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SPECIAL! THE BEST GAMES OF LAST YEAR


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Editorial H

i, and welcome to the first awards issue of Digitally Downloaded!

It’s almost unbelievable that we’ve only been around for just over a year. In that time we’ve reviewed literally hundreds of games, and seen some real highs and lows. One of the biggest trends for the past year has been the increasing importance that digital downloads have played in the industry, and so we’re glad to be able to focus on that delivery model.

Editor-in-Chief: Matt Sainsbury matts@digitallydownloaded.net

Editor: Clark Anderson clarka@digitallydownloaded.net

So with all that it’s come time to decide the best and brightest games that we’ve seen over the past year or so. To help explain our methodology – the finalists and winners were selected from the Digitally Downloaded team, and we tried to pick our winners and finalists based on this criteria:

News Editor:

1) Digital downloads are a delivery model that can reward risk taking and innovative design.

Owen Sainsbury Aidan Broadbent Zane Metcalfe Arnar Levi Henry Stockdale Nick Jewell Sam McGraw

While you can get most retail games via digital downloads, that’s not the strength of the delivery model. We actively aimed to award the prizes to the games that were innovative and creative, though not necessarily “indie,” either. Digital downloads has truly let the niche and mid-sized developer florish. 2) The most popular game need not be the “best.” Following on from 1), a digital downloadable game does not have to be a financial megahit to be a creative and beloved release. None of the winners you’ll see in the following pages have outsold Call of Duty, but every one, in its own way, has earned a truly dedicated following. So enjoy the following pages, and be sure to let us know on our website and forum what you thought! I’d also like to thank Tim, our new designer, for doing an incredible job making this publication look great. We hope we can continue to make our print publication interesting and informative for you. Matt Sainsbury Publisher and Editor-in-chief

Jason Micciche jasonm@digitallydownloaded.net

Writers:

Designer: Tim Delbridge t.delbridge1talisman@hotmail.co.uk

Advertise with Digitally Downloaded: advertising@digitallydownloaded.net DigitallyDownloaded.net©, all rights reserved. No part of this magazine or the contents of the Digitally Downloaded website may be republished without the express written permission of Digitally Downloaded. Back issues available via the Digitally Downloaded.net website. point your browser at: http://www.digitallydownloaded. net/p/publications.html


4 ‘egg’ (a reference to a the story onward. It’s written in a video game Easter Egg) very old fashioned style for a pop which is somewhere culture book, in that it doesn’t within the vast gaming have many gimmicks, just a great universe of OASIS, to find story, a beginning, a middle and an it people must follow end. Is it a zeitegest critique, or is the clues he has left to it transgressive and postmodern? unlock the path to the Things you might associate with egg. Many become seasoned writers such as Brett obsessed with finding Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk, but the egg for the prize of not a debutant author, who admits discovering Halliday’s he had no experience in writing but egg is the ownership just wanted to write a book he’d of Halliday’s computer like to read himself. In the end this company and his vast book can be whatever you want it multi-billion fortune. For many years no It’s hard to pigeonhole one has found anything, until Ready Player One. At its heart a teenager discovers the though it is an old fashioned first gate and the first step adventure novel. When all on the trail. His name is posted hope is lost, there’s always on the high score board and he becomes a target another twist which drives for many dangerous people who will stop at the story onward nothing to claim the egg for themselves. to be but you’ll be hard pressed to Thanks in part to the find anything more entertaining fact that to find Halliday’s egg, and accessible. people must have an unhealthy I became a little obsessed knowledge of all things 80’s, with the book, and raced through it there are unsurprisingly a massive within two days. It’s just impossible amount of references to games, to put down. It’s clear from the films, TV shows, music and food very start that the author is a fan and news events from that period. of everything he references and it Anyone who is a product of the 80’s unashamedly tells the reader that like me will feel instantly at home. it’s ok to be a geek. Since reading this Ghost Busters 2, follows seamlessly novel in fact I have pursued some with sweat soaked games of Joust of the classic games and films that and a trip to the Tyrell Corporation are referenced and also revisited Headquarters of Blade Runner some old favourites, which is just fame (really!) try and spot as many what good creative media should as you can. do: which is encourage someone It’s hard to pigeonhole to seek out more knowledge and Ready Player One. All at the same enlightenment. Anyone who is time it is a love story, a treasure interested in retro games or pop hunt, a sci fi space opera and a culture will enjoy this book and I thriller, with plenty of humorous believe it will become a cult classic. moments. At its heart though it is an old fashioned adventure - Tim Delbridge novel. When all hope is lost, there’s always another twist which drives

Have you ever read a book and thought ‘This has been written specifically for me’? I think with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline I can say I have. Set in 2044, it depicts a chillingly plausible dystopian, regressive world that has unravelled due to a great recession which is entering its third decade (sound familiar?). Sky high oil prices mean no one but the obscenely rich can afford any luxuries, food is scarce and expensive, unemployment is in the billions, and people survive on government food rations. In the midst of this, people find solace and escapism in OASIS an MMO world which people can go to and forget about their troubles. Designed and built by eccentric James Halliday (a character which is a mixture of Howard Hughes, Steve jobs and Bill Gates) it is the world’s biggest online service and the only thing that many people truly live for anymore. On the day of James Halliday’s death, he releases a video telling the world he has hidden an


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www.kingarthurii.com •

/kingarthurgame •

@kingarthurgame • http://forum.paradoxplaza.com

©2012 paradox interactive. all rights reserved.


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The Nominations ion

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BloodRayne: Betrayal Red Johnson’s Chronicles Limbo Kingdoms of Amalur

Groove Coaster Mercury Hg The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy

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tS P1

ou

2-

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&M

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e

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G e i Ind -15 t es P14 B

Avadon The Black Fortress Limbo Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land Frozen Synapse

Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword Pushmo EscapeVektor: Episode 1 Zen Pinball

Be Ni st G nte ndo ame o P1 Con n a 6-1 sol 7 e


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a n e o ole m a ns G o t es ny C -19 B o 18 S P

Section 8: Prejudice Limbo Under Siege

Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together

Sengoku Portal 2 The Witcher 2 King Arthur 2: The Roleplaying Wargame

B

es

tP P2 C 0- Ga 21 m e


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n a le o e o am ons t G ft C 3 s e B roso 22-2 ic P M

Bastion War of the Worlds Dungeon Defenders

From Dust

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

Avadon The Black Fortress

Duck Duck Quack! Run Roo Run

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es or t S m T ab art p P2 let G hon 4e 25 ame


10

Best Ar t Direction

LIMBO

S

omewhere between the balance of life and death lies Limbo. A frightening realm where there is only light and darkness tangled together fighting for dominance, completely devoid of any true colour. Here is where we meet our unnamed character – a dark silhouette of a gentle young boy that’s easily distinguished by his glowing white eyes. But, why is he here in Limbo? Where this place and what lies in wait before him? There is only one way to find out and that it is to take the first step forward – deeper into uncertainty; Limbo.

A 2D platform/npuzzle hybrid isn’t anything new in the indie gaming world, but Limbo sets itself apart with a fantastic art style and creative gameplay. Instantly noticeable is that the game is designed in nothing but black and white colours, but don’t be weary of this unique art style because Limbo features some of the best lighting effects we’ve yet seen in a videogame. There are times where the game is dark and creepy, and at other times bright streams of sunlight fill the screen and push away the darkness, drastically changing the mood of the game in extraordinary ways that a game featuring a full colour palate likely couldn’t. Lamp lights tear through the darkness with stunning visual effects, colourless water still somehow reacts like water, and the silhouettes of the varied environments all react all react in a lifelike manner when interacted with, and these are but

a few examples how this unique visual style astonishingly brings the world of Limbo to life. With Limbo being the games title, it’s quite obvious that our young nameless friend will encounter many dangers, but upon taking the first few steps that just isn’t the case at all. Superb character animations like the boys hair flowing upon each step, and his limited jump ability seem lifelike to his size, and the word ‘cute’ came rushing to the forefront of our minds, but the rapid encounter of a bear trap lying in wait on the ground and a mistimed jump resulted in one of the most shocking deaths we’ve experienced yet in a game. The trap sprung onto the boy and instantly dismembered the fragile boy into several pieces, sending black blood flying from his many pieces, and what we had just witnessed had us gasping for air in pure shock. While the gore can be turned off is so desired, it instantly became clear that this isn’t a child’s

game; this game is one of survival. While there are only a few limited abilities that the nameless boy can perform, the many environmental puzzles are perfectly designed to fit these abilities without ever becoming frustrating – also thanks to frequent save points – but, requires the job of thinking outside of the box to figure most of them out. The lighting allows only what needs to be seen visible, and where pushing boxes to climb ledges starts things off easy, puzzles eventually become intensely though provoking. In one particular instance, a switch activated an object that we needed to get past, but when the switch was activated by a rolling a cart down a hill to activate it, we still didn’t have enough time to get where we needed. We eventually figured out that pushing the cart uphill would allow for a few more seconds for the cart to lose momentum, stop and then start its downhill travel to the switch, and


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would allow enough time for us to accomplish what we needed to do. It’s this thinking outside of the box that makes Limbo so much fun. Sitting at around 4-5 hours for the first play through, the game brings fresh ideas and puzzles constantly and the only complaint we can find with the game is this; we want more! There is only one way we can recommend playing Limbo, and that is in the dark with the sound way up. This brings the lighting to life in full effect as the minimal ambient sounds and dark tones fill the room as the games moves from is freakishly dark settings to its brief lighter moods. One memorable moment had a giant spider in deadly pursuit, and with no weapons available to attack, all you can do is run for your life. The long silhouette legs of the spider tear through the bright white backgrounds appearing onscreen brilliantly, and a frightening sense of urgency kicks into play as survival becomes paramount. Most of the time the only sounds that can be heard are the boys footsteps and minimal environmental sounds, but once something like the giant spider comes onscreen, dark tones fill the speakers and knowing that instant death is lurking merely seconds behind becomes an instantaneous realization, as it should because if

the spider does indeed catch our fleeing boy, his untimely death from impalement through his entire body, starting with his head, will have many gamers sitting wideeyed, jaws dropped in shock, but as with every in-game death, it only becomes one step closer to finding out what lies in wait at journeys end; into Limbo. Limbo not only sits in the top tier of games on XBLA, but in our opinion, Limbo is a top-tier game regardless of the platform. The unique art-style and gameplay alone would make the game a success, but the games ability to alter gamers’ mood, amazing lighting effects and superb use

of minimal sounds set this game above and beyond other 2D platform/puzzle hybrids we’ve played before. It would be easy to write another 800 words on this game, but there isn’t a reason because if you own an Xbox 360 and haven’t downloaded Limbo yet, then go do so now. Limbo is one of the best reasons to currently own an Xbox 360 and we recently reported that Limbo could possibly come to multiple platforms soon as well, but regardless of the platform Limbo is played on, missing out on this game means missing out on one of the most creative games of our time. - Christopher Ingram


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Best Sound & Music

R E T S OA S

quare Enix-owned Taito is one of the very best app store developers. It’s not the most prolific, but the studio that invented the humble Space Invaders all those years ago has already produced the incredible Mikado Defenders and Space Invaders: Infinity Gene for the Apple App store. The genius behind that Space Invaders reinvention, Reisuke Ishida, is on the path to serious fame with his new effort, Groove Coaster, completely blowing any other rhythm game out of the water. Groove Coaster has flown in under the radar, but the combination of brilliant music and stylish visuals sets it out as something wholly unique and invigorating. The gameplay itself is nothing new. Your avatar (selected from a range of retro-cool icons) moves on a single line in time with the music. At various points, you’ll need to tap the iPad or iPhone screen in time with the throbbing music beat (represented on screen by a coloured circle sitting on the line the avatar is moving along) to increase your combo rating and


13 the lack of a “use your own music” mode. This was such a great feature in Space Invaders: Infinity Gene that it’s a pity not to see it return here. The range of music is impressive, too. Across the dozen plus tracks in the initial download is everything from club beats to R & B and more gentle, lyrical and even romantic tracks. This is the kind of game you want the CD soundtrack for. The game features great Game Center integration too, adding more value to the game as more of your friends make the purchase. A company founded in 1953, Taito is really coming into its own under Square Enix. Where other publishers and developers struggle to mix in retro with the modern, Taito and Ishida have mastered it and turned it into a pure art form. There is nothing on the iPad or iPhone with a stronger visual aesthetic and mastery of music. Utterly essential.

score Sometimes you’ll need to hold your finger on the screen, but that’s all the interactivity this game demands. It might not sound like much, but it gets difficult. The higher difficulty levels can be downright brutal in the musicality they require of the player, and much like Nintendo’s popular Rhythm Tengoku/ Rhythm Heaven games, it is the musicality that is being tested here and not a mastery over tricky controls or buttons; it’s almost possible to play the game without looking at the screen. Challenge aside (and for less hardcore players, the low level difficulties are very accessible - a problem the Rhythm Tengoku games have never managed to

effectively control), the real appeal of this game is the visuals, and the soundtrack itself. Anyone who played Space Invaders: Infinity Gene will instantly recognise Ishida’s work; the man manages to combine retro-cool style with modern effects and colour like none other. This is the kind of game that would suit an art gallery and an interactive art exhibition. The music also suits perfectly, with humming, charming beats that you’ll quite happily play at full volume and make your ears bleed over. Additional tracks are also available to purchase as DLC, adding even more value to an already impressive package. The only disappointment would be


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Best Indie Game

FROZEN F

rozen Synapse is one of the most engaging little strategy games I’ve ever played. Its multiplayer-focused, short and sweet battles are intense while also being strategic, and yet this is also a game that almost anyone can pick up and play. In short? It’s got something for everyone, and even casual strategists can get into this one. It starts with a really easy tutorial that lays out the basic foundations of the game. Frozen Synapse does a good job of introducing people to simultaneous turn based strategy

SYNAPSE

games – a genre usually relegated to the most hardcore of strategy wargames. Both yourself and your opponent plot out movements and actions for each of your soliders, and then those actions play out at the same time. It’s a system that works well for many other strategy games, and has the unique ability to both reducing your ability to simply react to your opponent, while (unlike most RTS games), allowing you to lay out some fairly complex strategies. After completing the tutorial you’re free to play the campaign, skirmish against AI or

engage in multiplayer bouts. To be honest the AI while decent, is the dull side of this game. The real fun is in taking on friends online, and there this game glows. The secret to its success is in its simplicity, meaning anyone can pick up and get into the game. There’s only a handful of unit types, and these are randomly assigned before each battle – there’s the machine gunner, rocket launchers and grenadetoting explosion man, shotgun guy for the close-and-deadly and the long range sniper. Each of those units only have a few commands, with the main ones being movement, changing facing and toggling whether your unit will fire on the enemy, or drop his guard and move a bit faster. Given there’s only three or four units available to you in each battle, being able to make the most out of those units with the limited commends is critical, and will take a lot of practice to master – each unit has unique firing ranges and quirks to take into account; Rockets can blow holes in the wall, grenades bounce off those same walls, for instance. And, given the randomly generated levels are small in size, you have to be on your toes. It’s


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rare for a match to reach the ‘draw’ point – most games are over in just five or so turns – in video form, that’s just half a minute. Moving around the levels are a skill in itself – units have their unique firing arcs and can be set to stand and fire. It’s a system that opens up the opportunity to lay down ambushes and suppressing fire. It’s possible to “save” battles and come back to them at a later date – the developers have implemented a play-byemail system into the game itself, meaning it’s possible to come back, input your turn, and then come back a day or two later to see how that turn went and input your next turn. The developers have clearly gone all out to offer a robust online experience. Add in YouTube, Facebook and Twitter support, and this is a very social kind of strategy game. It’s fun and easy to save and upload your favourite matches to YouTube for sharing around, and it’s encouragement to keep playing the game and getting better – you can watch back and see how your strategies and abilities of the game

evolve over time. There’s an online leaderboard as well for additional incentive to improve. So, while Frozen Synapse is a relatively simple and limited strategy game, much like chess or a good board game it’s a great way to while away a rainy weekend. Throw in a huge range of gameplay modes (everything from

standard deathmatch to rescue the hostages), and you’re looking at a game that will last a lot of rainy weekends. We can’t recommend this game enough, and if you are yourself a player, why not log on to our forum, introduce yourself, and get a few games going?


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Best Game on a Nintendo Console

Z

en Pinball is an unfortunate case. It’s an essential game that just happened to be released at the same time as the massive marketing push Nintendo has thrown behind the new Mario and Mario Kart games. As such it’s probably going to be a third placed purchase for most. And as I said, that’s unfortunate, since I personally think this, not the Mario games, that is the best thing that’s happened to the 3DS since Zelda Ocarina of Time. To start with the obvious – 3D does great things to pinball, a game that by nature needs to provide a good sense of depth and motion for players. Zen Pinball gets the presentation just perfect. The tables are impressively detailed, the ball rolls about the place smoothly, and the 3D is deep indeed. Turning the 3D slider off, in fact, cheapens the experience considerably. The real complaint in terms of presentation is that at times the tables can seem a little small on the relatively small 3DS screen. Making out the smaller details on the tables can be a real challenge on the eyes, and though there are some alternative camera

angles none of them quite manage to resolve this problem. Longer term, it’s an irrelevant issue though; with a bit of practice the game plays beautifully. Zen Pinball is renowned for its physics on the HD console and the recent iPad game, and the tradition remains strong here. The ball bounces around the table smoothly and accelerates

and decelerates precisely as you would expect. There is the very rare moment where the frame rate looks like it’s going to stutter, but it quickly snaps back into silky-smooth action. There’s four tables within the base download, each with a very different themes – tropical treasure hunt Eldorado, Kings and castles Excalibur, Tribal beats Shaman and


17 B-grade Sci Fi Earth Defence. Each table plays differently enough to the others that each player will develop favourites, but they’re universally well designed tables with plenty to explore and achieve. Zen Pinball also features a handful of achievements for pulling off some spectacular stunts. It’s worth noting that these tables aim to be realistic recreations of real pinball. As such there’s very little visual fireworks; rather anything that goes on on these tables would have been possible with the kinds of mechanics that went into the original pinball tables. The attention to detail is spectacular, and you’ll still have a couple of basic minigames to play by setting off certain switches on the table to break up the action; the Excalibur table, for instance, cuts away to a “joust” where you’ll need to time a shot of the ball to unhorse a charging knight. If that wasn’t enough incentive to keep playing, the real magic to Zen Pinball is the extensive online leaderboards. You’re able to see at a glance your global ranking, your national ranking, your ranking amongst your friends list and your weekly best score. The game controls beautifully, allowing people to use either the shoulder buttons, or the dpad and B-button, whichever is more comfortable. The on-screen action is very responsive, and the ball moves at a speed that is fast enough to be challenging, but not so fast to turn the game into a twitch-based experience. We have our fingers crossed that this is one of the games that will benefit from Nintendo’s backflip over DLC. On the other consoles and iPad it’s possible to purchase additional tables for Zen Pinball, including the superb Marvel table. It would add a great deal of longevity to an already great package if it were possible to buy a couple extra tables some time down the track. For $Aus7.50, the four existing tables are good value though. Pinball is a kind of

universal appeal, easy to get into and challenging as only the arcade games of yesteryear could be. Zen Pinball gets everything right, at a price point that is fair, and is one of

the best implementations of 3D to date. Even if you’ve already gone out and picked up the two Mario games, it’s worth splashing out that extra $7.50 for this one.


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Best Game on a Sony Console

TACTICS OGRE:

LET US CLING TOGETHER I

n 1988, a little development Company which was named Quest Corporation, formed in Japan. In 1993 it released Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen on the Super Nintendo, and one of the greatest tactical RPG series’ was born. Ogre Battle is a real time strategy game with some RPG elements, and is still loved today for the incredible depth and epic scope that was crammed within the relatively

primitive visuals. In 1995 came Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Same game world, but this time around it was a turn based strategy game, where you move characters around a grid, rather than direct them over giant maps. It was a very different style, but it too was magic.In 2002 Square Enix purchased the Ogre franchise (no surprises there, since the publishing giant had already poached Quest’s finest talent).

It’s been a long time since the last new release in the Ogre franchise – 2002’s GBA gem Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, so it’s nice to see the series return with such style with the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. The first thing you’ll realise on booting the game up is that it is a mammoth endeavour. The story itself is incredibly long (and offers alternate paths depending on the decisions you make), but length aside, there is an intimidating number of things you need to do to even get to the end. There is a mass of character classes and types available, from the mundane to the monstrous. Given that there can be up to 12 characters on the battlefield at any one time, coming up with a winning combination of characters whose skills match one another’s is a long process of trial and error and deep thinking. There’s a definite sense of reward for coming up with a strong force, though, because Tactics Ogre can be a very difficult game, so each win – especially if it’s an easy win – is a pleasant experience. Part of the difficulty is alleviated by the ability to “rewind” turns – if you don’t like the result of one of your actions, you can just jump back to an earlier


19 turn and try something different. The downside to this is it can make battles a very protracted affair. Many people will be coming into this game with a working knowledge of the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, and perhaps less experience with Tactics Ogre. Both those other tactics RPGs are far speedier experiences. Tactics Ogre boasts large maps with lots of terrain effects to work around and some enemies that can soak up serious damage before falling. Throw in the rewind effects and the sheer depth of customisation required outside of battle, and the plot advances at a very slow pace indeed. It’s an enjoyable plot to play through, if somewhat clichéd and forgettable. There’s the usual political strife working behind the scenes (a hallmark of the Tactics Ogre series), and epic overtunes that somehow also manage to give the characters some genuine, if basic personality. It’s not the kind of plot that’s going to win any ‘best of’ awards (and remember, this is a remake of a SNES game), but it’s also not going to bore you to sleep. The game’s only real Achilles heel

comes from its visuals. The art direction within the game engine is typical Square Enix quality, with stunning character portraits, varied landscapes and beautifully presented menus. The music sets an incredible atmosphere, and does indeed feature the classic Ogre Battle theme that will hit series faithful with a solid dose of nostalgia. In battle, however, the character sprites themselves have a fuzzy quality that looks strangely out of place with the crisp backdrops and those lovely menus. They’re still charming, and anyone

who has played an earlier Tactics Ogre game will get a kick out of those sprites, but newcomers will perhaps find things a little basic – especially in the early stages where there’s not a lot going on and special effects and character variety are minimal. It’s a tiny chick in an otherwise solid suit of armour, however. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is the first PSP title in a while that is worth buying a PSP for. Such a deep, lengthy quest is going to have you going for a long, long time to come.


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Best PC Game

P

aradox I n t e r a c t i v e ’ s Sengoku is an incredible game. It’s intelligent, creative and fulfilling. Though it’s never going to hit the mass market, it’s such a rewarding strategy game that genre fans owe it to themselves to add it to their collections.

I kicked off the review with the conclusion, because there’s very little about this game I haven’t already covered in our preview. The build we played back then was pretty complete, though there have been some superficial changes, what we said then stands. But in the interest of going through it again: Sengoku is a very slowpaced simulation of the Sengoku period of Japanese history. For the uninitiated; that’s one of the more dramatic and interesting eras for the island nation, filled with dominant personalities, heroes and villains. And nearly endless military conflict, which is why it’s become a prime time period for action and strategy video games. It’s an era that’s been well-covered in the past in video games (most notably perhaps by Tecmo Koei with its Samurai Warriors series, as well as its light strategy series, Nobunaga’s Ambition), but rarely with the same eye for historical detail and depth as this game While nominally you’re in control of a single warlord with dreams of national conquest, you’ll need to micromanage that warlord’s support network right down to his a d v i s o r ’s spouse,

sons and daughters. They’re the ones that do most of the foot work, meaning it’s critical that they’re all kept content and loyal. At the same time, the warlord will need to set up (and plan to break) alliances with rival warlords. There’s plenty of tools to keep the intrigue interesting, including the application of ninjas and political marriages, so the diplomacy of this game should suit plenty of different play styles. And there’s a need to set up succession and heirs - people age and die in this game. There’s some military flexing involved, but if anyone went into this expecting a Total War game, they’re in for a sharp disappointment. Beyond recruiting and directing armies, combat plays out on autopilot. Armies can take months of in-game time (which can equate to hours of real-life play time, as the lower game speeds are by necessity very slow) to arrive at their destinations, and should they run into an enemy army, the combat plays out automatically, and is represented on screen by no more than two samurai duking it out, and abstract numbers representing the strength of the armies ticking down underneath as losses happen. Successfully defeat the enemy and it’s time to put his castle under siege, a process that can also take months of in-game time to play out, if the castle is especially well built. So Sengoku is a game of understated thrills. There’s a thrill to successfully scrambling an army and lifting a siege on home turf, and there’s a thrill in seeing the colour-


21 coded region that represents your hero gradually spread across the map like wet ink on paper, but it’s a decidedly different thrill to the more action-heavy strategy games currently in vogue in the mass market. The main thrill, and the main place you’ll be spending time in this game, is in the development of your nation and the relationship building in the game. Fighting wars is costly, both in terms of raw finance and an “honour” system that acts as an intangible currency. Run honour down too low, and there’s going to be rebellions and dissent. There’s ways to increase honour, from giving vassals land, to sending money and gifts to the emperor, but those have costs of their own. There’s also the ability to set your advisers to build up the towns and fortresses in each territory you possess, so there’s plenty to do domestically, and succeeding at this game requires the ability to juggle several different balls simultaneously. As a natural consequence, there is a lot of data to handle and digest in the game, and to Paradox’s credit, the jigsaw puzzle all seems to click together with precision and accuracy. At no stage in the 30 hours or so I’ve played this game in the last few days have did I see the AI do something to remind me that it was “just” AI. It’s not genius on par with Nobunaga Oda, but it works cleanly and manages to challenge players while not following any kind of alien logic. As a side note:

this is one of those great strategy games where you can start playing at night, and then look over to the window to find daylight streaming in. Thank the maker for good coffee. Japan provides a fascinating tapestry for wargames. As a small, thin island nation, but one with a hugely uneven geography, it opens up room for plenty of strategic depth, while at the same time changing up some basic strategies that you might use elsewhere – wide sweeping flanking maneuvers is more difficult to achieve and the smaller populations (at the time) and armies tended to favour individual brilliance and prowess over numbers. Sengoku does a good job at reasonably approximating the unique quirks of medieval Japanese warfare and diplomacy and wraps it up in a package both pleasing on the eye (if a touch limited in variety) and

ears, thanks to a great soundtrack. Really the only criticism is the interface of the game, which is occasionally a touch clunky and obscure. For instance, to open the diplomacy menu of an opponent, you need to right-click on their portrait, rather than click on the “diplomacy” menu icon, and aside from wordy tutorials, there’s no real explanation of that. That’s unnecessarily confusing initially, but it’s a small slight on an otherwise brilliant package. Japan might be a nation limited in geographic scope for video game purposes, but Paradox Interactive have produced a game that provide such rich strategic scope that it will very likely be the only game armchair strategists need for the remainder of the year.If for no other reason than it’s literally going to take months to play a full game.


22

Best Game on a Microsoft Console

F

FROM F R O M DUST DUST

rom Dust is no ordinary game. In some ways, it’s a God game but, as many critics have pointed out, it does not perform as well as other games that belong to that category such as Populous and Black and White. Over at Quarter to Three, Tom Chick went so far to call the game “Black and White Lite, Populous Minus, Fracture Without Guns, or The Part of Spore Where You Lost Interest” and, while a lot of the examples he used are good analogies for what From Dust is, I think some of it (especially the “Fracture Without Guns” part) is quite unfair. The truth is it’s hard to categorise From Dust as anything but its own type of game. For all intents and purposes the design of the game screams “God game”: you play an entity known as The Breath who the in-game villagers seem to worship and you have the power to alter the landscape around you. Right from the opening cutscene, you are made out to be some sort of powerful spirit that the villagers summoned to aid them in their quest, so you immediately have an obligation to help them. That being said, the execution is so much different from your typical “God game” it’s hard to

group it together with titles like Populous. Where your typical God game focuses almost entirely on the interactions you have with your followers, From Dust instead focuses on the environment and how you can manipulate it to aid the villagers who summoned you. It’s this sort of gameplay that makes From Dust a truly unique experience. Speaking of which, I suppose I should explain what the gameplay is: the mechanics are based around your ability to “breathe in” parts of the landscape, carry them elsewhere and “breathe them out” again. You do this to build bridges from one island to the next, to create dams and walls to block surges of water, and to channel water and lava flows away from your vulnerable villagers. You can use special trees to blow away rock, evaporate rivers or even extinguish fires. You build mountains and create valleys, all in the span of a few minutes, and create a true sense of personal awe and accomplishment when the world works just the way you want it to. The game is gorgeous, doing a fantastic job of showcasing the amazing and terrible things that nature and the elements can throw at us. I remember reading

an old article about how Eric Chahi, the lead developer of From Dust, spent a long time studying exactly how volcanoes act and the research shows through beautifully: every challenge, every natural disaster that you face throughout your time with the game, seems exactly like you’d imagine it would look in real life. The tsunamis are impressive, great walls of water that tower above the landscape, but the volcanoes are a true sight to behold. The first time the entire map shakes and you watch the tip of a mountain collapse in on itself invokes a mixture of awe and terror, all of which is magnified when the ash shoots into the air and the lava starts to flow and you scramble to divert it from engulfing your villagers. From Dust is rich with moments like that and I never found them becoming stale during my time with the game. From Dust has an aesthetic that seems to borrow heavily from Shadow of the Colossus, only on a grander scale: instead of being something small and viewing this gigantic world from below, you are afforded a birds-eye view of a world that seems small and malleable and ready for you to manipulate. It’s as if you are the god that Wander speaks to in SotC, as opposed to the other way around. The villagers


23 wear masks, much like some of the characters present in Shadow of the Colossus, and a strange tribal dialect is used to convey the small amount of dialogue present in the game. The similarities between From Dust and Colossus were very striking to me and perhaps that’s why From Dust resonated so well with me: I regard Shadow of the Colossus as the greatest game ever made, a perfect balance between action and adventure, story and gameplay, art and game, and I am not alone in this assessment. From Dust seems to conjure many of the same feelings and emotions that I felt during Shadow of the Colossus and, while it is definitely not a perfect game, it certainly feels like it has a certain undeniable poetry to it. As I mentioned, From Dust is not a perfect game: the 360 controller (or any console controller) is definitely not suited for this sort of game (something which I’m sure will be rectified by keyboard-andmouse controls with the PC release on August 17th); some features, such as vegetation growth and the appearance of animals, seem completely pointless except to make the world prettier and more lived-in; and the pathfinding of the

villagers can be frustrating at times. That being said, I had very few problems manipulating the Breath cursor to go where I wanted it to and inhale and exhale what I wanted it to. The vegetation growth serves as an additional challenge for each map, asking you to cover a percentage of the map in soil to grow plants, letting you know your progress by alerting you when animals have migrated to the terrain. And the pathfinding was only frustrating in one or two places, and I found that largely to be a level design issue and not necessarily the pathfinding. Even then, the level design seems so finely tuned I can’t help but feel that the issues I had were merely purposefully challenging parts of the game. Speaking of which, the game is largely very easy to progress through. A lot of it requires patience and an understanding that, though they are slow to act, nature is the strongest force in the world. But it is very rarely difficult and even more rarely frustrating. In fact, the entire game has a sense of tranquility about it that puts it on the same level as Flower and the rest of the titles from thatgamecompany, which makes it even better in my books. For those looking for

an additional challenge, Chahi included an imaginatively-named “Challenge Mode” that gives you preset challenges to complete, some of which I found suitably cerebral while others require a mere trial-and-error approach. Still, the Challenge Mode is an entertaining diversion when you finish the main campaign. The one thing I really wish they included was a sandbox or editor where you could create your own maps, or just interact with environments and try different things. The mechanics are so well executed and the game is so gorgeous, it would be easy to spend hours merely fiddling with a world to create mountains and then destroy them again. I highly recommend From Dust as a downloadable title. At 1200 Microsoft Points (or about $15), it might seem a bit pricey, but I think it’s definitely worth the investment. For a game that conjures emotions similar to that in Shadow of the Colossus and Flower, belongs amongst the company of games like Populous and Black and White, all while being executed as something unlike anything else, I think it’s a bargain. - Nick J


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or Tablet Game

Call of Cthulhu: T h e Wa s t e d L a n d

I

f there’s any justice in the world, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land will be the start of a SRPG franchise that will rival Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics as a popular, commercially successful name. It oozes style, is amongst the best looking iPad game out there, and features a nuanced combat system that remains compelling through the entire game. But first, the plot. The Wasted Land was developed with the blessing and support of Chaosium. This is a pretty big deal for Lovecraft fans, but for the uninitiated: Chaosism owns the rights to the superb Call of Cthulhu pen and paper game. H.P Lovecraft’s unique brand of supernatural horror, which has become known as the Cthulhu mythos (Cthulhu being one of the supremely powerful monster-things that makes a habit of sending people insane), is notoriously difficult to recapture in video game (or film) form. There are a few different theories to why this is the case, but essentially the problem the Cthulhu mythos faces is this: Lovecraft wrote his books in such a way that the horror was in what you, as the reader didn’t see. The reaction of the characters to what they saw (usually ending in insanity), coupled with Lovecraft’s unique writing style, built such a sense of

dread and menace that his stories were the concept of the “fear of the unknown” put into eloquent practice. So long story short, this kind of horror doesn’t work so well in film and other visual media because it’s difficult to have a monster movie or game where there isn’t a monster on the screen. The reason Chaosium is so well renowned is because it, more than anyone before or since, understood the style and atmosphere of Lovecraft, and captured it perfectly in game form. The Wasted Land is not a Chaosism RPG, and does miss the mark from being truly Lovecraftian, but it’s clear the developers did care about the source material, and it’s not surprising that Chaosium did endorse this game. The pace of the game is deliberately slow. Coupled with the menacing soundtrack, the game does work hard to build tension and suspense. For a genre not usually suited to horror themes, this is an impressive effort indeed. Backing up that theme is the gameplay, which is genuinely strategic, and a nice, reasonably original take on the tactics RPG genre. It works on two main principles – each character has a certain

number of action points per turn, and successful attacks with various weapons level up a character’s skill in those weapons. So for instance, a character with a handgun has enough action points to take two shots. A rifle gunner only gets the one shot. Additionally, there are two stances characters can take. Shooting from the hip, so to speak, reduces accuracy but uses fewer action points. Taking the time to shoot


25 properly will give you a better chance to hit the enemy, but you won’t move as far that turn. Further complicating things is a cover system which makes positioning your units critical for survival, and a system whereby if a character has some action points left at the end of the turn, and the enemy passes in his direction, he’ll get an automatic free shot. The wonders of ambushing hellspawn and all that. There’s plenty of meat to the game, and the quest will last you long enough. I liked that individual missions in the game were quite long, and broken up seamlessly into shorter objectives. In terms of narrative this allows the developer to focus in on extended dramatic scenes, and means the plot is less epic, and more focused on the personal exploits, bravery and horrors. Just as it should be. The only real problem the game is, again, the Lovecraftian roots it borrows inspiration from. That problem is the difficulty level on a conceptual level. Were this game completely

true to its Lovecraftian roots, it would be far harder than it is. Impossible even. Lovecraft was always writing about people being little more than flecks of dust in the wind. This game however gives players control over the fate of the characters, and this does mean they’ll be able to take down the otherworldy horrors. In practice though, it would be commercial suicide to make the game as difficult as it should be. From that perspective, Red Wasp has wisely opted to build a challenging, but fair game. To take the fate of the

characters away from the players with the understanding that the evils they face are insurmountable would be a design decision ripe for criticism, so as compromises go, this is a reasonable one. Aside from the difficulty in bringing Lovecraft to video games, The Wasted Land is a superbly balanced SRPG, with real depth and stunning production values. It’s an atmospheric, tense experience, and now, Red Wasp, we’re ready to see what you can do with a sequel, perhaps even a PC or console game.


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Digitally Downloaded: The Awards Issue  

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Digitally Downloaded: The Awards Issue  

What were the best downloadable games of 2011? Read on!

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