clean in the design of its user interface, I can see that including on-screen prompts and tutorials would somewhat clash with the game’s desire to be taken as an experience or journey first and foremost. In addition, despite how frustrating it can be when you are faced with a tricky section that you just can’t seem to get past, the game doesn’t stop or force you to start over, you can just keep on going, which does help to keep the experience feeling seamless and smooth even though you might be consistently struggling.

Entwined Tornadoes

However, to best draw a line under this ugly clump of paragraphs pontificating on the game’s controls and my thumbs, I have to say that those were my only real negatives to say about the game. On that note, it’s time to talk about the challenge mode, a rather snazzy dessert to finish off with.

A new challenger approaches

Entwined Challenge 1

To recap then, your first playthrough of Entwined will have some great moments in it that manage to be both genuinely touching and heartfelt. However, in terms of replayability, there’s not an awful lot to go back for in story mode. I could imagine going back to play through the mode again at a later date to experience all the nice ways it draws you into its simple but elegant world, but whilst the experience is still fresh in your mind, there’s not much there to tempt you to go back for another playthrough. Once you’ve played through it once that’s probably going to be enough for most casual players. What now you ask? Well, that’s where challenge mode comes in.

Challenge mode operates almost identically to story mode, but with a few key changes. First of all, it’s now an endless runner, with no powering up and morphing into dragons and all that stuff. I can see that you’re losing interest now that I’ve said there’s no dragons involved, but bear with me! What you get instead is a satisfying gradual difficulty gradient, a three strikes and you’re out system and highscores; this triumvirate of features don’t sound the most exciting things I have to say, but they make the game so much more fun to play. Trust me.

Challenge mode is the perfect thing to fire up and have a quick 10-minute blast through a few levels.  It has that great Tetris style compulsive itch to it; just one more time, one more go, and this time I’ll beat the highscore. The gradual difficulty curve the game offers in these challenge mode levels feels both welcome and enjoyable; it’s well-paced and never feels overwhelming – unlike in the story game. The speed you need to make your controller inputs and the complexity of the shapes is gradually increased in a nice smooth curve, meaning that there’s no sudden spikes in speed or difficulty, and when you do mess up it’ll feel like an error on your own part. You blame yourself for making silly mistakes; whereas you mess up in story mode, you curse and get angry with the game and not your performance.

Entwined Challenge 2

The series of shapes here is always a linear progression, unlike in story mode, which is partially linear, partially a series of loops. What you lose in unpredictability, challenge mode makes up for it in difficulty, albeit a well-structured difficulty that feels satisfying and addictive. Miss a shape or sequence three times and you have to start the level again from the beginning. Failure here is instructive though, and as I saw my highscores climb, I could visibly track the progress I was making, which felt incredibly rewarding. The ability to learn from your mistakes makes it feel much more worthwhile to play. Scores are calculated by how long you can remain navigating the course for, before you miss your allotted three mistakes and crash and burn in a glorious mound of brightly coloured feathers and scales.

There’s variety in the difficulty as well, which makes it feel more refreshing. The impressive lighting effects will sometimes flare up along the tunnel you’re continually moving down, which can make it harder to see exactly where the shapes racing up to meet you are, but at the same time it doesn’t feel particularly unfair or cheap. The challenge levels will also often lull you into a false sense of security; delivering you a series of easy shapes repeatedly on the left side of the screen for example, thereby focusing your attention wholly to the left of the screen only to catch you out by quickly sending you shapes on the right side of the screen in rapid succession.

Entwined Challenge 3

Setting highscores in a stage will unlock the next level (out of a total of five, each one named after an element and each being more difficult than the one before) and trophies are up for grabs for those most dextrous-thumbed of gamers who can unlock all the levels and set a marathon-like 300 seconds on a map of their choosing.

‘Forever Apart, Always Together’

Entwined Ending Sunset

Each time I’ve sat down to play Entwined, I’ve come away feeling quite emotional and deep in a sort of sadness that resonates with the game’s melancholic tone. For such a simple game, I would be utterly entranced while playing it, often finding that I had slipped into a deep meditative flow-like trance with its simplistic but satisfying gameplay. I’ve found that the more I’ve played Entwined, the fonder I’ve become of it. However, the main controls and gameplay mechanics can lead to fair bit of frustration which can pull you out of the relaxing atmosphere.

Like the mantra of the game itself, ‘forever apart, always together’, my feelings about the game are both simultaneously fractured and cohesive. While I try to keep my grievances with the controls and inputs ‘forever apart’ from the things that the game accomplishes well, sooner or later, due to aching thumbs and inaccuracy of control, I’m briskly reminded that these flaws will be ‘always together’ with the potent emotive elements that the game gets right. Although the story mode contains the majority of the emotional denouements, which are undoubtedly the game’s strongest points, playing the challenge mode quickly became my favourite way to play Entwined as it feels much more fun with considered difficulty challenges, rather than the cheap almost lackadaisically executed hurdles on offer in story mode.

As a result, there’s this unfortunate compromise; what you’re left with is a choice between emotive atmosphere and frustrating gameplay, or simple arcade fun with little depth at its core to entice all but the most determined of players to come back to. Entwined is an enjoyable and emotive experience, albeit one that you won’t be likely to replay once you’ve played through it all and seen all there is to see.

Entwined 'Forever Apart, Always Together'