Friday 27 November 2020

Bugsnax review (PS5): A Nightmare on Sesame Street?

This man is the acting Mayor, and - let me be quite frank here - is an absolute stupid twat.

Being a launch title can be a real boon – for AAA titles they can sell more or less 1:1 with the console, see huge business and stellar reviews and become legendary. Take Breath of the Wild, for example – that title literally sold Switches, it was such a flawless whopper.

Or, being a launch title can be cover for a developer releasing a decidedly tepid game knowing it’ll do decent business just because there’s less new stuff to choose from – the “initially small pond making a mediocre fish seem relatively bigger” ploy (Oh, hello, Godfall. Don’t feel compelled to hang around, or anything. Yes, off you pop to obscurity. Bye.).

But a launch title given away for free? That’s either got to be one heck of an intro experience to a new system that the manufacturer feels everyone should enjoy without an entry fee (like Astro’s Playroom on the PS5, which is an utter delight), or it’s an absolute honking bin fire of clunk that in any other scenario would slide straight off people’s radars like a buttered fried egg from a platter made of ball bearings.

And with that greasy thought in mind, welcome to Bugsnax. Free with a PSN subscription for PS5 owners, and yet somehow so guff-filled it still seems overpriced.

News of the Weird


Bugsnax is, in brief, 1/3rd of a sub-par Pokemon game clumsily sellotaped onto a second-string daytime soap opera populated entirely by muppet rip-offs, that towards the end drunkenly veers off into a ditch. You play a journalist, apparently, sent to investigate the disappearance of a questionable explorer who has allegedly found an island full of strange but cute little creatures – half junk food, half animal. It’s your job to talk to the other inhabitants of the island to piece together what happened. That is, if you can somehow muster the energy to care.


What then follows is a series of tedious, repetitive quests where you do multiple fetch tasks for each member of the island’s community – who, I should mention have personalities that range all the way from “really quite annoying” to “outright shitbag” – to encourage them to move back to the island’s main town, at which point they’ll give you some sort of clue that furthers the main plot after you interview them. These interviews being entirely linear affairs – you just click through a fixed sequence of Qs and As, and there’s no actual skill in “questioning” to extract useful info, nor is anything you’re told in the interviews themselves (a) of any use other than as background to characters you probably don’t give a toss about anyway, or (b) related in any way whatsoever to what clue you get.



But hey, surely the “gotta catch ‘em all” factor makes it fun? Well, here’s where we hit Bugsnax’s first big problem. The vast majority of the tasks you do are indeed “find and catch a certain type of bugsnack, and feed it to me”. Which would be fine, but you rapidly realise that aside from cosmetics, catching and feeding people different snax does nothing. There’s no imparting of special abilities or logic to what each person wants most of the time, it’s just an excuse to make you have to catch a new creature – and the bugsnax are also boringly similar. They either hide, or are aggressive, or are in an awkward area, or some combination of all three. But very, very few do anything unique, and once you’ve seen a handful the novelty rapidly wears off.


Be thankful this isn't a video review, because christ alive this character's singing is annoying.

When you do feed people snax, all that actually happens is each creature consumed can replace a body part of who you feed it to, so the characters look increasingly stupid as the game progresses and they get kebabs for wrists and gherkins for genitals (noses). If creating a gallery of charmless freaks is your thing then this may have some appeal, but outside of a couple of obscure PSN trophies there’s no need to feed anyone anything outside of what’s needed to complete quests.


Disturbingly, one secret trophy requires you to feed snax to the character who lovingly keeps them as pets and doesn’t eat them, and to get round his morals you have to feed him while he’s sleepwalking. He then wakes up and freaks out, because OF COURSE HE WOULD AS THIS IS REALLY CREEPY BEHAVIOUR. But afterwards he immediately forgets this and treats you like a friend exactly the same as before, because – and here you may sense a theme developing – nothing in this game makes coherent sense.


Double licker

The exception to the changes not being meaningful is when the game implies a body change is needed, but this is solely in the sense of gating quest progress. For example, the unpleasant salesman guy wants ice lollies for feet to walk across the hot desert. So you have to do quests to unlock the snowy area, then catch and feed him ice lolly bugsnax, and change his feet. But it’s just ticking a box off a list – it doesn’t actually alter the gameplay in any way, no other character including you is affected by the desert heat, and he just leaves the desert and never goes back, and it’s never mentioned again.


By the way, your character can’t eat the bugsnax (this is established early on in a throwaway plot point), so where there was blatant scope for the game to let YOU do stuff like access hot areas after eating cold snax or vice versa, or be able to smash rocks after eating beefy snax, this is entirely squandered. This whole thing is an absolute waste of an obvious slam dunk of a gameplay mechanic with huge potential, and I can’t fathom why it wasn’t made any use of. It’s a bewildering omission.


Catching the various bugsnax is also a chore that only becomes more tiresome over time, as the game makes it deliberately more awkward to do so not by making snax more cunning and unique but just by putting in awkwardness obstacles and red herrings. In one part, you’re asked to catch a cinnamon bun snail, and there is one right next to you on an outcrop – indeed, the character you’re talking to directly refers to it. But that particular example of that kind of Bugsnax is incredibly tricky to catch in the game because of where it is placed, and what you should actually do is go to another area and catch a far more easily accessible one.

It’s a deliberate misdirection for no reason other than to annoy and be a barrier to progress – you could spend ages trying to suss it out because it’s implied you should catch that specific one, when you can just grab one round the corner in minutes. It’s a complete “fuck you” moment to players, and I have no idea why they did it.

A bad workman blames his tools, or something...


Talking of catching stuff, your equipment – a snare trap, springloaded platform, tripwire, grapple etc., is without exception clumsy and unintuitive to use, often needing you to do absurd juggling like firing the trap awkwardly into the air using the spring, then rapidly swapping in the radial menu to be able to activate the trap midair to catch flying snax. This, assuming your trap doesn’t fall over first, or a nearby aggressive snak you didn’t see doesn’t butt you out of the way, or set fire to your trap (or you). And ultimately you can only carry 8 snax anyway, so inventory management is a massive pain in the arse even when you do catch stuff. There's no repository to store snax either, so you'll sometimes have to release snax when catching new ones only to find you needed one you let go for a later quest - thus encouraging you not to bother catching any if you don't absolutely need them, which doesn't really make completing your collection very appealing.

Get orf my laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand!!! (And doubtless go and do a boring quest for me)

If you like to make your weekly shop a challenge by doing it on a unicycle with a carrier bag that only has 1 handle, this might be the sort of tricky task you love. For the rest of us who aren’t having the time of their life laying sprawled and bleeding in the road surrounded by dropped yoghurts and dented bean tins, it just smacks of poorly tested game design.


So it’s an awkward game to play, with boring tasks and wasted gameplay opportunities. But does the plot rescue it?


In short, no. And in long, also no but with more words – the plot is a terrible fit for what the game seems to imply it is, veers from toilet humour to uneasy ignoring of the fact you’re eating cute creatures, and relies on charmless characters who make absolutely no sense as characters to carry it, which they unsurprisingly fail to do.


For example, the bodybuilding US teen jock dude is in an implausible gay relationship with the prickly, middle-aged unlikeable conspiracy theorist. And just to be clear, it’s not the gay bit that’s implausible – it’s the fact that these two people have absolutely no chemistry as written for any sort of relationship to be believable, let alone an intimate one. They don’t even hang out together much, but are just presented as caring about each other and having a history because “reasons”. Similarly, the farmer guy and his archaeologist wife can’t seem to stand each other, then do, then don’t again, the horrible mean gossip girl would clearly be hated by everyone, the loathsomely irritating singer inexplicably has the hots for the wet blanket pet guy yet also wants to eat his pets even though she knows what they mean to him, and I can barely bring myself to be arsed to type anything about anyone else.

Toilet puzzle frankenstein incident


They’re all devoid of endearing features, but more importantly what the hell are fuzzy muppet types and quirky fun snack animals doing in a game where you have to (ham-fistedly) repair failing relationships, spy on people like a paparazzi and investigate what’s slowly revealed to be an increasingly weird body horror plot in the first place? I mean, what the ruddy hell were the developers thinking of?


The game is a baffling mess of mismatched, half-baked ideas. On the one hand it looks like it should appeal to kids but is too frustrating for them to tolerate playing and the story might make them freak out (especially the ending), but on the other hand despite having a more “adult” plot than you might expect it’s too simplistic, not witty or interesting, and none of the characters are relatable.

Is supposed to be: a burger type thing. Looks like: a nappy full of coathooks.

Bugsnax feels like it was another half-finished game – quite possibly a number of other half-finished games – but for whatever reason ended up the way it did after a series of disastrous script reviews and haphazard cut-and-shut game design. Sure, it’s different. Surprising, even. But it isn’t much fun, it isn’t very funny, it isn’t challenging in a skilful sense and it certainly doesn’t have a story you want to explore. It isn’t even technically impressive – loads of the bugsnax are reskins of each other, despite being a small game it has notable loading between areas, and visually it probably could have run on a PS3 let alone a PS4. It isn’t even a jack of all trades – it’s simply crap at everything it turns its mutated, freaky hand to.


Like a jigsaw made of bits of other jigsaws that have been soaking in a toilet. Avoid.


3 Unhappy Meals out of 6 mouldy McNuggets

Thursday 30 July 2020

Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)

Is my hat on fire? It feels like my hat might be on fire...

So obviously, as a starting point for this review of Ghost of Tsushima – a game I’ve been looking forward to for aaaaages – I’m going to talk about two other games I’d also looked forward to for ages; namely The Last of Us pt. 2 and Jedi: Fallen Order. And what the heck, possibly Control as well, because if you’re going to veer dangerously off the road like a manatee that’s been inexplicably put in charge of driving the review bus, you may as well be a drunk manatee and the bus may as well be on fire. Ding ding, tickets please!


First up, TLoU2 – a game that’s so dark and heavy it’s a wonder it doesn’t have its own gravitational field. I confess I haven’t finished TLoU2, despite being a huge fan of the first game, because honestly it’s just too crushingly miserable for me. I can appreciate it for the relentlessly harrowing masterpiece it is, even though I’ve not slogged my way to the end. But not only was I not enjoying it (in as much as you can ‘enjoy’ graphic depictions of torture and the like), I realised I was actively not looking forward to playing it.


If you’re making excuses about needing to finish stuff in other games to avoid having to go back to a game because it’s such a downer? Then yeah – maybe that game isn’t for you (me).

Bleak house


The thing is, the characters – to Naughty Dog’s absolute credit – are so well rounded and real feeling, they’ve entered some sort of ‘uncanny valley’ of personality. It’s reached the point that the misfortunes heaped upon them and the dreadful individuals that inhabit the world seem all too genuine, despite the popcorn-faced wobbly monsters that pop up now and again to remind you this is post-apocalyptic zombie sci-fi rather than a disturbing fly on the wall documentary of (hopefully) late-Trump era America.


But there’s also another issue that slightly bugs me with TLoU2, and would have done even if I hadn’t found it ‘a bit much’ – and that’s that it is 100% linear. The crushing moral choices the characters make are never choices *you* make, or even influence. You as the player are always just an observer, ferrying them from one regrettable incident to another. Want to nudge someone away from the terrible mistake they’re clearly about to make? Tough. Big stash of ammo and health suspiciously piled up in the room before a locked door? Well you know what’s coming, how it will go down, and exactly where you have to go.


Unsurprisingly the Uncharted games are very similar, and in that sense playing them is not a million miles away from just having to repeatedly mash a button to make a film proceed – you have control, and yet no control whatsoever. Only rather than a fun adventure romp with a wisecracking hero dude, the film in this case is Schindler’s List and you just have to sit back and watch the horror unfurl. TLoU2 is undoubtably a memorable experience, but when you think of it like that, it’s slightly…odd.


Lasagne of regret

With Jedi: Fallen Order, tone-wise it’s a helium-filled meringue to TLoU2’s venison in dark chocolate and tungsten sauce. But while I enjoyed the game, it left me feeling weirdly unsatiated once I’d finished it. The story was pretty simplistic, the characters a bit by the numbers (mildly grumpy mentor haunted by their past, comic relief short dude, feisty lady who has seen her people killed, uncertain hero – can’t think where they plucked them from), and then there was the whole “being a Jedi” part. Despite being a mythical warrior with a laser sword and magic powers, combat always felt a bit stiff. And again, though there was a bit more of an illusion of freedom in that you could pick the order of planets to visit, it was still very linear when you got there.


It’s akin to giving someone a choice of 5 restaurants, but regardless of which one they choose they still have to have lasagne when they get there. Even if it’s a Chinese restaurant, and the owner does rude gestures at you while pointing at the branch of Zizzi next door.


While on the one hand this looks heroic, on the other I have no idea at all how to get down from here and might have a little cry in a minute.

In fact, if it hadn’t have been a Star Wars title, and so able to draw on a universe of characters and locations with their own built-in pop culture icon appeal, as a game I think it would have been remarkably unremarkable; all the more surprising give it was made by Respawn, who created probably the best FPS of this console generation in Titanfall 2. Don’t get me wrong – there was nothing *wrong* with any of it. It’s just that it only ever gently tugged half-heartedly at my socks while letting off an indoor firework rather than blowing them off.

Jin & tonic


So finally, on to Ghost of Tsushima. The fact it’s a stunning looking game should at this stage be no surprise. It’s stylised for sure, as the grainy black and white Samurai Cinema mode attests to, but even with the colour on and the in-game grit cataracts removed one trip to Golden Temple at sunset should be enough to wow even the most jaded gamer that visually, this is something really special. The audio work as well, with a full Japanese language voice track, is great.


Impressive as they are, the technical achievements are only part of the appeal though. What I really like about Ghost of Tsushima, and why I think it’s deserving of its high review scores (including a very rare perfect score from legendary Japanese magazine, Famitsu) is that, as a game, it’s immensely satisfying because of its freedom on one hand, and it’s exceptional combat on the other.


Jin, your character in the game, has various unlockable talents and abilities which mean you can set yourself up to excel at ranged combat, stealth, quick close combat, parry and block style swordplay, or a mix ‘n’ match of all of them. And the impressive thing is, you can switch between all of these on the fly, and it’s simple and intuitive to do so.


i wish I'd brought my sunglasses. Or indeed invented sunglasses, what with this being 1274AD.

How does this work in practice? Well, take the example of a mission fairly late on in the first act where you have to clear out a town of Mongol enemies. I re-ran this mission 3 times to see if I could tackle it either as a sneak, jumping around on roofs and literally stabbing people in the back, or as a brave but foolhardy samurai walking openly into sword combat and calling enemies out, or as a ranged archer using bows, sticky bombs and throwing knives as well as environmental ‘weapons’ like wasps nests that distract enemies. I finished the mission each time and, apart from the fixed duel-style final boss fight, it was an entirely different experience requiring different skills and a different approach each time.

Remarkably, this open approach can be applied to the vast majority of the whole game – for story missions, side quests and even just random world encounters.


Yes, there will be missions that do push you down one way or another (certainly early on, when they’re teaching you your skills), but the last game where I felt I had this much leeway in tackling stuff was probably Breath of the Wild, and any comparison to that game is always a compliment. The ‘unguided nature’ theme is strong throughout the game too, with gusts of wind, songbirds and foxes showing you the way and leading you to places of interest rather than some anachronistic blip-covered radar.

Get wood for NPCs


For the story and characters, I admit I am a Japanophile so there was added appeal, but Jin’s weighing up of the code he has always lived by and the tactics he now has to use is handled well, if a little lightly (he does seem to get over having to do ‘dishonourable’ things quite quickly). The map being peppered with side missions and stories of the characters you meet along the way is nice too – you get to know a lot more about them, and it’s often revealed they may have some (ahem) moral flexibility to them as well.


There are also artefacts and bits and bobs to collect that reveal more about the world, as well as little events like coming across hot springs and places where you’ll write haikus. Do they make any difference to the core game? No. Are they lovely little asides nonetheless? Absolutely. 


A lot of open-world games pack themselves full of tedious busywork rather than little surprises like shrines or poetic vistas, but thankfully Ghost is lean in this sense – there’s no Red Dead 2-style wood chopping or game hunting to take stuff back to camp just to keep some random NPC happy. There is resource collection to upgrade your gear, but for the most part supplies are plentiful, not secreted away in awkward places you have to spend ages parkouring to just to find a bit of bamboo, and the game is clear in showing you what your upgrades do and when you have enough of any particular thing to improve an item.

It’s the combat that really, really shines though – when the rhythm clicks and you start being able to chain together blocks, strikes and stance swaps to in turn take on shield men, sword men and spear men in one fluid motion you can be absolutely devastating. It’s what I wanted to feel when I played Jedi: Fallen Order but never really did – like I am an exceptionally trained, highly skilled warrior rather than a 45-year-old guy lounging on an armchair who’s biggest offensive threat is that I know a lot of swear words. 


I might have a danger-filled life where I could get slashed in half at any time, but at least I'm not the poor sod who has to sweep up all these leaves.

A typical combat sequence might start with a standoff – time that right and you can take down up to 3 enemies in one go. Then throw down a smoke bomb and take out 2 while they're stunned. Maybe 3 if you're lucky. Dodge a rushing attacker, throw knives to take out an archer, then change sword stance to break the block of a shield man, finishing him with an unblockable attack that lets you instantly sprint on to your next target. And this all happens in a few seconds – but when you do pull off a successful sequence of blows like this, and take down 6 or 7 foes without a scratch, it both looks amazing thanks to the slow-mo visuals and crucially *feels* amazing as well.

Genuinely, the last time combat in a game made me go “Ooh!” when I got it right like this is Superhot. That adrenaline rush never gets old. Ever.


Ghost of Tsushima is a rare thing in that it is pure escapism in its beautiful historical setting, with game mechanics that have been as highly polished as an antique katana. It takes old ideas like wayfinders and adds a new twist, gives you genuine freedom in how you approach missions, and has an engaging, living world that you’ll often find yourself stopping to just admire (well, assuming you’re not mid swordfight). I absolutely adored it, and it was exactly what I needed right now – a fun, substantial, gorgeous game that just takes me out of it. It's one of the best, freshest examples of an open world game I've played in a very long time.


Similarly, I’ve recently started playing Control (see, told you I’d get that in somewhere) and though very different in style and plot, it’s equally good at just taking you to a very different, unique world. Which really, is what games should always be about. I might come back to TLoU2 one day, perhaps when reality is marginally less of a miserable place. Until then, I’m back off to 13th Century Japan – those Mongols aren’t going to eviscerate themselves, after all.


136 Yen out of a £.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Knights & Bikes (Switch)

"What shall we do today?"
"Go and throw rocks over the border into Devon?"
"Sounds good to me!"

I tell you what – if there’s one thing we need more of in games, it’s pasties. Not only pasties, but the history of pasties as well. On that basis Knights and Bikes should get top marks immediately, as it features both pasties AND information about what pasties are – but as an added bonus, there’s a bloody ace game bolted on to the bakery-themed exposition as well. Also: scones! And cantankerous waterfowl!

Set on an island that’s never named as being in Cornwall (but 100% is in Cornwall) in the mid-1980s, Knights and Bikes is a hand-drawn cartoon style RPG-lite about Nessa and Demelza – two young girls fighting ancient monsters while on a quest for long-lost treasure. Or at least that appears to be what’s happening, because like a Friday night after you’ve moved on to drinking hand sanitiser it’s not entirely clear whether some, none or all of the shenanigans going on around you are real or a load of imaginary “mind fudge”. 

The plot, other than looking for said lost treasure, revolves around Demelza’s dad not having enough money to run the family campsite, the recent death of her mum, and an ancient curse being awoken that – among other things – possesses a crazy golf course, and turns the old lady who runs the mobile library into a flamethrowing witch who gatecrashes a terrible low-budget theme park. So as you may gather, it’s a bit of an eclectic mix.

Beef envelope

What it also absolutely is, is another excellent example of an indie game (in this case one funded via Kickstarter) building on the legacy of the old back-bedroom coded games of the past. You could absolutely imagine a 2D Speccy version of something like this harking from the era it’s set in, complete with slightly unhinged and very British storyline and humour.

However, rather than being stuck rendering the aforementioned Cornish beef envelopes via the disappointingly chunky 8-bit pixels of yesteryear, we get to enjoy a frankly gorgeous art style and animation that makes the whole game look like a children’s book. In fact, the whole thing is basically a love letter to childhood adventure – doing skids on your bike, exploring mysterious places, sleepovers with your mates, even your character making ‘Fwoooosh!’ airplane noises when they sprint.

Talking of mates, the entire game is designed for 2 players to tackle together (which is why, even though it was first released on the PC and PS4, the Switch seems like its natural home). Though if you currently find yourself in an isolation ward due to our viral friend, the AI is more than adequate – and even if it does falter, you can also flip between both girls to take manual control at any time too.

All I wanted as a kid was a BMX with pads. Instead, I got a Raleigh Grifter. For you modern kids that's like expecting an iPhone but getting a pager.

2 Girls, 1 Cup (of cider)

The best way to play it is definitely with 2 people in the same room though; as the whole game is built on teamwork, it just feels right. It’s not just 2 people meaning twice the firepower either: each character has their own set of special abilities and literally can’t make it through without the other, such as when Nessa has to douse route-blocking fires with her water bombs, or Demelza has to rip up manhole covers with her toilet plunger in search of delicious fatbergs (OK, in-game currency – but I bet you’d get a few quid for a fatberg too).

I’ll be totally honest and say that it’s unlikely you’ll be overly stretched in the skill department when playing this game – combat is relaxed rather than sweaty, and there aren’t many spots where you’ll struggle for too long. But there’s still enough here to make battles feel like they’re a hurdle rather than a formality, and given the theme and style of the game a punitive grind would kill the fun stone dead anyway.

Puzzles won’t have you tearing your hair out either, and subtle but helpful markings on the ground and strategically-placed scenery will make sure you don’t wander too far astray. It’s admittedly pretty linear, but with just enough freedom and exploring to avoid it feeling like it’s on rails. Plus there are plenty of mini-game interludes to break things up and hold the attention of easily-distracted types – and nicely these are entirely just for fun and, win or lose, present no barrier to progress.

In that regard, this is a great game to play through with younger or less experienced gamers, who’ll get as much enjoyment out of it as seasoned veterans without getting overly frustrated. But at the same time I’m absolutely NOT saying is that this is a ‘kid’s game’, with all the negative connotations of overly watered-down gameplay and a lack of effort that implies. This is just a game that happens to be suitable for kids because it’s really well made, not diluted.

Guest starring Boaty McBoatface.

Smell the crabs

It’d probably come as no surprise to you if I told you that the game was developed by a small team who also worked on Little Big Planet and Tearaway, as the style, charm and attention to detail from those games is clearly present here as well. As well as the sense of childhood adventure, it totally captures the slightly naff vibe of a small, British seaside town in off season – you can practically smell the crabs and stale beer (unless you always smell of crabs and stale beer anyway, in which case this game just reeks of your awful bedsit).

Knights and Bikes is obviously not a huge release, and you won’t see it plastered over the side of buses like Call of Duty: Duty Calls 2: Call Harder (Brown Ops edition). So unless you scour the whole spectrum of the games press daily, sometimes it’s down to luck as to whether you even hear of games like this. But I’m delighted I did, because it’s lovely.

It’s not a mammoth game, coming in around the 10-hour mark, and the challenge might be nudging up to too lightweight for some. But sometimes it’s about the journey and not the accomplishment, and on that basis it’s absolutely worth your time and the time of finding a friend to play it through with too. Things this warm, charming and funny don’t come along every day, so grab it in your clammy mitts like one of Cornwall’s famous pastry semicircles. 

I mean, it’s got a goose called Captain Honkers in it. What more do you want? A cream tea?!?

St. Ives (5) out of Sennen (7)