Thief – Review

Platform: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Playstation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC

Developed by Eidos Montreal

Published by Square Enix

Directed by Nicolas Cantin

Starring: Romano Orzari, Daniel Kash, Vanessa Matsui

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As a console gamer throughout my life I’ve had very little experience with the Thief franchise despite actually really wanting to give it a go. It’s with this hope and eagerness that I purchased Thief, the latest title from Eidos Montreal and it’s this hope and eagerness that also left a rather empty and also bewildered feeling.

Once upon a time there was a master thief named Garret, this is where the story stops making sense. Ok so the prologue shows how Garret and a girl called Erin stumble upon a magical, mystical ancient ritual in a cathedral while skulking around the rooftops. After getting into a bit of an argument the couple accidentally gate-crash this ceremony causing all sorts of ruckus. A little while later Garret wakes up with Erin missing and lots of unanswered questions. The rest of the story is made up of Garrett meeting a guy called Orion who believes he can cure the dying population of a horrible plague known as the Gloom while Garret breaks into different places and steals a bunch of seemingly unrelated items and uncovers the mystery beneath an unknown presence called Primal.

You’d think with such a simple premise that the story would be very straight forward; well you’d be incredibly wrong! Most of the times the story barely explains itself, sending you off on a mission only to have the game forget about it when you’ve finished and never mention it again. Talking about never mentioning again, Thief actually introduces quite a few characters to you during your journey with Garret. Erin shows up out of nowhere in the prologue with no explanation of who she actually is or how she knows Garret, a major figure in Orion is only seen twice or three times in the game and is not developed at all and the major villain of the piece happens to be just a normal guy doing his job, hell I don’t even think he had a name. There is a guy called Basso who you get introduced to in the game who appears to be a friend of Garrett’s, not that he ever treats him in a friendly manner. Basso is just about the only likeable character in the game because he acts like a genuine human being, not only that but he also turns up more than once and has a genuine impact on the story as well as giving you missions.Image

Maybe it gets better at the end? Well, don’t hold out hope, the end makes about as much sense as a lion on a unicycle juggling geese and eating ice cream. It really is that bizarre.

The gameplay in Thief is incredibly important, for the most part because it’s actually quite fun. The missions are an intoxicating mix of atmosphere and strategy, creeping around the guards is incredible fun and yet often paranoia inducing and even scary. There are puzzles in the game too but they tend to be either very easy or obnoxiously hard, hiding the solution in a completely random place just to pan out the length, the game at times even forces you into Mirror’s Edge style chase sequences and forces action upon you, which the game doesn’t do well at all.

You’d have hoped Eidos would have learned their lesson about boss fights after Deus Ex: Human Revolution, well it seems they’ve taken some things on board but we still have 2 rather needless boss fights. One of these boss fights makes you stealth around a small arena to try and open the door blocking your way, or you could just hide behind a pillar and shoot arrows into the guy for an easy win. The other boss sets you the challenge of avoiding shockwaves of light that do an immense amount of damage while you run around an arena picking up 3 magical items. The two of these boss fights are unnecessary and only present to try and add some form of drama to the story, which doesn’t work as, I’ve already mentioned, the story makes no sense in the first place.

The stealth in this game so much fun though, the way the shadows mix into the strategy of stealth is genius, it really is. Every movement counts as you sneak around turning off the lights and hoping to god no one sees you. Thing is the guards are really inconsistent, you can be wandering around directly in front of them, hidden in the shadows and the guards will completely pass you by but at other times a guard will be able to see you from four rooms away, this often makes the game unforgiving and really rather frustrating at times. What makes the game somewhat more frustrating is that it is insanely dark, and not in a gritty way but in a pitch black way, there are times, especially late game, where you can’t see a single thing and get punished for not having the brightness setting turned way up high and ruining that good atmosphere.

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Speaking of how dark the game is, there are other things that make it hard to keep your eyes on the screen. The game is ugly, the environments look alright really but that’s only because the entire game is smothered in a pitch black hue that prevents you from studying the environments too much, while the character models really show how poor the textures can get, especially in cutscene. At the start of every map you can still see the textures rendering on the screen, often for a minute before it looks relatively decent. Even when the map is fully rendered the camera suffers from such atrocious screen tearing that you can’t move the characters head too quickly or it’s just all lines, this is particular a problem in the forced chase scenes as it seems the game runs to quickly for the poor Unreal 3 engine.  In CGI sequences the frame rate is all over the place, the character models are all poorly rendered, the lip synching is worse than some old anime that I’ve seen and the soundtrack often gets so loud that you can’t hear the dialogue.

The way the guards talk to each other in this game is actually really cool. Many times will I catch a conversation and just listen in because of how amusing or insightful it is but on top of that many a time I’ve heard lots of problems. There are times when two guards will have the same voice and not only that but say a line that interrupts the other guard saying exactly the same line. The sound level is all over the place too, one moment it’s really rather quiet the next I’m listening to some sort of weird techno music through two giant speakers taped to my ears.

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Thief has so many issues with its polish and identity that even when the game is good it’s hard to recommend to anyone but the most avid stealth fan. Turn up the difficulty to max and if you’re a real stealth aficionado you should find a lot of fun here but for anyone playing on the normal difficulty and prefer their games to be finished and have a story that makes sense this title is average at best and at worst a frustrating mess of a game. Thief is rendered playable only by its core gameplay and the scope of its stealth. You can find enjoyment here; you just have to wade through the darkness to get there. 

5/10

Next week is either South Park: The Stick of Truth, Pac-Man and The Ghostly Adventures or Atelier Escha & Logy: The Alchemist of Dust. Comment on which game you want to see me take on next!

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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Review

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Platform: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Developed by Square Enix
Published by Square Enix
Directed by Motomu Toriyama
Produced by Yoshinori Kitase
Starring: Ali Hillis, Vincent Martella, Jessica DiCicco

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Final Fantasy XIII is a fairly divisive part of the Final Fantasy series, mostly for doing things differently and Lightning Returns is certainly a game that does things differently.

The story follows Lightning as she awakens from her crystal sleep, blackmailed by the god Bhunivelze into becoming the saviour of a dying world. Her task, whether she chooses to accept it or not, is to guide the souls of the living to a new world created by Bhunivelze, a paradise. The world is going to end in 13 days and with the help of series main stay Hope, also roped in by the god, Lightning sets foot in the city of Yusnaan on Nova Chrysalia to confront its patron, another familiar face.

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The story outside of this opening/tutorial sequence is actually very free form. You can complete the 5 main quests in any order you see fit, spanning the two cities of Luxerion and Yusnaan to the vast, open Wildlands and Dead Dunes. Each of the 5 main quests focus on one of the main characters of the previous two games and honestly, you need a working knowledge of the past two games in order to feel welcome. The opening tutorial outwardly speaks about both Hope and Snow as if you’ve known them for a long time and does the same with the other main characters you meet throughout the game, which isn’t a problem for me but for some could really ruin the experience. Having met the required knowledge to start the game however what you will find is a nostalgic, fun and sometimes emotional ride through the end of XIII’s ever growing cast.

Unfortunately not all the characters are handled with the level of detail expected in telling their last stories. One character in particular’s main mission consists of a fetch quest made up of 5 fetch quests and barely any interaction or conversation, a complete after thought and a lack of effort show Square just didn’t have any idea how to carry on this character. A lot of the character’s motivations are very similar to previous games too, Lightning and Snow want to save Serah, Noel and Caius want to save Yeul, Fang wants to save Vanille and Sazh wants to save his son, it’s very much a disappointment to see the cast develop so much in the past two games and then regress so much for the sake of giving Lightning something to do.

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It’s a shame because there actually is a hell of a lot to do in Lightning Returns. Covering 4 areas are absolutely loads of random NPCs each with their own unique design and voice who need your help and who better to ask than the saviour? Most of these quests pan out in a fairly normal side quest manner, some are fetch quests and others are defeating monsters while some are simply to talk to a group of people. There’s very little fault to be found in the base gameplay, it’s all very well polished and balanced. The defeating monsters quests are all tied to items in your inventory so as long as you don’t go selling all your items you never have to worry if you’ve previously extinct an entire species before entering the quest.

Yes you can extinct species. The story goes that once the chaos bled forth unto the world, everyone stopped aging and the birth process was stopped, this means that no new monsters will be born. If you go out of your way you can hunt almost every species in the game to extinction, leaving a “last one” that will make a slightly tougher version of the enemy in question, a sort of sub-boss fight.

The combat system is incredibly nuanced and very different for the Final Fantasy franchise. Lightning is mostly alone in combat this time, though she can change freely between different schemas which alter your ability set ups and costumes. Strangely you can use the left stick to actually move her around the battlefield, very very very slowly, seriously she shuffles around, fortunately you don’t have to move to have Lightning move, as you attack she will move in and out of her own free will. Magic attacks tend to move Light far away from the enemy in order to avoid damage while physical attacks throw Lightning into the middle of the combat. There are however a few attack moves that don’t affect how she moves and if you use them Lightning will just spin around, dancing and not hitting anything, which is a waste of your precious time.

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In Lightning Returns, time is a commodity and a tool and is very precious indeed. In combat the active time battle meter returns, each of your schemas has its own ATB meter that will charge up when it is not in use or you are not attacking. Time exists outside of combat though, the 13 days remaining are permanently counting down in the main world, this is no cause for concern really as while there is the added pressure of a Dead Rising-esque countdown clock the effect is more of a continued urgency as opposed to a restriction, that’s not to say that time does not restrict you however. Lots of areas are timed to open at specific times during the day, certain sections of the cities are locked to only open at night and side quests too are day and night orientated, some may say this is bad, I would say it’s integral to creating a living, breathing world and that is exactly what Lightning Returns has.

The city of Luxerion, while not entirely huge, is a perfect example of how to create a city that feels alive. The hustle and bustle of the sacred city is incredible, not once do the people feel like they aren’t doing something. Every non playable character wanders the world, seemingly with their own goals and intents, they all feel alive. All of the NPCs, quest based or not, seem to have different voice actors and most have different designs, a lot of random characters on the field are in mid conversation, sometimes with themselves, sometimes with other NPCs and a lot of them tend to comment on the sign of the times or interacting with Lightning based on what outfit you traverse the field in. All of this happens wherever you are in the world but it’s certainly more noticeable in the big cities.

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What’s more noticeable is that the Crystal Engine certainly isn’t created for this kind of game. In Final Fantasy XIII and even XIII-2 the environments were beautifully crafted, smooth and detailed, Lightning Returns’ open world is slightly too big and busy for the Crystal Engine to manage sometimes. Sprinting through Luxerion is a great feeling but oftentimes the screen gets too busy and the framerate drops drastically and the same happens elsewhere in the world too, even in the fairly empty by comparison Wildlands. Lightning and friends character models are just as stunning as ever, though most of the random characters loitering around don’t seem to have had the pleasure of having quite as detailed clothing or faces and there are even times when I’ve seen some poorly rendered textures on walls in the background. It’s unfortunate that such a pretty set of games has been diminished by strain on the engine but nothing but the framerate is particularly game breaking and when it counts the framerate has never stopped me performing a perfect block or evading an enemy I simply didn’t have time for.

The soundtrack is one of my favourite parts of the series of XIII games and Lightning Returns still delivers. A lot of the more iconic older tracks from the previous games have been re-used and even re-orchestrated into new genres or styles completely while the new tracks are just as diverse as ever. There are not a lot of string segments here though, the glorious orchestration of the last games have been replaced by more choral grandstanding and the more electronic heavy tracks have been strengthened being far more drum and bass heavy than before. Song wise though, there’s nothing more delightful than to hear re-workings of previous tracks being sung by buskers on the street, hey there are even some one man band outfits playing very old school Final Fantasy pieces working the streets of Yusnaan and that kind of homage to its past is a real treat to hear.

The voice acting is still top notch in Lightning Returns as Ali Hillis manages to deliver an incredibly dry and humorous lead and the cast of the last games return to voice the major characters they were, still at such a great quality. The script needs work in places, the main story gets really convoluted in its wording, especially that of the words God and hope. That said the side quest dialogue is perfectly bizarre, there’s one scene where Lightning is talking to a cat about how weird it is to be talking to a cat and there are plenty of times where Lightning throws slight comedic digs at quest givers. Outside of all of the fun, there is one warning, Hope talks a lot, definitely too much. If you are one of the many people who hate Hope, you may want to buy a stress ball for this game.

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All in all Lightning Returns is a fond, if flawed farewell to the Final Fantasy of the last generation and an addictive look at what makes games like Majora’s Mask and Dead Rising so interesting. It’s incredibly hard to recommend this game to someone who isn’t already a fan of the series and of XIII in particular seeing as so much of the plot revolves around knowing and enjoying the past but the combat system is truly fun and there’s a ridiculous amount of customisation, if you’re looking for an action RPG that you can spend a lot of time in and enjoy XIII’s world and characters, this game is for you.

8/10

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Are you ready for next gen?

As I sit here and write this on a blustery day in northern England, only a week or two away from not just one brand new console release but two I ponder, am I really ready for Sony and Microsoft’s next big offerings?

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Chances are by now you know if you’re going to throw your money at the Xbox One or the Playstation 4, an enticing double team battle, starring Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack in the blue corner while Forza Motorsport 5 and Dead Rising 3 warm up in the green but are these knock out fighters really such a draw, am I just being cynical in the lack of a really big killer app or totally original, mind blowing new IP?

I understand most of you, myself included, are not sold on the launch titles of either system yet the promise of further exclusives in the vein of interesting indie titles and AAA blockbusters for Sony and Halo/Gears/Titanfall for Microsoft but is the hope that these games will not only wow but also be worth the rather steep asking price (especially in the Xbox One’s case) a bit too much to shoulder the burdens of an early next gen buy?

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Sure, I am not totally immune to the hype of the promised games, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes looks utterly fascinating, Infamous: Second Son looks like something really special and the aforementioned Titanfall looks like all of the best elements of CoD and Halo fused together in a funky display of giant mech mayhem. While I am obviously going to purchase one of these brand new machines  I feel like we’ve written off this gens consoles’ (including the already next gen Wii U) next year’s offerings all too quickly in the promise of something shiny and expensive sitting under our giant green trees or television sets this winter.

The proof is in the pudding as they say, and next year the pudding is sounding extraordinarily sweet for all of us current gen gamers (again including you Wii U buyers). The titles coming to grace our presence are as exciting as almost any next gen title flaunting its juicy graphics at you, from RPGs like Lightning Returns, Tales of Xillia 2, South Park: The Stick of Truth and Dark Souls to the next big shooters in Destiny and Titanfall making supposed low-res appearances on both Ps3 and Xbox 360, the biggest, most interesting in Japanese AAA with Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within on both this gen consoles and not to mention the Wii U making us promises of Bayonetta 2,  Mario Kart, Smash Bros and X and this is even missing out big games like Thief and Watch Dogs still coming to the consoles you already have.

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This may seem like some form of rambling idiocy, arguing my jealousy of all the next gen lovers and their happy sexy time with 1080p (kind of) but it’s not, it’s a pledge to all of you out there to re-think whether you are yet ready for the expense of not missing much.  I’m not, and while you will all be playing with your Ps4s and your Xbox Ones and being tickled by your exclusives in Infamous, Driveclub, The Order and The Witcher, I will have the chance to save the world in 13 days, to revisit the Belmont family, to traverse the Tropical Freeze, search for the stick of truth, kill Ryu Hayabusa and die many, many times.

 

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