Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Reigniting old dragons

Spyro Reignited Trilogy




Platform tested: Xbox One X (enhanced)
Also on: PlayStation 4
Released: 2018


Review


Introduction


Activision had a huge success with their Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy and cleverly looked through their franchises and decided to give Spyro the Dragon the same  remaster treatment. I'm talking about the first three games from the first PlayStation here, just like what the Crash Bandicoot trilogy focused on. I was a huge fan of the original Spyro on PS1 and played it to 100% completion twice; once alone and another with my dad. I kinda regret not looking into the sequels; Ripto's Revenge and Year Of The Dragon back then, but my teenage budget was limited to far less games than these days. Luckily I get to play them in this remaster!

So while the remastered Crash Bandicoot games looked amazing, the games felt a little dated and frustrating when it came to gameplay in modern times, so I was curious how well the Spyro games had held up. After all, we are talking 20 years in between the first game and this remaster. So lets take a look at what I have always regarded as the only true competition the PS1 had up against the mighty and 3D platform genre defying Super Mario 64 on the N64.





Plot and setting


Like most platformers in general the plot isn't exactly very groundbreaking, it's about a baddie taking over a kingdom, grabbing stuff and throwing it around various worlds to collect. The first Spyro is structured very strict in this fashion; each world has underlying levels set in it's visual theme. These worlds work as a main hub, letting you access it's levels through portals. Everything can be completed and collected before moving on, no new abilities are needed or ever given to the player. Fairly straight forward platformer.

Spyro 2 and 3 are built with the same hub world with a certain visual theme connecting the underlying levels, however this time around you learn new abilities and levels can't be completed before you backtrack them with the acquired skillset. As such the hub worlds become a little more complicated in completing 100% before moving to the next, as levels must be revisited as you leave them without collecting everything. Spyro 3 is even more elaborate structured with guest characters that are required to completing certain levels too. Boss fights are considerably more challenging in Spyro 2 & 3, for good or bad, as they are laughably easy and simple compared to Spyro 1.

Collecting all these games together though, really helps ease the newcomers into things; Spyro 1 is easy to grasp and requires no specific abilities to complete each level, while Spyro 2 adds this and Spyro 3 dives  deeper with new characters and more eloboratetly designed levels. It's a nice and progressive way to play through them chronologically.


Gameplay and features


What immediately becomes apparent from the get go in this collection compared to the Crash Bandicoot one is how well and precise the gameplay holds up. The battling against enemies is about either ramming or burning them, it requires observing them to know what to do. Small enemies with no armour can be rammed or burnt, if they have armour only ramming works, while large enemies usually just require burning. You'll quickly learn which enemy needs which type of attack. Spyro can also roll from side to side with the shoulder buttons, required for the more experienced players to dodge enemy attacks. 

Spyros platforming is largely based around the flying mechanics; it's about spotting how you can glide to new areas to explore by finding higher and higher vantage points to glide from. Fast paced running is required on later levels to make speedy jumps to glide to far off places, plus there's also flying only levels to keep Spyro veterans challenged throughout. I really appreciate how large they were able to make the 3D levels too on a PS1, a cheeky nod to Crash's limited 3D that never was gonna make Mario 64 shake in his blue pants. Although the actual visuals are upgraded it's impressive to see how large the 3D levels were as their size, layout and scale is untouched.


Video


Much like how the Crash Bandicoot trilogy upgraded these old looking games in a pretty yet nostalgic fashion, this trilogy gets the same treatment with care. The consistency is key here as all three games end up looking graphically on level compared to the old games that saw a gradual development through the years they were made. Like I mentioned the level complexity increases throughout and Spyro 3 features the most ambitious and large level designs.

Unlike the Crash Bandicoot trilogy though, the Spyro trilogy has gone for an Unreal Engine 4 powered graphics engine. It's a risky affair as we have seen various degrees of expertise on the engine, Bandai Namco coming to mind as opting for disappointingly low resolution boosts for the powerful consoles PS4 Pro and XB1X. Spyro follows this trend sadly, ending up at a rather sparingly 1440p on the X and Pro, and it runs 30fps with annoying frame pacing issues too.

Although the levels are beautifully realised in their design, retaining the soft coloured and fairly sparse small detail, I would have liked to have seen more of a visual jump on the most powerful console in terms of resolution and maybe framerate. It all ends up looking a little blurry when compared to other 4K enhanced games, those only used to 1080p will see a nice boost though. The frame pacing makes the game look like it's jumping frames every now and then and really should have been launched without this oversight. It has yet to be fixed in patches too.


Audio


Sound is nothing majorly noteworthy, but all the old familiar sounds are here and are instantly recognisable. With a large emphasis on magical and sparkly sounds, also the little egg thief's taunting laughter comes back as the most memorable one. This time around it's all in surround at least helping to give you more spatial awareness as to where sounds are coming from.

The music mind you, I always really enjoyed with my experience of the original game. Memorable and atmospheric tracks that former co-founder and drummer of Police fame, Stewart Copeland made for all the three PS1 games after he walked through each level to get the atmosphere right for each music track.

This time around it's cleverly remastered and sounds just like how I remember them, albeit with a richer audio experience and more clever use of dynamic volume and reverb when things are happening in-game. You can switch to the old PS1 music tracks too if you really want to go old school, but like the Halo 1 and 2 remasters the new music score is done really well and updates the same music scores to a better experience to my ears. While still retaining the great background melodies and unique sound.





Summary


If there are some downsides that need mentioning apart from the sparse resolution boost and frame pacing issues, there's the way too close camera angle on Spyro. Mostly it works fine, but there are times when you just miss an enemy and need to turn quickly that the camera just ends up showing mostly Spyros purple butt and the ground below. It gets confusing and results in som cheap damage points or deaths. You can of course move the camera yourself, but this is mostly tied to the angle being to close to Spyro as a default. There's also some nasty difficulty spikes in Spyro 2 & 3's bosses that I could have done without.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Spyro's wonderful fantasy world. The art direction and the somewhat sparse level of small detail resides in a remastered style that isn't overly remade, bringing easier back memories of how it originally looked. I was pleasantly surprised that the games played so well and can safely say it is a much less frustrating and far more enjoyable affair than the Crash Bandicoot remasters were. Looking back this is really a trilogy PS1 owners could proudly say at least came fairly close to what a fully 3D platformer like Mario 64 could have been on the old 32-bit Sony platform.

Recommended strongly to those with Spyro experience on the PS1 and new players that feel the platformer genre is understated on the more "mainstream" consoles that are the PS4 and XB1. It's probably some of the best budgeted and best playing platformers you'll get this generation outside of Nintendo's Switch. Spyro still is and always was better than Crash in my opinion and over 20 years later this remaster proves it. 

Rating

★★★★

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Automated and blindfolded androids

NieR: Automata



Platform tested: Xbox One X (enhanced)
Released: 2018
Original release: 2017


Review


Introduction


NieR: Automata made solid reviews and healthy sales when it was released on PS4 and PC back 2017. It's the sequel to the Drakengard series spin-off, NieR, which became somewhat of a cult classic over time despite it's mixed reviews. NieR: Automata, much like Nier, blend gameplay ideas from various action genres, but is a role playing game at it's core. For information; I have no experience with the first game prior to playing Automata, and as such jump into the lore with a blank slate.

Being a console only player and seeing that the base PS4 version was badly optimised I waited in hope for a Xbox One X conversion. Luckily SquareEnix have delivered, and it's a nice visual step up from the fairly muddy PS4 Pro version too.  A year later and this "Become As Gods Edition" has arrived in digital form only so far. Let's take a look at what Automata is all about.







Plot and setting 


N:A is strange title, it's setting and introduction level opens up for so many questions, as does the storyline when you progress further. The story is, briefly explained, about a female  android named 2B sent from the moon, where humanity have escaped from an alien robot race back on earth. 2B and her companion android 9S have been sent on a mission by the humans to take back earth from the robots. It features a very typical Japanese anime type storytelling, that needs some acceptance from the player to fully appreciate and enjoy. If it sounds a little to distant from the more grounded Western games, then this is probably not for you. I'm kind of in the middle, I do still enjoy Japanese games, but I am mostly an old school player when it comes to games from Japan.

Although the storyline can get quite absurd at times especially with the over dramatic and weird characters along the way that feel quite stereotypical for anime shows, the dialogue actually flows better than most games and animes from this territory in English. I ended up quite enjoying the casual banter between the two main characters: 2B and 9S. You need to be open to this anime style to fully enjoy the story is my take on it. You also have to accept that not everything that come across as quite absurd is ever explained either.



Gameplay and features 


This game shifts gameplay form a lot in it's introduction level: It begins as an R-Type like shoot 'em up, then transforms to a twin stick 2D shooter like the way Geometry Wars plays, then a 3D spaceship tunnel shooter and ends up as a hack and slash styled game in the vein of Devil May Cry. Confused? Well the latter gameplay form is where most of the game resides and the part you'll get most familiar with. Not only do you have short and long sword attacks at your disposal, but also a tiny drone turret that fires where you aim. It's a little tricky combination for beginners, requiring you to do melee fighting with combos, while at the same time aiming.

However, controls quickly become second nature and setting the game on easy is a recommended idea for players that are very new to the genre; this lets you set the turret in auto mode and shooting no longer becomes anything to worry about. Enemies will also take less damage and boss fights become way easier and manageable. I had to knock the difficulty down after a while; either my skills weren't cutting it or the boss fights were way too high difficulty spikes. Lets say the latter is most likely. Leveling your character up and upgrading or buying new weapons is also highly recommended to stay on top of your fights.



Graphics and technical


This isn't really a title that pushes much visually, I'm guessing the lack of native 4K and such is more due to optimisation here. It's a fine game with a fairly unique aestethic to it and does shine visually a few times, but it resides in looking like something from the last generation. Detail everywhere looks very sparse with a large but empty world with a little bland colour variation. That being said, I appreciate the amount enemies and focus on 60fps gameplay to compensate for visual flair. The gameplay flows nicely and combat feels fast and responsive as it should in a fast hack and slash like this.

As a side note: The game falls under 60fps on most consoles, much less so on Xbox One X, but using a Freesync monitor on the X is a game changer here. It helps keep the game feeling steady and precise throughout! The added HDR in this version though, looks cheaply implemented and is of nothing of importance to play with.



Sound and music



The music score ended up something I took more notice of than expected, it sounds like a cross between the original Ghost in the Shell movie score and music from a typical PS1/PS2 era Final Fantasy game. It sounds cool and fits well into the open world RPG setting and clearly Japanese styled artstyle of the game.

Nothing stands out in the sound department, but like I mentioned the voice acting on the two main characters is done unexpectedly well. Their banter helps keep traversing large and repetitive areas more diverse as you listen in on their often amusing conversations.







Summary


N:A is in a nutshell a game you need to accept some elements that may not be what you want unless you are very into Japanese games. The storytelling with it's strange turns and over the top weird characters for one. The other is the fairly underwhelming visuals compared to a lot of other titles. Then there's also the whole anime design aesthetics of the characters. It might sound like the old "you either hate it or love it" quote, but in a way it's kinda the way to describe N:A. Fans of the game really go wild for it, while if you're more down the middle of road on it's whole design like me, well then you can find a lot of entertainment here regardless, but alas it won't be anything that blows you away like the fanbase hypes it to.

There is another strange kicker to the whole experience too though, which is important to mention and a fairly unique idea. N:A isn't completed by your first 10-12 hour playthrough, no, once you have completed it it encourages you to play it again. Only this time you see and play a lot of the campaign through another characters eyes. Then the third playthrough is even more different and a sort of continuation of where the two first playthroughs ended. Yes, it's weird, and yes, it will require time to do them.

This replaying of the game leaves a dilemma: from a first playthrough perspective the game resides in a fairly forgettable affair with it's story ending, leaving a lot of questions unanswered. While if you spend the time to actually play it again and again you are rewarded with new experiences all the time, not just some minor changes. Often large changes, like you're reading the next chapter of a book. It makes it difficult to recommend for those just willing to put down the effort of one playthrough though; you'll simply only see a smaller part of a bigger picture. It's a risky design of game; requiring players to replay the game to fully enjoy and experience the whole game. Many will simply leave after the first playthrough.

I have ben back and forwards as to whether this title really was my taste but end up recommending it. However, take time to play it at least twice to expand the storyline and appreciate it more. In summary N:A gave me a joyful playthrough with fast and fun gameplay and I'm very grateful SquareEnix ported this game over to the non-Japanese Xbox too. It's sounds cheesy to say it, but it just isn't for everyone, however it deserves your attention for it's originality, blending of genres and entertaining gameplay. A left field experience for those seeking something a little different from the mainstream, yet a game that resides in the more popular niche games of recent years.

Rating

★★★★