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Author: Phill Cameron

Batman Arkham Asylum – The (Slightly Late) Verdict

Batman Arkham Asylum – The (Slightly Late) Verdict


It’s hard to pick a tone when talking about Batman, in any capacity. You can go the camp, Adam West route and just poke fun at the absurdity of a guy who wears his pants on the wrong way around. You can go for the more serious, realistic approach of the recent films, where Batman is just about plausible, if one man had more money than God and just happened to have access to a military grade research and development team. Or you can go for the brooding darkness of the 90s, where we had Year One and the Animated Series, where you were never truly sure whether Batman was all that different from the criminals he was going up against. I mean, he’s got that one rule, but surely that’s not enough of a difference between hero and villain?

Then again, you could just waffle on about how Batman is difficult to talk about because he’s been such an icon for the past half century, and avoid the issue completely.

It’s all exposition, really, because Batman: Arkham Asylum is its own entity. The closest point of reference is the Animated series of the 90s, mainly because much of the cast and crew reprise their roles. But it’s a darker, grittier version of those characters, updated and elaborated on now that they don’t have a Saturday morning time slot to worry about. Cleavage comes out, the Joker moves from playful crook into fully fledged violent lunacy, and everyone gets a great big injection of steroids into their jugular.


The real difficulty with writing this is to pick what not to talk about. There is so much going on in Arkham Aslyum that it’s almost criminal to ignore any particular facet. To make a quick example, the art direction is excellent, providing grimy corridors mixed with a clinical cleanliness, which just makes it all the more creepy. It’s gothic against modern, with gargoyles and lift shafts scattered all over. Even with six packs and biceps coming out of it’s eyes, Batman manages to stay mostly stylish and stylised without resorting to such tropes and cell shading and the like.

And that’s just one aspect. It’s not one of the main mechanics Batman relies on, but it’s certainly enough to make a difference. Much like the music, which is a gorgeous blend of the classic brooding horns that have so characterised Batman in the past, and some of the best motifs of Hans Zimmer and John Howard’s score for the recent films, without ever copying them. It’s a game that’s greater than the sum of all it’s parts, and when each part is so well crafted, that’s high praise.


There are two main touchstones that any review of Batman is going to have to touch upon, as they’re the mainstay of the game, a solid core running the whole way through. The first is the combat, which is both elegant and brutal, meaty yet fluid, and one of the most intuitive systems I’ve come across. There are three combat buttons for hit, counter and stun, although for the most part it’s just hit and counter you’ll be dealing with. Someone is about to hit you? Press counter, and Batman will deftly grab or dodge the blow, reversing it on the enemy as you pummel him to the ground. Build a combo and you’re rewarded with finishing moves, most of which end with some sort of painful bone breakage, before moving onto the next opponent.

It’s an astonishing feat. Analysing it from a technical standpoint, the sheer amount of different animations and angles at play here is huge, even if you see the leg grab or arm twist a few times too many, it doesn’t feel like it’s because there isn’t enough Batman can do to these poor goons; it’s just that the foot grab or hand twist are the most economical ways to dispatch of the guy. So you’re left with combat that looks efficient yet elegant, and brings you the cinematic experience that doesn’t take you away from feeling as though that’s you doing all that cool stuff.


The other mainstay of the game is the stealth elements, which sort of tie into the whole ‘detective’ theme of Batman. It might be a little liberal to shoe-horn the Riddler elements into this, but it is all incorporated into Batman’s ‘Cowl Vision’, which is basically a hyper-intelligent super-imposed display that labels anything Batman can interact with or blow up, as well as giving you a handy look at all the nearby goon’s skeletal structure. This makes those bone breaks all the more grimacing.

There’s a risk that the isolated stealth rooms can feel a little compartmentalised, much like the brawling arenas, but at the same time it makes sense that only a small number of Joker’s best men will have access to guns, and he’ll want them in the best locations they can be, such as choke points and high value targets. So when you come across one of those, you’ll have five or six men with automatic weapons to dispatch. As we’re often told, Batman is not superhuman, so any more than a few shots and he’ll go down just like the best of them. This means you have to use the environment against the enemy, swinging down from the rafters to knock out the isolated men, then plan a trap for the others when the come to investigate. It’s a welcome change of pace, allowing you to spend more time thinking and planning then dodging and punching.

The only major hiccup in the game is the boss battles, with Poison Ivy in particular being a puzzling difficulty spike. The entire game is focused around you being better than your opponents, with losing a fight not really a danger throughout. Instead it’s all about getting the biggest combo you can to maximise your damage. Against the bosses, however, this instantly gets thrown out the window, with you just chipping away at a health bar, and waiting for weak spots.


They’re by no means awful, but the one boss that you don’t actively fight becomes a stand out moment because it seems like a far more ‘Batman’ way to deal with the situation; outsmarting your opponent rather than outpunching him. The game is almost a victim of its own success; it does everything else so well that when it’s not outstanding, it’s all the more noticeable.

By this point it’s almost pointless to recommend Batman; word of mouth and PR campaigns have done the work for me, with nearly everyone unanimously raving about the game as the second coming of superhero games (or perhaps first coming, as there really haven’t been all that many good ones), but I still do think it’s one of the better offerings of the year so far. The plot may wander into the realms of the ludicrous occasionally, but it’s by no means bad. The tone of Arkham Asylum is outstanding throughout, and the game mechanics, from the combat to the assortment of Bat-tools in your utility belt, all work wonderfully.

There’s so much that’s been glossed over, from the way your costume deteriorates as the night goes on, to some of the more interesting elements of the Riddler’s problems, but most of the fun in those is found through playing, rather than telling. What you need to know is that it’s certainly worth your money, and more than worth your time.

Biff! Pow! Etc!
Biff! Pow! Etc!

Can’t See the Ninja for the Trees – Mini Ninjas Demo

Can’t See the Ninja for the Trees – Mini Ninjas Demo

Someone has attacked your village, triggering your in built Ninja Revenge mechanisms.

Mini Ninjas is gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s beautiful in the way you can tell a child’s going to be really good at art; it’s simple, yet stylish, getting across whatever it was the child was trying to draw, and looking pretty good at the same time. Mini Ninja’s colours don’t go outside the lines. This may, or may not, be because there are no lines.

The art style seems to be indicative of how the game plays. Simple, yet stylish and refined, you’re tasked with finding out what’s going on, as you figure out that the evil samurai (who have some of the most adorable sounds and voices I’ve heard in a long time) are actually mystically enslaved woodland creatures, so, by killing them, you’re actually saving cute little animals. It’s all so quaint, it could be sickly. It just isn’t, for some reason.

I reckon it’s because it’s still kind of serious, despite the cutesy façade. It’s serious in the way a fairy tale can be serious, or a parable; there are people in trouble, and you and your motley band of ninjas have got to set things right. So you go about your task, freeing pandas and the like, knowing that you must do these things. All the while giggling when you hear the little samurai march past, because they sound so deathly serious, despite having the voices of angry children.

I'm not sure, but I think one of them's seen me.

There are some clever little mechanics thrown in, too. You can possess any animal you find, which allows you to sneak past as a frog or rabbit, or charge through as a boar or a panda. Man, Panda’s get mean when they use those big bear claws. Swipe! SWIPE! But then you notice there’s a river, so you flip your comically oversized hat over, hop in, and row your way down, until you’re engulfed in white water rapids, and desperately paddling for your mini life. Then, suddenly, you’re in a lagoon, and there’s fish. Ah, so that’s what the fishing rod in your pack was for.

It’s a linear design disguised as exploration, and it does just as well at hiding its true nature as Hiro, the main character, does at hiding from samurai. And, what with him being a ninja, he does that pretty well. His friend Futo, a huge man with a mallet, not so much. But then he’s got a big hammer, so he makes up for his deficiencies in other ways. Suzume, the last friend unlocked in the demo, seems to just be a slightly weaker version of Hiro, but I’m sure she’ll have her uses in the full game. You can switch between them at will, in a sort of Trine kind of way, which is helpful when facing different obstacles in different ways. There’s also a bit of magic, like the possession of animals, and then, of course, fireballs and the like.

She uses her baton thing like a propeller. Awww.. so cute.

While the demo is pretty short, weighing in at just shy of 1GB, it’s hopefully indicative of a really clever adventure game in the vein of the better Zelda games. It’s kind of taken everyone by surprise, firstly coming from the developers of Hitman and Kane and Lynch, two notoriously brutal games, and by sneaking up on us with a sudden release date that’s only a few weeks away. I’m going to resist making a ninja pun about that, but really, I can’t wait to play more.

You can get the demo here.

Bionic Commando – The Verdict

Bionic Commando – The Verdict

I'm standing on a younger me's head. Woah, mind trip!

Bionic Commando has fooled me into loving it.

It’s the confusing girl at school. She’s not particularly attractive, and has strange food for lunch. But she’s got an infectious personality, and she’s just /fun/ to be around. She makes you laugh and shake your head, and you keep coming back to her even though she smells of cabbages, and that slight quirk in her smile unsettles you. Now imagine that girl is a psychotic bloke with a grappling hook for an arm, and an army of terrorists to kill.

Yeah, I know.

It starts with a basic premise; war hero turned war criminal, put in prison because the public was afraid of his super human abilities, then pulled away from death row because terrorists have blown up a city, and they need someone with super human abilities to stop the terrorists. It’s a fair weather country. And no one knows why the terrorists blew up the city, apart from the fact they’re terrorists, and that’s what terrorists like to do, obviously.

So you’re dropped in, given the ability to latch onto anything living, dead or non-organic, and told to get on with the mission. But you don’t get on with the mission. You spend the first 20 minutes just swinging from billboards, because it’s hilarious fun. The sense of motion, speed and gravity in the game is something I’ve not had any experience of since Spiderman 2, the first Spiderman game to actually make your web stick to stuff. Except where, in Spiderman 2, the joys of swinging where only really hinted at, here they’re realised to the full potential.

I'm about to introduce them to the world of PAIN.

Nathan Spencer (voiced by the ever versatile Mike Patton), is the eponymous Bionic Commando, and he only extrapolates the fun with his psychotic interruptions, whether sadistic chuckling when he snipes a soldier, or howling like a monkey as he drops hundreds of feet down a fissure in the earth, only to fire out his arm at the last minutes and swing to safety. His attitude is infectious, and when you hear him gloat ‘Nailed ya!’ at the latest hapless foe, you begin to have an inkling at how little this game takes itself seriously.

It’s in the details, like Spencer’s iron boots, which somehow make him impervious to fall damage. It’s the hilariously over the top German villain, resplendent with manic laughter and corrupted morals. It’s the obvious twist, seen coming from miles and miles and miles away. It’s the utterly bonkers story, the big, unended plot strands, and the righteous vengeance of the protagonist. Bionic Commando is about as gamey as a game can get.

That’s not to ignore the huge, glaring flaws in the game. There is no manual saving and dozens of badly placed checkpoints; enough, at least to stop me playing for that particular moment out of frustration. Biomechs, the game’s minibosses, have the utterly uninspired weak spot on their back, and while it seems to be a bit of an inside joke in the game, that doesn’t make it anything less than arduous to kill them. Having Xbox controller buttons on screen at all times, even when no Xbox controller is connected to the computer, is unforgivable. Intermittent crashes hardly help, either, and the graphics options are a joke, with the joke being there are none.

This is me riding a plane like a FUCKING SURF BOARD

From what I’ve seen, either no one is playing multiplayer, or the lobby system doesn’t work. From what I’ve read, even when a game does get going, it’s likely to get dropped hastily by dodgy netcode. You could say the single player was a little on the short side, but it’s certainly doesn’t feel /too/ short, not too long. Taken individually, some of these things may seem to be deal breakers, and together they’re little short of damning, but just because that girl smelt of cabbage, that didn’t stop you from wanting to be around her.

These flaws are as nothing, really, when you actually get to play the game. There are a few ways to incapacitate (read: kill) your foes, from flinging them hilariously into one another, flinging them off into the distance, hearing their cartoonish cries dwindle and diminish, throwing cars, rocks and dead robots at them, or just shooting them. A favourite tactic of mine became flinging a man into the air, then quickly retracting my arm to hoof kick the guy in the chest, sending him flying from elevation. Then again, you can always just drop on them from a great height.


The fights are only there to break up the swinging, of which there is a good deal, with lampposts and the aforementioned billboards making up the bulk of that which you swing from, but nearly anything that isn’t irradiated (the games not-so-clever way of keeping the levels contained) can be attached too, so you can abseil and catapult yourself from almost anything. It’s joyous, pure and feels so entirely natural that when going back to any other game, the urge to swing from anything you see makes you do some truly stupid things.

I can’t remember the last time I replayed a game directly after I completed it. I may have begun the second playthrough, but I’ve rarely followed it through, instead fizzled out naturally when I found my appetite for the game’s core mechanics dwindling. With Bionic Commando, however, the sheer Newtonian appreciation of gravity has kept me returning again and again, to the extend where I’m playing the single player section through a third time. It’s something of an oddity in my gaming habits, albeit a welcome one.

What all this is trying to say is that my love of Bionic Commando could well be a freak occurrence. There’s plenty you can get upset about, from the shoddiness of the port, to the various misses in enemy design and missing plot elements. On the other side, there’s not a huge amount to cling on to when looking for positives, beyond the joyously brilliant swinging, the lushness of the environments, and the utterly charming, psychotic personality of the game.


To recommend Bionic Commando is to recommend a somewhat divisive band that doesn’t really have many redeeming qualities, but for some reason you can’t stop listening. Something about it grabs you, and you’re not sure what, so to explain it to friends seems pointless. Bionic Commando is the game that I shouldn’t like, but I really, really do. As usual, it’s an experience that’s entirely, completely subjective.

Swinging is more fun than it has right to be.
Swinging is more fun than it has right to be.
Trine – The Verdict

Trine – The Verdict

It's missing a unicorn, but we can let that slide.

Trine is the best co-op game you’ll ever play by yourself.

Or, for that fact, it’s one of the better ones you’ll play with other people. It’s clever like that.

The concept is simple, and that’s part of the appeal; three generic adventurers (wizard, thief and warrior), all happen to be in the same place at the same time, and all touch the same magical gem, that just so happens to fuse their souls together, meaning the occupy the same body. What this means in terms of playing the game is that you can switch between all three instantly, and also let your friends play as one (or both) of the others. You then must work your way through dungeons, forests, forges and evil towers to allow the three to be freed, all the while killing skeletons and manipulating your environments to advance.

The skeletons die relatively easily, and the puzzles are similarly simple when on your own, either requiring the thief’s light step and grappling hook, or the wizard creating some cleverly placed blocks. For a £20 game, it’s a little on the brief side, allowing you to breeze through it within a few hours, regardless of difficulty for the most part. The most appealing thing about it is the versatility of the puzzles, each having presumably dozens of different combinations of boxes, jumps and runs to complete, with little more than a few see-saws, an unreachable point and some spikes for you to play around with. It’s never frustrating, and the liberal placings of checkpoints means you never have to redo a puzzle too many times.

The book is far too large to be practical. Must be magical.

The game really comes into it’s own when you play with a friend, though. The thief’s grappling hook is no longer the win button it was before, meaning you have to actually be crafty with how you approach each puzzle. The warrior, relegated to just killing skeletons in singleplayer, suddenly has to be used as soon as someone messes up, due to the way the death system works (three lives, each one a character. So die with the wizard, and you can only use the thief and warrior.). New strategies arise though, such as using the wizards levitation to manipulate objects he’s not standing on, but the other character is, meaning you can reach previously inaccessible locations, as well as create hovering bridges without having to secure them. I can only imagine the difficulty having three players presents, as you can’t even switch out which character you are. The puzzles which have previously seemed over simple suddenly become gargantuan undertakings, and you realise this is the game as the developers intended.

The visuals, too, need to be lauded. I’ve never seen a 2d platformer so gorgeous, with each incremental detail wonderfully animated and fleshed out. Mushrooms release puffs of spores when you land on them, and lava bathes everything around it in a wonderful warm glow. The skeletons are suitably brittle, collapsing in a heap of archaeology when boxes and fat men in armour fall on them. Within the limited 2d plane, this is as vibrant a world as could be imagined. Things go on in the background and foreground, lending illusionary depth and visual fidelity as you advance from left to right. Sounds, too, work wonderfully, each thwack of the sword and thunk of an arrow adding to the overall level of polish on exhibit.

Of course, there’s a blemish, present in the obscene difficulty spike of the last level, a classically misjudged change of pace to the enjoyable platformer. It’s hardly enough to tarnish the impression the game leaves, but it’s enough to frustrate and annoy, not least just questioning it’s presence in the game. In my eyes, lava should stay at a consistent level in all games, and never get airs above its station.

It's been scientifically proven grappling hooks increase a games fun levels by up to 50%.

There are a few RPG-lite elements, allowing you to level up each character, adding arrows to each pull and release, or permitting you a few more planks before the earlier ones fizzle into nothingness. Allowing you to choose which skill to level up seems a little impotent to begin with, each choice forced upon you, but later on you have to make mildly game-changing choices on which skills to max out, which could act as a nice incentive to play through again, at least with a friend.

Similarly, there is treasure and loot, increasing health, energy and the like, with a few breaking from convention and providing some more uncommon benefits, like last minute health replenishment and resurrection abilities. They’re hidden throughout the level in chests, a pleasant reason to explore beyond arbitrary collectibles that have no effect on the game other than to feed the obsessive compulsive within you. Finally exploration is rewarded tangibly, the muted gleam of the metal reinforcement on the chest an incentive to push your logic bridgebuilding skills a little further, allowing you to reach the unreachable ledge.

The glaring flaw in all of this is a lack of internet multiplayer. It would perhaps be frustrating to both be fixed to the same camera, and maybe the potential lack of voice chat a few gaming luddites would incur would make getting past puzzles more than difficult, but at the same time, not everyone has an extra controller for their pc, and having two seems frivilous at best. So to play with three people locally seems slightly unattainable, something an internet connection should be able to solve. It’s more annoying because of the potential for fun, rather than having any adverse effect on the game as is, but it’s still an annoyance.

None of this does anything to ruin Trine, however. It’s a brilliant platformer that, while perhaps a little pricey right now, will no doubt be a steal when the price drops due to a sale or just over time. If you’ve got a spare controller for the PC, and a friend who’d be willing to put up with whereever your computer is kept, it’s certainly worth picking up. The single player potential is a little on the light side, but it doesn’t bore, and only ever excites and entertains, and I’m going to stop in case I use up my hyperbole quota for the month.

It's got Fantasy out the Ears, and that's just great.
It's got Fantasy out the Ears, and that's just great.
Prototype – The Verdict

Prototype – The Verdict

One of my many, many victims. This one's Fred.

Manhattan is burning. The streets are filled with crushed cars, dead men and the virus. There are outcroppings of resistance and control, both exercising their share of both. Neither side is worth fighting for, but then, neither is the side I’m on, if there even is one. I was forced under the delusion that I might be able to stop it, slow the spreading, but I’m just as useless as the military, and just as deadly as the virus they fight. I’m not sure who I am any more, or if I ever was anyone at all. It’s all gone to hell, and I’m the one that sent it there.

Prototype is Apocalypse in action. There’s no wasteland, no survivors desperately eking out their existence in a world that’s forgotten them. This is ground zero, where it all begins. It’s refreshing to finally be there when it happens, rather than the dozen or so recent games where you’re around years afterward. Refreshing isn’t apt, though. It’s more horrifying than anything, and that’s mainly because it seems as though it may just be all my fault.

Guilt in games isn’t a new concept. It’s not usually a scripted event, but whenever your men die in an RTS because you did something stupid, or your party members in an RPG die because you didn’t really assess the situation properly, it’s there, eating away at you. You can just reload, and often that’s the best thing to do, but Prototype doesn’t allow you such an easy out. Every time you fight, in the calm after the storm you’re presented with an ‘Operational Report’, a quick run down of four things; how much money in military assets you just destroyed, how many military personal were killed, how many infected were killed, and chillingly, how many civilians were killed. To begin with I thought all this was my doing, directly, that I had killed thousands upon thousands of civilians during my fights. Then I realised it wasn’t quite as horrendous as that, these were people the infected, military and I had killed, during out scuffle.

In the infected zones, the sky turns to a livid orange. Quite beautiful.

At first it didn’t bother me. The numbers were low, and the civilians tended to be pretty stupid anyway. They ran out in front of my tank. They were running screaming in the infected areas, even though there was safety just a few blocks away. Then, the numbers began to escalate, even though the infection rates were rising. 50% of the population were infected, and while the numbers of infected killed each fight were going up, the number of civilians killed were going right up with them. At least a thousand dead each time I had a major battle, and even though I hadn’t taken each life myself, if I hadn’t intervened they would presumably still be standing.

Prototype is an interesting game, in that it should be just about the pure, unadulterated fun of it. You’re a man who can turn his body into a living weapon, and consume the memories of anyone he killed, meaning flying helicopters, driving tanks, and firing guns are all easy to do. The problem is it takes this overly serious tone that’s utterly at odds with the violence on display. This should almost be a comedy, or at the very least a tongue-in-cheek look at the overly security conscious nation across the Atlantic. But instead you’re pushed into the body of a man who has no qualms killing anyone he thinks may have something to do with his predicament, even if it means killing harmless civilians who are just wandering down the street. By the end of Prototype I was feeling harrowed, and not just because the final boss is a crime against gaming.

Only the New York taxi service was still running. Those brave souls.

If you want to get metaphysical about it, it’s a commentary on the increasingly frivolous attitude games, and more specifically gaming protagonists, have towards human life in games. It’s there, allowing you to be this obscenely powerful being, and then it’s slapping a sticker on your back telling you what a horrible person you are for playing the game the way it wants you to play. It’s the devil on your shoulder in cahoots with the angel, giving you a wonderful time, then telling you why you’re such a horrible person afterwards. It’s like a personal trainer giving the fat kid a cake, then forcing him to go weigh himself and realise what a horrific person he is.

By now, you’ll realise that I’m not going to be discussing the pros and cons of Prototype’s control system and side quests. The game has been out long enough for there to be any number of conventional reviews out there. Yup, everything that makes a game is there, and yeah, it all works to a certain extent. Some of the side quests are boring, and unnecessary, but hey, they’re there if you want them. The story makes little sense, and the graphics are a little shoddy. More importantly though, is that this game is fun, just not if you pay too much attention to what it’s perhaps trying to say.

The facts of how Prototype gets a message across make it all the more ambiguous. Radical have placed this game in the serious overtones of a conspiracy drama, along with the hyper violence and B movie climax. Mixed up in all that are various different themes and undertones that can be read into any which way, and may be entirely incidental, meant only for a cool number up on screen, or just filler between missions. My English teachers always used to ask me what the poet intended when writing the poem, but that was only to try to put us in a certain frame of mind; once the poem is out there, it only means what you take it to. Games are the same way, albeit oversaturated with developer coverage and hype telling you how to receive a game. That I’m taking Prototype to be an exercise to illicit player guilt is merely because that’s the reaction it got from me. Prototype made me feel guilty, and any emotion is better than none.

Alex Mercer shows the true form of his utter dickishness.

Stompy Robots and Beardy Wizardry Both Free!

Stompy Robots and Beardy Wizardry Both Free!

I feel like 'pew pew' is far too high in pitch for the size of these lasers. Perhaps 'pow pow' would be better.

Seems like a good day to be a PC gamer. Firstly, to mark the 25th anniversary of Battletech, Smith & Tinker are allowing, a Mechwarrior community site, to give away Mech Warrior 4 and all of its expansions for free, to go with the announcement of a new Mechwarrior game. Blimey, that’s a lot of stompy robots for better than cheap. While they haven’t quite launched it yet, keep an eye on the website for download details. Mechwarrior 4 is known to be perhaps one of the less than classic Mechwarrior titles, I still have fond memories of loading up my MadCat with far too many EMP lasers and heat sinks, and trying to melt everything with hydraulics.

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Plants Vs Zombies – The Verdict

Plants Vs Zombies – The Verdict

Repeater joined the army as soon as he could. His parents didn't understand, but he didn't expect them to.

To clarify; this is not a review. It is a warning. Yes, Plants Vs Zombies is worth your money. No, it’s not worth the death of your social and gaming lives. It’s the kind of risk/reward that has you thinking whether installing it is really that much of a good idea. What’s the worst that could happen? As bottles of Indian alcohol say, ‘Loss of Friends, Family and Life may result.’ So, you really have to ask yourself; How much do you really want to stop the zombie apocalypse with naught but a shrubbery of badass plants with hilarious backstories? I’m really not all that good at this warning malarkey, am I?

It’s hard to say a bad word about it. It’s more addictive than Peggle, and for the weeks after you buy it, you’ll do little else than partake in aggressive botany and culling of the undead. Plants Vs Zombies is easily one of the most accessible games I’ve ever played, and at the same time it possesses a depth that’s enough to keep even the most ardent RTS fan coming back, days after they’ve all but finished everything it has to offer, just to water some plants, or, y’know, kill some more zombies. How you spend your free time says a lot about you.

When it boils down to it I’ve spent at least 40 hours doing what my whole family sniggers at my grandfather for doing with his spare time. Growing vegetables shouldn’t be entertaining, and it definitely shouldn’t be satisfying to place a nut on the ground knowing that now at least your sunflowers are safe, all the while worrying if your mushrooms are going to be able to deal with the ladders in time. It’s tempting to call Plants Vs Zombies a perversion of tower defense games, but really, it belongs to no genre I can think of. Defense is the main aspect, but instead of defending a road or base, you’re defending grass. And, sometimes, a pool.

The humour definitely adds a good deal to endearing the game to you. Plants like Wall-nuts, Peashooters and Cabbage-pults all illicit a chuckle, and playing off the stupidity of zombies in creating ever more ridiculous enemies never really gets old. Really, though, the variety of ways to defend the lawn is what will prove to be the final time sink. The main adventure is excellently paced, starting you off with the bare essentials, and awarding you one new plant each level, until you’ve got such a selection the choice isn’t how to survive but how to dispose of the zombies. Similarly, the zombies themselves diversify, with bungee zombies, dolphin zombies, screen-door zombies and old man zombies all throwing a spanner in the works. By the time you get to the roof, each level is a challenge to adapt to the different tactics that you never feel like you’re being given a free ride, while at the same time never becoming so difficult you feel cheated. For the completists among you, the game issues you with a silver trophy when you complete the main adventure, slyly informing you that to get gold, you need to get a trophy in all of the other game modes. Simple, you think. Then you have a look at just how much extra content lies beyond the main story.

They're like mice; they get everywhere!

You unlock three distinct modes; Puzzle, Mini-game and Survival. The latter is obvious, and allows you to live out all of those fantasies that you had during the main campaign of just continuing to elaborate your defenses until nothing could get past. It’s the perfect antidote to the feeling you get in the adventure mode that you’re always on the back foot, unable to get a proper grip on things. Here you can create a solid foundation, and then with each level increasing in difficulty you get to swap out plants for more powerful versions, and defend against the more complicated of zombies. You don’t ever feel as though it’s easy, but it’s certainly a different style of play to the adventure mode, no matter how similar it looks.

Puzzle and Mini-games, on the other hand, provide a far more unique set of diversions. The Mini-games are a collection of novelties like wall-nut bowling, a bejewled clone that becomes even more addictive than the original due to the fact you’re still defending the lawn from zombies, adding a layer of strategy on maneuvering your plants around trying to find matches, and Zombotany, where the zombies have their heads replaced with plants, and can shoot back, proving visually funny and fiendishly difficult, encouraging an entirely new kind of playstyle. Puzzle is a little more simple, providing the brilliantly named I, Zombie, where you control the zombies and try to get into the house, and Vasebreaker, which is similar to Minefield, if the mines were replaced with zombies. The fact is, these are just a few highlights; the game itself contains so many ingenious variations that you’re bound to find something that you find brilliant, even if you don’t much like the main game.

There is also the Zen Garden, which provides an alternate source of income that has nothing to do with the zombies at all. It’s a moment of calm amid the many attacks, and mainly involves watering plants, playing them music and feeding them fertilizer. The level of compulsion that is present even here is almost sickening, with the insistent drop of water hanging over the icon in the main menu enough to drag you away from the main game to tend to the plants.

Then there’s the almanac, something that is almost entirely unnecessary, and completely hilarious. It contains descriptions of each zombie type, and every flower. All of them are enough to make you laugh, while at the same time creating small back stories behind everything in the game. Superfluous and brilliant, it’s perhaps the best demonstration of the game’s charm. It’s a game about using plants to defeat a zombie apocalypse; if it didn’t embrace the funny then what would be the point?

Popcap are famous for ruling the casual market, and for creating some of the most addictive games available. Plants Vs Zombies doesn’t feel like a casual game, but it’s accessible enough that anyone can play, and enjoy, it. It has enough depth to keep even the most hardcore gamer happy, while at the same time never being too overwhelming. Some of the mini-games lean towards the difficult side of things, but there’s more than enough content to charge triple what it costs and still feel like you got a good deal. Problem is, it’s the largest time-sink I’ve come across, and unless you’ve got the willpower to ignore it, or the gaps in your timetable to accommodate it, this game is going to be a pretty large inconvenience.

A Pretty Bloody Good Game
A Pretty Bloody Good Game

And, as an aside, here’s the wonderful song that they made for the game:

Recycling Regurgitation: McMillen’s Spewer

Recycling Regurgitation: McMillen’s Spewer

Mmm Milky White Cloud Vomit.

Edmund McMillen has released a new flash game, apparently his last this year (don’t worry, No Quarter is still coming out this year, along with Super Meat Boy), called Spewer, where you play a Hamster with a bit of indigestion. As is McMillen’s wont, the game is a little bit gross, but loads of fun, having you use your vomit as a way to traverse the terrain, be it flinging you across the level with a plume of puke flying behind you, or filling up a hole so you can swim across. I’m just glad there aren’t any chunks in it.

You can play the game here, or download it here.

Zeno Clash – The Verdict

Zeno Clash – The Verdict

She really should know that her afro is far too big to be practical.

There’s one question that hovers nebulously over Zeno Clash like the Sword of Damocles, ready to drop and sentence it to commercial and critical death. It’s one I can answer happily, with an elbow to the face, and uppercut to the chin and a kick while they’re on the floor. Yes, the combat in Zeno Clash works. Often, it does more than merely work, and you’ll end up feeling like the star of a martial arts B-movie as you make quick work of a group of four or five other combatants. It’s a good thing, too, as for the majority of the four hour single player story, you’ll be using every hard bit of your body on rat-men, bird-men, mole-men, elephant-men and what I think were pig-men. They weren’t all anthropomorphic, but most were. Although one of them obviously didn’t really understand the concept, and just put a pot on his head. That’s not anthropomorphic, that’s just good sense. Pity he’s unconscious and bloody at my feet, then.

Zeno Clash is mental. It’s by and far the most bonkers game I’ve ever played, not just because of the denizens of the world, or the fact the sky changes colour at the drop of a hat, or that you’re never quite sure whether you’re in the present or the past. There’s something very fleshy about the world, where everything from the (handily) pulsating fruit that you eat to regain health to the buildings themselves seem to be molded out of the same stuff as the people. It’s not just that; what you see of the world itself seems to be a microcosm of what is really there, just a tiny, focused look at this world ACE Team have created. This is in part due to the often quite obvious linearity of the levels, highlighted most memorably when you see the characters climb up and over obstacles that you yourself have no way of overcoming. It’s ok, though, because there are faces to punch. Zeno Clash is quick to remind you of what it is, with Street Fighter-esque VS screens coming up before every fight. They prepare, amuse and entertain you, and while they may break the illusion, it was never all that enforced anyway.

The enviroments are just as crazy looking as the people, which makes it a minor tragedy they aren't bigger.

The game is short, but it gives off the impression that it’s been trimmed heftily, creating a streamlined experience that only begins to grate near the end, when you begin to revisit similar fights to some earlier scenes. This is only a minor frustration because the rest of the game has been so startlingly original. The Corwid, a forest dwelling people who have chosen a life free from reality and reason, are a particular highlight, because each is so brilliantly strange. One eats people, because that is what he feels he needs to do. One is eaten, because that’s what he needs to do. Another thinks it’s best to be invisible, so if he doesn’t want to be seen by a particular person, he cuts out their eyes. There’s a great moment when you find a particularly interesting Corwid who walks in a straight line, stopping at nothing. Manouvering enemies into his path only to watch them crushed beneath his massive feet was particularly satisfying, if only because he seemed so incidental to the level.

Similarly, the few boss fights that are thrown at you are generally fun, with the final act being slightly less so. Flying squirrel bombs is a term that’s been bandied around the game, but they really do define the general tone behind it. An interesting dynamic is created between dealing with the explosive nut-hoarders, or sniping at the guy throwing them at you. The fact that guy is on a giant giraffe/elephant/dinosaur and huge mutated whale respectively only adds to the absurdity of it all. And it is absurd. They plot is vague at best, with huge chunks in the narrative missing. There is little reason for where you’re going and there’s little motivation apart from ‘run away or die’. Something so basic works to begin with, but really it’s just a vehicle for your tourism in this strange world. Kneeing people in the head is great fun, but what you remember from Zeno Clash are the locations and the characters.

Purple skies are the bestest.

The single player story is not the sole offering. Challenge levels are also on offer, with multiple levels of increasing difficulty and variety available. Leaderboards will be kept once the game is live, charting how long each section took you, but really it’s a rather smart move by ACE Team. While the main game is thoroughly enjoyable and accomplished, there is very little incentive to go back, bar a few reward-less achievements that you didn’t pick up first time around. The combat, though, is visceral and addictive, and it would be a shame not to be able to just revisit the game to crack some skulls. Challenges provide that, and even though each ‘floor’ of the Tower has a set amount and type of enemies, what you can do to them varies wildly, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of punching the weird flightless bird things into each other. The Challenge Rooms provide longevity, and enough reason to go back to Zeno Clash after the story is over. Leaderboards may be incentive to some, but the draw of the fighting is far more likely to bring you back.

Zeno Clash is surprisingly accomplished for a first-time Indie title. There are a few minor flaws, but the fact that I remained thoroughly entertained throughout the main game, and enough to go back to each Challenge level multiple times is a testament to the fact that they really don’t matter. The final act can get slightly flakey, but that’s only because the rest of the game holds it to such a fine standard. The voice acting can grate a little, but for the most part it’s wildly better than most Triple-A titles, not least because of the variety of voices, from Father-Mother’s dual chorus to Golem’s deep boom. You should play Zeno Clash just to experience its world, even if you’re not enticed by the satisfying crack of elbow against face.

Golem, the only character in the game who is more awesome than you are.

A Pretty Bloody Good Game
A Pretty Bloody Good Game