Ghost of a Tale's castle feels like a prison at first but ends up feeling like home. In the course of 20 hours searching for a way out, I've slowly fallen in love with the place - its feathery falls of afternoon light over mossy stonework, its leafblown ramparts and canted mausoleums, its small, hard-bitten population of anthropomorphic rats, mice, frogs and magpies. Part of the setting's allure is that it carries the echoes of many great virtual fortresses. Indeed, this slightly muddled third-person action-RPG's greatest strength is probably how it adds to that architectural tradition, though the witty, affecting, politically resonant writing runs a close second.
"Fast and agile" is how Crytek describes the spider, one of Hunt: Showdown's two currently available boss monsters. "Fast and agile", oh, and "immune to poison". I've spent a few hours in the creature's rough vicinity now, listening to its feet rattle across the ceilings of barns and slaughterhouses, and I worry this is selling it short. "Fast and agile" makes me think of doomed management consultancies and Lucio from Overwatch, whereas the words I'm searching for have no consonants and far too many vowels. They are words lifted direct from the 50 million-odd lines of genetic code human beings share with fruit flies. They are words that always end in exclamation marks.
The noise of flies fills your ears as you step down from the highway in search of shade. The body of a great white bull lies sprawled in the dirt among bits of rope and broken board, his hide blazing in the sunlight. You approach, covering your mouth, and recoil. The bull's chest - it's not maggoty flesh but beaten metal, held together by rivets the width of your thumb. Through tears in the beast's flank you see swarms of tiny brass pistons, shooting back and forth in a blur. The bull raises his head abruptly to regard you. Then he clambers to his feet, creaking like a furnace, and ambles back onto the road. The buzzing rises to a peak. When the air clears, the animal is gone.
Few settings have captured the imaginations of game developers and players like Chernobyl, the site of a reactor explosion in 1986 that created one of the world's few actual nuclear wastelands. The legendary Exclusion Zone - now, would you believe, something of a tourist attraction - has provided the stage for countless virtual conflicts and survival stories. There are the indirect recreations, such as Big Robot's bleached starship graveyard The Signal From Tölva, or the Erangel island map from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - an abandoned Soviet testing facilty in which the wanderer is forced towards rather than away from the centre by an ever-encroaching sea of blue energy. And there are truer-to-life portrayals like Call of Duty 4's "All Ghillied Up" mission or GSC World's STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which gives you the run of an Exclusion Zone in which space-time is starting to fall apart like overcooked pasta.
Disease has always been joined at the hip to superstition and fantasy - the term "influenza" once referred to the influence of unfriendly stars - but there's something especially, horribly otherworldly about the flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which claimed over 50 million lives. Invisible to the microscopes of the era, the Spanish flu was a phantom terror, its spread censored to shore up morale in the closing stages of the Great War. Where other outbreaks had ravaged children and the elderly, this one bizarrely reserved its worst excesses for hearty young adults: its effects included "cytokine storms" that turned stronger immune systems against themselves, drowning the afflicted in their own bodily fluids. With no cure forthcoming, many sufferers fell back on folk remedies and occult treatments, lining their nostrils with salt, tying ribbons to their arms and burning brown sugar or sulfur to chase away evil miasmas. It's from this tangle of science and myth, monsters of the imagination versus the monsters of the laboratory, that Dontnod's long-in-development Vampyr takes its cue.
"If only we could talk to the monsters," laments an infamous Edge review from many moons ago. In Fe you don't just get to talk to the monsters - you get to sing to them, or at least, croak and wail tunefully, like a sheepdog trying to nail the backing vocals to Bohemian Rhapsody. An "EA Original" from Swedish developer Zoink - otherwise known for such comicbook fare as Zombie Vikings: Stab-a-thon - Fe is the story of a nimble fox creature on a mission to save a vivid dreamland from a legion of strange armoured figures, who are capturing and processing the wildlife to unknown end.
It's the eyes that really get to you - scores of them, glittering coppery-red like the pilot lights on a hundred flamethrowers. And that ceaseless ebb and surge of tiny, ravenous bodies, darting at your heels only to wince back from the glare of your torch. A Plague Tale's corner of 14th century France is home to many terrors - the black death, the Inquisition, raiding English soldiers - but the most tenacious and oppressive are the rats, a lethal mass swirling through towns hollowed out by disease and erupting from the shambles of battlefields. It's a threat you must learn to live with, while guiding nobleman's daughter Amicia and her sickly infant brother Hugo to sanctuary, and a threat you can turn to your advantage. The rats aren't fussy about who they devour, after all, and one girl's chittering Gothic metaphor is another girl's handy terrain trap.
Size matters on the Sea of Thieves, but when you're up to your berringed earlobes in pirate gold, cunning is king. Earlier this week myself and three other buccaneers spent an hour chasing a single, wily captain in the game's closed beta. Our target led us a merry dance, steering his nimble sloop in amongst the looming rock spires by the aptly named Shipwreck Bay, but eventually he made a break for the open sea, and with the wind behind us and our galleon's sails at full spread, we quickly closed the distance.
"Never get out of the boat," says Captain Marlowe in Apocalypse Now. "Not unless you're going all the way." It turns out this is just as true of a submarine, and especially at night, 300 metres below the surface. I'm on my way back to base from a salvaging trip, hold packed with lithium from shale deposits on the edge of the reef. The sub - a chubby, whirring frisbee with a bubble cockpit - has taken a few knocks while rooting through the trenches, and in a moment of great wisdom, I hop out to perform some repairs. It's not an entirely idiotic decision. The sea floor ahead is thick with towering ferns that provide cover for a species of coyote-like predator, whereas right here I can see nothing save schools of fish the size of my thumb, twisting in the dark like flurries of snow. In hindsight, the absence of larger fauna really ought to have set a few alarm bells ringing, but all I can think of are the scratches on my Seamoth's lovely yellow finish. Besides, I've got two health packs left, and a fancy thermo survival knife that cooks anything you hit with it. The water holds no fear for me.
Heroes aren't born, forged, plucked from obscure, charming villages or raised from centuries of slumber in Darkest Dungeon - they are broken in. Or at least, broken. Out on Switch today, Red Hook's festering roguelike sees you battling to reclaim a cliffside manor from the cosmic terrors unleashed by your dead, yet mysteriously talkative Ancestor, sending quartets of procedurally generated adventurers into the estate to slay eldritch creatures and gather the resources and experience you need for an assault on the mansion itself. Besides the usual stats, unlockable abilities and gear slots, each adventurer has a stress bar, which fills up as they weather punishments both tangible and intangible. The mouldering hush of a crypt might fill it up a little. A clash with a screaming pigman the size of a house will probably fill it up a lot.
A third-person action-RPG with XP loss on death, bonfire mechanics and a taste for the grotesque, Code Vein has been billed as Bandai Namco's in-house alternative to the Souls series, trading Bloodborne's fetid strain of European Gothic for a world of anime vampires. Witness the marketing tagline, "prepare to dine". So it's a slight shock to find that the new game breaks one of From Software's unwritten core principles straight out the gate. Integral to every Souls game is the experience of loneliness, that sense that you are the only moving object in a cyclopean expanse of dead architecture and stagnant myths. True, you can summon allies to aid you, but these are presented as fleeting, ethereal interactions, and you never feel like you have "companions", exactly. It's more a question of being haunted by kindred spirits as you set out through the wasteland alone.
Here is what I knew about Dragon Ball FighterZ before I played it at Bandai Namco's Paris expo last month: 1) developer Arc System Works is the seasoned creator of painterly, 2D beatdowns responsible for BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, 2) Dragon Ball is a venerable manga in which absurd hunks with radioactive mullets make planets explode by, as far as I can tell, experiencing really bad heartburn, 3) ???? 4) profit, going by ecstatic reactions to the closed beta. Now that I've laid hands on it, I can replace "????" with "FighterZ is quite an accessible fighting game, for all its multiple-decade backstory and arcane terminology". Fear not, dabbler - if like me you struggle to sort your Gokus from your Gohans and your Ultimate Z Changes from your Sparking Blasts, you can still make headway here by doing quarter circles with your thumbs and sitting back as the TV catches fire.
Among Rain World's best tricks is that it doesn't end with you. Fall afoul of the reptiles who coil and flop through its moulting, fungal catacombs and you'll be dragged to a crevice and swiftly guzzled. The restart prompt appears, but you're under no pressure to hit the button, and really, what's your hurry? Death is an opportunity to enjoy Joar Jakobsson's chiselled 16-bit aesthetic and the game's AI ecosystem at leisure, freed from the rat-race of its core mechanics.
Bandai Namco has confirmed two new games for Switch, one of which features labyrinthine levels, unpredictable enemy behaviours and a protagonist driven by an all-consuming hunger for the souls of the slain. That's right, it's... Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus, a new, digital-only instalment in the reimagined retro series. The other game is an untitled adaptation of the My Hero Academia manga and TV series. Sorry, looks like we'll have to wait a bit longer for that much-speculated-about Dark Souls port.
There are few experiences as crushing as being properly roasted in a fighting game. The coordination goes from your thumbs; the blood drains from your face; all sense of strategy implodes as blow after blow snakes through your defences and punts you helplessly around the stage. At this point your opponent isn't really fighting you so much as their own limitations: you are merely a ship tossed on the ocean of their skill. Soulcalibur 6's new Reversal Edge system is a hard check to all that, a slick, accessible subgame that resets the momentum and gives the out-matched combatant a chance to regroup. For that reason, it is likely to prove as controversial among experienced Caliburners and masters of fighting game psychology as it is welcome among greener players.
I remember not being very taken by Mass Effect's main theme, the first time I heard it. Next to what I'd read about the game, a tale of alien liaisons and sizzling gun battles amid the stars, the title music seemed dreary, the wrong kind of spaced-out. A decade later, I listen to it while crossing a certain footbridge in London, on my way to the abandoned mall food court where I'm writing this. Somebody has scrawled "change" plus a few choice sentiments about austerity policies on the wall at one end. The council has repainted that bridge a few times in the years I've lived nearby - right now it's an incongruous green and purple pattern, like a coral reef hammered flat - and every time, that unknown soul has returned to scribble the message anew. A gesture of defiance, or ironic futility? I couldn't tell you, but as the languid drone of Vigil's Theme fills my skull, I read the words again, ponder their relevance to Mass Effect's storyline and find myself ludicrously close to tears.
Wondering why there aren't more Indian-made video games? In a way, you've been playing them for years without realising it. Faced by a massive rise in AAA development budgets since the early noughties, international publishers like EA typically outsource work to skilled but lower-wage workers in less affluent regions.
All hail Crysis, the "Maximum Game". How odd it feels to revisit this legendary mass-melter of motherboards, this bane of frame rates and comparison threads, on what passes for a budget gaming laptop 10 years down the line. The intro especially rouses much the same sense of everlasting absurdity and pathos you might get from Hadrian's Wall or a Microsoft Zune, an orgiastic showreel in which bullets flatten themselves against quivering artificial muscles, and North Korean troopers gape at all the high-octane graphicsability coruscating around them as they're hurled headlong into their friends. Once upon a time, you think to yourself, we called this the future. Alas, futures seldom age that gracefully.
Skyrim's dirty little secret is that it isn't that large. Oh, it remains fairly gigantic by the standards of other virtual landscapes, even next to its youthful imitator and usurper, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But set against what it pretends to be - a kingdom stretching from arctic wastes to the temperate south, racked by dynastic squabbles and laced with the treasures and detritus of millennia - it's actually pretty dang tiddly, a little over 14 square miles in scope.
It's taken years of gruesome experimentation but Sonic Team's designers have finally pulled it off. They've created the Ur-Sidekick, the Sidekick of Sidekicks, a total embodiment of a wayward franchise that can be invested with the traits of every other noxious bit-part this universe has produced. The task at hand may be to run down Dr Eggman's latest henchman, Infinite, a preening, masked spectre who can mess with dimensions and resurrect old nemeses to fight you, but if you really want to stare into the abyss of time, to witness reality cracking and splintering under the eternal return of the same, look no further than the hyper-accessorised, player-crafted abomination at your side.
Midway through Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz falls to drinking moonshine and talking politics with a lefty firebrand in the sealed-off, waterlogged remnants of New Orleans. The man - a rebel general you've been sent to recruit - screams at BJ about well-heeled imperialists grinding up the proles in capitalism's war machine, and BJ roars back about good-for-nothing bohemians and bolsheviks dodging the draft. The camera circles the table unsteadily, as if waiting to cut in. To the rear, a female college professor crisply picks off Nazis in the street below while an African-American clarinet virtuoso launches into a jazz solo, accelerating the tempo as the scene unfolds. In short order BJ chugs down so much hooch that he topples over into a stupor. Impressed by his forthrightness, the general agrees to join your cause.
If there are moments of serenity in the original Assassin's Creed, which turns 10 years old next month, they are surely to be found in the act of scaling towers - a way of pacing consumption of the landscape that has shaped almost every subsequent open world escapade, from Rocksteady's Batman Arkham games to the mighty Breath of the Wild. The city is a fading murmur beneath you, the cries of beggars and traders and the jingle of guard awareness icons whisked away by the wind. The occasional frustrations of shouldering through mobs or scrambling across uneven rooftops are forgotten. There is nothing but the scuffle of toes on masonry and the rattle of Altair's sword in its sheath.
There is a certain language we too often use around video games, a particular body of criteria and expectations. You could call it the cult of smoothness. This is, I'll admit, more of a characterisation born of years spent trawling forums than it is some kind of scientific appraisal, but glance over the average review comments thread and you might know what I mean. It's the idea that an excellent game is, fundamentally, a game that knows how to get out of your way. This is the language of polish and seamless integration, of beautifully chiming ludic and narrative components, of vast realms in which you are never truly lost, and campaigns that "peak" and "trough" considerately, setting up a tempo of crises and revelations without ever seriously jolting you.
The scariest thing you'll hear in The Evil Within 2 isn't the sound of your very own daughter burning alive, or the paralysing roar of an alerted zombie, or even that witchy refrain through your PS4 controller's speaker as one, especially tenacious apparition shadows you from room to room. It is, in fact, a single dialogue line: "I'll mark its location on the map for you." Another throwback horror escapade from Shinji Mikami, albeit with DLC designer John Johanas in the director's chair, The Evil Within 2 takes cues not just from the legendary Resident Evil titles but also, rather terrifyingly, from open world tactical shooters.
Ruiner hates you. I don't mean that just in the sense that Ruiner is punishing, though it's certainly that - the game's "Normal" difficulty setting makes the average Call of Duty final stand look like a pillowfight in a nursery. I mean that Ruiner's entire universe is radioactive with spite. It's there in the lighting and palette of Rengkok South, the game's late 21st century urban hub - a quagmire of oozing red mist, tar black, toxic orange and the occasional, lonely note of blue or pink, the final moments of Alien's Nostromo blurring into the hellish racecourse of Neo Tokyo's "Running Man". It's there in your character, a pipe-wielding cyborg parody of dysfunctional machismo who communicates using a pixel-display helmet - favourite phrases include "hello darkness", "nowhere to hide" and the ever-poetic "kill you". And it's there, above all, in the shape of "Her" - the nameless geek girl in phat headcans and a Kaneda-brand capsule jacket, who frees you from another hacker's control during the prologue.