Picture of Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell


Soporific jaundiced warbler, based in London. Likes poetry, weird fiction, Soulsborne and Overwatch.

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FeatureThe big Amy Hennig interview

'It is perfectly fine to have an experience that's about the journey, not difficulty or mastery.'

FeatureHow Ghost of a Tale imagines and explores a world of prejudice

Developer Lionel Gallat talks us through an uncommonly smart children's fable.

There are two sides to Metro Exodus, 4A's third and probably greatest post-apocalyptic adventure - two varieties of space engaged in a hesitant dialogue. On the one hand, there are the wilds of post-nuclear Russia, absurdly splendid, absurdly deadly and moderately open-ended, from dessicated ports where beached tankers jut like dinosaur bones, to ice-locked cities whose sewers have become intestines, clogged with squirming radioactive polyps. Here, you'll act much as you do in other virtual wilderness escapades - trotting to the points of interest you've circled on your paper map, shaking down corpses for crafting resources and avoiding or murdering the many people and things who want to make soup from your thighbones.

After 45 hours in Sunless Skies, it's tempting to offer your own spin on Roy Batty's "I've seen things you wouldn't believe" speech from Blade Runner. The problem is that it's hard to know where to start, and even harder to know where to stop. A hybrid, like 2015's Sunless Sea, of top-down steampunk naval sim and choose-your-own-adventure storytelling, Skies takes you everywhere from an asteroid circus to the howling corona of a clockwork star. Blending the juicier nightmares of Victorian astronomers, bureaucrats and sailors with some rather less antiquated-feeling characters and concepts, it's a tour of the heavens in which every port is an oddity, twinkling or at least glistening in the firmament.

Is it possible for a building to haunt itself? Resident Evil 2's remake suggests so. While wandering the new game's extravagantly remodelled police station I've been dogged by the thought that older incarnations of the structure are trying to force themselves into the light. It's not just that the station used to be an art museum within Resident Evil's fiction - a kludge dreamed up by original scenario writer Noboru Sugimura to explain the eerie marble busts, emblem doors and oil paintings that sit alongside the gun cabinets and mounds of paperwork. It's that so many other evils have resided here since the original game rocked PlayStations in 1998.

To see a landscape from above is to transform it, to understand it differently, to form new concepts of action within it. A plane's window brings a world into view and renders it alien, a swollen floor of cloud-tufted strangeness. It feels like game developers are still discovering the power of such perspective shifts, though they've treated us to some wonderful examples. The Total War games reel from the clatter of individual spears on helmets to the Tetris-esque spectacle of formations locking together. Fortnite opens with a skydive, the camera briefly enclosing the whole of an island that will soon shrink to a few, bullet-torn acres. And then there's this week's Vane - a glorious, if clunky, third-person odyssey which casts you as a bird who is also a child, journeying across a desert world.

FeatureWhat should a World War look like?

Copying reality, making history.

Video games have given us countless images of the past, some literal-minded, some more playful, from Total War's continent-sized thought experiments to the hinterland between myth, game design and archaeological record that is Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Among 2018's offerings are two that, to my mind, deserve special attention for the stark yet deceptive contrast they form: DigixArt and Aardman's melancholy Great War tale 11-11: Memories Retold, and DICE's characteristically seismic World War 2 shooter Battlefield 5.

Ashen is about exploring and cleansing a newly radiant world, but it's often at its best in the dark. A few hours into this derivative but engrossing third-person RPG, there's a quest that takes you deep below ground in search of a corrupted giantess queen. Entering her realm is an ordeal - the nearby hills are alive with other giants who are fond of leaping on your head, to say nothing of coyote-type predators that breath fire - but the catacombs themselves are something else.

Underworld: Ascendant is positively paranoid that you'll forget that it's an immersive sim. A crowd-funded successor to Looking Glass Studios' landmark RPG Ultima Underworld, created with the input of Looking Glass veterans, its dialogue is full of allusions to the genre's ethos of player improvisation using flexible tools. “Experimentation is advised,” remarks Cabirus, the papier-mâché beard in a dressing gown who serves as your mentor on the quest to defeat Typhon, an escaped demon king. Later: “only the adaptable prosper”. Elsewhere: “I seek not to teach you, but to make you think.”

In a characteristically indirect show of political engagement, I spent much of this week's US mid-term elections wandering around Whittleton Creek, Hitman 2's idyllic slice of American suburbia. If nothing else, there's a (more coherent) parody of Donald Trump canvassing the neighbourhood in the shape of a local congressional wannabe. Speak to him, and you'll be treated to a cynical diatribe on immigrants and cleaning up politics. Strangle and dress as him, and you can spout a bit of populist invective yourself in a bid to get one of your quarries alone. A horseshoe of grand clapboard mansions presiding over snooker table lawns, the map is both a study in privilege and an opportunity for Io Interactive to play more overtly with the layers of social permissiveness that make up its brilliant stealth game. It's also, for my money, the best part of a sequel that is essentially a season's worth of DLC maps with a bow on top, padded out with tweaked legacy content from Hitman 2016 plus a fun competitive mode.

FeatureBethesda: Next gen consoles should be all about crossplay

And why it was important to announce Starfield and TES6 early.

At some point between nuking the Greenbrier and skinning molerats during last week's Fallout 76 hands-on I managed to steal 10 minutes with Peter Hines, Bethesda Softworks' long-serving vice-president of PR and marketing. The publisher has plenty of irons in the fire right now: VR spin-offs from Arkane and MachineGames, a co-op Wolfenstein starring BJ's daughters and the cataclysmic Doom Eternal, to say nothing of the probably-next-gen Starfield and Elder Scrolls 6. In other news, the publisher has decided to drop Steam for Fallout 76's launch in favour of its own proprietary launcher. Will other Bethesda titles follow suit, and what should we expect from the next round of console hardware? Here's Hines.

FeatureFallout 76 is an entertaining compromise

Three hours in post-apocalyptic West Virginia.

In John Hersey's novelistic account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the nuclear blast at once divides and unifies. It's the synchronising point for six parallel lives - six total strangers joined forever at 8.15am, 6th August, 1945. The idea of the nuclear blast as a kind of photographer's flash, framing and composing its victims in a single, baleful instant of universal transformation, has since become a staple of post-nuclear fiction. 73 years later, the Bomb again performs a synchronising function in Bethesda's Fallout 76, but to rather different effect. It exists here as a weekly public "endgame" event, triggered by gathering widely dispersed launch codes and assailing a control room, its arrival time and explosive radius marked on the map screen for all to see.

FeatureSaving punk from Cyberpunk

How marginalised developers are reclaiming the term from AAA.

"How cyberpunk is Cyberpunk 2077?" is the question many of the game's detractors have been asking, often with reference to its handling of trans representation. The one I've been asking myself over the past few weeks is: how punk is Cyberpunk 2077? For that matter, how punk is cyberpunk full stop? The two share a moment in history but come from different places: punk is a distinctively angry and egalitarian music form, spawned in the 1970s and feeding into a much broader ethos of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian protest; cyberpunk, an outgrowth of New Wave sci-fi which explores, and revels in, what networked computing technology might bode for society and humanity. The origins of the term "cyberpunk" are hardly rock and roll: as Sam Greer recalls in a recent RPS piece on Cyberpunk 2077's trans politics, the writer Bruce Bethke coined it by stirring together words for "socially misdirected youth" with bits of tech jargon, in a "purely selfish and market-driven" act of editor-pleasing that would make a diehard punk spit blood.

I've been reading a lot lately about the different ways we imagine time, and one, rather obvious thing I've belatedly realised is that we do not actually perceive time at all, but matter in motion. Time is not a tangible entity whistling past, an arrow through the present's heart, but the shifting sum of the timeframes created by the objects around us: sunrise and fall, the tumbling of popcorn from an upturned bowl, the tickle of drums in a passerby's headphones, the bobbing of cans in a flood. An affectionate, if slightly ephemeral puzzler from Australian indie The Voxel Agents, The Gardens Between revels in this thought. It represents the past as a series of spinning island dioramas, at once unearthly and ordinary, made up of objects you must meddle with to allow time as a whole to play out.

For a British person of a certain age, playing We Happy Few is like being spoonfed your own sick. I intend this entirely as praise. To be more specific, it's like being spoonfed sick originally vommed up by King Arthur and stored in a vase for centuries at Windsor Palace, chewed over by Winston Churchill, shipped to the New World alongside the Beatles and Pythons and hereby returned to us with sprinkles on top by Canadian studio Compulsion Games. By "sick" I of course mean Great British culture, that terrible extent of table manners, bucolic landscapes, desperate irony and colonial nostalgia that has come to serve as a key export in the absence of our old manufacturing industry.

After 30-odd years of pillaging fantasy realms I'm pretty sick of video game loot, but I do love poring over the vicious trinkets I've harvested from the tissues of Dead Cells, Motion Twin's superb, handsome blend of Spelunky and Metroidvania. There they dangle in the jail where you begin each run: a galaxy of smoky coloured icons, sealed in jars that are chained to the ceiling. Bounce into them - one of my personal rituals, before I venture into the dungeon beyond - and the jars chime together ever so gently in a way that makes my skin crawl. I'm not sure the resemblance to a mad scientist's anatomy collection is deliberate, but it's compelling all the same. How better to capture the morbidity of escaping to a world of make-believe only to shake it down for swords and tat? You can almost smell the formalin.

Demented if spiritual arcade FPS Polygod will launch for Switch and Xbox One on 17th August 2018, developer Krafted Games has announced. If you're in the market for "hundreds of hours" of throwback blasting, with co-op and PvP multiplayer waiting in the wings, this may be of interest.

Years of playing hero-based multiplayer games have taught me one thing: if I am having fun with a character that is probably because s/he is overpowered, because I am too rubbish to play characters who are properly balanced. This appears to be the case with Brigitte, the Overwatch healer-tank knight errant whose prowess with a mace left me speechless (and often, concussed) when she launched on public servers in March. Blizzard says her Shield Bash ability - the essential prelude to knocking a rampaging Doomfist into a pit - is too effective for comfort, and must be nerfed. For shame, Blizzard! Let the girl bash in peace.

Some games, like Zelda, give you lots of toys that do lots of things. Some games, like the grindiest free-to-play shooters, give you lots of toys that all essentially do one thing. And a few games, such as Nitrome's finger-licking Bomb Chicken, give you one toy that does lots of things. While too obese to jump, let alone fly, the game's dumpy star has qualities most factory-farmed hens (and platform game characters) lack: her eggs explode a few seconds after they're laid, and she can lay an endless number in swift succession.

"New games in the old style" is the deceptively pat label Square Enix has adopted for smaller JRPG projects like Octopath Traveler, and one that invites an obvious question: which parts are old, and which parts are new? Far from a reprise of conventions from Final Fantasy 6 and before, Octopath is a curious medley of tradition and risk-taking. It engages with topics a JRPG of the mid-90s might shy away from: one of the playable characters is a sex worker, whose quest to avenge her father's death sees her grappling with the cruelty and chauvinism of an outwardly blissful medieval world. But this is, nonetheless, a world constructed according to a cosy old playbook, in which every town you visit has the same facilities and a lone citizen loitering for all eternity near the entrance, offering a crisp intro to all who visit. It's a game that puts a familiar emphasis on timing, built around a turn-based battle system in which the ability to strike first often trumps how hard you hit. But like its spiritual predecessors, the Bravely Default series, Octopath also lets you bend time a little, banking action points in order to perform several attacks in a single turn.

I love passing the time in Flat Earth's Objects in Space. In fact, I love passing the time in Objects rather more than I love actually achieving things in many other games. An absorbing blend of submarine and space sim distinguished by some decadently throwback interface design, it sees you hauling passengers and cargo across 2D star systems while dodging pirates or indulging in a bit of skyway robbery yourself. These journeys can take upwards of 10 minutes from system jump to system jump, and once you've given the autopilot a heading, there's essentially nothing to do save twiddle your thumbs and luxuriate in the retro ambience of your ship, with its chevron-fringed levers, neon grids and see-saw hum of cooling fans.

How do you duck a question about the politics of a game which pits a citizen militia against a corrupt government in modern-day Washington DC? Well, you could start by talking about the weather. "I loved the coldness of the first game, and to be able to go to DC and actually get to feel the humidity and hot summer of East Coast weather," The Division 2's creative director Terry Spiers remarked to Polygon at E3, when pressed about what it meant to stage an armed uprising in the capital of his own country. "That's what I'm most excited about."

Cultist Simulator is about forbidden knowledge, forgotten histories and ill-advised pacts with entities who aren't so much gods as unsettling cosmic frequencies, felt rather than understood, but it would be nothing without its monotony. Starting the game, you are confronted not with a squiggle of eldritch geometry but a wooden table covered by a worn leather mat, its scratches picked out by a strange cobalt light. An hourglass timer begins to drain away, sucking Fund cards out of your hand with every revolution; you counter by plugging Reason, Passion or Health cards into a Work timer to generate more. This mundane rhythm keeps up throughout the ensuing 20 or 30 hours, as cards and timers of all kinds slowly cover the tabletop, each accompanied by a gravid yet delicate prose snippet about the game's curious, alternate-1920s England. It's the bassline for an experience that is as much an investigation of mind-killing drudgery as it is a homage to the wayward imagination - indeed, an experience that derives much of its mystery and threat from their inseparability.

A sublime little side-scroller in the PlayDead tradition of child protagonists and looming industrial backdrops, FAR: Lone Sails is about going somewhere while staying put. It is the story of a girl, her features swallowed by a comically over-sized coat and hat, who embarks on a journey across a dried-up, abandoned continent after the loss of a loved one. The girl, however, does not do the journeying herself. She lives inside and operates a beautiful two-wheeled landship, its wooden frame peeling away when you board to reveal a dollhouse universe of cylinders and dials, swaying lanterns and pipes joined up by fat red buttons.

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