Every month you can watch reviews and read our thoughts on the games we've been playing, old and new. This month we have two video reviews and a lot of little bits and pieces for you to read.
Vampyr, the latest game from Dontnod Entertainment, the creators of Life is Strange and Remember Me, is a hard game to love. For every aspect of the game that gets my mouth watering, there’s an awful lot of gristle I need to chew through.
Vampyr is the story of Doctor Jonathan Reid, a recently turned vampire who works in a London hospital immediately after world war one. Four boroughs of London are being attacked by vampires and their vassals and it’s up to Doctor Reid to fight these threats, treat patients and decide if it’s better to save people or to feed. On paper, this is right up my street; lots of murky morally grey areas, where becoming more powerful means that you’re destabilising parts of London and all the time you’re investigating your creator and exploring the limits of your new found immortality. The streets of London are miserable and bleak, with little corners of interest to explore, although because you travel exclusively at night, there’s practically no-one about except vampire hunters and skals, people who are kind of like vampires but much smellier.
So, if the nice tasty neck is the concept and the setting, most of the rest of the game is pretty much the bum; you can still get blood from a bum, but it’s far more awkward.
If you’ve ever played one of the Sherlock Holmes games, or even Life is Strange, you’ll know that there’s a lot of talking involved, and Vampyr is no different. The only difference is that a lot of the chat in Vampyr is pretty boring. When you first meet someone, you’ll have a couple of conversation options and a lot of locked topics.
By talking to other people, or looking for clues, you’ll be able to unlock more conversation options, but then you’ll need to go hunting for the person to ask a new question, which will unlock more options for some other prick who’s all the way back where you started. It just gets a bit tedious, especially when a lot of the chat doesn’t really move the story forward or provide much interest. By finding out more about people, they become more valuable and by valuable, I mean you get more experience from supping upon their ivory necks
If you choose the path of righteous doctor, you’ll be putting gentle healing kisses on those necks instead of big greedy bites and you’ll miss out on much needed experience points. Why are they much needed? Because there’s unavoidable fights you’ll have to deal with and the combat is, and I say this charitably, not very good. You have a bunch of vampire powers which consume blood points which you get by sucking the necks of enemies or stabbing them with tubes, but otherwise it’s just a standard third person combat set up with one or two handed weapons that consume a stamina bar when you strike or evade. So often in the game you’re told that being a vampire makes you basically unkillable, yet two guys armed with clubs can pretty much body you into a greasy paste. It’s basic, it’s a little frustrating and the game would’ve been more interesting without it.
I hate thinking about what a game could’ve been and comparing it to the reality, but the idea of a vampire game where you get to choose the fate of London, either through healing or harming its population or by plotting against older, more established vampires would’ve been great.
Or even a smaller story, something more intimate and smaller in scope that explores the complications that come with losing your humanity, especially in the context of a post-World War 1 Britain, would’ve been so up my street it would be sitting on the decking out the back garden.
Dontnod are specialists in creating and realising interesting ideas and concepts, but there’s always something a little off; Remember Me had a brilliant idea, the remixing of memories, but was let down by a very linear story and dull environments and Life is Strange is full of heart but has some shockingly bad dialogue at times. Vampyr is a great idea but it’s too fatty and the chef isn’t quite paying attention to how it’s cooking and maybe there’s just too much sauce on it…you get what I mean.
If you’re looking for a wee vampire game that won’t burst your coupon or cost forty notes, you should check out Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. It’s a loving tribute to the practically deceased Castlevania series and acts as a prequel for the upcoming Bloodstained game that’s due to be released in the near future. The attention to detail is amazing and swapping between four distinct characters keeps the combat and exploration fresh across multiple playthroughs. Special mention has to go to the bosses who are the highlight of the game; fun, tough but not unfairly so. Your first time through should take a couple of hours, but you’ll definitely dive straight back in for more and there’s plenty of alternate routes to take.
If Vampyr is a steak from a pricy restaurant that’s been a bit inconsistent in the past, Curse of the Moon is a steak from Weatherspoons: it’s solid, gets the job done and costs about £8.99.
Every so often a game comes around that defines its genre for generations to come. Ikaruga, for me, defines the very pinnacle of what a shmup can be.
If that sounds like hyperbole then let’s look at the facts. Over 15 years since its release in arcades, and subsequent home ports on Dreamcast, Gamecube and Xbox 360, Ikaruga’s name is still legendary in the shmup community, and now, finally, it has hit the format that arguably fits it best: the Nintendo Switch.
Why is it legendary? It’s all about simplicity of design. The core hook of Ikaruga is so simple but so deep at the same time; you can switch your tiny ship’s polarity between black and white at any moment, making yourself invulnerable to half the bullets on screen; the ones that match your colour. That’s it. Across five vertically scrolling levels that concept gets explored to its limit, with waves of enemies flooding the screen in more and more complex attack formations, asking you to work out the best way to survive the onslaught.
Like most shmups, Ikaruga is hard. But, importantly, it’s never unfair.
The rules are never broken, there’s always a safe space on the screen and you always have the ability to survive if you’re quick enough or if, like me, you know most of the enemy formations like the back of your hand. I’ll proudly admit I can get through the first three levels of Ikaruga without losing a single life. That being said, as soon as I hit level four I start dying every two seconds because my big fat thumbs lack the dexterity required. But Ikaruga isn’t just a game about rote memorisation. Once you start getting used to the game and predicting what it throws at you, the next level of the game opens up; chasing high-scores.
If you kill three enemies of the same colour in a row, you start building up your chain bonus; a score multiplier that balloons your end-of-level score by several digits if you know what you’re doing. The beauty of the system is that it starts bringing you out of your comfort zone; Ikaruga becomes less a game about simple survival, and begins to reward experimentation. If you’re looking for world-beating scores though, you’ve come to the wrong place with this review. The reason I’ve replayed Ikaruga endlessly over the years, and still forked out the cash for this new version, is because it’s about more than high scores for me.
Whenever the tired old “are game art” debate comes along, the usual suspects of Shadow of the Colossus, Ico and Okami come up, but shmups like Ikaruga get ignored, even though shmups just simply couldn’t exist in any other format; they’re pure gameplay, plain and raw for all to enjoy. This might sound a bit wanky, but Ikaruga is one of the closest examples of a game being art, in my opinion. Every time I play it I’m rewarded with a deep, challenging, beautiful looking journey. Your wee ship is constantly moving forward, and there’s a genuine feeling of mysticism towards the later levels of Ikaruga that make them feel special compared to other shmups.
It’s not even just that. Every aspect of Ikaruga is a design masterpiece, and it’s all impeccably put together with pixel perfect precision. Very few games have such an instantly recognisable visual identity, and even fewer marry that identity to its mechanics so perfectly. When you play Ikaruga, you can be safe in the knowledge that you’re playing the best of the best.
And now, the best of the best is on the best console there is. If you haven’t played Ikaruga, now’s your chance to see what all the fuss is about. And if you’ve been playing Ikaruga for years, well now you get to carry around with you wherever you want.
What a rush! Pure, angry violence being dished out by a practically face-less avatar of gore. Playing it for the first time, I’m blown away by how smooth it feels, how simply it translates your movements into bone-crunching, spine-shattering savagery. Works really well on the Switch in handheld mode and looks cracking on the TV.
Metropolis Street Racer
I know, I know. There are plenty of brand new games to play, but look, I just got round to plugging my Akura box into my Dreamcast to make it look "not shit" on my modern telly. The results are staggering, and Metropolis Street Racer's clean, photorealistic (for 2000...) graphics really thrive. I'm still shite at getting Kudos though...
God of War 3
Kratos is a really angry boy. Fun game but the quicktime events and button-mashing gets a bit tedious as the game goes on. Kratos uses the same basic action to both open a regular treasure chest and also rip off the head of a God. Fancied playing it before trying the new game, but I’ll wait until it’s maybe £25, because I’m cheap.
Yuko's Island Express
A genuine surprise! A great mix of pinball and adventure game with a gorgeous art style. Both parts of the game mesh together so well, like a realisation of those pain in the arse Sonic levels. The level design is great, with plenty of collectables and routes to open up as you play. Just buy it, okay?
Again, yes, I'm fully aware there are brand new games released this year that I could be playing, but my son treated me to a Father's Day present and it'd be rude not to use it. Highlights so far are Super Mario Bros. 3 and Double Dragon, which I never played back in the day.
Scott's Shotgun Top Five
Top Five Games that Yakuza Team should reboot
Sega Bass Fishing
Why settle for sitting all day with a fishing rod when you dive right into the sea and get stuck into a massive octopus? Fire up the speargun, it’s time to kill an endangered species.
Streets of Rage: Kamurocho edition
Keep it 2D, give Kaz some light and heavy attacks along with grabs and items, and set it between Zero and Kiwami. Get multiplayer on with Majima, Saejima and Akiyama. Nae bother.
Yakuza 5 has some of the daftest driving in the series, with Uncle Kaz starting out his new life as a taxi driver. There’s cars drifting, cars fighting and, of course, cars being attacked by helicopters. Add in the surprisingly difficult customers and you’ve got Crazy Taxi 4 sorted.
Blood Will Tell
48 gang bosses steal parts of Kazuma’s body and he has to defeat them all to get them back. You start by unlocking your right fist for big punches, and then your left foot for stomping and so on until you’re back to Full Dragon.
I’d just like someone at Sega to fucking get cracking on a new game in the series. Fuck sake.