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Chronological Challenge Reviews – Tomb Raider 4 / Spyro 2

July 21, 2016 1 comment

Time to sing the praises of some of the best games of 1999!

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation
Publisher: Eidos Interactive | Developer: Core Design| Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Find all the secrets and prevent the end of the world (which you caused, Lara, good job)

Actual Outcome: Obtained all the secrets and got to the final encounter…then the game glitched out and I couldn’t finish…but close enough!

Tomb Raider 4 is my favourite game in my favourite series.

I figured I might as well open with that, because anyone who follows me already knows my love for The Last Revelation, so keeping it a secret to egg you on to reading the full thing would be wrong. So, up front, this game is one of the best games ever made, in my opinion. But why?

After Tomb Raider 3, Core Design seemed to be very aware that merely building on the same game time and time again wasn’t going to be a useful strategy forever, so they largely went back to the drawing board. They studied what made the first game a runaway success – dark and moody tombs filled with enticing yet chilling atmosphere, tricky puzzles and confusing mazes of corridors to explore. They took this, along with various refinements from the sequels, pieced them together with a few new improvements, wrote the levels around a clear apocalyptic plot instead of forcing Area 51 into a story about Charles Darwin, and the end result was The Last Revelation.

In short, it’s all the good bits of the first three games mixed together, and it’s hard to turn that down.

Everything in this game is quintessentially Tomb Raider. The game is all about discovery and exploration, and with the game focused on one country (Egypt), everything feels like it fits together better than it did in the previous game, adding to the sense of wonder and intrigue that comes with delving into these musty crypts and ruins. Stumbling on tributes to Roman soldiers and Greek gods mixed in with the usual crowd of mummies and hieroglyphics, as well as excursions through modern environments, makes this feel like an Egypt with a history beyond the pharaohs. Core did an extensive amount of research for this game, and it shows.

Gameplay-wise, this is Tomb Raider with smoother and more responsive controls. Lara feels a lot more acrobatic and speedy than in her earlier titles, and the vehicles that pop up (a Jeep and a motorcycle and sidecar) aren’t a chore to control like, say, the kayak or UPV from the third game.

On top of that, the world feels more open and, almost, a little like Resident Evil in its structure. While typical Tomb Raider levels are present, some levels weave in and out of each other rather than simply follow one after another. The way the Alexandria levels play off each other is wonderful, with vast, interconnected levels requiring you to explore and find required items to progress further.

Puzzles also feel a lot more refined, with plenty of challenge in store here. In fact, the challenge on offer in The Last Revelation merely highlights the problem with TR3’s difficulty all the more – while TR3 was often punishing and occasionally unfair, TLR tests your mind. Whether it’s the age-old “measuring out specific amounts of liquid with two differently-sized containers” puzzle, or making use of a clockwork beetle to de-activate spike traps, TLR always lets you feel that you’ll find a solution eventually, and I’m always willing to praise that in my games.

Now, of course, this game is the greatest game ever made, so it can’t possibly have flaws, right? It does, actually, but it’s because I love what it does right so much, that I can’t help but feel disappointed when the flaws show up. Cairo, for example, is a multi-level flaw of far-too-dark locations that stretch the weaving structure to its breaking point, often tossing in annoying locust swarms or dragons (yes, really) just to annoy you. If this had been a single level, it perhaps wouldn’t have been as bad, but it goes on far too long and tests your patience, although Lara’s interactions with Egyptian soldiers battling the powers of Set do make for good entertainment.

Oh, and speaking of which, the series was four games in by this point, and they still seemingly couldn’t afford decent voice actors. After sounding like an angry schoolmistress for two games, she now sounds like a child again, and her friend and ally Jean-Yves has possibly the worst French accent ever heard in a piece of media (Amulet of Horus pronounced as “ham-yu-let of ‘oruzz”). Fortunately, this is an aspect that is fairly charming in a cheesy b-movie sort of way, so it’s easier to let slide.

Those things aside, The Last Revelation is a rather wonderful piece of work. It’s the perfect summary of Tomb Raider as a series, the new method for developing the storyline makes a more coherent experience all round, and the atmosphere is consistently spot-on. Best game of all time? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but ooh, it’s close.

Spyro 2: Gateway To Glimmer
Publisher: SCE/Universal | Developer: Insomniac Games | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: See how far I can get in a single session

Actual Outcome: Played around in a few levels, can’t remember exact progress

Spyro the Dragon was a shining beacon of greatness in a market of 90s 3D platformers oversaturated with bland, forgettable mascots and broken camera systems. But as great as it was, there were flaws, and the call for a sequel which improved on its flaws was fairly prominent in the late 90s.

Enter Spyro 2, a game that shows exactly how you improve on a game without ever getting rid of the key things that made the first game what it was. This is a more confident Spyro, one that knew what made the first game great, but places it all in a livelier world with improved mechanics.

No longer is our dragon friend merely exploring vast expanses of land hoping to bump into a crystallised dragon, this time he is running errands for a wide array of characters, from guiding an alchemist through a maze of rock monsters to having trouble with a trolley, eh. The game feels a lot more vibrant as your purpose is constantly changing, and the mini-games on offer expand the gameplay variety rather than feeling shoehorned in.

It’s also nice to interact with characters who do more than offer somewhat patronising advice or lazily say “thank you for releasing me” before vanishing. We get to hear the woes of many different races throughout the world, and it is, of course, Spyro’s job to solve them all. As such, each level stands out on its own rather than feeling like another place to dig around for gems. The gems are still present, but they’re no longer the sole population, and it makes it a world more worthy of saving.

It also helps that the voice acting adds to this more active world, as it’s some of the best voice work of the time. The PS1 era was still a very experimental time when it came to voices, with every Metal Gear Solid having about twenty Resident Evils, so hiring actual talent like Insomniac did here stood out from a long way. With established cartoon actors like Tom Kenny and Gregg Berger on board, it’s another reason why this cast is so universally likeable. Unless you have trouble with the trolley, eh.

And yet, while the structure of the game changed dramatically, the core mechanics remain. Spyro’s abilities have been expanded rather than revised, the controls are as fluid as the first game, and gliding has improved with the addition of a hover mechanic. Not one thing that made the first game great is absent here, but almost every problem has been rectified.

In short, Spyro 2 is one of the greatest 3D platformers ever made. It’s fun, it’s vibrant, and it holds up today in so many ways. Just don’t have trouble with the trolley, eh?

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Why Pokemon Go Is Exactly What I Needed In My Life

July 18, 2016 1 comment

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Pokémon Go has taken the whole world by storm. Never since the late 90s has Pokémon been such a huge cultural phenomenon. Last time I saw Pokémon be this big a thing I was in early high school and demanding everything with a Pikachu on it for my birthday. Those were crazy times, but it appears that things just got crazier.

Pokémon Go, if you’ve been living under a rock, brings Nintendo and Game Freak’s popular series about catching cute, cuddly monsters kicking and screaming into the real world. No longer are you wandering around Viridian City or Lavender Town searching for digital monsters, with Pokémon Go you can search for them in Birmingham or Croydon, or indeed, anywhere else in the world.

People adore it, but according to some people, it’s bringing about the downfall of civilisation. Footage of Central Park being swarmed by people trying to catch a single Vaporeon is being used as an indication that people are suffering from some kind of collective madness and that society is doomed.

And I mean, what about the muggings, eh? Teens in Manchester robbing players of their phones at knifepoint, and arrests in Missouri as armed robbers attempting to lure players to them through the app. One girl, on her attempt to find a Poliwag or something, came across a dead body, and there were rumours about someone witnessing a murder (although, to be clear, citation needed on that one). The NSPCC even wanted the UK launch to be delayed because they saw the app as a way for children to be lured away by pedophiles lurking in the shadows.

How can they live with themselves knowing all of this? How can their executives sleep at night, knowing the damage they’ve caused? How can they justify any of their actions?

Well, enough about the national press, and let’s get back to Pokémon Go, because while, yes, there are dangers to wandering the streets with an expensive smartphone in your hand (which we all should know, come on now), Pokémon Go brings about a number of positive aspects, and it’s these that I feel are the app’s main draw.

And friends, Pokémon Go has offered a solution to one of my biggest problems.

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As readers and followers of my work are fairly aware of at this point, I have suffered from depression and social anxiety for many years. It’s something I’ve always felt uncomfortable talking about in the past, but I feel I should be more open about now as I work to heal and improve. One of the side effects of this problem is that I’ve become quite reclusive over the years. At university, I used to walk a lot, and explore, but over the years this dropped off as I felt I had no purpose while out, and this tended to compound my depression, not heal it.

This year has been my attempt to claw myself back from the worst aspects of these problems, and wanting to get out more and explore more again has always been an issue that I’ve never been clear on how to solve. That is, until the release of Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go makes me want to leave the house. I want to catch ‘em all. Be the very best, like no one ever was, and all that. And the only way I can do that with Pokémon Go is to take walks. And taking walks is exactly what I have been doing.

While it’s not turned me into a social butterfly (yet!), it’s certainly helped get me more exercise, fresh air and sunlight, which are all good things. But while naysayers act like people walking around with their heads in their phones is causing people to engage less with the world, my experience has been the exact opposite. I have learned more about my local area in the past few days than I have in the entire time I’ve lived here.

Through my Pokéwalks, I’ve discovered a small local nature walk because every single trail marker is a Pokéstop, I’ve encountered public art I didn’t even know existed, and taken trips down side roads to find places I’d never have otherwise discovered. Pokémon Go has helped turn me into a tourist in my own neighbourhood, and it’s fantastic. I’m engaging more with the world than ever before in mere days, and I can see this only strengthening as I use the app in areas outside my immediate walking sphere (my trip to London in August is going to be very interesting). I’ve also found great amusement that my day job is a gym, giving me more enthusiasm to go to work so I can claim the place for my team on a permanent basis.

So I will not hear a bad word said against Pokémon Go. Sure, there are a few hiccups in its design that could do with some serious ironing out, but thanks to this app, I’ve got out the house more, discovered more and engaged more. It’s done wonders for my general mood, and my fitness. And for me, that’s a success.

Also, I literally just caught a Meowth in my office before I posted this. So I’m even happier. Dat’s right!

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Chronological Challenge Reviews – Crash Team Racing / Rayman 2

July 13, 2016 Leave a comment

After the darkness of last week’s games, it’s time for something a little more colourful this week as I continue to play through 1999 in my game collection!

Crash Team Racing
Publisher: SCE/Universal | Developer: Naughty Dog | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Play through Adventure Mode and see how far I get

Actual Outcome: Made it to the race against Nitrous Oxide with none of the extra stuff

Mario Kart is always held up as the undisputed champion of cartoony, fun racing games to play with friends. And it’s hard not to see why, as pretty much every attempt to make a similar game seems to fall flat on its face. Does anybody remember Speed Freaks? Exactly.

But hang on! This game, I can already hear you typing. This game didn’t fall flat on its face, it’s not forgotten, etc. And shush, I’m getting to that. Because you are correct. If there has ever been a video game to give Mario Kart a run for its money, it’s Crash Team Racing. It’s Mario Kart in the Crash Bandicoot universe, and it’s every bit as fondly remembered as its Nintendo rival.

And do you know what? It holds up. A lot. I remember being horrendously addicted to Crash Team Racing when it came out, and when I picked it up again for the challenge, the only thing that tore me away from it was the fact that I still have a couple of hundred games left to play in my collection, and I couldn’t linger on this one, games that aren’t even beaten let alone played to death as this one was.

Crash Team Racing is a hugely responsive title with smooth driving mechanics, bouncy powersliding fun, and an interesting and enjoyable weapons system. On top of that, it’s surprisingly tactical too, allowing you to play with a few sneaky tricks to gain the upper hand on your opponents.

Speed boosts can be performed in a number of ways, from revving when powersliding to hopping off jumps at the right time, to the point where you can chain them indefinitely if you’re good enough (which I am thanks to all that playing it to death business). The weapons system has two levels, with Wumpa Fruit beefing up all weapons for you, causing you to contemplate chucking that potion out behind you right now or waiting until you have enough Wumpa Fruit to cause that potion to also poison your opponents and slow them down for a while. The weapons themselves are also incredibly varied and interesting, with all of them proving useful in different situations.

And my god, it’s fun. This game is addictive, easing you in with a few simple races and then keeping you there as the difficulty sneaks slowly upwards and the fun never stops.

It’s also surprisingly long. The game centres on an Adventure Mode, similar to the one seen in Diddy Kong Racing, but one that feels a lot more fun to play. As well as standard races, you have battle arenas, token-collecting challenges, time trials, boss races and tournaments to tackle, all with the intention of leading you to take down an alien who loves racing and wants to pave all of Earth (okay, the story’s rubbish, but you’re not here for that anyway).

There’s a surprising amount of stuff to do, and it stays varied, even when really you’re not doing much. The stages are inventive and unique, moving through a variety of locations from previous Crash titles, with devious shortcuts and traps awaiting you at every turn.

You know what? I simply can’t criticise Crash Team Racing. It’s still as fun as it was when it was first released, it still looks pretty good for a PS1 title, it keeps you occupied and keeps things fresh. I have no complaints whatsoever. This is a classic game, and one that really does keep up the pace with its plumber-based rival.

Rayman 2: The Great Escape
Publisher: Ubisoft | Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier | Year: 1999 (original N64 release)
Original System: Nintendo 64
Played on: PS2 (2000 Rayman Revolution release)

Goal: Defeat Admiral Razorbeard and save the Glade of Dreams

Actual Outcome: Razorbeard got dunked in lava

The original Rayman was a fun and interesting title marred by being unfairly difficult. It also didn’t seem to really know what to do with itself and its level design was often bizarre and nonsensical as a result. It seems that Michel Ancel and his team recognised those flaws in the sequel, as they rebuilt the whole game from the ground up to make a game that feels incredibly distant from its predecessor, but is all the better for it.

Rayman gained a third dimension, the design is more consistent with a harmonious magical world being threatened by pirates as its central theme, while Rayman himself seems to have been turned into a real character and not just a wacky sprite that yells “YEAH!” when he finishes a level. And it’s all a huge improvement, and I enjoyed this one a lot more.

Rayman 2 (or rather, Rayman Revolution, as I played it) is a fun, quirky little platformer that tries to shake up its core gameplay frequently with boat rides, gliding up air currents, and strange Space Invaders style mini-games. It controls fairly smoothly, and has plenty of genuinely likeable moments.

The problem I found, however, is that the whole experience feels a little average and forgettable. I played through the whole game but barely remember specifics of it as I write this. While it’s nice from a design perspective, the storyline is spotty and seems to act as if the world we inhabit is one we’re already well-acquainted with (it’s not – the first game didn’t establish this world at all). On top of this, navigation around the game’s world can sometimes feel frustrating, as paths don’t seem to ever go where you think they will and it’s very easy to get lost.

The core mechanics are very good, but there are some moments of frustration when it feels like the game doesn’t want to do what you’re asking of it. There were countless moments where Rayman burst into a run when I wanted him to move slowly, moments where a swing didn’t register and I fell to my death, and the missile riding sections frequently drove me nuts as the tight steering controls often led me to crashing into a wall.

Essentially, Rayman 2 is a game with plenty of charm and it’s hard not to appreciate the love that’s gone into it, but the charm doesn’t go far enough, and the gameplay isn’t as refined as it possibly could be. I’d love to say more about the game, but honestly, it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t feel it was the most amazing experience either. Fun but inoffensive.

BTPF Channel Recap 10th July 2016

July 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these but let’s get back on track! Here is everything that’s been happening on my YouTube channel over the past week for those who may have missed a thing or two!

First of all, I posted my Highlights video for June, bringing together some of my sillier bits to give a flavour of what the last month had to offer. As always, a good place to start if you’re new to the channel.

The last ever episode of Gravity Rush went up this week too. And yes, it’s absolutely the last ever episode. I won’t hear any comments that say it isn’t. Come on now. That’s crazy talk.

In the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara visits a monastery, encounters gore and spooky monsters, and then gets a shotgun to play with. A good time was had by all.

Also, my Twitter followers voted for me to play Dishonoured for the first time. Here’s my experience with the first 40 minutes or so!


In addition, don’t forget my latest Chronological Challenge reviews! This week was Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and Resident Evil 3, as we continue towards the end of the 1990s.

There was no Chatty Corner this week as I’ve been re-evaluating how I do that, but it should absolutely be returning next week along with more Tomb Raider and another Ferret’s First of the first of this month’s PlayStation Plus games. And that’s it…what do you mean, what about Gravity Rush? That’s done! It’s over! There certainly won’t be another part along with an impromptu plot discussion video next weekend, so put that thought out of your head right now.

Until then, I shall see you around! Enjoy this week’s content!

Categories: BTPF YouTube Roundup

Chronological Challenge Reviews – Soul Reaver / Resident Evil 3

July 8, 2016 4 comments

Oops! I didn’t update last week due to various personal reasons that left me forgetting a whole bunch of stuff I wanted to get done. But we’re here this week, revived and fresh with two more reviews of games from 1999. This one’s a little more positive than the last one, so enjoy!

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Publisher: Eidos Interactive | Developer: Crystal Dynamics | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: See how far I can get without dying

Actual Outcome: Mostly just wandered around on an old save file

When it comes to supernatural ghouls in games, zombies are typically the go-to choice for many developers. The shambling hordes mean you have an easy army of mooks to mow down, and the disease and corruption associated with them means you can overdose on the gritty bleakness the kids love so much.

But vampires, despite being another undead creature with a penchant for turning hapless victims through bites, tend to not get the same level of attention. And it’s odd, because vampire fiction typically presents vampires as the more intelligent undead plague-carrier, one more sophisticated and more liable to offer you a nice meal before stealthily draining your blood. And that seems like it’d be ideal for most video games – instead of shambling corpses, you’d have to deal with a smarter adversary.

Legacy of Kain, as a series, is one of the few that does focus on vampire lore, however. Except instead of fighting them, it made you the vampire. Soul Reaver is the only game in the series I have ever played, and it puts a particularly gothic and creepy slant on it. You play Raziel, a clan member for Kain, the most notorious vampire in Nosgoth. He also had the audacity to evolve wings before his master, and so was cast into a deadly well of souls, where he was forced to die a second time, turning him into a wraith who feeds on souls.

Soul Reaver plays on the idea of Raziel being a soul-eating deader-than-dead creature a lot, with a focus on feeding off souls sitting alongside the ability to shift between the physical and spectral realms. It also manages to combine elements of both Metroid and Mega Man in a 3D space, which makes for some interesting challenges.

For a PS1 game, Soul Reaver is a graphically impressive game. The world you inhabit is winding and complex, with dark gothic structures popping up around every turn. The well of souls is as terrifying as you’d expect a well that can strip a vampire of all remaining humanity to be. And on top of that, the central mechanic of warping between worlds is all done in real time. Columns twist into non-Euclidian shapes, platforms change size, walls collapse, and all without obvious loading times. In an era where Tomb Raider hid room changes by sending you into side rooms while the new room loaded in, seeing a game where the environment shifts around you is impressive, and I have no idea how they pulled it off at the time.

The warping also makes for very interesting gameplay, with some areas offering no obvious route suddenly gaining one by shifting to the spectral realm. Your actions in one realm affect the other, so many puzzles involve moving blocks and pulling switches in the physical realm before shifting and seeing your changes warp into new paths.

In fact, the gameplay design on offer here is fantastic as a whole. The structure of the game follows Metroid, where the world is largely open but areas are locked off until you gain specific abilities such as the ability to shift through gates or swim, and you gain these abilities by defeating Raziel’s former brothers and absorbing their souls and gaining their powers.

Where the game falls down, however, is the controls. Adopting a looser control scheme than other similar games of the time (ie Tomb Raider), Raziel somehow can feel too stiff and too loose at the same time. There always seems to be a bit of lag on the controls, causing Raziel to sometimes take a while to accelerate to full walking speed, and then take a bit too long to turn around, or stab an enemy in the heart. Once at full speed, Raziel is a little too wiggly and his jumps tend to be over-animated, sometimes making jumping sections a chore.

And the cathedral section was the worst, as enemies liked to endlessly respawn in places where you tried to do puzzles. And it’s a little too early in the game, which means you could get to that point and decide not to deal with the rest of the game, where things are much less annoying.

Soul Reaver is an excellent game sometimes marred by awkward controls, but for its time, it’s an impressive piece of work that seems to have been lost to the ages a little despite its quality.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Publisher: Capcom | Developer: Capcom | Year: 1999 (Japanese release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Escape Raccoon City as Jill this time

Actual Outcome: Made my Last Escape…

In 1999, we’ve played Konami’s take on the Resident Evil formula, and a Resident Evil clone with dinosaurs, and now it’s time for the real thing. A prequel and sequel to the second game, RE3 puts us in Jill Valentine’s unlocking-master shoes again, as she tries to escape from Raccoon City when things go down.

In practice, this plays a lot like the second game with a few differences here and there. The controls have been enhanced with the addition of quick turns and a little more auto-aim to counteract the difficulties with tank controls. New interactive scenery has been added to make it easier to take out zombie groups, including the likes of explosive barrels. Oh, and you spend half the game being pursued by a hulking boss enemy.

For the most part, these changes are welcome, as we end up with a refined Resident Evil game that’s a lot less hassle to control, while retaining the tense exploration of the prior titles. The explosive barrels are especially welcome, as a major complaint I had with 2 was the many times a zombie horde would descend on you, forcing you to deplete your ammo just to clear a path, so being able to take out that horde with a single bullet was pretty nice.

That said, Nemesis can get stuffed. Sure, he’s in the title, but I’m not accepting that as justification for his presence. There are far too many instances where you’ll be casually exploring only for a cutscene to pop up and drop the beast in front of you, making the next 20 minutes or so of your game time a stressful exercise in trying to dodge and run with little time to stop and breathe. The guy is fast, he hits hard, and he takes up so much space that dodging him is often pretty hit-and-miss. And man, I hated every time he showed up.

The boss fights against him were worse. The fight outside the clock tower is mostly an exercise is hoping you don’t clip on the sides of the weirdly-shaped arena, while the final boss battle is just a whole lot of running and hoping he doesn’t catch up to you. At no point was any of this fun, because Resident Evil’s strength has never been its combat, and an enemy who is billed as near-indestructible doesn’t make the experience any better.

Apart from the bane of Jill’s existence, RE3 is very much standard Resident Evil. As someone who enjoyed the first two, I naturally enjoyed the parts of this one where I wasn’t being pursued. It’s not particularly revolutionary, but it provides a nice extra perspective on the events of the second game, and that’s no bad thing.