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The first game that Lewis ever played was "Horace Goes Skiing" on the ZX Spectrum. Yes, he's that old.

The Project Zero 5 verdict: it’s good

After spending a few incredibly creepy hours with Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water for Wii U, I can safely say that it’s thoroughly enjoyable and incredibly creepy. Especially when playing it on your own with the lights down.

The game arrived on Friday, complete with lots of lovely gear, and I managed to get in a decent playing session last night – then attempted to get to sleep with thoughts of child ghosts leaping out on me from a haunted wood. Child ghosts are just the worst, aren’t they?

Spot the child ghost. Brrrrrrr.....

Spot the child ghost. Brrrrrrr…..

The game has reviewed widely varying review scores, with much of the negative criticism centring on how the game is too similar to its predecessors and lacking in innovation. But seeing as this is the first Project Zero game I’ve played, those criticisms barely apply in my case. It was actually quite refreshing to go back to old-school survival horror.

And the controls are definitely old school – although the movement doesn’t feature Resident Evil‘s infamous ‘tank’ controls, moving your character around is just as clunky. There’s a considerable delay between pressing down to turn your character around and them actually completing the action – the people in this game all appear to be wading through treacle. Likewise, the ‘run’ is barely a trot.

But all of this just adds to the atmosphere as far as I’m concerned – in survival horror games like this, wrestling with the controls is just part of the appeal. There’s nothing like being attacked by several ghosts at once and whipping the Camera Obscura out in a panicked attempt to fight them off – but instead looking at the floor and spinning around wildly while desperately trying to get the enemies in your viewfinder. The controls are intentionally difficult – the game wants you to fail. But importantly, it’s not impossible. I’m already getting better with practice, even though most of my attempts to fend off ghosts are more flailing than finessed.

I like the way the game does things slowly – it’s all about slow build-ups, eerie walks through darkened forests and impending dread as you shuffle down creaking corridors. Even picking up objects takes an age as you reach down slowly to grab the item, and sometimes a ghost hand will shoot out to get you instead. It’s a cheap scare, but effective.

And speaking of cheap scares, the game made me jump numerous times thanks to ghosts variously leaping out of cupboards or popping up behind me, although one of the most effective moments wasn’t a jump scare at all. As I was crawling down a collapsed corridor, I suddenly noticed a pair of ghostly feet dangling above me, as if they belonged to a man hanging from a noose. I quickly stood up and looked around, but there was nothing there. And nothing appeared there again, no matter how many times I went back… making me wonder whether I’d imagined the whole thing. Brrr.

I can’t wait to dive back in and see what else the game has to offer!

Project-Zero-Maiden-of-Black-Water-review

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Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water has arrived!

So this turned up on my doorstep this morning.

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It’s quite strange to buy a Wii U game with ’18-rated’ emblazoned all over it. It almost feels naughty.

I’m mega impressed by how much you get in the collectors’ edition, check it out:

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Look at all that: a poster, postcards, art book and steel case… oh and a cuddly Yoshi, but that just happened to be on my table. The poster is double-sided too!

Here’s what’s on the other side of the postcards:

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I’m really impressed with the art book, it’s truly a beautiful thing to behold… although I’m putting it to one side for now for fear of spoilers.

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Can’t wait to play this game! Hopefully I should have some time on Sunday evening – I’ll let you know how it plays.

Toodle pip!

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From The Armchair: Bring On The Scares

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums!

It’s been an inordinate amount of time since our last tete-a-tete, but you can blame this dearth of communication on the heavy mantle of fatherhood, which I now carry proudly across my shoulders. As such, the lightweight blouson of gaming has been left hanging on the neglect peg, although of late I’ve had occasion to don the casual-gaming bobble hat from time to time – specifically, I’ve been ploughing my way through Pokémon Shuffle quite shamelessly, though it pains me to admit it.

Back when the game came out, I was pretty damn rude about it, claiming it showcased the very worst of free-to-play models. I still maintain that this is true – ‘pay to win’ is completely the worst way to approach free to play – but the game itself is a lot of fun, and the way that it rations hearts (read: ‘lives’) has actually worked well for my new circumstances. I often find myself with only the odd ten minutes here and there for gaming in between work and looking after Merriweather Jr, which is just enough time to run through my five hearts and put the game to one side (I’ve yet to actually spend any money on it). Nowadays, the shorter a game is, the better.

I’ve also been playing a lot of Super Mario 3D World and Yoshi’s Woolly World, too – both are perfect for quick bursts. And any longer gaming stints I’ve been able to wangle have been put into Code Name STEAM, which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying now I’m used to the strange mix of real-time and turn-based elements, not to mention the odd but clever choice to not include a map.

But the game I’m really looking forward to playing comes out next Friday – Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water for the Wii U.

Project zero maiden of black water screenshot

It’s been fascinating to see how the game has completely divided the critics: EDGE magazine rewarded the game with an 8, high praise indeed from the famously harsh publication, whereas Eurogamer emphatically urged readers to ‘Avoid’ the title. I’m quietly confident that I’ll like the game, however: I’ve been hankering for another ‘proper’ survival horror title ever since finishing ZombiU back in 2013, and I’m disappointed with the action route that the Resident Evil series has taken of late – put it this way, Umbrella Corps has failed to set my hype gland a-pumping.

I’ve never played a Project Zero game (aka Fatal Frame in the US), but I love the idea of hunting for ghosts with nothing but a camera, and the Wii U’s gamepad seems perfectly suited to doubling as a spirit camera. I’ll let you know how it goes after sampling the game over Halloween (and no doubt scaring myself silly while I’m at it). The collectors’ edition should be arriving on my doormat this Friday, all being well…

Toodle pip for now!

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Review: Pokémon X

X_EN_boxartI seem to always be way behind when it comes to the Pokémon franchise. The original games, Pokémon Red and Blue, passed me by on their European release in 1999 – I think at the time I dismissed them as being ‘for kids’ (I was at university at the time). But by the time Pokémon Ruby had come out for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, I’d gotten over myself somewhat. Yes the series is primarily aimed at children, but the mechanics underneath are far from childish – there’s a robust and complicated battling system here that can take years to learn and master. It’s like watching Toy Story – enjoyable for kids, but there’s a lot thrown in there for adults to like, too.

I picked up Ruby a while after its release, and it made me finally realise that all the fuss is about. The compulsion to hunt and capture the hundreds of pocket monsters is strong, the battles are a strategic masterclass and the aesthetic has a simplistic beauty. I was hooked. I spent many hours hunting through the long grass in an attempt to find the rarest Pokémon, and I happily explored the huge game world laid out before me.

The best bit about Pokemon X is the newly enhanced graphics for the battles, which look gorgeous.

The best bit about Pokemon X is the newly enhanced graphics for the battles, which look gorgeous.

But by the end I’d started to run out of steam. The final Elite battles are arduous affairs, several times more difficult than anything I’d faced previously in the game, so they required a lot of tedious grinding to enable my Pokémon to compete. One of the series’ flaws is that if you want to change up your main team, then training a new Pokémon can take absolutely forever, which limits your ability and will to experiment with different line ups. As such, you’re more than likely to stick with the same old Pokémon squad for the whole game, which can get a little dull.

Also, the plot is practically non-existent. You’re given a Pokémon by some professor and head off to… well I’m not sure why you head off. It involves rogue Pokémon trainers or something, although to be fair, surely all Pokémon trainers are a bit rogue – the Pokémon games are essentially cock fighting but without the gambling.

Skip forward a few years, and I picked up Pokémon SoulSilver for the DS a long time after its release (review here). In many ways it was very similar to Ruby, just with different Pokémon and better graphics. It had the same strengths and the same tiresome flaws. The Elite battles were a similarly epic slog – so much so that I stopped playing the game after I’d finished the last one, even though the whole region from Red and Blue opens up after you complete the game. I’d had enough.

Which brings me on to Pokémon X, the third Pokémon game I’ve played (again, a long time after its release) and one of the two entries in the sixth (sixth!) generation of Pokémon games (not including all the remakes and spin offs). And it’s the same. It’s the same game again. You could basically copy my review of SoulSilver and paste it here instead.

It did begin to grab me an hour or two in – the mega evolutions are a nice touch, even if they’re not used enough, and the old compulsion to “catch ’em all” is still there, although diminished with time. Crucially, there are simply far too many of the blighters now, so that catching them all is in no way a realistic prospect, unlike when there were just 150 or so of the damn things – an achievable target.

Also, a lot of the new ones are frankly crap. A floating set of keys? Come on.

KlefkiCredit: foolishfox via Reddit

Towards the end of the game, not long after I’d captured a Pokémon reindeer that looks suspiciously like the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke, I just gave up the will to carry on. The wafer-thin ‘plot’ was sending me to sleep (just because a game is for kids doesn’t mean the story has to be simplified to the point of stupidity), and I was aware that the Elite battles were no doubt coming up, which in turn would mean possibly hours of grinding. The same old things I’d done twice before.

I ejected the cartridge and sold the game the same day.

I remember reading somewhere that Japanese games tend to champion iteration over innovation when it comes to sequels. There’s some unwritten rule that Japanese audiences enjoy the familiar but with tweaks to the formula, which is why there are more than a dozen broadly similar Dynasty Warriors games and why every other JRPG seems to start with a destroyed village. I don’t know how true this statement actually is, but it explains why the Pokémon games have barely changed since their inception – and why they are unlikely to change in the future.

But until there’s some serious innovation in the series, a brave reboot that addresses the series’ flaws and gives a serious boost to the simplistic story and characters, then I’m out.

No more fruitlessly hunting through grass for rare Pokémons for me. I'm done.

No more fruitlessly hunting through grass for rare Pokémons for me. I’m done.

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The game about the internet before there was an internet

I’ve been a big fan of the work of William Gibson for a long time, but it was only recently I found out that his first novel, Neuromancer, was turned into a video game back in 1988. I found this especially interesting because Neuromancer (and its short-story prequel of sorts, Burning Chrome) essentially predicted the World Wide Web by having hackers navigate “cyberspace”, a phrase that Gibson coined and that would later become a synonym for the internet.

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So, essentially, there was a game about the internet before there was an internet (well, before the World Wide Web at least). One of the first things you do in the game is download money from your online bank – a feat that wouldn’t be possible on a real-life computer for many years to come.

But the story is more interesting than that because Gibson’s vision of cyberspace is more like virtual reality than anything else – so perhaps he did more than predict the World Wide Web, perhaps the real cyberspace will only come about once VR has reached its full potential. If that ever happens…

Then there’s the connection between Neuromancer the game and Timothy Leary, the notorious LSD researcher who spent the 1960s evangelising the effects of psychedelic drugs. Leary’s idea of how the novel should have been turned into a game is far more interesting and bizarre than the product that eventually came out, featuring artwork by Keith Haring and appearances by Grace Jones and David Byrne, but sadly only scraps of artwork and notes remain.

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I wrote up the full story for Kotaku UK, and it was a particularly interesting one since when I began I had no idea of the Timothy Leary connection. My plan had been simply to write about the 1988 Neuromancer game, so it was fascinating to find out about the game it could have been, Grace Jones and all. I also played through some of the game while researching the article, and I have to say it’s incredibly frustrating by today’s standards – thank god there was a guide on Gamefaqs to save me getting constantly stuck. But it’s also packed full of great ideas – I particularly liked the Nolan Bushnell reference in the “House of Pong”.

Click below to read the full article:

The 1980s Game That Predicted The Internet

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A visit to a real-life Fallout Vault

Back in the summer I found out that there’s a decommissioned nuclear bunker not far from where I live in Edinburgh, just at about the same time I heard the announcement of Fallout 4. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to write an article on what life in a real Fallout Vault would be like – as well as a good excuse for a day out.

The entrance to the bunker is disguised as a farmhouse.

The entrance to the bunker is disguised as a farmhouse.

The bunker’s owners were kind enough to let me in for free, and I spent an enjoyable morning on one of the hottest days of the year wandering around underground, fascinated and appalled in equal measure. It still boggles my mind to think of how close we came to nuclear annihilation – close enough for the government to deem it necessary to build a network of huge regional command bunkers anyway. It’s even scarier to think that World War III could have kicked off due to a faulty missile detection system.

The sloping tunnel down to the bunker. The kink at the end of the tunnel is to deflect the force of a blast.

The sloping tunnel down to the bunker. The kink at the end of the tunnel is to deflect the force of a blast.

So, what would life have been like in a real Fallout Vault? Pretty damn horrible, as it turns out. Even though the Scottish bunker is the size of two football pitches, it would have been a squeeze to fit the allotted 300 people in there, and everyone would have had to share beds by sleeping in shifts. I imagine it would get pretty stinky pretty quickly, even with the state of the art air filtration system. More to the point, morale would have been incredibly low, as the inhabitants would be all too aware of the utter devastation in the world above – and then there’s the risk of disease, along with the limited medical supplies. Definitely not as much fun as the video game, then.

Check out the finished article below:

Inside Scotland’s Real-Life Fallout Vault

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Konami – you were so good

My latest Kotaku UK article is up – this time it’s a look back at all the games that made Konami great, seeing as all the indications are that they might stop supporting consoles:

RIP Konami Console Games 1983-2015

I should point out that the slightly melodramatic title was the doing of the Kotaku UK eds, although I quite like it – it sums up the grief and annoyance that I and many others feel that Konami no longer seem to be bothered about continuing their beloved franchises. Or coming up with new franchises, for that matter – one thing that struck me when compiling my list was that Konami’s last original franchise of note was the Boktai series, which made its debut back in 2003.

Rakuga Kids was sauce-some. See what I did there?

Rakuga Kids was sauce-some. See what I did there?

There were a few games I’d almost forgotten about, too. Rakuga Kids on the N64 was one – although it will never be regarded as a classic beat ’em up, it was packed full of great characters and I have fond memories of playing it against my little sister.

I also managed to squeeze in a reference to Nine to Five – which was also the last film we covered for 101 Films. And speaking of 1o1 Films, hopefully we’ll have some new podcasts up soon if we can finally get our arses in gear after a lengthy hiatus!

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