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What we've been playing

A few of the games that have us hooked at the moment.

A slim, young-looking, male-presenting character, close-up and with a large floppy hat obscuring a lot of their face.
Image credit: Eurogamer / BioWare

28th July, 2023

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: spooky oil rigs, Tokyo highways, and inquisitions.

If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.

Stasis: Bone Totem, PC

Wish you were here?Watch on YouTube

If there's ever such a thing as an Unwholesome Showcase, expect the point-and-click Stasis series to feature prominently. I've only dipped a toe in the latest, Stasis: Bone Totem, and have already been exposed to, in this order, a hideous robot teddy-bear, a flayed man with his guts strung to the plumbing, and a game-over scene in which a major character has their face melted off. I haven't even encountered the actual monsters yet.

The set-up: it's cyberpunk o'clock on the high seas and you should probably avoid looking into any air ducts. You're a two-person salvaging team investigating an "abandoned" oil rig. You switch between and steer the pair from an isometric-style viewpoint, collecting and combining items on a shared inventory bar to solve puzzles, such as opening a rusted porthole or filling up a fuel cylinder. The fuel cylinder was the culprit for the aforesaid face-melting. Try to keep an eye on the pressure.

Bone Totem's bewitching unpleasantness isn't just a question of subject matter: it's channelling some quite specific influences, which I'm still getting my head around. The lowering darkness and spoiled metal surfaces put me in mind of FDI's PS1 dungeon crawler ODT, while the UI reeks of vintage Fallout and Planescape, with faintly creepy animated 3D menu items. There's something about broken flesh when portrayed through this kind of dotcom aesthetic that is unfathomably worse, for me, than any latter-day feat of procedural dismemberment or tissue damage. I don't know how to explain it, but everything feels diseased. Bone Totem has a few signature flourishes of its own: click the mouse and you're linked to every object your character can describe or interact with by holographic beams. It makes finding key objects much easier, but also gives you a nasty sense of being caught in a web.

Peeled cadavers aside, the oil rig's deck teems with datapads containing journals – pretty wordy ones, by survival horror standards - about recent events. It seems the crew drilled into something they probably shouldn't have. Leaving the place to the gulls feels like the best option, but my characters have debts to pay, and those points aren't going to click themselves. Wish me luck.


Tokyo Highway, board game

This is not life-sized by the way! That's not a giant playing the game.Watch on YouTube

I heard about Tokyo Highway on Polygon, and it seemed too perfect - a Jenga-alike about highways? I love Jenga and I love highways!

And I love Tokyo Highway, which is just a treat of a game, fidgety and intricate and by the end of it, despite competing with your rival players, you discover that you have all made something beautiful together.

The basic idea is simple. Each person builds their highway from sticks and little counters which can be stacked to make pillars. You earn points by over-crossing or under-crossing rival highways. First to a certain number of points - these are displayed by cars you can place on your track - wins. Knock stuff over and you have to fix it and pay a penalty etc.

Why this is great, I think, is because each highway sort of cleaves to all the others, rushing up alongside it and hoping to cross back and forth without being crossed itself. You get a muddle that feels very organic, and while the rules for these highways are different than the rules governing actual highways, a similar point is made with both, I think. Architecture is shaped by pressures as much as it is by hopes. The pressures are difference, but the influence is the same. Great game.


Dragon Age: Inquisition, PC

What a load of Bull.Watch on YouTube

You know me, always up with the times! Look, I've always intended to go back to Inquisition, and this week, I finally discovered the impetus for doing it: becoming evil. That's right, I'm becoming a supervillain in the game. No more mister nice guy. And I'm charting my journey in a supporters column that, who knows, could kick off a whole series.

Going back to Inquisition has brought up a whole range of feelings for me. I'm a Dragon Age fan, partly because I really like the games, but also because I really like BioWare and I really like fantasy, and all of that mixed together has welded me to the series in a way I can seemingly do nothing about. That doesn't mean I lose all kind of objectivity when playing it, though. If anything, I was hard on Inquisition the first time around, nearly 10 - oh my god was it really? - years ago.

But returning to it has made me see and evaluate it anew, and my little flickering flame of love is roaring all over again. And it's not as though the problems I once saw have gone away - it can still be a laborious game with padding to fight through to get to the good bits - but the passing of time has made me appreciate what it did do, and do very well, in a new way.

For instance, and this is by no means the only reason - there are many reasons - I love the spectacle and acrobatics of combat, particularly as a magic user. BioWare has really thought about how to alleviate the hotbar boredom of waiting to cast spells, so you twirl and slam your stave down like Gandalf on too much coffee, and create a light show of your own, even when you're default attacking. Yes, it can feel a bit ineffective against some enemies (a critique I have with the combat in general) but it's very nice to watch.

And also, I just love the drama of it all. I'd forgotten how absorbing BioWare stories can be. Yeah, they're not always especially subtle, as the stirring music and dramatic framing tries to shove emotion down your throat, but I'm a sucker for nonetheless. Sometimes, I like a slightly trashy and over the top tale, especially in fantasy.

There are many reasons but the overriding feeling is that it's nice to be back.


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