Game Review: Within The Blade

What do you get when you mix platforming, stealth and RPG elements with some hack ‘n slash action, stylised retro pixel art, topped off with plenty of blood and ninja-like violence? You get Within the Blade from developer Ametist Studio and publisher Ratalaika Games. Quick aside. This game was released on Steam in 2019 when it was called Pixel Shinobi: Nine demons of Mamoru. Now, given a title change and released on all the consoles.

“In 1560 A.D – Japan’s last Shogunate lost full control over the realm causing an eventual explosion into a massive civil war with other provinces of the once mighty empire. Anarchy reigned through the country as the different clans waged an all-out bloody war for supremacy. One clan “Steel Claw” in particular led by their Daimyo (Military Leader) Mamoru Imai, began seeking the knowledge of old forbidden practices and worshiping dark entities in order to try and place a curse upon his enemies. Mamoru was soon to be infected by the spirit of a vindictive and very malevolent Samurai warlord. Through this infection, “Steel Claw” began a campaign of total chaos and hatred spreading vile darkness through the lands, infecting other nations along with it. The demonically possessed Daimyo allies himself with nine other powerful demons and forges a massive army born from hatred and fueled by blood. No one army can withstand him. All hope is on the detachment of the shinobi clan “Black Lotus”, operations of sabotage only can weaken the power of Mamoru. The warlord must be assassinated or Japan will crumble into dust.”

Well that is the story dealt with, let’s take a look at the gameplay. You play as a ninja called Hideaki of the Black Lotus clan mentioned in the story. Starting out with some bare basic moves and skills. Run, jump, double jump, wall run and attack. The game kicks off with a bare basic tutorial with on-screen prompts to get you used to the controls. Though there is a far more in-depth and separate tutorial that is most definitely worth playing first. The opening level is always the same as you make your way to the village that houses your clan, which is also used as the main hub of the game. After that, each level (except boss battles) are randomly generated. At first, there’s not much to do around the village other than talk to your master (the place is empty with no one else around) and get to get the story going proper, as he sends you off on your first mission.

WITHIN THE BLADE VILLAGE

When you first pick up and play Within the Blade, you’ll most definitely get a very strong Ninja Gaiden NES vibe. It really is very typical side-scrolling, platform jumping, sword-swinging, ninja action. You’ll slide into the basics relatively easily and get a feel for the game within a few minutes. Everything feels very familiar and yet fresh at the same time. However, once you get a few missions completed, Within the Blade really starts to open up a lot. You return back to your village and what was once a very quiet and empty place is now full of life. People are walking around, there are various shops all selling many different wares, other ninjas of your clan are practising. The village is now alive. You still have to talk to your master for new missions, only now, he offers to train you in new skills.

This is where the rather large skill tree comes into play. See, killing enemies and completing levels earns you experience points. XP gains you levels, every time you level up, you earn a skill point you can spend on new skills. Seriously, the skill tree is pretty damn exhaustive too, with a wide selection of skills to build. The basics such as adding to your health bar are here, but you can also learn more impressive talents including your first, the assassination skill. It is unlocking this assassination skill when the game then introduces its stealth mechanic. Kill enemies without being seen and earn even more XP and we know what more XP leads to… More skills.

WITHIN THE BLOOD

As you make your way through the various missions, you’ll find chests and boxes to open. These are usually crammed with resources and ingredients because Within the Blade features a crafting system. A pretty huge one too, the game’s description boasts over two hundred recipes to craft. These recipes include basic healing items, ninja-like weapons, shuriken, throwing knives, swords, etc. Then there are numerous smoke bombs, flash grenades, mines and more. All of them have variations too, elemental effects and so on. Oh yeah, your sword can break too as it has its own durability meter with different swords having different stats. All of this crafting has to be done back at your house in the village. The vendors in the village all have wares you can purchase to help with your crafting, along with new recipes for new items to upgrade your gear.

As for the missions themselves, well they are all pretty damn great. Each mission is split into multiple areas. Each area will have its own completion requirements. Maybe you just need to kill so many enemies before reaching the end, others will have you recusing prisoners. I even had to blow up a castle using a mass storage of gunpowder. There really is a lot of variation for each area you visit, even then, there are optional sub-missions to try and complete for each and every area on each mission. Tasks such as kill every enemy, don’t get spotted, don’t lose any health, carry out so many assassinations and many, many more. Honestly, there really is a lot to keep you busy and on your toes as you make your way through the game. Even the enemies you will come across are wonderfully varied each with their own attacks that you need to adjust your tactics to defeat.

WITHIN THE POWDER KEGS

Looks-wise and Within the Blade is a fantastic looking title. I really am a sucker for some nice pixel art graphics and this game is superb in that department. Great little details as you cut your way through your foes. Blood splats up against the walls in the background. Taller grass gently moves in the breeze and can be cut, the blades then gently waft to the ground. Bamboo can be cut down. Some barriers can be destroyed and the wood breaks and splitters on the ground. Lighting effects that can give your hidden position away. This really is a wonderful looking game with some very nice little details.

Now, there are a few issues I do want to bring up. Useable items aren’t labelled and you do gain a lot as the game progresses. This is pretty annoying while on missions when you might need to use a specific item during play. You have several items to select from, which are displayed at the bottom of the screen but as nothing is labelled, so you have no idea what anything actually does. Even back at the ninja village when you go into your inventory, no labels of what anything is, and there are (as the game claims) over two hundred craftable items.

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See all of those items (and I’ve not even got a quarter of them unlocked here, note the arrows to scroll the inventory at the side of the screen). I know the top line of items are shurikens and throwing knives, but there are so many variants, I have no idea what each one does. There are seven variants of shuriken alone there… And there are more too. That little brown bag at the start of the second line, what is it and what does it do? I don’t know and I’ve played this game for thirty plus hours. I know what you are thinking, you have to highlight the item and it tells you what it is and what it does… Nope. See that pic above, the white square thing is me highlighting and nowhere does it tell you anything about the item. It does on the swords, you highlight a sword and it’ll come up will all sorts of stats, from durability, damage it can do, armour penetration and more. Look at the number of various bombs I have there too, different colours mean different elemental effects, I get that. But what about the different shapes of each of the bombs within each colour? What do they mean and do, I honestly have no idea. I’ve finished this game and I do not know what most of the items do.

There is so much detail on the various swords in the game, but absolutely nothing for any of the other items. I don’t know which of the various mines and bombs to take on each mission, because they all look alike without telling you what they are or do. How about I just play a mission, see what’s what and, quit and retry only this time, I load myself up with what I need, now knowing what the level holds? Nope can’t do that because the levels are randomly generated remember. Picking and using items to take on a mission kind of becomes a lottery. Select it, use it and see what it does, then you have to try and commit all of that info to memory for all two hundred plus craftable items because the game doesn’t tell you what each item is or does.

It’s not like there’s a lack of room for descriptions either. If it’s doable on the swords, why not the other items? Even when you are on a mission, there’s a pretty big item select at the bottom of the screen that could easily also tell you what the item actually is. Smoke bomb written above the item, there you go, it’s that easy but the game doesn’t tell you anything. I tried to use a health potion, but ended up throwing a smoke bomb.

WITHIN THE BOSS FIGHT

Sticking on the subject of useable items and weapons. Your own items can hurt you and you can’t pick them back up. If for instance, you drop a mine and the enemy doesn’t walk on it, you can’t pick it up to use again. Then you forget that you can’t pick it up, step on it and take damage… From your own thrown item. I just think it would be great if you could pick up any unused items that you have thrown. You can’t aim to throw items either, each item has its own trajectory that you can’t influence.  So that is another thing about the two hundred plus items you need to commit to memory, how they are thrown. The number of times I have tried to throw a grenade at an enemy, for it to land nowhere near where I wanted it to go. Mines can only be thrown about two inches in front of you, but grenades can be thrown several feet. It makes no sense. Some grenades will bounce off the walls, some with explode on impact… But the game doesn’t tell you that and you have to use trial and error. The throwing items would work so much better if you could hold down the use button and bring up a reticle and path/arch of the throw. As it is now, it’s a bit of a crapshoot where your thrown item will go.

To controls of the ninja feel a bit loose at first, I eventually got used to it but the wall running was still far more fiddly than it needs to be and I just never got on with it, even by the end. Stealth mechanics could do with a bit of polish as it is just way too easy to be spotted, like less than a second. It’s not made 100% clear what helps to hide you and what doesn’t. Your ninja character does get darker to indicate they are hidden, but you still can be spotted regardless of how hidden you are. Even more if you are in complete shadow, you’re not entirely hidden.

One of the missions has you infiltrating a castle at night. It’s dark and are seemingly well hidden from enemies. There are parts of the castle with lit torches on the wall that will obviously give you away. Then there are parts where there are no torches and it is literally pitch black to the point where you can’t even see where your character is at all. Now, here’s the thing, if you the player can’t see the main character… How are you supposed to play the game? A little additional here too, I was playing this mission and hid in 100% complete shadow. yet I was spotted by two enemies that were also in the shadows. So here’s a question, what’s the point in hiding in the shadows if you can still be spotted, even when you the player can’t see where you are? And how is it fair that the enemies can still see you in the shadows, but you can’t see them?

There was a similar side-scrolling, stealthy ninja game from 2012 called Mark of the Ninja (remastered and re-released a couple of years ago too) and it pretty much perfected 2D stealth gameplay. That was nine years ago and the stealth mechanics were sublime. Here, the stealth seems very rough and often hit and miss whether you will be spotted or not, it seems to be more luck-based than skill-based. There are even times when (due to the random level generation) that the game puts you in a position where you have no choice but to break your stealthy hiding spot and take on enemies one on one, to then ruin your ranking at the end of the level. It just kind of spoils the whole stealth side of it when you can’t use stealth properly by force. Crawling makes the screen scroll down so you can’t see the action on the screen and you really need to crawl to remain stealthy 90% of the time. This makes no sense as the right stick is used to look up and down anyway. And no, when crawling, you can’t use the right stick to look up. You’re just kind of stuck with this view on not being able to see higher than your own head height. See the following pic of me crawling while trying to sneak up on an enemy you can’t see because the screen auto scrolls down when you crawl.

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There’s a bonus for finishing a level without being spotted, yet I’ve never managed to do it once through the entire game. I’m pretty good at stealth games too, I love taking my time, stalking my victim before striking. Yet I just can not play any mission in Within the Blade without being spotted, I don’t think it is even possible. The assassination button, which you use a hell of a lot, is often awkward to get to when you’re in a pinch and you can’t remap buttons either. I’d rather have the buttons for assassinate and use item be switched. Trust me, you’ll know what I mean if you play this and it is a very simple fix with the option to remap buttons. Overall, the stealth system in the game just feels a bit too janky and in need of some tightening up. Even with the skill upgrade for completely silent movement, enemies can still spot me in less than a second.

There are some really, really bad translations throughout the whole game. At first, I thought maybe it was done intentionally to get that 1970s kung-fu flick, bad dubbing feel. But the more I played, the more it became apparent that it’s most definitely not done of purpose. I mean, here’s a description taken verbatim from the game for one of the skills you can learn:

“Fright a moment before the lethal blow, ninja dissolves into the smoke”

That’s one of the skills, any idea what it does or is meant to do? Cos I seriously have no idea. Oh and no, I’ve not made any typos there, that is exactly what it says in the game. I’ve played the game and still have no idea what the hell that means. The game is full of bad typos and nonsensical dialogue/descriptions.

Finally, the AI really could do with some work. Generally speaking, it is pretty decent with enemies acting and reacting if/when they see you. But they are also as thick as shit when near the various traps that the game throws at you. Seriously, I have seen enemies just continually walk into wall spikes until they die. I have seen them stand right next to fire breathing statues and be burnt to death. I’ve even seen them walk into a pit of spikes at will. In the later part of the game, there are literal pools of fire and I have seen enemies just walk right into them and die. The AI really is questionable.

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Yup, this game definitely has lots of issues, ones that can be fixed fairly easily too. If the devs could update this and refine some of those problems, this really could be an amazing title. Looking at the Steam reviews, and Within the Blade gets some very high praise with a ‘very positive’ overall score. I can see why too as when it works, the game is ‘effing amazing. The basic gameplay really is top-notch and the blending of various genres works well. But no one seems to be mentioning the issues I have brought up here. Has the PC version had several patches to make it play better? I don’t know, I just know that this console version needs to be given a bit more attention.

Despite the many problems, I really had a lot of fun here and I’m even tempted to call this one of my favourite games of 2021, certainly my favourite indie game of the year so far. Which actually makes this a really frustrating and difficult review to do. Seriously, this review was written and good to go three days ago, but I wasn’t 100% happy with it as it came across as too negative when I really didn’t want it to. I have had to come back and edit this thing multiple times over the last three days… And I’m still not sure I’m truly happy with how this review has tuned out, to be honest.

The core game is great, really great. But the issues listed above really do let it down more than they should. I hope the devs get to read this as I’d like them to just do a bit more tinkering and tightening up. This could be a truly amazing game as what I love about it, I really do love immensely. But the issues the game has, I just can’t ignore.

WITHIN THE BLADE SCENE

Priced at £9.99, Within the Blade is well worth buying and yes, I most definitely recommend it, this really is one of the best games I have played this year. But just be warned that it is a little rough around the edges. I played it, finished it and immediately wanted to play again. There is a game+ mode, (brutally hard) challenge modes, different difficulty settings. Within the Blade really offers you a lot of game, a really bloody good game too. Add on the fact it uses randomly generated levels, which means that you can play again and again and have a different experience every time… And I will too, I’ve already started a second playthrough. I may even attempt a third try on the hardest ‘permadeath’ setting.

Honestly, Within the Blade is utterly brilliant, I adore this game. Even with its numerous issues, Within the Blade is fantastic and well worth buying. A decapitating, sneaky-killing, pixel art wonderful romp of a game, with a lot of depth and variety. Available now for all platforms and well worth the forking out the coin for it too.

Game Review: Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX

Ahhhhhhhhhh, Alex Kidd. Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Alex Kidd. Nintendo still have and use Mario, but poor little Alex Kidd is often forgotten about, lost in time… And because Sega created Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 of course. But yeah, there was a time when Alex Kidd was Sega’s main mascot. He starred in a few games between 1986 and 1990, usually platformers, but he would make the odd genre change now and then. His first game, Alex Kidd in Miracle World was released in 1986 for the Sega Master System. Very much praised back then too and the game is still looked back on with a fondness by old-timey Sega fans. It was even built into later versions of the console too. 

There actually hasn’t been an Alex Kidd game since Alex Kidd in Shinobi World from 1990, thirty-one years ago. Then developer Jankenteam and developer-publisher Merge Games thought it was a good idea to remake the original game with Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX. Now, I have to make a confession here… I’m really not much of an Alex Kidd fan, to be honest. I never had a Master System as a kid, but I did have a friend who had one and I did get to play a fair bit of the original game back then. I thought it was pretty good, not amazing or anything, but it was decent enough. Anyway, three decades later, just how does the game hold up now it has had a facelift?

First up, let’s take a quick look at what’s been added for this new version of a classic game. Right off the bat, the first thing you’ll notice is the graphics. The original had a very cartoony look, obviously slightly held back by the limitations of the hardware of the time. But hey, it still looked good with its bright and colourful graphics in 1986. This remake gives the art style a complete overhaul and pushes the cartoony style even further. It still does very much look and feel like Alex Kid, just in glorious HD quality, smoother animations and lots more colour. But, if you are feeling a tad sentimental for those 8-bit graphics, you can flick between both styles on the fly at the touch of a button. All of the original game’s levels have been rebuilt and recreated for this remake. There are even a few all-new levels made just for this remake. There are some new enemies and NPCs too. Even the boss fights have been updated and tweaked. But other than that, the game is pretty much identical to the original, especially in terms of gameplay.

ALEX KIDD DX SCREEN

Now, Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX has its problems… Several of them. Alex himself feels very floaty to control. The jumping is imprecise and you will find yourself missing jumps and smaller platforms, often due to Alex sliding slightly when he lands. The hitboxes sure are questionable. Alex Kidd isn’t Mario, he can’t jump on his enemies to take them out. Instead, Alex has a punch as his main attack and it is very, very short range. You really need the numerous enemies to get in close before you can attack and quite a few times, even though you press the attack, they take you out first. Seriously, I have saved footage of being killed in this and replayed it in slow-motion. I definitely attacked first and you can see Alex’s fist connect too, yet I still died. This is even worse during the underwater levels where controlling Alex is even more difficult. Some deaths feel massively unfair too, especially when you hit a mystery block that can either reward or punish you. The rock, paper or scissors boss fight thing is back from the original too. Nobody liked it back in 1986 and it’s even more annoying now in 2021.

Let’s not forget that this is old school, one-hit deaths, three lives and game over style gameplay too. Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is hard as nails and sometimes very unfairly so too. Yes, this can be frustrating to play and I almost didn’t even bother to play past the first couple of levels initially. Seriously, I must’ve died and seen the game over screen a dozen or so times in the first level alone. However, I stuck with it, I got used to Alex Kidd’s floaty controls. The dodgy hitboxes became second nature and I was able to take out the enemies with relative ease. Something just clicked after a while and the game became easier. Easier, but still not easy. I actually finished this one, something I never did with the original. You know what, I really enjoyed it too.

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Yes, Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX certainly has its problems, issues that modern gamers will detest. But if you are an old fart like me and can remember those old days of punishing one-hit deaths and questionable gameplay mechanics, you might just enjoy this too. What the devs have done here is recreate proper old school gaming. Yes, they could’ve tightened the controls, worked on those hitboxes and appealed to the masses but no. They’ve decided to cater to certain age groups who played the original back in the day, us late thirty-somethings to mid forty pushers who grew up with these games as kids. I’ve played several modern indie games that offer 8 and 16-bit graphics and ones that try to recreate classic gaming, most of them fail. They look the part sure, but they never feel quite right. What Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX does is, it nails that old school gameplay perfectly, just with a very nice looking 2021 lick of paint.

Just in terms of looks, this game is very pretty. I remember a while back when I first saw a handful of screens for the game, I really didn’t like the art style too much. But now I have seen it first hand, now I have played through the game and seen it on a nice big screen, I really like it. The game offers a very bright, colourful and vibrant art style that is beautifully animated. Of course, as previously mentioned, you can go back to the original 8-bit graphics at the touch of a button. Quite a few modern remakes offer this option and of the ones I have played, I always find myself going back to the older 8-bit style. With Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX, I really didn’t want to. I tried it but soon found that I much preferred the new art style over the original one.

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As hard and frustrating as the game is, it does offer some help. You can turn on infinite lives. This is a massive help for those not used to this much harder style of gameplay, especially as Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is very generous with its checkpoints. So dying with infinite lives makes the game much more accessible. However, using the infinite lives thing does mean you can’t unlock certain trophies/achievements. Still, even without the infinite lives thing (a far better way to play), you do get unlimited continues. When you do lose all your lives and use continue, you go back to the start of the level you were on. You lose any money you had, any items too and this does make finishing a level much harder. But hey, I really liked the challenge and do suggest that you play without the infinite lives on.

Finishing the game also unlocks two new gameplay options. There is Classic Mode, which is the original Alex Kidd in Miracle World with none of the extras of the remake. A nice little addition for purists, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not the exact game from the Master System and rather a remake built by the devs themselves. The other one is a Boss Rush mode where you can take on all of the bosses in the game, one after another… Yes, that does include all those rock, paper or scissor fights too. 

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As I said at the start of this review, I’m not a huge Alex Kidd fan. I thought the first game was decent enough and I remember having fun with it back in the day, but I’m certainly not a fan. Still, having said that, I really honestly quite enjoyed this remake far more than I thought I would. Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is a very pleasant surprise and one that, once I got used to the old school, 8-bit difficulty, I began to enjoy more and more as the game progressed. With a more than reasonable price tag of £14.99, you just have to get this game. If you were a fan of the original game, then this is a wonderful love letter to it and I highly recommend it. A remake made with respect and passion for the Master System classic that spawned a franchise. I’d certainly be more a tad more cautious if this is your introduction to the franchise and even proper old school gaming though, as I really have to reiterate just how bloody hard this game is.

ALEX KIDD DX GAME OVER 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is not for the faint of heart and going into it unprepared will most certainly test your patience as the frustration levels rise and rise with each passing level. It is a brilliant slice of history reborn and one that doesn’t forget its roots either. This is how you bring back old school gaming without pandering to the modern, uninitiated gamer, a game made for a specific audience of those who grew up playing these hard as nails games when  we were kids. Buy it if you think you’re hard enough. Just have to wait for the Alex Kidd in Shinobi World remake now…

Game Review: Spirit Of The North: Enhanced Edition

More game reviews, this time I’m taking a look at Spirit of the North: Enhanced Edition from developer Infuse Studios and publisher Merge Games. Now, this is another one of those previously released games that have been given a bit of a facelift recently. Improved textures and lighting, 4k and 60fps gameplay, etc. I guess I had better cover what the game is all about first? Well, you play as an unnamed fox, just a fox. Walking around the landscapes of Iceland. You soon cross paths with the guardian of the Northern Lights and you two become intertwined. The two of you then go onto explore the world and clean up a mysterious red plague that is corrupting the Nordic land.

How best to describe Spirit Of The North? It’s a third-person, adventure-puzzle, walking simulator game… I think. The first thing to note about the game is just how pretty it is. From snow-filled tundras, ice caves and even wonderfully impressive-looking grassy mountains, Spirit Of The North sure is a looker and does its setting of Iceland very proud. I’ve never been to Iceland, but after playing this, I really want to go now. Even the little fox you play as looks great and full of nice little details, it is beautifully animated, its fur moves in the wind, it’ll shake itself dry after coming out of the water. Really, Spirit Of The North: Enhanced Edition is a stunning looking title.

In terms of the story, there’s zero narration, zero dialogue, zero direction. The game is very minimal with absolutely no storytelling in a conventional sense. You do get to find various murals on walls that depict scenes that work as a background story, I guess. But aside from that, there is nothing else and you kind of have to piece together what is going on from nothing more than a handful of murals. When you start the game, your fox has the bare minimal of skills. You can walk, run and jump… Oh and bark. When you do meet up with the guardian of the Northern Lights, that is when the little fox begins to pick up a few new skills and abilities.

SPIRIT OF THE NORTH SCREEN

The skills are not unlimited though and you have to ‘power up’ before you can use them, you do this by seeking out blue flowers called Spirit Blooms. These flowers contain something called Pure Ancient Energy and the fox absorbs that energy, which then allows you to use your powers. Only one use at a time though, so you’ll find yourself continually seeking out more flowers to get more energy all the time. The skills you acquire include transferring power to stones (these are basically switches that make things happen in the game), release a burst of energy that destroys the red plague and you can even leave your body and turn to a spirit, which is used to reach places your physical body can’t. All of these skills are used to solve various puzzles and help you progress to the end of the game.

The game is spread over eight chapters and you can get through the whole lot within a few hours. This is not a big game at all, about four hours at the most I’d say. Even then, the pace of Spirit Of The North is very slow. This is not a high-octane action title, this is a leisurely stroll of a game. Now, I have to confess, I never played this to the end. I got a good way into chapter six (about three hours of gameplay) and gave up. See, there’s really not a lot going on in Spirit Of The North. It’s just not a game with a great deal of content. The puzzles are very samey and hardly taxing either, the locations are really quite small and offer pretty much nothing in terms of exploration. Despite some faux openness (you can look for staffs to return to dead people), you do follow a very linear path. And that’s really about it. There are only eight chapters and I gave up a good way into chapter six. So I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all the game has to offer already. If it hasn’t picked up this close to the end, then it’s just not going to.

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As you can tell from this review, which itself is not very big and lacks content… This is a perfect reflection of the game really. There’s just not a lot going on. Plus, there are some really stubborn controls too, particularly when it comes to jumping. I looked up a few reviews of the older version of this game, pre-enhancements and they all mentioned the same thing, that the jumping in the game is very awkward. I find it strange that given this is the enhanced and updated version of the game, that it still has the same problems it did pre-enhancements. The game does include some pretty precise platforming too, so the awkward jumping really does not help at all.

Look, Spirit Of The North: Enhanced Edition is not a deep or very involving game and it really is incredibly short too. But it does look gorgeous, the improved textures and lighting effects really make this game very nice to look at indeed. However, it is a difficult game to outright dislike as Spirit Of The North really does have a lot of charm and personality, just a shame it doesn’t have much in terms of gameplay. This is a game first and foremost and for me, a good game needs to have good gameplay over everything else, this just doesn’t do that.

SPIRIT OF THE NORTH SCREEN 3

With a price tag of £19.99 (I played the Xbox version), I really can not honestly say it is worth the money. That is £20 you could spend on a far more impressive and rewarding game. However, Spirit Of The North: Enhanced Edition is worth a look at, but just watch a playthrough on YouTube and save yourself a few quid instead.

Game Review: Just Die Already

Well, there’s a game title for you. From developer DoubleMoose and publisher Curve Digital comes the rather aggressively titled, Just Die Already. Honestly I knew nothing about this game going into the review, I just loved the title and wanted to play it. So what is it all about? I’ll let the devs themselves answer that with this blurb about the game:

“You are an old retired person in a near future where people aren’t having any children. There isn’t anyone to pay for pensions due to those ungrateful millennials who prefer playing video games instead of doing actual work. With no one to cover your living costs, you – just like all other old people in this world – have no other choice but to survive on your own.”

Finally, I can play as an old cantankerous bastard getting annoyed at the youth of today. So, after picking one of four OAPs to play as, you start out in an old people’s home and want to escape your mundane life, not wanting to die in a nursing home. You yearn to go looking for some excitement and crazy ways to end your own life. So you try to get kicked out of the home, you do this by creating a little disruption, ruin a birthday party, annoy the other residents. Before you know it, you are turfed out to fend for yourself and this is when the game begins proper.

If you are familiar with Goat Simulator from 2014, then you know exactly what you are getting into here. This is basically Goat Simulator, but with old people and a lot more blood. In fact, the two games are from the same creator, Armin Ibrisagic. Just Die Already gives you an open world, a realistic physics defying game engine and an old person to use to cause OTT destruction and havoc. Civilians walk the streets, hundreds of objects and items to pick up an use, vehicles to control and much more. You are free to do whatever you want with whatever you want, go wherever you want. Described as an ‘old people mayhem sandbox game’. Yup, that pretty much sums the entire game up nicely. 

There is no story to follow, but the game does give you a bucket list of things to do, with different areas of the map having their own lists. Tasks range from something as mundane as eating some food or taunting someone to far more elaborate tasks such as ride a hobby horse while holding your own decapitated head or hack an NPC up with an axe. With each completed task, you unlock a new item that you can grab from the vending machines scattered around the map, many of the items even have their own bucket list entry too. There are some very amusing hidden areas to find and a multitude of ways that you can discover to bring about your own death. Though when you do die, you can just respawn fully healed at the press of a button. Still, your OAP can take some serious damage before they do finally kick the bucket. You can break limbs (which heal over time), even have limbs removed completely, including your head and still stay alive. I was even reduced to just a pair of hips, no legs, no torso, just hips and I was still rolling around on the floor alive. This really is Monty Python’s Black Knight levels of absurdity in terms of body damage. Pretty much any and everything in the game will bring you serious injury and death, I mean, you can freely piss on electrical outlets. That’s the type of game this is.

JUST DIE ALREADY SET UP

The map the game takes place in is impressively big for a indie game. Split into seperate areas that each offer their own bucket list tasks and unique environments and items too. From the main city with shops and skyscrapers, to the docks area where deadly fish swim in the waters and more. There is a multiplayer mode, which I never tried, but I think that could add a lot of extra fun if you have a few friends to play with. Just Die Already also features cross platform play, so you can play with friends regardless of what machine they have. 

Quite honestly, Just Die Already is a lot of nonsensical fun. There’s a lot to do and a huge variety of ways to do it too and the game gives you complete freedom to do whatever you want. But, I also found myself getting a bit bored quite easily though. I played it for a couple of hours just to get a feel for the game, making a few notes for this review and really enjoyed myself. Then I played it again for another hour or so, after a break, just to get more of the gameplay under my belt so I could start to write this review proper… And that was when I started to feel the gameplay got a bit tiresome. Then I played for an hour while actually writing and finishing this review, that was when I became utterly bored by the concept. You do kind of see everything the game has to offer within an hour or two if I’m being honest.

Now, it is not that Just Die Already is a bad game, because it really isn’t. More a case of, even with the openness of the game and the variety or weapons/items it does have, it is still very one-note. You just cause all sorts of destruction and die a lot… And that’s really it. It is a very shallow gameplay experience, even at its most madcap, Just Die Already is really very basic under the OTT physics engine and big map and despite the bucket list of things to do, they are all pretty much the same thing over and over with very little variety along the way. Plus those purposely bad controls and OTT ragdoll effects eventually become more of a hindrance than a joy. 

JUST DIE ALREADY ACTION

As I said, I certainly had fun with this game, even if it was short-lived. Perhaps playing it in shorter bursts is the way to go instead of trying to cram in as much as I could to write this review? I do think I’ll return to it now and again when I want to unplug and just feel like being a bit silly and want some utter nonsense and fun. Just Die Already has a very reasonable price tag of £11.99 and you do get a lot of game for your money too, so it’ll hardly break your bank balance or cut into your life savings. It just needed a bit more variety to the gameplay and perhaps a bit more depth to keep people coming back for more. Fun for a while, but shallow. If you enjoy these type of Goat Simulator, physics defying games, then I do suggest that you give Just Die Already a go. 

Game Review: Anna’s Quest

The graphic/point ‘n click adventure game is one that is in danger of dying out. There have been a few recent attempts at keeping the genre alive with the likes of Thimbleweed Park and Leisure Suit Larry: Wet Dreams Dry Twice. Me personally, I love the genre and I spent a great deal of collective hours through the nineties playing them. It is great to see that devs today are still making them. The very dull-sounding Anna’s Quest from developer Krams Design and publisher Daedalic Entertainment is a new-ish point ‘n click adventure game on the market. I say ‘new-ish’ as it was originally released in 2015 on PC (technically the first episode was released in 2012 before it was finished and released as a full game in 2015), but it has much more recently seen a port to all the consoles. But the big question is, is Anna’s Quest a good graphic adventure game, or is it as boringly beige as the title sounds? Let’s find out.

Okay, so I was originally going to do this bit where I drag out how mind-numbingly dull this game is, using its bland and uninspired title as a running gag. However, I can’t do that because Anna’s Quest is amazing. Before I get into the meat of this review, I may as well just get it out there just how much I fell in love with this game. Just look at the trailer up there ^^^, that is a gorgeous looking game. Beautiful hand-drawn art that looks like something from a children’s fairy tale book. The animation is also exquisite, simple and yet stunningly handsome. Yet, that trailer (as nice as it looks) really does not do the game justice. There are some scenes in this game that look like they’ve been produced by top Hollywood animators and not by a small indie game studio. The attention to detail, dramatic camera angles and more really do impress on a nice big TV. This is the best-looking game I have played this year so far. But of course, it’s not all about looks. What makes a point ‘n click adventure game work is its story, characters and its puzzles.

ANNA'S QUEST 1

Thankfully, in terms of the story, Anna’s Quest hits all the right notes. I’m not going to go into too much detail here as I really do think this is a story you need to experience for yourself. I’ll just give you the set-up for the game without going into spoilers. So you play as Anna and Anna lives with her grandfather on a farm near a deep and dark forest. Gramps is always telling Anna to stay away from the forest as it houses many a danger. Anna, being the good little girl that she is, obeyed her grandfather’s wishes… Until one day when Grapms became ill. Anna has no choice but to venture out to try and find help or a cure, something to make her grandfather healthy again. When Anna ventures into the forest that she had always been told to stay away from, she is kidnapped by a wicked witch and locked away in a tower. The witch conducts various experiments on Anna believing that she has some special powers. Turns out that she does too as it is soon discovered that Anna has telekinetic powers. After befriending a talking teddy bear (trust me, it makes sense in the story), Anna and Ted escape the tower and embark on a quest that draws heavily from classic Grimm fairy tales and European folklore. Seriously, Anna’s Quest looks nice and cute… But it really gets very dark and twisted along the way, all topped off with a very macabre and wonderful sense of humour.

Anna’s Quest is split over six chapters, each chapter based on a location and each one being distinctly unique. Once you finish the tutorial/locked in the tower intro, the game really opens up and you get to see just how lovingly designed the world is. Game mechanics-wise, this is typical point ‘n click stuff. Move your cursor around the screen, find objects to pick up/interact with. Use items, solve puzzles and progress through the story. There are a couple, of handy features that make the gameplay much more fluid. You can flick between items of interest on the screen at the touch of a button, this highlights what can be used and examined, so you’re not just randomly clicking around trying to find something to do. You can also highlight any items that can be picked up too. Two nice gameplay mechanics that just make navigating the game much more fluid and fun.

ANNA'S QUEST 2

As for the puzzles that drive the game, I never found any of them to be overly obnoxious as you often find with point ‘n click games. Yeah sure, some of them had me stumped for a while, but the solution was always logical and I just needed to readjust my thinking to make it work. There’s even a slight sense of freedom while making your way through the game too. There is always the main plot to stick to, but many of the quests in the game can be completed in a non-linear order. I never felt lost here either, I didn’t need hints or any kind of in-game journal to keep track of where I was or what to do. Everything is just so well crafted that progress through the game felt smooth and uncomplicated. Everything leads to a really quite brilliant ending too.

All in all, I got about eight or so hours out of Anna’s Quest and it really left me wanting more too. There are a few niggles I have. The voice acting is very hit and miss, often it sounds like the actors are just reading off a script with very little emotion or depth to the acting. There are a couple of mini-games that do get a tad annoying and really don’t need to be here at all. Thankfully, the minigames can be skipped and are not important to the plot.

ANNA'S QUEST 3

I’m not going to say that Anna’s Quest is the best game I have played so far this year… But I will say it is the most enjoyable game I have played so far in 2021. It is just so well crafted, from its art and animation to the story and characters. Anna’s Quest is simply beautiful and certainly not the boring, beige game I was expecting just going off the title.

As I write this sentence right now, Anna’s Quest is 90% off on Steam and priced just £1.49 (until the 8th of July). That is a crazy, insane price for a game this well made. Buy a copy now, buy five copies for friends. As for the console versions? They come in at £17.99 (Xbox), £15.99 (PS) and £16.99 (Switch), for me, that does seem a little bit steep (full price on Steam is £14.99). Still, Anna’s Quest is a brilliant title, but it being £18 brilliant is really perhaps pushing it a little too far, £15 feels about right to me. Still, this is a must buy if you are a point ‘n click adventure fan. I quite genuinely love this game.