Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) Review: Not-So-Deep Fishing Sim

Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) Review: Not-So-Deep Fishing Sim

Final Fantasy, the name alone is synonymous with so many images. Turn-based combat, beautiful visuals, epic monsters, but fishing doesn’t generally come to mind. Thanks to virtual reality, Final Fantasy has now tackled fishing with Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy.

Monster of the Deep is a graphically stunning fishing simulator mixed with a small amount of Final Fantasy XV. I figured I would spend time relaxing, casting out my line and reeling in some fish. A tranquil experience, or so I thought.

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Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) – gameplay image via Square Enix

Players embody Hunters, tasked with hunting Daemon fish. Hunters fish an area until enough non-evil fish are caught to attract the Daemon. Once the Daemon appears, a boss battle will ensue. Players must weaken the Daemon enough with their weapon to capture it.

A little unexpected, don’t you think?

Done in an attempt to add a little gameplay variety and serving as a basis for the flimsy story, the hunting of Daemons feels out of place in this fishing simulator. Yes, if there was any fishing simulator that would do something like this, it should be a Final Fantasy fishing simulator, especially to help add that Final Fantasy magical element to the world. However, Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV would have been fine without this mechanic. The atmosphere and characters serve as enough to brand it with Final Fantasy. I was perturbed at first, having my fishing experience so rudely interrupted by a first-person shooter boss battle. A boss battle where death can occur. I died fishing. Fishing! Let that sink it. It was jarring. Yet after the first boss battle, I became more accepting of it, but it feels tacked on.

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Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) – gameplay image via Square Enix

The actual fishing aspect of Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV lured me in. It is relaxing and everything I wanted in a fishing simulator. The physical casting of the line took practice. I would cast directly out in front and my line would veer off to one side. This often related back to the hardware and usually cleared up after recalibrating the VR. I used the PlayStation Move controllers, which made casting more fluid and the boss battles easier, because I don’t want to die at the fin of a fish, again.

There is more than just a shallow story mode to Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV. Free fishing is an option for those who just want the relaxing experience of fishing. I spent a great deal of time in Tournaments. Tournaments can be won by having the heaviest fish, catching certain kinds of fish, or the total weight of things caught. I say “things” because my mad fishing skills caught me a boot. Players can also take up hunts to target a specific fish. Hunts and Tournaments can earn Gil, which is used to purchase new outfits, poles, lures, reels, and lines. How aboot that?

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Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) – gameplay image via Square Enix

The surroundings of Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV are picturesque and allowed me to minimally explore the landscape of Eos. The graphics lend themselves well to a Final Fantasy title. Beautifully rendered yet still colourful enough to remind players it is a fictional world. The environment is littered with mystical creatures of Final Fantasy. I spent some time fishing while kicking it with a Chocobo. I often found myself fishing with some familiar faces from FF XV. For Final Fantasy fans, these limited interactions will be satisfying as it is mainly just fan service since they serve no narrative purpose. Although there are points in the game where I am sure Square Enix was attempting to titillate me with Cindy. I mention this because I have yet to experience a VR title that made me feel that uncomfortable observing a character.

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Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) – gameplay image via Square Enix

The sounds of Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV are sufficient. I have little to complain about except for the minimal conversational abilities of the AI. My time with Noctis and his buddies was short when fishing yet I would hear them repeat the same lines over and over again. If there had been more variety in their casual conversation it could have really added to the immersion. In casual conversation, humans don’t tend to repeat themselves, unless they are drunk.

Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV, while not an epic virtual reality experience, it is a pleasant one. This is a title I would recommend to Final Fantasy XV fans for a relaxing evening. For players wanting a thrill, I say look elsewhere to get an adrenal rush, but for those who really enjoy the experiences that are offered by the PlayStation VR, this is an addition to the tryout list. You might just get hooked.

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Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (PSVR) – gameplay image via Square Enix

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Melanie Emile’s reviews such as Cuphead, Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2, and Until Dawn!

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The Sims 4 (PS4) Review – SIMply Monotonous

The Sims 4 (PS4) Review - SIMply Monotonous

I never really got into The Sims. I played the original way back in the day when it was released on the Gamecube, but I think I spent more time building a really cool house with the unlimited money cheat than actually playing the game. I thought MySims was kind of cute on the Wii, but other than that the series never really hooked me.

I just never saw the appeal of playing a game that tried to emulate the monotony of daily life, at least not without some kind of hook. Sure, Animal Crossing’s  bread and butter is basically the monotony of everyday life, but at least that game lets you hang out with a talking cat in a Power Rangers helmet.

Going into The Sims 4, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. It’s been so long and there have been so many entries into The Sims franchise; who knew how much content could be packed into the 4th and most modern game? Unfortunately, what I got was a testament to tedium; I know The Sims has a pretty big fanbase, but playing this only made me question why.

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The Sims 4 (PS4) – gameplay image via Maxis and EA

From a gameplay perspective, The Sims 4 is about the same as I remember. You make a Sim, build a house, furnish it with the essentials and a few recreational items and then watch your Sim take part in the daily grind, repeatedly reminding it to eat, sleep, poop, and bathe. You get your Sim a job, help it to make friends, find love, all that fun stuff. And while I can see why theoretically that can be enjoyable to some people—and I’ll admit there is a certain addictiveness to it—what it boiled down to for me was a game about watching bars go down, and having to make sure they go back up.

That’s it. The Sims are the most needy creatures in video game history, and far beyond basic abilities such as eating when they need to, or going to the bathroom without your constant instruction. Managing one was beyond annoying, and got worse when my Sim had his girlfriend move in with him, and now I had to manage two of these complete buffoons. And beyond the basic necessity bars, the Sims have emotional quantifiers, so a hard day at work would make them stressed out and I would have to spend time I could’ve been using to better my Sim to calm him down with baths and venting to his girlfriend.

But the real problem with The Sims 4 on PS4 is how poorly optimized it is for console. It reeks of a game that takes the same interface as its PC counterpart and just slaps it on a controller. Icons are mapped to the corners of the screen, moving the joystick will cycle between them one by one like a badly designed NES password screen. Clicking the touchpad will shift you to “mouse mode” but the control of the mouse is pathetic, picking up a crazy amount of momentum at any prolonged hold and swinging wildly out of control. Menus and sub-menus are tedious to navigate—again, you can see how this would’ve worked had you had a mouse with proper control, but on a PS4 controller it’s an absolute chore.

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The Sims 4 (PS4) – gameplay image via Maxis and EA

And while this isn’t so bad while you’re playing the game proper, it’s beyond frustrating when trying to build anything in The Sims 4. Which is to say nothing of the pathetic camera controls while building; how walls and items swing out of place when turning the camera, the two camera angles you get that range from a slight 45 degree angle to Bird’s Eye View. How you need to click out of every menu if you want to undo or redo any action. My whole neighborhood consists of one single house, because I couldn’t fathom trying to build an entire community with these controls.

And The Sims 4 runs pretty pathetically too. It was particularly bad while in the “Build Mode; ”after building a pretty small house and putting, honestly only a few items into it, it began chugging at 10 frames per second and there were a few moments in the “Life Mode” where began to seize up. Shifting from the “Life Mode” to the “Build Mode” chugged so hard I honestly held my breath in anticipation of a crash. Sure the game looks fine, characters have a cartoonish style that removes them from reality and adds to the silliness of the whole Sims affair, and the music and sound quality isn’t bad, but that’s about it.

The Sims 4 (PS4) Review - SIMply Monotonous
The Sims 4 (PS4) – gameplay image via Maxis and EA

Oh and it’s definitely worth mentioning all the DLC that comes with The Sims 4, and by “comes with this game” I mean, EA allowing you the privilege to purchase DLC for a three-year-old game that is being re-released on consoles. This includes the $54 CDN “City Living Pack,” the $27 CDN “Vampire Pack”, and the $14 CDN “Vintage Glamor Pack.” One extra area, some costumes and “abilities” that you’re expected to buy again, to say nothing of the $80 CDN “Deluxe Party Edition” that doesn’t even come with any of these expansion packs.

Like I said, I know The Sims has its fans, and I could probably see why. Like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing, there’s a certain amount of joy you get from creating something and watching it flourish. But I personally cannot understand the appeal. At the end of the day, it’s a game about watching bars deplete and then fill up with a half-decent house building minigame built in. Maybe I’d have enjoyed The Sims 4 more on PC, and maybe you would too. Skip this one.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Jordan Biordi’s reviews of Metroid: Samus Returns and Pokkén Tournament DX for the Nintendo Switch!

Want to see more videos? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check out the First 15: Star Wars Battlefront II, Sonic Forces + Episode Shadow, and  Super Mario Odyssey!

Don’t forget to tune in every Friday the Pixels & Ink Podcast to hear the latest news, previews, and in-depth game discussions!

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Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review

Master of Orion was one of the first, if not the first 4X game I ever played. I was a youngster, unprepared for every facet of the formula (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate). Often times I’d explore, but not expand. Or I’d try to exploit, and get exterminated. You really have to at least attempt to follow all four precepts, or be aware of them, to succeed, or you’ll get stomped by people who do. Slowly but surely, by the time the sequel came out I was ready for a lifetime of these gargantuan time sinks, and the same goes for the reboot, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars.

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Your goal, in both solo play and multiplayer, is to have the best score out of everyone playing by the time the game hits the turn limit — think Settlers of Catan, and you’ll have a good idea of how the flow works. You’ll be exploring the galaxy bit by bit, discovering new solar systems and colonizing them before moving further into the final frontier. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the concept, but with one of the more winsome visual styles in some time (with vibrant shades of purple and blue), getting on board with Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars feels natural. That extends to just about everything from the sleek menus to the voice acting, with goes above and beyond your typical 4X release.

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review

While the ensemble cast in Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is comprised of talent like Nolan North and Troy Baker, who play the vast majority of ancillary voices these days in just about every game, there are two major gets that really bring a smile to my eyes — Mark Hamill and Michael Dorn. You also have John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek), Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly), and many more. What’s old is new again, and their performances feel fresh and inventive while carrying their storied careers along with them at the same time.

The soundtrack is what you’d hear in a queue in Epcot at Walt Disney World — soothingly futuristic (the research management track is almost a spot-on recreation of the line for the Test Track ride!). But that sort of leads into a minor quibble I have.  While Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars feels like an appropriately “epic” exploration adventure, it never really nails the dark tone that previous games touched on. It’s not that big of an issue when you consider everything we’ve talked about, but every so often I did feel the sting of not facing a foe that truly felt terrifying or ruthless.

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That leads me into the weakest aspect of Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars — combat. It’s not turn-based anymore, which feels like a massive misstep, and a radical departure from the original series. Battles feel more like a formality now, taking a backseat to diplomacy and deterrence. It’s not so much that it’s a commentary or deliberate choice as an unfinished feature — something that’s more dumbed-down than streamlined. Often times I’d feel inclined to micromanage a fleet, before I realized that there really isn’t a point to it and set battles to auto-resolve. If that’s your main draw as a fan of the older series you’ll probably be disappointed here (and rightfully so), but just about everything else is on point. That said, it’s not like preparing for war is useless, it’s just the act of actually participating in a battle that’s not engaging.

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From the initial thrill of entering a planet to colonize it, to the comprehensive voice acting throughout the game’s upgrade and tutorial menus, the presentation is impeccable, which helps lend credence to the fact that this is a living world.  You’ll see people moving about your planet while managing resource production, and although you can’t really get in SimCity granular style to manage each citizen (it’s more like assigning a group of them to jobs like research, food production, and infrastructure), the impact is there.

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review 1That’s also the case for the robust espionage system that allows players to send agents across the galaxy, the ability to customize your fleet to suit your personal play style, and the diplomatic features that still manage to feel tense and exciting even though they’re just menu-based. All of this can be learned through a great tutorial that will ease you into the 4X genre, while maintaining a high ceiling that you can explore over time.

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What Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars really needs is just a set of tweaks, because the foundation is clearly there. If you’re the type of person who loves spending time crafting the perfect plan and becoming immersed in a completely new world, it’s worth diving into. It’s not nearly as complex as its predecessors and the subsequent 4X games that have been released since then, but it’s streamlined and polished in such a way that as long as you’re prepared to have a different experience, you’ll slip comfortable into its cockpit.

Little King’s Story (PC) Review

Little King’s Story (PC) Review

When I first played Pikmin in 2001 it was unlike anything I had experienced in the RTS genre considering my only reference at the time was Starcraft. Pikmin took similar fundamentals and applied them in a creative and approachable way. Looking back on it, Pikmin was the first example of Nintendo’s ability to take established genres and reinvent them in fun, creative ways. And yet surprisingly, even with how often developers try to capitalize on popular or inventive works by emulating them, more games like Pikmin don’t exist.

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Little King’s Story is the only game I know in which the selling feature is its similarity to Pikmin, and I mean that in the least cynical way possible. Unfortunately, I missed Little King’s Story when it was released on the Wii but thankfully it did see a re-release on Steam to satisfy all my monarchic desires!

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Little King’s Story puts the player in the position of a little king chosen by destiny, or so the not-at-all suspicious Captain tells you. But you won’t stop at just one little kingdom; global domination is the name of the game here and the player can only achieve this plan by defeating the evil UMA (Unidentified Mysterious Animals) that roam the land. It’s actually a really funny story, delivered so innocently, and yet, I can’t help but feel like it questions your morality a bit. Here you are, enacting a plan of violent global domination, but it’s okay because the “monsters” are “evil?”

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Gameplay is quite rightly compared to that of Pikmin. The king must recruit his subjects and use them for various tasks. Where Pikmin felt a little more organic in its approach, Little King’s Story takes on RPG elements, allowing the player to choose to build structures that can assign different jobs to subjects, or ones that will allow for a larger total of villagers. Combat plays out similar to Pikmin: the player literally throws them at danger until they pummel the danger to death, but it’s a good structure that feels fun and fast-paced while still requiring some degree of strategy, especially when facing multiple enemies.

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Where it emulates Pikmin, it does so admirably, feeling very much like it has its own identity despite being built upon the same foundation. It’s a genuinely charming game and the humorous tone is backed by the use of classical music. The game opens on the second march of Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 and the boss music is the finale of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. This connection to reality does give it a sense of child-like wonder, like the events taking place are really just a child playing make-believe, which help make the story’s darker tones all the more adorable.

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Unfortunately, Little King’s Story does lack a lot of the polish that Pikmin had. The whole game looks kind of cheap, most notably in character movements, and feels very janky while lacking the fluidity that Pikmin had. While it also bears the chibi aesthetic, it’s graphically unimpressive, even for something that debuted on the Wii.

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My biggest issue with the PC port of Little King’s Story is the below-par performance. I should have known there’d be problems when the game had a pre-launch settings window and besides the 60fps setting there was a warning of “not recommended”. The game is chuggy, with consistent drops in framerate, and while it only crashed once, there were a more than a few close calls. While these issues certainly don’t make the game unplayable (unless you try to play at 60fps, yikes!), it does make Little King’s Story another entry in the long list of sloppy PC port-jobs.

Little King’s Story (PC) Review 2

If the performance issues get fixed, I’d highly recommend Little King’s Story on PC, especially those who can’t find it on the Wii. It’s a fun, cute little game that’s like Pikmin in all the right ways. It’s fun and challenging, albeit a bit easy, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Unholy Heights (3DS) Review

Unholy Heights (3DS) Review

I remember being very interested in Tomodachi Life when it first came out, but I never got around to playing it until I was swept up in the fervour that was Miitomo (which I maintain is still a lite version of Tomodachi Life.) While managing an apartment filled with my Miis and watching their quirky shenanigans was fun for a little while, there was never any real gameplay to keep me invested, and now I lament the purchase. Unholy Heights feels like the game I should have purchased back then, being one part Tomodachi Life, one part Fallout Shelter and all parts fun!

In Unholy Heights, players take on the role of the Devil, who, as the game states, spent his life savings on a place in the projects. Global domination is the name of the game, but the Devil has to start small; attracting monsters one at a time to live in his complex until his army is large enough to deploy.

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Unholy Heights on PC

Unholy Heights plays fairly simply. Players will manage their apartment complex, await potential monsters to take up residence and then collect rent on a daily basis. The game allows for three speeds of progression that players can adjust on the fly, providing them with the option to choose the speed at which the days move.

As monsters move in, you’ll not only need to make sure their apartments are in top form, but also provide them with items they may want. Keeping residents happy is vital as it ensures they pay their rent fully and also affects the Devil’s standing with them. It doesn’t end there. Monsters have particular needs, affinities/contempt for other monsters, and other factors that will increase or decrease the Devil’s standing with them; reading the Bestiary is crucial to understanding the 20 different types of unlockable monsters, and keeping Unholy Heights running smoothly.

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Unholy Heights on PC

The game isn’t just watching the days go by and the rent money to up; the human residents of Unholy Heights aren’t particularly thrilled that the Devil is attempting to amass an army of monsters, and will periodically come to attack his apartment before making off with a portion of his money. Players will have to call on residents to defend the Devil and this is where a decent amount of strategy comes into Unholy Heights. Players must choose their strongest monsters to repel incoming attackers using a combination of melee and ranged attacks, as well as selecting when residents should attack or retreat to their rooms to avoid death. A clever Devil might send a melee monster to tank while a magic monster deals ranged damage, or wait until humans are deep into the apartment before calling on residents to try flank enemies.

Players can also take on “quests” listed on a nearby message board, which usually involves defeating waves of multiple humans for big cash bonuses. Time management is also a key factor in battles and players must pay attention to when residents are home or leave to run errands, lest they be left with an empty apartment when invaders come-a-knockin. Although, this isn’t so much a problem for random invaders as it is with quests.

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Unholy Heights on PC

Given Unholy Heights’ dark premise, it’s actually quite a cute and charming game. The game’s minimalistic visual style lends itself nicely to its simplistic gameplay. Everything takes place on one screen, reducing clutter and making sure everything easy to navigate. Visuals have a colourful and cartoony style while feeling very dynamic as weather changes—residents come and go and both the sun and moon (complete with faces) scroll across the sky, as if the background were on a pinwheel.

Monsters and humans have an adorable chibi style, and much of the flavour text for residents’ activities adds a deviously risqué sense of humour to such a seemingly cute game. Players may be surprised when they find their residents “sleeping naked,” “reading erotic fan-fiction,” or if two monsters fall in love and seal the deal, “engaging in pillow-talk” followed immediately by “feeling relieved.”

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Unholy Heights also has a simple but quaint soundtrack, and while it only consists of five tracks, they feel like tracks Kazumi Totaka could have created for Animal Crossing. The two-day themes alternate between a smooth upbeat synth track, to a poppy, ska-inspired number while the night theme is calm and quiet with whistled notes. The latter honestly sounds the most like it belongs in Animal Crossing. The battle theme is probably the best: a fast-paced, chiptune J-Pop track that makes the simplistic battles feel fast and fun.

It seems odd that Unholy Heights would make the jump from Steam to the 3DS instead of mobile given how perfectly its gameplay lends itself to a fast, pick up-and-play style, most at home on mobile. However, for a $6.00 dollar digital offering, it’s the perfect game for any 3DS owner to keep on their system where they can easily drop in and out. Charming, stylish, and simple without being boring, Unholy Heights is a must own.

Kerbal Space Program (PS4) Review

Kerbal Space Program (PS4) Review

Do you ever wonder why people still use that tired old phrase “It’s not rocket science” when they’re trying to explain that something is simple to understand?  Well, the short answer is that it’s completely relevant today:  rocket science is hard.  Really hard.  It will probably still be hard for most regular human beings to wrap their heads around even 50 years from now.  So it’s understandable that the majority of videogames that involve space travel tend to gloss over its most rudimentary aspects in the interest of fun; after all, who wants to be held back from kicking ass and exploring the galaxy as Commander Sheppard in Mass Effect when they don’t know how to execute a proper lift-off sequence from the surface of a planet?  Kerbal Space Program dares to be different, however.
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Originally launched in 2011 by indie developer Squad, Kerbal Space Program (KSP) charges players with spearheading a fledgling space program not unlike NASA on a planet not unlike Earth, except that this planet is called Kerbin and is inhabited by an oddly cute race of green humanoids called Kerbals.  While the main thrust of the game would appear to be primarily about building rockets and other vehicles capable of space flight and launching them into the perilous and unforgiving vacuum of the cosmos, the game actually promises a rather impressive and well-rounded simulation of a real-life space program.  Players can ultimately venture to the “Mun” and other celestial bodies in the solar system, land on their surfaces and explore them with lunar rovers that they’ve built, construct orbital space stations and conduct scientific “experiments” in order to earn financial grants and support further research.  Every KSP success also increases the experience of one’s crew of astronauts and allows for further expansion of the team, or at the very least the ability to replace the ones who are killed in the many failed launches, landings and other misadventures that players will certainly be witness to as their creations are tested against convincing simulations of real-world physics and structural engineering.  I particularly enjoyed observing my skills in rocket-building stumble progressively upward as I gradually evolved from explosive, catastrophic failures and tragic Kerbal casualties to longer and longer periods in flight and ultimately reaching orbit for the first time.  What’s regrettable however is that after spending several weeknights with this PS4 port of this very popular indie game, I have a very strong feeling that few players that give it a try on console if any will ever get far beyond that point.

For starters, one of KSP’s most admirable qualities is also one of the aspects of the game that nearly drove me away after playing it for only a couple of hours—it’s so assured that everyone who plays it is already a part of its core audience that it makes little to no attempt to appeal to anyone that’s not fully on board with the rocket science stuff.  I consider myself to be a smart person, and I found it refreshing that the Kerbal scientists, engineers and astronauts that you encounter both in the tutorial and the game proper come across as truly scientific thinkers that address you more like a peer rather than a total beginner to space travel, but after having to read though what felt like pages and pages of text explaining all the features of the Kerbal Space Center, how to build a rocket and then how to launch it, I felt like I was reading a forklift operation manual from cover to cover and falling asleep.  To make things worse, nothing in the Tutorial mode carries over to the Sandbox, Science or Career Modes of the game, including the basic rocket you’re forced to build, but at the same time, leaping straight into one of the latter modes will skip vital tips and make learning how to play the game more difficult.  In other words, KSP is a game that demands several hours of your time learning how to play it before you even begin to play it in earnest, and much of that learning will be spent reading lots of instructions and deciphering all the different buttons in the game’s various HUDs, rather than doing the actual thing you are learning about.
Kerbal Space Program (PS4) Review 6
If the steep learning curve and drab, bookish nature of the KSP aren’t enough to give some players pause, the bargain-basement visuals definitely will.  KSP has had a long time to percolate, having spent the past five years on PC in various forms of beta states and early access on Steam, and has been out in official release since April of 2015, so it’s reasonable to expect by now that a console version in 2016 would reap the performance benefits of all that development.  Instead, players that shell out the $40 to play KSP on PS4 can expect to be greeted by a visually unimpressive, woefully under-optimized product.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen KSP on PC and the game has never really been much of a looker, but on PS4 the game manages to hit such new lows in presentation that I was transported back to the dark days of playing polygonal relics like Hard Drivin’ and F22 Interceptor…not on a PC, but on the Sega Genesis.  Flat, bland textures abound and are often not present at all, especially at times when the camera is pulled far, far out from the facility and the mountain horizon is visible.  In fact, most of the time it appears as though the game simply cannot handle the number of polygons being displayed on screen, even though there appears to be barely anything on-screen to render.  Every time I visited the launch pad to test out my newly-constructed rocket, the first few seconds of loading up the sequence consistently greeted me with choppy framerates and horrendous draw-in.  These same issues kept reappearing at just about any moment that should have elicited genuine feelings of awe, triumph, or terror, often sucking much of the magic out of the proceedings.  For example, when Hunk O’ Junk Two, my first space-worthy and structurally-sound rocket finally broke free of Kerbin’s gravitational pull and achieved orbit, the firmament of stars and appropriate background music unceremoniously popped in, as if the game had suddenly woken up and remembered they were supposed to be there.  And upon re-entry, the near-textureless, feature-devoid terrain made for a rather underwhelming touchdown (except for the times when I crashed into it and blew up).  KSP is easily the worst looking, worst running game I’ve yet to play on PS4, and also has one of the longest initial loading sequences of this generation.

Finally, KSP’s visual interface is a cluttered, steaming hot mess, cursed with a sluggish, unwieldly control scheme and an equally atrocious game camera.  The various HUDs in the game are almost always cluttered with buttons, dials, drop-down menus and even pop-up instruction manuals that expand to fill the screen, obstructing one’s view of the game in the process.  This is especially true in Construction Mode, which is arguably the area of the game where players are meant spend the most time and derive much of their overall enjoyment.  During tutorials, character text bubbles actually appear on the screen as opaque windows that players must use a cursor to click-and-drag aside just so they can continue to read the text while observing what that those instructions are referring to.  For some reason, the DualShock 4’s Sixaxis feature is enabled by default to move the cursor as well, perhaps to allow minute movements when manipulating objects in the construction bay, but in practice it only creates less accuracy and more irritation.  Button symbols are vague, ship parts and components are so numerous that players must use a built-in search engine to find them, and the act of selecting, manipulating and connecting ship parts together is a nightmare thanks to a sticky, non-intuitive assembly system and a camera that fights you every step of the way and never provides the right angle.  By the time I managed to build a spacecraft capable of reaching a stable orbit, I had already reached my last nerve with the game and ended my quest for the stars then and there.
Kerbal Space Program (PS4) Review 9
It may be one of the critical darlings of today’s indie game scene, but on PS4, Kerbal Space Program is a lazy shoehorning of the PC title onto a console with next to no regard as to how it should look, play or control on that platform.  In short, if you must play this game, purchase it on PC where it can be played with a mouse and keyboard, higher resolution and wider, less cluttered field of view, as the developer originally intended.  Console players deserve far better than this.

ABZU Combines Journey and Ecco

ABZU Combines Journey and Ecco

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” I happily sang to myself, making my way through seaweed and surrounded by 10,000 fish in the beautiful Abzu.

The graphical stylings of Abzu may seem familiar to anyone who played the critically acclaimed PlayStation exclusive Journey, as the art director of that game, Matt Nava, is the lead of this project. Both games also share a composer in Austin Wintory, and a genre, as both are linear story-driven exploration game. However, this is single-player only, underwater, and coming to PC as well as PS4.

Read moreABZU Combines Journey and Ecco

Anno 2205 (PC) Review

Anno 2205 (PC) Review

Anno 2205 is the latest in the long-running series of city-building resource-jugglers. I’ll say straight away that for all the little gripes I have and concerns about longevity, I did lose myself in a 16-hour marathon session when I first hopped in game, so it’s definitely the kind of city sim that one can get immersed in. As a side note, the game harasses you every hour or so to take a break, but gives up after six. Heh.

I’m going to get it out of the way up top that yes, this game requires Uplay to play, and no, as ever, the service was not reliable during my review period. How this will be reflected post-launch, though, I cannot say.

anno2205insert1Anno has a tangible feel that I find lacking is most city sims. Most city builders have you micromanaging the needs of your people in a very abstract way. Anno features a more concrete sense of need; buildings either (and sometimes both) produce or consume, and they do so at fixed rates. With a myriad of commodities to juggle, the game plays less like a SimCity-style simulation of the dynamic needs and wants of a population, and more like a puzzle where players attempt to balance an equation while only being able to see the interactions between the two sides. It sounds a bit like algebra, and in a way, it is, but gamified! Anyone who remembers Sierra’s Pharaoh will know what I’m on about and be right at home in Anno.

The game features a wonderfully bleak undertone; subtle, but it’s definitely there. You play a corporation head on a future Earth that elects corporations instead of politicians—where votes are bought more than they are earned—striving to build up a suitable workforce in the pursuit of fusion power. You’ll grow a massive temperate colony that cares for little more than consumer goods. These are your ‘money peasants’ as I call them, as their only real purpose it to make you money. Keep them happy, and they’ll keep you rich. Keeping them happy, as it turns out, means maintaining an unemployment rate of nearly 70% by late game, and drowning them in consumer goods from a satellite arctic colony, and high-tech goods from a lunar base. Super bleak.

Grim underpinnings aside, Anno 2205 is a beautiful game, and each and every one of its buildings is its own little work of art, each convincingly representing the purpose it’s intended to serve. The vibrant and high-contrast colour palette and excessive use of rich blues and greens make for a relaxing and aesthetically pleasing place to spend your time. The soundtrack, too, is particularly soothing—except for one particular track that leaves me feeling more like I’m amassing an Orc army in Mordor, rather than building a dystopian megacity.

While the nerdish city planning and optimization side of the game is brilliant (and it truly is), many of the tools to facilitate it aren’t. Mission notification panels will stick open when you try to collapse them, and there’s no at-a-glance way to observe a particular building’s input or output, which can make correcting production shortfalls needlessly convoluted. I was also burdened with a missing quest item in a core quest in my starter zone, so I’ll never know just how great that dam could have been. But you know what? I don’t care. Painstakingly squeezing buildings, their expansions, and optional support structures into finely-crafted and perfectly optimized networks is just so damn relaxing and rewarding in equal measure that the experience couldn’t be marred by the game’s other shortcomings.

anno2205insert3On the note of shortcomings, I have no idea why there’s still a strategic combat system in the game. While it can be ignored entirely (though it makes acquiring resources for support structures difficult), it feels like such a disjointed mess that that serves as barely a frustrating distraction from the already brilliant city building. In addition, load times between regions aren’t exactly fluid, and the game stutters after extended play (perhaps that’s why it kept telling me to stop playing). I also mentioned earlier that I had connectivity issues to the Uplay servers, and while that (thankfully) doesn’t boot you from the game, it does prevent you from voting (read: being bribed) in the elections, which is a big resource hit.

On the whole, though, I had a great, if fleeting, experience with Anno 2205, but I’ve now solved the equation in its entirety, and without an editor or custom scenarios (or even pre-determined ones), the game just doesn’t have any real staying power. It’s a bit like finishing a jigsaw puzzle; that’s just sort of it, really. That’s a real tragedy for a city builder—especially one that’s as relaxing and rewarding as Anno 2205 can be. In truth, if I had just spent seventy of my hard-earned monies on it to find it had no real longevity past the 20 hour mark, I’d be a bit miffed. Tragically, that leaves the game in a position that shows potential for greatness, but fails to attain it; an item for consumption in the wait for the next great city simulator. But as far as disposable games goes, Anno 2205 is one of the most enjoyable I’ve played in a long time.

Rebel Galaxy (PC) Review

Rebel Galaxy (PC) Review

The first time Southern rock began swelling in my ears as I brought my ship to bear against an enemy frigate, I knew this was going to be a game I would invest countless hours into. Placing you in the hull of an intrepid pilot in a Wild West inspired frontier, Rebel Galaxy is an open-world space combat game that isn’t afraid to hand you the reigns and let you decide where to go.

After the first few minutes, where you’ll be quickly given a morsel of story to explain how you came to own your own corvette-class spacecraft and why you should use it to hunt down your missing aunt, you’re unceremoniously ushered out the door and into the vast series of star systems of Rebel Galaxy. Aside from pursuing the main story, you’re free to decide how you want to play and grow in the backwater systems full of peddling traders and ruthless bandits. While making ships explode in great balls of fire will always be a possibility, you’re more than able to ignore the excellent ship combat in favour of playing the market or living the mundane life of a miner; the choice is yours.

rebelgalaxyinsert5Ignoring this element would be a big mistake, however, as it represents some of the best parts of Rebel Galaxy. While I was eager to spend some time hauling goods between stations as a trader, it wasn’t long until I felt the siren’s call of a broadside cannon urging me to pull up beside some bandits and unleash hell. And really, it was during these chaotic firefights that Rebel Galaxy was always at its most interesting, so it seems fitting that the story almost exclusively focuses on getting you into thrilling fights as often as it can.

Combat in Rebel Galaxy forsakes the third degree of motion afforded by flying in space to deliver an experience that more closely resembles naval combat. Instead of weaving around enemy ships with every degree of motion, you move about like a boat, exchanging volleys with enemy craft and managing your directional shields to prevent taking fatal damage.

Though your initial ship will serve you well for a few missions, you’ll eventually want to upgrade to something better suited to taking and giving a beating. Rebel Galaxy has no shortage of ships for every pursuit. Even among combat-focused vessels, you’ll have to decide between swift corvettes and frigates over exceptionally tough destroyers, each with their own personality and quirks that you’ll need to contend with. Turret hardpoints are often located at various spots along the hull, which will have a big impact on what types of weapons you equip and how you use them in battle. Even then, you’re still left with a huge variety of weaponry to strap to your hull. Everything from lasers to flak cannons, each specialized to deal with specific types of threats.

Though smaller fights quickly devolve into tedium, getting involved in scraps with larger forces in Rebel Galaxy can be an extremely satisfying experience. You can control one of your guns at a time while the others fire automatically, allowing you some degree of strategy on how to best use your weapons to tear through enemy ships. You’ll also need to manage incoming fire, a task that can prove extremely challenging against overwhelming forces that will tear you to shreds if you merely rush straight into the fray.

I do wish Rebel Galaxy had more intuitive interface elements—a problem that extends from the combat to just about every aspect of the game. I was frequently wishing I had more precise information, which was rarely the case. A colour-coded alert system will indicate the threat level of a force, but gave no specifics as to what elements of that force are threatening to me. Taking direct hits without shields or armour to mitigate them can result in damaged systems, but aside from appearing briefly, I could never find information as to what the consequences of that damage were. Even the tutorials were sparse, and it was hours before I finally came to understand nuances that could easily have been explained in seconds.

rebelgalaxyinsert1Trading is easily the area most plagued by this problem as the whole system remains obtuse and confusing unless you’re willing to invest a few hours into working out its kinks. I love that the worlds of Rebel Galaxy have dynamic economies that are reactive to what is happening around them. Pirates can siege a station, causing prices on commodities to plummet, or a station might enter into an economic boom, flooding the market with a type of resource. But interpreting that data in order to make shrewd business decisions felt next to impossible. The fact that I couldn’t even track purchases without a pen and paper was infuriating—this is the future, is it not?

But Rebel Galaxy is such campy fun that these frustrations were always soon forgotten. Though I wish the systems and their various residents had more personality to invest in, the game itself is brimming with adventurous charm not unlike Joss Whedon’s Firefly television series. Though the voice acting is serviceable, it’s the cowboy rock (which can actually be substituted for your own musical selection) and the intoxicating sense of freedom that kept me invested in Rebel Galaxy. It might not offer the depth of space-faring greats like Freelancer, but Rebel Galaxy is flashy and fun in all of the best ways.


Prison Architect (PC) Review

Prison Architect (PC) Review

Awfully cunning animal, the human. If you don’t believe me, just try locking one up. Given a long enough timespan, they’ll violently turn their environment against you in service of escape—fail to ply them with creature comforts, that timespan diminishes rapidly. That’s what I’ve learned from Prison Architect, anyhow—and I believe the lessons it imparts because of how deeply it simulates the act of building and running a prison.

All management games use abstractions to streamline gameplay and make the overall process coherent, but the amount of minutiae that Prison Architect decides to simulate is staggering. Like me, you’ll likely notice it during the campaign (a tutorial-in-disguise), where a simple task to build a room begins with workmen receiving pallets of supplies, with individual members of the hive making repeated treks to-and-fro as your blueprints come to fruition.

Prison Architect insert1This dense simulation is quite a marvel, even though the game doesn’t do much to help you understand some of the behaviours happening within your ant-farm. Initially I was confused by workers bunching up at a door, until I realized that they were waiting for someone with keys to arrive. With most games, attention to detail serves no explicit gameplay purpose beyond immersion, but these small details in Prison Architect can be matters of life and death.

Prisoners have needs, including food, clothing, relaxation time, visits from family—almost 20 separate meters to satisfy. Indulging each need requires space, time, staff, and various other resources that are often in scarce supply. There are programs and grants available that will refill your coffers, but for the most part, taking in a higher volume and higher threat-level of prisoners is the best way to make money.

The prisoners will become displeased for a number of reasons—they’ll feel harassed if security is too tight, or bored without access to entertainment, or if they lack opportunities for self-actualization (Maslow would be proud). Prisoners will riot, and when they do, that’s when the richness of the simulation pays off. Hapless janitors locked on the wrong side of a door will meet their doom, materials pilfered from construction pallets will be weaponized, and the general lack of oversight will result in lots of angry men running around with pointy things they nicked from the kitchen.

Riots can spill out of control quickly, and the game takes on some real-time-strategy elements, introducing a fog-of-war that really underscores the dire need to retake the facility. Riot police (optionally flanked by paramedics) are a less-lethal option, or you can opt to bring in an armed response and squash the riot with a show of force. While the game’s failstates preclude a full-blown turkey-shoot, the game doesn’t judge you for the type of warden you choose to be.

The story is a bit dour for my tastes—at times it’s rather strident in highlighting the amorality of an industry predicated on locking up society’s outcasts—but the vignettes are tied together with a whirlwind tour of the game’s many systems. While it’s a bit on-the-nose, learning how to connect appliances to the grid by preparing an electric-chair moments before an execution, most of the concepts introduced sensibly, and most allow some flexibility to bump up against the edges so it feels more like guided learning than following instructions rote.

Prison Architect isn’t going to appeal to everyone; the simple graphics and initially overwhelming influence may scare off those hoping for something as immediately accessible and fun as Theme Park. Those who persevere will find an incredibly complex simulation that will gradually reveal more and more layers of strata as the hours invested pile up.

Farming Simulator 15 (PS4) Review

Farming Simulator 15 (PS4) Review

There’s Chores To Be Done

Believe it or not, Farming Simulator despite not being a big deal in the AAA gaming world, is actually a big enough deal that multiple titles have already been released. The franchise has sold over a million copies, and it’s not just families, but actual farmers that sit down and enjoy the game. Now, there’s a current gen console version available, and while in some ways, it’s a worthwhile game, in others, it’s problematic.
farmsiminsert2You’re a farmer and you want to make money to own more property and have better equipment. That’s the “story” of Farming Simulator 15, there’s no real campaign mode to speak of. Having said that, the game gives a LOT of freedom in the way you can tackle being a farmer, just don’t expect to be visually blown away in the process. The studio has created two massive environments—European and North American farm settings—as the playgrounds for your farming exploits. However, despite nice graphical touches like dirt accumulating on vehicles, day/night cycles and weather effects, pop up and draw in is evident everywhere, and there are even occasional dips on framerate. On the other hand, despite the massive size, you can “teleport” from one vehicle to the next across the entire sprawling map, with no loading whatsoever, so while the game is limited in technical prowess, it’s very responsive. Sound is also a bit limited, with no speech or background music, just the occasional birds, chickens, rainfall and the constant, hypnotic drone of various tractor engines, so get your Spotify account ready to stream.

On the actual gameplay front, this is a real time—not turn-based—simulator, and everything is pretty hands on. You steer combine harvesters, you cultivate fields with tractors, you even go logging, chopping down trees, or collecting eggs from your chicken coops. All of it is done in either first person, or third, from behind the vehicle you’re controlling. GIANTS have taken the wealth of commands for various actions and somehow managed to compress them onto a DualShock 4.

However, for all the things you can do in Farming Simulator 15, what really hurts the game is how limited—and newbie unfriendly—the scope of being a farmer actually is. Very basic tutorials, for example, show you the general flow of raising crops, and there are other individual tutorials for the different kinds of equipment, but it’s similar to a tradesman showing you basic electrical wiring, plumbing 101, and a bit of carpentry, then saying, “Now go build a house.” Sure, you’ve got a bunch of different skills you’ve just learned, but no comprehensive way to see how they interlock together. There are numerous online guides dedicated to getting newbies started in the Farming Simulator series, and while it’s great they’re out there, it’s damning that they stand in for a decent tutorial or introductory campaign.

The lack of a campaign is another missed opportunity for the game. The game throws you into the deep end with a few fields and tractors and leaves you to your own devices. Most simulation games—like the recent Tropico 5—have a campaign with a structured narrative and goals, and a sandbox mode for people that just want to use all the toys made available. FS15 eschews all this in favor is just getting right into the farming for profit. And that, perhaps, is the most limiting factor of all. The game really is about just making enough money to buy more real estate and better equipment. While real farming deals with everything from drought to dust bowls to GMO crop ethics, to going “boutique” as a fair-trade organic premium supplier versus selling your beef to a fast food conglomerate. None of the many potential environmental, ethical or financial hazards/opportunities real farmers encounter ever troubles virtual farmers in FS15. The only natural hazard you have to worry about is ignoring mature, harvest-ready crops so long they whither. There are also bugs to contend with such as shoddy AI workers that get stuck in the environment while sapping away your income as their salary. Another bug causes your hired help to drive vehicles at nearly zero miles per hour unless you go in and reset the cruise control speed on your vehicles.
farmsiminsert5On the other hand, GIANTS nails the fundamentals of the actual farming process. It’s very educational—and even soothingly hypnotic—tilling fields, spraying them down, watching plants grow, harvesting them, collecting wool, or selling off tree and grain leftovers to biogas and heat companies. It’s all intricately done, and it’s a real test of time and resource management to get a farm up and running, ready to pay off loans and make some money. It’s a shame that that’s the ONLY game you get play. Fortunately, there’s an online mode for cooperative play, but even then, you’re still just dividing up chores for profit.

What really hurts the PS4 version of Farming Simulator 15 is the value proposition. The PC version, which is technically the best, as well as enjoying a suite of user mods with everything from new equipment, new maps and even new gameplay features, is $30. The PS4 version is $50. Sure you get the online multiplayer capability of the PC, but it’s severely crippled in every other way, while PS3/360 owners pay $40 as well, and don’t even get the online co-op.

Farming Simulator 15 can provide a tranquil, educational and interesting virtual farming experience. However, at $50 for a hamstrung version compared to its PC sibling, the bugs and narrow gameplay make it difficult to easily recommend. If you’re curious and ever find it on sale, by all means, pick it up.


Project CARS (PC) Review

Project CARS (PC) Review

Firing up Project CARS for the first time, I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense that this was something different. This is a game that I had been eagerly anticipating since I first saw its impressive alpha screenshots a couple years back. I was impressed with the impossibly realistic visuals, and felt that no game could live up to the hype it was starting to generate for itself. I subsequently went to such lengths to keep from getting my hopes up that I completely lost sight of the game until launch day was upon us.
projectcarsinsert3It was quickly becoming a refreshing feeling to see all the ways in which Project CARS was shifting away from the paradigms of old. There’s no currency to be had in the game. No gating of content. Everything to be experienced is at your fingertips from the first time you fire up the game. There’s no need to designate research directions in the middle of your career seasons, nothing at all to distract you from the absolute bliss of driving one of the more than sixty-five meticulously detailed cars on one of the more than seventy equally meticulously crafted tracks. There’s an absolute obsession with immersion that’s evident in Project CARS. The inclusion of a camera view from within the driver’s helmet, vignetting the blur of beautifully rendered scenery with the padded interior of a crash helmet is a brilliant design decision, and having settings to control the effects of G-forces on your vision, or movement of your head is wondrous. The sheer lunacy of the attention to detail in Project CARS leaves me without words to describe it, right down to the fact that left and right sides of suspension can be tuned independent of each other, or that off the racing line, you’ll find built-up rubber debris, just waiting to punt you off. Not to mention the weather, which ranges from clear and vibrant, to overcast, foggy, and rain all the way up to thunderstorms, each bringing their own perilous challenges on the track, as well as adding stunning accents to an already breathtakingly beautiful game. Oh, and did I mention real-time time, light and weather progression options? Yeah, that’s a thing.

Everything within Project CARS feels like it’s there to allow you to play your game your way. From the inclusion or exclusion of weather in any degree you see fit, races of custom lengths, with and without practice, qualifying, and warm-up sessions, fully customizable racing assists down to the amount of slip allowed before a traction control system kicks in, variable AI difficulty, damage levels, it’s all there. Many racing games gate content in an attempt to artificially inflate the amount of perceived value they bring, but Slightly Mad have opted to offer the game up as more of a sandbox for you to explore at your choosing. It’s a bold design decision, and it shows just how much confidence they have in their game.
projectcarsinsert4Project CARS is not without fault, but so far, the ones I’ve found are minor oversights that could easily be fixed with post-launch patching. The few instances it stumbles with first-time oversights are far outweighed by everything it does right, which is even more impressive when compared to many of the long-established IPs it’s competing against. It also runs beautifully well for the visuals it boasts. I dare say that it makes much of its “next gen” counterparts look a bit dated. It doesn’t get bogged down with trying to force players to play through race classes they’re not interested in, or offer every model and year of car for players to obsess over collecting. Instead, Slightly Mad have hand-selected a cross section of the best cars and tracks from multiple different eras and disciplines of motorsport racing and offered them up in a ruthlessly challenging, incredibly rewarding, and overwhelmingly beautiful and immersive simulator. With its inclusion of full support for a racing wheel and pedals, as well as fancy VR headsets, not only does Project CARS prove that the day of the hard core racing simulator is not passed, but it also highlights many of the antiquated systems in traditional racing games that we accept for lack of any new innovations. Put bluntly, Project CARS is a pivotal moment in racing simulator history.