Hey! You! Play this!

Hey! You! Play Rise of the Tomb Raider!

Lara Croft’s determination to probe old ruins, climb up things and fall down horribly multiple times is pretty damn laudable, given that Rise of the Tomb Raider carries on its predecessor’s desire to put our heroine through the metaphorical ringer. Just like in 2013’s impressive series reboot, Lara’s having another horrible day, this time coming up against a murky private military company named Trinity in Siberia, who are searching for lost city of Kitezh, and a promise of immortality.

Because you don’t travel to a remote, near-inhospitable part of the world if you’re not doing it for the prospect of getting infinite lives.

Through a series of flashbacks, you learn that this same quest drove Lara’s father mad and ended in his apparent suicide, but, as she seems physically incapable of being undeterred by anything, she sets out on another perilous adventure, runs into the local indigenous people and helps them fight against the nasty, shadowy invaders.

A lot of what made Tomb Raider a great open world game is still here; great set pieces, impressive visual fidelity and an interesting environment filled with collectables that are begging to be hoovered up. To its detriment, the differences between that entry and Rise aren’t necessarily all that obvious, either; sure, you can try your hand at a more stealthy approach when you run into enemies, and the periodic introduction of new gadgets and abilities freshens things up as you progress but ultimately, this is a sequel with a familiar feel, albeit an impressive one.

A BIG, SNOWY PLAYGROUND

A lot of the elements that made Tomb Raider so enjoyable are still here; side quests, challenges, tombs that fall on the right side of testing and the standard hunt for all of the collectables that you can get your grubby little mitts on. So, if that formula grabbed you a few years back, it’s likely to grab you again here. The change of scenery is welcome, and the heavy Soviet Union-era undertones present offer enough distinction from Rise’s predecessor, but again, the plot isn’t necessarily the meat of the experience.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is great at letting you off the leash early, and prodding you to explore a nicely detailed and pretty-looking map at your own leisure. So, if you fancy waltzing into that cave, scaling that ice wall and seeing what might be at the top, helping out the locals or just casually decimating the population of the local wildlife, you can do so at a pace that suits you. This isn’t a revolutionary approach, of course, but Rise is particularly good at letting you exist in its world without demanding anything from you; it never bombards you with activities, it lets you discover what it has to offer in whatever order you wish, and keeps the plot on ice until you’re ready to tackle it.

That flexible approach is everywhere. For instance, even when you do decide to string a few story missions together, there’s often that much distance between quest markers that you’re essentially guaranteed to run into at least one interesting thing along the way that’ll take you off the beaten track. Discovery feels natural, and everything you do feels important enough to be worthy of your time.

STILL RAIDIN’

Given how fetishised Lara was when the series first reared its head in the 90s, it’s comforting to see Crystal Dynamics stick to their modern vision of her. Where Rise’s predecessor acted as a fresh origin story, dumping her into a terrible situation with awful people and forced her to become a stunningly adept killer, Rise shows Lara at the top of her game; she knows how to survive, she knows what she needs to do to complete her objectives and is particularly good at not letting things stop her. This is another solo adventure, so that means a fair chunk of her dialogue is in first person, whether that’s offering frequent tips when you’re figuring out a particular puzzle or providing a bit more context to proceedings when you reach a camp fire.

This could have made this version of Lara appear too close to something that we’ve seen far too often in games; a lone wolf, someone who plays by their own rules (nobody else’s. Not even their own) and shuns the help of others as they’re so focused on their own pursuit. Said pursuits have so often been accompanied by grumpiness, gruffness and/or cocky quips, but Lara manages to be a rare combination of powerful, capable and crucially, human. She gladly accepts help on the very rare occasions that she needs it, she doesn’t delight in doling out death to her enemies and she sounds like an actual person when she talks to NPCs. As much as any video game protagonist can feel authentic or relatable when their day job involves ancient prophecies, mystical armies of soldiers and taking on a small army, this version of Lara still feels real, and plausible.

WORTH IT

At its heart, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a slightly souped-up reskin of the series’ reboot, but after four years, being presented with another example of an open world action adventure title of this calibre is by no means a bad thing. Combat remains tight, exploration remains fun and every puzzle straddles the gap between being…well, puzzling but solvable, purely because the game is so good at teaching you new skills that you know when and where to apply them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey! You! Play this!

Hey! You! Play Resident Evil 7!

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WHAT’S GOING ON.

General nobody Ethan Winters heads out to a remote plantation/mansion in Nowheresville, Louisiana after getting a message from his wife, Mia. Wouldn’t be that weird if she hadn’t been missing for the last three years. He rocks up at an eerily quiet and decrepit old house, starts poking around in the dark and, after coming across various bits of filth, dank corridors and a general air of terribleness, he runs into the Bakers; a family of strikingly strong, murderous folk capture him. Your task is to escape, hide, indulge in some light puzzles and shoot your way out of danger whilst figuring out what the craic is with your wife and just why everyone wants to kill you.

SOUNDS SCARY.

That assertion is mostly correct. Much has been made of Capcom’s desire to tread in the footsteps of Resi’s early days, and the use of manual saves, inventory management and the decision to base the bulk of the action in one location definitely helps with that. But don’t assume that Resi 7 is obsessed with aping the past; this is an intimate, claustrophobic and intense experience that succeeds in putting serious distance between itself and the series’ recent action/commando heavy instalments.

It’s a genuinely and consistently unsettling experience, for a start. The atmosphere is deliciously thick, and whilst it’s nicely paced, avoiding the trap of becoming an exercise in exhausting, unrelenting sadism for the sake of it, it’s rare that you feel truly safe. You couldn’t move for the outcry provoked by the decision to switch to a first-person perspective when the game was announced last year, but it works so damn well in practice, and only serves to exacerbate the game’s intensity. It helps that Ethan isn’t necessarily all that fleshed out as a character, which allows plenty of room for the experience to become more personal as a result.

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ABORT. ABOUT-FACE. HASTILY.

It helps that there’s genuine threat on offer, too. If it wasn’t already clear from numerous demos and videos, the Bakers are a strong, violent and formidable bunch that aren’t in the habit of going down easily. Ethan’s about as basic and unremarkable as protagonists come; he has no special abilities and no super strength to speak of, so don’t expect to be constantly blasting your way through this homestead. You’ll frequently need manage ammo, healing items and utilise a bit of stealth whilst simultaneously deciding if some encounters are really worth the effort. Even if you decide to flee enemies, your movement feels deliberately clunky and slow, like trying to drag a bag of rocks through a lake, so expect almost every chance meeting with something that wants to kill you (and it’s fair to assume that pretty much anything that moves in this game wants to eat your face) to feel that little bit more tense.

Special mention needs to go to the Bakers’ decaying residence, which mirrors their crazed, dark and aggressive personalities well. There’s rubbish everywhere and every surface that your eyes focus on looks like it’s been through hell but they’re punctured by enough instances of order and pictures of a previous life to hint at this family’s tranquil existence before everything went to pot. And then subsequently got boiled in said pot and served to you.

Prepare to have your love of stew put to a very stern test.

DIG THAT CRAZY, MODERATED NOSTALGIA.

That desire to lean on Resi’s history whilst also taking this new entry in different directions is frequently evident. Ethan gets fitted with a fancy watch early on that measures his health, for instance, but there are nice uses of and a reliance on old tech present, too. You save on an old tape recorder, for example, and the game offers up several optional sections via the form of old VHS tapes. Each of these tells a little tale related to the main narrative, and offer a little respite from Ethan’s current predicament whilst also offering up some of the game’s most intense and memorable scenes in the process. On the whole, it’s nice to see Capcom return to the series’ past without making a game that feels like an extended nostalgic trip, or something intrinsically tied to its predecessors. Sure, the narrative takes place after 6, but it’s not linked in any way that could be deemed relevant, or an obstruction to series newbies.

SOUNDS GOOD.

It mostly is. Resi 7’s run time will depend purely on your desire to poke around, pick up collectibles and explore the Bakers’ home. Even with those optional tapes, a playthrough that avoids the top difficulty setting can be wrapped up in 6/7 hours.

It needs pointing out that there are faults here, however. Without delving into specifics, despite lots of excellent groundwork and an initially intriguing plot, the narrative doesn’t so much jump the shark so much in its final third as it paddles out to sea to find some other marine wildlife to cavort with. Given what came before it, the conclusion remains unsatisfying and fairly blank.

Those poor Bakers, too. They’re are a scarily brilliant bunch, and being stalked by them, interacting with them and fighting them is often great fun, but beyond them, and without them, the game just runs out of puff, and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that as you progress, Capcom have overplayed their hand. It’s disappointing that Resi 7 runs out of ways to scare you a good chunk of time before you’re finished, purely because it can be so very good at making you jump when it wants to.

SUMMARISE.

Great atmosphere, (mostly) engaging setting, strong visuals and nervy combat. Even with its problems, it’s still worth trying, unless you’ve got a problem with hicks doing their damndest to mess you up.

Resident Evil 7 is out on PS4, Xbox One and PC. I didn’t play on VR because I value sleeping at night.

Hey! You! Play this!

Hey! You! Play Darkest Dungeon!

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT.

DUNGEONS. And how dark they can be.

GOOD START.

Thanks.

Set your phasers to dark’n’grimy medieval fantasy mode, and you’ll be on track. In short, a relative of your unnamed character has accidentally opened up several portals to dark dimensions whilst carrying out excavations near the family manor. Unsurprisingly, monsters have sprung forth, and as your ancestor has deliberately buggered off to the big dungeon in the sky, it falls to you to fix things.

Your job is to cleanse the land of the foul beasts that have sprung forth around the manor’s location of Hamlet, so naturally, you send groups of four adventurers to particularly dark and dank dungeons in hopes of finding trinkets, money and taking down some nasty bosses.

WHAT YOU DO.

Gameplay is split into two parts; there’s the actual dungeon crawling, which is all about side-scrolling through various rooms, battling monsters and picking stuff up through procedurally-generated maps. Combat is turn-based, and available character types are nicely varied (lepers, hound masters and shape-shifting abominations are all on offer, to name but a few).The biggest difference here is that almost every decision you make is laced with risk, because developer Red Hook are a bunch of sadistic geniuses.

Alongside the health bar, you possess a stress metre, which can increase in an alarming number of ways. Enemies have abilities designed to target it, and even when they simply attack normally, a particularly devastating hit can subsequently spook your party members. Not even being outside of combat is a relief, as characters can become stressed by their comrades saying something catty about their walking speed, or just by interacting with one of many objects strewn around these dungeons. It’s basically a Parent’s Worst Nightmare simulator at this stage; you WILL cut yourself on that random piece of coral, you WILL contract a disease from messing around with that corpse and don’t you come crying to me if you open up that vestibule and see something of unspeakable horror.

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Oooh! How are Paracelsus and his pals going to get out of this one?

When exploring, the trick is not to push your heroes too far. Eating brings a little of your HP back, but you’ll need to ration supplies for when your characters get hungry, and if you’ve run out of food, their health will bear the brunt. Using torches to brighten your path means less stress and darkness for your characters to manage, but if you don’t ration them carefully then combat will get harder once the lights go out. You can’t use spells, healing or otherwise, outside of battle but reinforcements will arrive if you draw out the slaying of one last enemy just to heal your party members that little bit extra. It’s all about weighing up risk and reward throughout your playthrough; I’ve seen several characters at decent levels fall from heart attacks after deciding I could afford to poke around a few more rooms after completing a quest, and once they’re dead, that’s it. You go back to Hamlet and pick up another one.

Hamlet offers the other half of the gameplay. This is where you level up your characters abilities, relieve their stress in the local tavern or church, depending on their fancies and upgrade these establishments to offer the best possible (and cheapest) support for your party. Your characters often won’t be able to manage two crawls in a row, and will need to recover after each quest with a bit of booze, prayer, nice bit of flagellation or just a good ol’ fashioned prostitute. So, you return from a dungeon, do a spot of shopping, drop your stressed or diseased characters off like you’re in the middle of some kind of medieval school run, and do the whole thing again. Bonzer!

SOUNDS HARD.

Maybe a bit, but it’s  enjoyable. Crucially, despite the frequently nasty tone, things never get too heavy. Sure, you can change your characters names and the colour of their attire, but you’re never going to get too attached to your party members to the extent where you mourn their loss for days to come. Think of them more like slightly more fleshed-out Lemmings; they’re there to help you, and they might die, and that might be a bit sad for a second or two, but you’ve always got more in reserve.

Push your heroes too far, and nasty things like this can happen. And it’s your fault. Jerk.

WHY IT’S GOOD.

The whole process is pretty addictive. There’s a nice contrast between the instantly familiar gratification you get from slowly upgrading the town’s various buildings with the sense of tangible achievement you get from dragging four heroes through an arduous quest when they’re HP sits at 0, and they’re literally at death’s door. Being in Hamlet, even if you are just moving your cursor over each location, is nicely offset by the stresses that your crawls frequently bring, and despite the bleakness of it all, Darkest Dungeon’s hand-drawn art style and the sheer fun of what you’re doing makes sure the experience doesn’t turn into a sadistic trawl, like some other games which feature the work DARK in the title.

IN SHORT.

Grimy dungeon-crawling management game strikes gold.

Darkest Dungeon is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. I played the Vita version because I refuse to admit defeat.