Review: Damnation

I’m a sucker for pulp and I’m a sucker for steampunk. These are factors which often lead me to buy things, read things and play things that I’m otherwise not so sure about. Sometimes that leads me to find hidden gems, sometimes it means I play awful games because I’ve been suckered in by a love of genre. Damnation falls somewhere in the middle, in no way is it as much of a disappointment as Dark Void was but it’s still a little confused and doesn’t shine like it could.

In this world the American Civil War went on for much longer than in real history and ended up smashing the USA into numerous different, smaller states. Profiteering from the war and from stolen inventions, ‘Lord’ Prescott turns his war money into a grab for power of his own, Prescott Standard Industries becoming a state of its own and turning its inventions and its juiced up troopers (made tougher and more powerful through a chemical cocktail) upon the shattered remnants of the other, fragmented states.

You play the part of Rourke, a traumatised and bereaved survivor of the Civil War and of the depredations of Prescott, the defacto combat commander of a small group of freedom fighters made up of the noble scion of Terre Verde, a Native American shaman/healer (with actual magic powers) and the scientist whose inventions Prescott largely stole. They fly around in an airship, attempting to thwart Prescott’s expansionist aims across several different terrains, sabotaging his mining operations, helping those who are resisting his expansionism and doing all they can to oppose him.

As Prescott sets his sights on finalising his control of the continent things accelerate out of control and the rebels are left with no choice but to make a desperate, last ditch attempt to deal with Prescott and bring an end to his evil Empire.


Gameplay is mostly third-person, over the shoulder and while the game is ostensibly a shooter a huge amount of the game is spent leaping and climbing since, for some inexplicable reason, Prescott has built everything in precipitous locations and with deadly falls in all directions. While this is pretty and visually interesting, without a compass or a goal/direction pointer it becomes incredibly frustrating trying to find your way around the levels though, fortunately, when you plummet to your doom you start up again exactly where you fell off, whereas when you get shot to death, you start from the previous checkpoint, making it – perversely – more worthwhile to throw yourself off a cliff in a difficult fight rather than to slug it out if you think you’re going to die.

Combat can be a little frustrating as most weapons are wildly inaccurate and don’t seem to do a lot of damage. While that’s consistent with the idea that the enemies are juiced up on drugs and – therefore – stronger and tougher and better able to resist harm, it makes combat a little too methodical and slow, save the situations where you’re using the sniper rifle and can squeeze off a headshot.

There are brief interludes where you mount a bike or trike and race along canyons and cliff walls at dangerously high speed, making jumps over deep holes in the ground and ploughing through gangs of enemies and sending their bodies tumbling. Because of the need for high speed and not being able to go slowly you don’t feel particularly in control during these sequences, which makes them unwelcome.

The landscapes are, largely, the iconic landscapes of the Old West as seen in endless cowboy movies – Deserts, canyons and mining towns but some variety is brought in with the snow-clad mountains of Prescott’s mountain factory/castle. The visual look of the game is consistent and fairly good though it verges on the dieselpunk, rather than the steampunk, mixing and matching some aspects of both. I also tend to think of Steampunk as being more of a Victorian, city aesthetic, rather than a Western one (even though it’s the same time period).

There’s some black humour mixed in, particularly in the announcements through PSI loudspeakers about ‘potted meats’ and how happy everyone will be as slave labourers for the company and while this is at odds with the – somewhat – more serious tone of some of the rest of the game it works well and draws you into the nature of Prescott’s hellish industrial dystopia.

You don’t really get to spend any time in any ‘normal’ areas, everything is war torn or ruined, or filled with drug-crazed cannibal savages. You don’t get a sense of what’s being lost or what you’re fighting FOR, only what you’re fighting AGAINST.

The relative crudity of the graphics count against the otherwise atmospheric vistas and jagglies and a few other graphical issues are not what you really want or expect from a new generation game, detracting from the atmosphere. Overall the game feels like it’s an old generation game for the PC rather than a new(ish) game for the PS3. Stylistically they’re fine, the weapons and outfits are a little anachronistic (very immodest for the women) but with the mechanical devices this isn’t an issue.

Not a brilliant example of either the steampunk genre, or a third-person shooter/platformer the game’s background and ideas could have been executed much better, the ideas outstripping the execution.

Style: 2
Substance: 3
Overall: 2.5

Review: Final Fantasy XIII


Unlucky for some, Final Fantasy XIII is the first proper third-gen installment in the Final Fantasy series and it’s a divisive one that’s been the cause of some controvery. It’s a big departure from the previous games in the series and from many of the gameplay conventions of JRPGs and RPGs in general. It’s also virtually incomprehensible and requires a big investment of time to get to the full ‘whack’ of the game.

I have no idea. Seriously.

I like to think I’m a fairly canny and intelligent guy with an IQ in the 140s, a more-than-passing familiarity with Japanese popular culture, JRPG tropes and have successfully negoitated my way through some very confusing games, books and films but even having completed the game I am little the wiser about what FFXIII was actually about. Something about ancient magic/machine beings infecting people with special powers and using them to try and kill themselves to summon back the creator of the universe… it makes little sense, isn’t well explained and contradicts itself a half-dozen times along the way. It seems to come from a similar half-crazed, strange interpretation of Christian philosophy that Bayonetta does and makes almost as little sense.

I’m little the wiser as to what it was all about at the end of game compared to how I felt at the start. Frustration at this problem is only compounded by the fact that you were thrown in at the start with little to no background information and yet hours and hours and hours were spent (wasted) on a prolonged tutorial and the gradual introduction of game elements that took hours. If as much attention had been paid to explaining the world, the L’cie, Fal’Cie, Coccoon, Pulse and everything else involved that would, frankly, have been time better spent.

Given that the game is so, so, so, so, so very, very linear and you’re essentially being lead by the nose through the game writer’s story and plot with little or no sidelines or hidden areas and almost zero exploration, you’d think they’d do a better job of getting the story, plotline and worlds across.

Gameplay takes a big departure from normal Final Fantasy play, you give up control over all but one character, the leader, who is the only one that you directly control. Otherwise you issue orders by choosing ‘paradigms’ which determine the skill set and actions of all the characters, including the one that you directly play. This makes for some fast and furious live combat, which greatly speeds up the encounters and makes the fights more frenetic, but it greatly removes your input as a player, removing you from the action and since you can use ‘automatic’ to fill in even the lead character’s actions combat can devolve into simply pressing the ‘A’ button, over and over again. I prefer a more tactical and turn-based mode of play to this, though I did enjoy FFXII which had a similar system, albeit one you had greater control over (being able to essentially program your companions and being able to step in and give them specific orders as needed.

Characters are advanced through a system called the ‘Crystarium’, you earn points from killing monsters which you spend to upgrade your skills and stat bonuses in the various roles (Ravager, Sentinel, Commando, Medic, Synergist and Saboteur). The customisation isn’t as open as you might think however as each character is only truly effective in up to three of these roles and even when the rest open up you’ll likely only boost them for the sake of it with leftover points. Unless you grind like a mad bastard and run back and forth killing monsters you’ll only max your main roles.

Weapons are customised with more grinding, this time for animal and mechanical parts which you use to imbue your weapons with boosts, increasing their combat and magic bonuses and unlocking higher levels which require special items to boost them even higher. Again, you’re unlikely to do this as it would take a massive amount of grinding beyond the seventy or so hours we spent on the game.

Rather than finding out the weaknesses of the enemies and structuring your attacks accordingly as you would in the old games, you’re now much more reliant on the enemy-scanning Libra ability. Once the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses are known then your secondary characters will adjust their attacks accordingly, but until you get that information they’re as liable to heal the baddies with ill-chosen magic spells as to hurt them.

The speed is welcome but too many compromises have been made on playability and the tactical side of the game. More thought and tweaking is certainly needed.

As mentioned before, FFXIII is extremely linear and can be split into two halves. The first half you’re effectively fleeing from pursuit, trying to escape Cocoon, your home and get away to Pulse, the twin planet. Cocoon is extremely high tech and certainly feels that way, through many cut scenes you do get a feel that you’re pursued and that living on Cocoon isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be but the linearity is so constricting you’re frustrated as much as you’re drawn in. It’s essentially nothing more than one long string of fights, punctuated by cutscenes.

Once you get to pulse the atmospherics become much better and this coincides with a little more freedom in exploration, moving around and side-quests (though these are essentially pointless and you can’t do some of them until after you’ve completed the game at which point… what’s the point of going back again other than being OCD?

While Cocoon is the logical extension of the magitech seen in so many of the other Final Fantasy games (since VI), Pulse – or Gran Pulse, is a ruined, wild planet of Archaeotechnology, vicious beasts, chocobos and a near endless number of hunting quests that, while they’re writen into the story are really just make-work, rather than having any truly free-roaming element to the game.

The graphics are brilliant and do draw you in but without a comprehensible story to hang the pretty images onto there’s nothing to draw you in. Couple this with largely unsympathetic lead characters and there’s not to engage you with the story and without a clear story to comprehend it’s very difficult to figure out whether the game has true atmosphere or not.

The graphics are brilliant and the visuals are, apparently, part of a new ‘Crystal Tools’ game engine which is keyed for transitions between cutscenes and play as well as physics and special effects. This is some of the smoothest rendering I’ve seen on the PS3 and where a lot of games seem to gain pixelation at higher resolutions, FFXIII remained smooth and anti-aliased without getting degraded.

Character animation is good, though the jumps are a little unconvincing. Combat is fairly smooth and the smoke effects, explosions and spells are visually very impressive and exciting. Transitions between cut scenes and live play are smooth and while there’s – perhaps – too many of them this lessens the disruption to play. The lighting in particular is well done and, unlike many games, it never gets too dark or too washed out with bloom effects to see what’s going on.


FFXIII is a deeply flawed game that is, nonetheless, pretty. It’s more comprehensible than Bayonetta… but only vaguely. It’s very pretty, but that’s really all the game has going for it and for hardcore RPG fanatics the lack of free customisation and lack of a true free-exploration section severely devalues the game. While a lot of RPG development – admittedly western – has been bringing choice into CRPGs this game runs on particularly narrow rails. While it’s pretty, there’s a lot to be ironed out and expanded to make it a truly satisfying game. FFXII overcame its system changes with a comprehensible story and some engaging characters, both of which are missing in FFXIII.

Still, there’s the seeds of a good, even a really great game in there which, hopefully, will get shaken down in Versus XIII and FFXIV and allow the pure brilliance to shine through.

Style: 5
Substance: 2
Overall: 3

Another major disappointment this time around was the Piggyback game guide. Usually these are really complete, give great advice and give you enough information about the background of the game and the game rules that you could run a tabletop RPG based on the material given there. This time around the book felt virtually useless, didn’t contain a huge amount of useful information and the combat advice wasn’t exactly all that. Not really worth the money, especially in a world that contains

Review: Darkvoid

If you’re a fan of the pulps then the prospect of a decent rocket-pack game set in the 1930s will have you squeeing with glee. Indeed I can’t remember a rocket pack game since the Atari ST and so, despite all the reviews warning about Darkvoid I caved in and purchased it – albeit preowned for only a tenner. Unfortunately, this isn’t the game pulp fans have been waiting for though there are the seeds of a potential, good pulp or rocket-pack game contained within this disappointing effort.

While Darkvoid does have a story it’s something of a confused mix of David Icke lizard-conspiracy, fascism, Bermuda Triangle disappearances and vague mysticism. Our hero gets turned around in a storm over the Bermuda Triangle, carrying his ex (who has become entangled with a mysterious group called The Adepts) and ends up crashing into a mysterious island inhabited by cod-Aztecs, Nikola Tesla and mysterious mechanical men and snake-robots called The Watchers.

Our hero and his ex work to recover aircraft parts and repair their own plane and in so doing learn to use one of Tesla’s devices, a sort of jump-pack, little brother to the rocket-pack. This is your tutorial for later use of the rocket-pack and at the end of it there’s an attack on the cod-aztec village and your ex is, apparently, stolen away with the villagers and taken who knows where…

In pursuit you finally don the rocket-pack and take to the skies, fighting and then chasing The Watchers through to The Void where you fall in with The Survivors and The Adepts and become part of a revolt against the lizards to keep them out of the real world and to stop them supplying the fascists with advanced weapons.

That makes the story sound a lot less confused than it is, it jumps all over the place, suddenly veers into new elements (like a giant monster) that just seem to have been thrown in, dispenses with Tesla in a cursory fashion and contradicts itself over the big focus of the story, crossing back and forth from The Void to the real world, which apparently still happens regardless of all your efforts.


This is a standard third-person shooter for the most part with the addition of an expanded third dimension but, much like Mirror’s Edge, the game is so impressed with itself and what it can do as regards movement that it overuses it. The controls are sluggish and in the transition from ground to air you’ll often find yourself diving into the ground or a wall as you switch from one to another as the movement controls shift, which is clumsy.

You have to really pour the damage onto your enemies to destroy them, for the most part, and aiming with the thumbsticks is clumsy, though there is a slight bit of aim correction under some circumstances. There are some slight RP elements included in that you can upgrade your weapons by collecting ‘tech points’ though these are represented by glowing spheres, which don’t particularly draw you into the idea of scavenging tech parts.

Rocket-pack flight which should be a ‘YAHOO!’ moment is frustrating and dogfighting is much more luck than judgement. Even worse, your character flails around like a puppet with broken strings every time you take off, which really stops you feeling remotely heroic (especially when combined with crashing into the ground and bouncing off the walls every time you take off).

The lizard conspiracy feels a little out of place as it’s a modern interpretation rather than the lizard people that were found in various pulp novels and planetary romances. While the islands and peculiarities of The Void are atmospheric the screen is often so dark – even with the video option brightened – that you can’t make out where you are or what you’re doing and ‘atmospheric’ turns to ‘annoying’ with great rapidity. The voice acting is average, not terrible, but the story has so many glaring contradictions and jumps that you’re never really drawn into it.

The environments can be very beautiful but overall the character animation and graphics are only average for a third-generation console and the character models are a little bug eyed, almost disneyfied, which could have been a good direction to take it (if the game were cel-shaded) but just looks off and creepy as it stands.

At a playtime of only around 6 hours I’m very glad I didn’t pay full price for this. There’s the seeds of a good game in there somewhere but the controls, the darkness and the inconsistent story all cut the legs out from what could be a great game. If they’ve made enough money to justify a sequel they might be able to fix these problems and hopefully a more pulpy fight against the Nazis and their alien allies across war torn Europe would lift the story issues out of the mire.

Style: 3
Substance: 1
Overall: 2

Mythic Fantasy

Mythic fantasy comes from the character and feel of the Greek myths but, more likely, from the famous films, comics and books that have created a new mythology based on their interpretations. Troy, Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, 300 and other films from a different cultural background, such as Sinbad, all characterise such fantasy.

Mythic fantasy isn’t a main strand to role-playing though aspects of it – such as heroes with divine bloodlines and the character and actions of the gods – have made it into traditional role-playing games. These elements can be stepped up in order to return to a more mythic feel and this can be accomplished in several key ways.

  1. The heroes are truly heroes: The characters should be out of the ordinary, they should be genuinely superheroic, right from the get-go and should be treated like heroes right from the very start. People should approach them with reverence or jealousy and should hold them to a high standard. Normal enemies that they fight should fall easily to them and they shouldn’t simply die in an arbitrary fashion. An heroic death should be meaningful.

  2. The gods are clear and present: The gods take an interest in human affairs, may have fathered (or mothered) the heroes and are a clear and visible force in the world. They should talk to heroes, set them tasks and tests, send monsters against them and should manifest, send signs and reward fealty.

  3. Monsters are special: In mythic fantasy the monsters should have stories, they should mean something and shouldn’t simply be another piece of spear-fodder. While lesser enemies can be killed in great numbers to display the hero’s power, the big enemies should require a group effort or a lot of preparation and cunning. It’s the Medusa, not a tribe of medusae, it’s The Kraken, not one of a species. Monsters are unique, cursed or created by the gods and deserve to have a proper story and a proper fight.

  4. Magic items are special: In many games magical items are found here, there and everywhere. In a mythic fantasy game, just like monsters, individual magic items should have a story and they should be appropriately powerful. From Celtic myth the spear of the sun and the sword of the moon might be examples of such items, treasures that are gifts from the goddess and are far beyond anything else that might exist in the world.

Above all the impact of a mythic game is dependent upon the central contradictions of these myths, that the protagonists (the characters) are powerful and capable of heroic deeds and making great changes in the world but that they are still subject to the whims of the gods and the tugging strands of fate, great power frustrated by even greater power against which they cannot win anything but a pyrrhic victory.

Review: The Boys – Self-Preservation Society

Having just reviewed the series to this point I was happy to pick up the latest The Boys trade paperback on the weekend. Each volume seems to be getting thinner as it comes along – perhaps revealing a profitability of the TPBs and getting them out the door quickly – but this one’s packed with meaty goodness.

With The Self-Preservation Society The Boys gets back on track both visually and plot wise, returning to some more tight plotting and helping round out and explain just what’s going on again. A slow down from the previous couple of books and a tamping down on the outright humour to make the story much tighter and to give the black humour something to contrast against.

The Boys are back in town!

As a quick recap from the last review, The Boys are a squad of chemically enhanced, pipe-hitting bastards (and one bitch) who are employed by the CIA to keep an eye on Voight American (who make Blackwater look like choirboys) and their pet superheroes, almost all of whom are insane and all but out of control, absolute power corrupting absolutely. The story follows new Boys recruit, wee Hughie, whose girlfriend was killed in a superhero tussle along with his companions in The Boys, including Butcher, Frenchie, The Female and Mother’s Milk. Together they provide a service for the government in administering a dry slap to superheroes when they get out of control but it’s really just an excuse for them to pursue their own vengeful agenda against superheroes, particularly Butcher.

Up to this book The Boys have been pressing their luck, killing a couple of heroes, blackmailing others, pushing the ‘G’ heroes (X-man rip offs) to the point where Voight American wiped them out themselves and needling The Seven, the greatest heroes on Earth who are all certifiable and are responsible for causing a 9/11 style catastrophe through incompetence.

In The Self-Preservation Society Voight American, in the form of a rogue executive, starts fighting back. They send B
Z-List heroes up against The Boys to test them and then sending their B-team, Payback (The Avengers) to take them on head on, succeeding in beating The Female into a coma at the hands of Stormfront before ambushing the remaining Boys in a warehouse… though it’s unclear exactly who is ambushing who as Butcher takes them apart, one by one and finally getting revenge on Stormfront with the aid of the welcome return of the Russian hero, Love Sausage.

The second half of the TPB deals with the backstories of Mother’s Milk, The Female and Frenchie, Butcher is left a mystery but these stories are by turns moving (Mother’s Milk), horrible (The Female) and comedic bullshit-insanity (Frenchie).

All in all this is the best The Boys collection since the first one, a perfect mix of everything that makes The Boys great, gratuitous sex and violence, pathos, black comedy and a balls-out pisstake of the nonsensical conventions of superhero comics and American politics.

Style: 4
Substance: 5
Overall: 4.5

Review: The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant is a tactical RPG by Square-Enix and that comes with a weight of expectation. Last Remnant doesn’t disappoint on these stakes, though it is a little unpolished. Coming out of playing through Final Fantasy XIII this game feels like a dry run in many ways, the theme of powerful, unknowable machines and whether they’re being used or using the people around them and, system-wise, taking a great deal of control away from the player and putting it in the hands of automation.

The Last Remnant places you in a fantasy world of multiple human and non-human races and kingdoms whose power largely derives from rulers being bound to Remnants, powerful magical machines and talismans that grant powers, create art, can be used in war or bring prosperity and luck.

You enter the game in the role of Rush Sykes, son of famous Remnant scientists and brother to Irinia Sykes, inheritor of a special power that enables her to wrest control of Remnants and to control powerful ones that are beyond the capability of most. Irinia has been kidnapped as you begin to play and you are trying to find her and save her from whoever has taken her. In so doing you stumble into the middle of a battle and end up hooking up with Lord David Nassal (Dah-veed), the ruler of Athlum, a small but ambitious client state of the larger realm of Celapelais.

As the game continues you throw in your lot with Athlum and grow in friendship with David and his generals, ranging across the world to find and rescue Irinia while at the same time being drawn into Athlumian independence and the machinations of the council chairman, the God-Emperor, The Academy and the sinister warlord, The Conqueror.


The Last Remnant is unusual in that, rather than concentrating on the actions of individual characters, you form units of characters and, in effect, create small, skirmishing armies. You get very little direct control over the action save for particular special actions (summoning ally Remnants and using special, powerful magic or attacks), most of the time you can only select the broadest sort of action, accenting the unit on healing, attacking with combat skills or attacking with magical skills.

The secret to succeeding at the game is building effective units using the right leaders and the right soldiers. In the end it mostly comes down to hitpoints though, so long as you can survive attacks from powerful enemies, you can pretty much guarantee a recovery.

Options are slow to build, army size increasing and combat power increasing two different ways, firstly in a more traditional ‘levelling’ manner, and the second coming from using your skills. The more you use combat or magical skills, the faster they advance and the more powerful they become. There’s also a power-building sub-game where you can build new weapons and equipment from monster parts and things dug up around the world. This isn’t complete to the extent that it could be but it does encourage you to roam around and explore, as do the guild missions – little tasks that unlock extra unit formations, money and other special rewards.

The game feels a little flat sometimes, the cities are rather static with people just standing around, the environments are pretty but don’t come alive, there’s no weather and they are a little plain. Rush is peculiar, a modern anachronism in a fantasy world which is explained, later, but is nonetheless jarring through much of the game.

Cutscenes and in game graphics are mostly the same, though there’s a few cutscenes which aren’t and in many of these the cutscenes the animation is wooden, even if the dialogue isn’t. Overall while the game is good and the story is much more comprehensible and complete than many (FXIII *cough cough*) the game feels like it was developed for the previous generation of consoles and in this generation of consoles with our unforgiving expectations, that feels like a cop out and greatly reduces immersion.

The graphics are workmanlike and stylish but sluggish to load (Xbox 360) and not as good as one would expect, or hope for.

A huge problem on the Xbox 360 with this game was the loading from the disk. While this was alleviated somewhat by installing Disk 1, getting onto Disk 2 things slowed down immensely again and the Xbox sounded like it was preparing to take off like a jet constantly, meanwhile the game was stuttering and slowing down constantly with big pauses as parts of the game were loaded and unloaded.

In spite of these problems the game is interesting and gripping and, perhaps, better for those who prefer a more traditional, open-ended RPG to the linear railroad that FFXIII turned out to be! Worth picking up on a budget, but maybe for the PC or PS3.

Style: 3
Substance: 4
Overall: 3.5

Poll Game: Zombie – Crawl for it

You pull and drag the shelves, hopping on one foot, dragging some down to crash against the doors and keep them out, dragging others to pile up against the wall. You grit your teeth and sling your backpack on again, smashing the security window and then try to scramble up… it’s hard going, you fall more than once, jarring your foot and making yourself scream in pain, a scream that is answered by the things tearing at the door with patient tenacity.

On the third attempt you manage to scramble up through the window and then get stuck… it’s narrow, as much weight as you’ve lost through stress and not eating properly you still can’t fit through easily with your backpack. Twisting your head you see shambling figures, noticing half of you sticking out into the street. You need to think fast and make a snap decision…

What do you do?
Tear off the backpack and squirm through.
Climb back down inside, throw the backpack through and climb back up.
Force through and hope for the best. free polls

Dev Diary: Agents of SWING

I reckon Agents of SWING in its final incarnation will run between 200 and 250 pages. What follows is a very rough outline of the probable organisation of the book which is intended to be supported with expanded material going into the various villainous organisations and sections of SWING in greater detail.

What you can – probably – expect.

Agents of SWING: Preview and adventure (The Art of PAIN) is up

A taster of the forthcoming FATE powered spy-fi/adventure serial RPG ‘Agents of SWING’. Drawing together the themes of the 60s and 70s adventure shows such as The Man from Uncle, The Avengers, The Persuaders and their ilk, Agents of SWING will plunge you into a world of Saville Row suits, Walther PPKs, Go-go dancers, psychedelics and social and cultural revolutions.

This preview contains a few details about the forthcoming game and about SWING and includes the demo scenario run at Indiecon in 2009. The Art of PAIN in which a situationist/surrealist supervillainous organisation is stealing key pieces of art from around the world… but to what nefarious purpose?

FATE required to play.

Get it HERE