30th of April, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: skyscrapers, mythology, and an absolute masterpiece.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What we've been playing, here's our archive.
High Rise, iOS
High Rise doesn't have a "PLAY" button on its start screen. It has a "BUILD" button. You're faced with a grid of squares that you can plonk coloured blocks onto, and once the coloured blocks converge - blocks of the same colour placed next to each other - they turn into skyscrapers. Add more blocks and the skyscrapers get higher. It's beautiful.
But argh! Some blocks have two colours - and if two-colour blocks start to grow they just get taller, they don't turn into beautiful bits of urban architecture. The rules for separating these colours and getting things back on track are surprisingly complex, and it's here that I think the real fun of High-Rise lurks. This is a game to experiment with. Play the tutorial, sure, and then play the optional extra bit of the tutorial. But you really learn the game by placing blocks and watching what happens. The goal is to get a city of skyscrapers, all earning you massive points. But the enjoyment comes from working out why a certain placement works and another one doesn't. This is a brilliant game.
Immortals Fenyx Rising, PC
Somewhat shamefully, I dismissed Immortals Fenyx Rising almost immediately when I played it back at launch, wholly unimpressed by its drab, uninspiring opening location - a brown, war-blasted sweep of destitution that, it turns out, massively undersells the rest of the game. On a whim though, I picked it up again over the weekend, finally managing to force myself through its miserable starter island into the game proper - a glorious undulation of verdant hills, preposterously stacked precipices, and endless distractions - and I'm having a genuine blast.
Sure, its shameless pilfering from Breath of the Wild inevitably leads to unfavourable comparisons, but there's a lot of fun to be had just ambling your way through its irreverent stew of Greek mythology and Ubisoft excess. The map is the biggest letdown, a disorientating (if undoubtedly beautiful) mish-mash of contrivances that's just too stacked and busy to elicit any real sense of place. Unlike that other game's world, whose elegant, organic design creates a natural rhythm of curiosity and discovery, there's not much room for either in Fenyx Rising when the next activity is always an accidental stumble away.
But I'm loving raking my way through its dense tangle of puzzles and challenges. It sometimes feels a mobile game writ large, albeit one with an exceptional sheen - an epic quest conveniently separated into a multitude of two minute entertainments that make hopping in for a quick sweep across Olympos a real joy.
It's a frictionlessly fun, pleasantly amusing endeavour, and its mechanical building blocks are varied enough that each discrete challenge usually delivers just enough of a twist to make it feel worth seeking out more. About two dozen hours in, I'm not feeling any of the fatigue I usually get from Ubisoft's exhaustingly sprawling worlds, and I'm excited to play more.
Nex Machina, PC
I can't play Returnal yet, so for the first time in an age I'm not enthusing about a Housemarque game on Day One. Instead, I'm using Day One of Returnal to enthuse about another Housemarque game, possibly the team's best ever. Nex Machina - a fusion of Housemarque and Eugene Jarvis, choreographed attack waves and random numbers.
Gosh, it's good. Blistering lights, voxels erupting all over the place, secrets hidden behind every destructible wall. It's a twin-stick shooter with serious aspirations to push the form, so you get levels in which a flaming whip or skipping rope rushes back and forth, forcing you to dash past it, and levels in which a huge boulder rolls towards you, bouncing around corners and encouraging you to work faster.
As with Robotron, this is a game about the things you save as much as the things you shoot. You can stay alive and finish off the enemies, but still feel like you messed things up. Nex Machina also has the Housemarque Universe's best character - the stern robot lady who gives you updates and instructions through the controller's speaker. What an utter treat this is. A classic.