Yakuza 0: trying something different

The Christmas holidays are a great time for gaming. Whether it’s spending time with a game received as a gift, treating yourself to a title in the Steam sale or trying something completely new, it’s the perfect time of year to curl up on the sofa with your controller.

My other-half and I managed to complete several releases we’d never played before. Sea of Solitude was a lovely puzzle-platformer with a sincere message at its heart; Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure kept us guessing at what was going on right until the end; and Call of Sea was a beautiful escape-room type journey. Then there was Quern – Undying Thoughts, a game I’d purchased after a recommendation from Darkshoxx and which felt like discovering Myst all over again.

It wasn’t all about video games though. Being aware of just how much I enjoy a good detective thriller, Kevin from The Lawful Geek very kindly sent us a murder-mystery-in-a-box to solve. Post Mortem: Death in La-La Land was a choose-your-own-adventure with physical evidence that kept us bust for around six hours trying to find out whodunnit. It made us feel as though we were the middle of our very own noir story and I can’t wait to start the next case, Lucha Muerte, very soon.

This would be a good pick for January’s EXP Share but it’s not the experience I’ve chosen to talk about today. This community event is hosted by DanamesX over at Tales of the Backlog and has been designed to get us all sharing our gaming tales, with the current topic being: “Share a story about a game that you played for the first time this month.” I know I’m cheating a little by selecting something from December but, with bonus points available if it’s in a genre you wouldn’t normally pick up, I’ve got something that’s perfect.

Although I’d vaguely heard about Yakuza previously, I’d never tried an entry myself because the series just wasn’t something on my radar. I quite like watching others play action-adventure releases and seeing how their narratives develop, but I often don’t take the lead on the controls because I’m so uncoordinated. It’s also the case that I don’t usually enjoy Japanese RPGs or releases set in the country because their storylines tend to be a little too over-the-top for my taste.

But watching Nathan from Gaming Omnivore play part of Yakuza 0 during one of his streams made me kind of curious. What the hell were we doing following two strangers into a restaurant and then helping them solve a crossword puzzle? And how on earth was ‘soy sauce face’ the opposite of ‘sauce face’? Although I get it now, at the time the Crossed Words substory was perhaps one of the weirdest side-missions I’d seen someone play through on Twitch.

And now this absurdity is the main reason why I’ve been having so much fun with the game since downloading it from Xbox Game Pass a few weeks ago. Obviously I’m terrible at the controls and prefer to mash the buttons while sticking to a single fighting style but that’s ok – because Yakuza 0 doesn’t take itself too seriously, I don’t feel the need to either. There’s no pressure for me to perform perfectly during the combat sequences and so instead I can concentrate on simply enjoying myself.

Just when you think the substories couldn’t get any more outlandish, they do. I’ve saved someone’s daughter from losing all her money to a doomsday cult and reunited her with her mother. I’ve won several cuddly toys from the UFO Catcher at the SEGA Hi-Tech Land for a child and then had to listen to her call me ‘Daddy’. And I’ve incorrectly given someone a pizza when they actually wanted a visa, and then celebrated with her and her pimp after they decided to get married.

On that note, I must admit that some of the depictions within Yakuza 0 do leave me cold. The sexes feel as though they’re handled rather differently: while positive traits have been written into male characters and some even subvert stereotypes, the women come across as being unable to do anything without the help of a man, and are expendable. I may understand that the game is set in a different era and culture but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with it – and that’s where I’m going to leave that subject for the time-being.

The other negative I have with the title is its use of character-switching. This isn’t a mechanic I like because I find it breaks my immersion in a story; I know many people like seeing a digital world through multiple protagonists’ eyes for different views, but I prefer to stick with just one throughout a playthrough. Saying that though, it’s not so annoying here because you get to spend several chapters with either Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima before switching over to the other.

These aren’t the reasons why I’m not sure I’m going to be able to finish Yakuza 0 though. This is actually due to its long length: with 17 chapters, 100 substories and a bunch of mini-games that can take around 140 to complete, I’m just not sure I want to put that much time into it. The past few years of blogging have taught me that I don’t like spending so many hours on a single game, and I get more satisfaction from shorter releases which can be finished in several sessions.

But still, I’m glad that hanging out with my blogger-friends in a stream led to me trying something I’d not considered before. Having an action-adventure divert my attention away from my beloved point-and-clicks resulted in a few fun days during the Christmas holidays – and it even reminded me why I adore the adventure genre as much as I do. A big thank you to Nathan for persuading me to download Yakuza 0 (and for sticking with the Gabriel Knight series for his streams!).

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales of the Backlog too for another great topic this month. If you’re interested in joining in with January’s EXP Share, you have until the end of the month and can find all the details in this post.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)


Final Fantasy XIII: staying focused

Over the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in a few game-swaps with other bloggers. We’ll decide on a theme together, send each other a video game which matches the requirements, and then play the title received and share our thoughts on them.

Luke from Hundstrasse sent me a copy of Whiplash for ‘bizarre retro titles’, a PlayStation 2 platformer which caused some controversy when it was released. Then followed all the cutscenes and craziness that came with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty after sharing ‘favourite series’ with Athena from AmbiGaming. The most recent game-swap is with Nathan from Gaming Omnivore, and Pete and I are currently playing through Banjo-Kazooie for ‘genres we’re not experienced with’.

I’ve also been playing Final Fantasy XIII since the middle of August for a swap with Ellen from Ace Asunder. Anyone who knows this lovely lady will be aware just how much the title’s pink-haired protagonist means to her. In a post entitled Lightning Will Not Leave Me published on her blog last month, she wrote: “Lightning’s story taught me about myself, the person I know the least about, and that’s a precious gift I never thought a series of video games could give me.”

It’s therefore easy to assume that the basis of our game-swap was ‘favourite games’ or maybe even ‘most-loved protagonists’, but it was something completely different. This collaboration was going to one which challenged us to play releases which make use of mechanics we don’t usually enjoy. I’ve never hidden how much I dislike turn-based combat, having written about the subject in the past and discussed it several times while streaming, and so I wasn’t surprised when a copy of FFXII appeared in my Steam library one day.

So why don’t I like turn-based titles? My biggest problem is that it feels so far removed from what would really happen in a fight. When you come face-to-face with a huge monster, you’re not going to politely wait while it takes it’s turn to strike – you’re going to get stuck in and hit it with everything you’ve got to prevent the beast from doing damage to you at the start. There’s no way I could see myself saying, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly attack you first, that would be far too selfish! After you, good sir.’

This explains why I initially had some doubts about streaming Ellen’s gift. I knew how much this game and its follow-ups meant to my blogger-friend and so I was concerned I’d say or do something to spoil it for her. Would I be able to play it for long enough to be able to see what she found so special about it? Would that be what I needed to keep me going when the gameplay wasn’t to my taste or became tough? And would I even be able to pick up the mechanics in the first place, without throwing down the controller in frustration?

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XIII, video game, female, Lightning Farron, pink hair

I must admit that I don’t dislike the combat as much as I expected thanks to FFXIII’s Command Synergy Battle (CBS) system. Instead of controlling every character in your party and taking turns in a battle, the player focuses on the leader only and can perform actions as soon as the segments on their Active Dimension Battle (ADB) gauge is filled. Other party-members are controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) although you can switch between Paradigms to have them fulfil a different role.

It also helps that Ellen agreed I could play on easy mode and I’m making use of the Auto-Battle feature. This selects commands automatically for the player during fights depending on factors such as the party’s health and the enemy you’re trying to beat. I can totally understand why experienced turn-based fans would avoid it at all costs because it does take away some of the more tactical elements of the game – but for a complete novice like me, I found it invaluable. I’m not sure I’d have had the patience to continue without it.

The thing I don’t like though is the Battle Rating system, as I don’t feel the need to be graded on every single fight because all I care about it making it out alive and getting back to the gameplay. And I know it’s a fundamental part of turn-based RPGs but I don’t like having to keep switching between characters either. As I’ve written before, I much prefer sticking with one protagonist so I can get to know their backstory, personality and skills fully rather than having to jump between several of them.

Pete and I have found that the people joining us on Twitch while we’re streaming FFXIII have been firmly in one of two camps: they either adore the game or it’s their least-favourite entry in the series. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between and the more frequent complaint is the game’s linearity. On one hand, I can see what they mean. You’re essentially travelling down a long corridor which is interspersed with fights at regular intervals and, although we’ve been told it opens up later on, we haven’t reached that point yet.

Final Fantasy XIII, video game, battle, fight, Lightning

Personally I don’t have a problem with this. Sometimes I like being able to sit back and enjoy the journey the developer wants to take me on, rather than having to deal with the pressure of choice. My issue is more with the number of battles in each corridor. I understand these are needed to gain Crystogen Points (CP) to level up your characters but the enemies are often the same in an area and it feels a little repetitive. Maybe I’d have a different opinion on this if the game was entirely an action RPG and used mechanics that come more natural to me.

Speaking of the characters, I’m warming far more to the female protagonists than the male ones right now. Hope is growing on me a little since toughening up but at first, I groaned each time he appeared onscreen thanks to his downbeat nature (we renamed him ‘Mope’). I’m not sure I’m ever going to like Snow though. Anyone who calls themselves ‘The Hero’ has got to be an idiot and as Lightening says herself, he’s ‘arrogant and chummy from the get-go and thinks he’s everyone’s pal’.

Playing FFXIII has taught me two things. The first lesson is that I can manage turn-based combat if I put my mind to it, even though I may not enjoy it anywhere near as much as other mechanics. The second and more important lesson is that it’s important to remember that everyone has a special game which is unique to them. We might not always understand their choices or see what they see in a certain title, but there’s something in it which spoke to them and possibly helped them through a tough time.

For example, that game for me is Fable. It will always have a special place in my heart because it was the one which brought me back to gaming after stepping away from it for several years and I might not be here writing this post today if it wasn’t for Peter Molyneux’s project. But I’m well aware it’s very much a game of its time and feels awfully clunky to play nowadays, having picked it back up again myself after watching Athena play it on her stream. It therefore won’t be something that everybody enjoys or finds as special as I do.

It’s therefore important to be aware of other opinions about a title and take them into account – but as discussed last month, it’s also vital to be honest when it comes to sharing your own views. You just need to make sure you explain your viewpoint so readers can understand where you’re coming from. Everyone is going to have their own perception of a game because of their unique backgrounds and experience, and that’s ok: the gaming world would be a pretty boring one if we all liked the same kind of releases.

The great thing about game-swaps is that they’ve encouraged me to try genres I wouldn’t normally play. If it hadn’t been for these collaborations with other bloggers, I’d never have found out about the uproar caused by a weird release back in 2004; my feelings about the representation of certain characters in Hideo Kojima titles; or just how terrible my spacial awareness is when it comes to 3D-platformers. Every swap has been an experience which has broadened my gaming horizons and I’m grateful for that.

I’m about 16 hours into FFXII and I’m going to keep playing for now. I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to finish it; at the time of writing, I’m a little stuck on a particular boss and have failed numerous times. But I’m going to keep trying for a few more sessions and see how I get on. To quote Lightning again: “We can win if we stay focused!”

Metal Gear Solid 2: cutscenes and craziness

Back in March, Luke from Hundstrasse and I took part in a game-swap. Our objective was to find the most bizarre retro titles and, in return for my gift of Realm of the Dead, he sent me Whiplash – a platformer that caused come controversy when it was released in 2004.

It was a fun experience so, when Athena from AmbiGaming asked if I wanted to do another game-swap, I agreed straight away. This time the requirement would be different though: instead of searching for titles the other had never played before, we instead challenged each other to try one of our favourite releases. This explains why she completed Fable on stream recently, something I can only apologise to her for; I might love this game but the controls and camera do feel awfully clunky nowadays.

She nominated me to play Metal Gear Solid in return but it didn’t quite work out as planned. Thanks to the original being rather expensive to purchase and a code donated by Ellen from Ace Asunder not working due to regional lockout, I didn’t get the chance. Athena agreed I could play Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty instead, so a copy was ordered for my PlayStation 2; but ultimately I installed it on our Xbox One after realising it was available via Game Pass as it would enable the use of a modern controller.

This would be the first Hideo Kojima title I’d ever tried so I felt a little apprehensive for a couple of reasons. Although I can enjoy action releases, poor coordination means I’m not that great at them and I wondered how long it would take me to complete the game. In addition, my opinion of Kojima had been influenced by articles I’d read in the past – about the way he viewed women, his eccentricity, his sense of ego – so I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel comfortable with what I was about to see.

I usually give a story overview of the game at this point in posts but I’ve struggled to write one for MGS2. There are so many plot-twists thrown at the player, particularly within the last couple of hours, that I’m not entirely sure I fully understand what happened. There was something about virtual-reality (VR) simulations, several terrorist organisations, a president being taken hostage, huge metal machines which behave like animals and artificial intelligence (AI) – and this is only a start.

And there are cutscenes. Lots and lots of cutscenes, some so lengthy that our Xbox decided to put itself on standby while we were watching. I found this infographic online which shows they averaged 05:30 minutes each, with the longest being 20:15 minutes. I’m not adverse to such moments in video games because I usually play them for the narrative, but at times it was excessive: it felt like the control was taken away from us each time we were starting to get into the gameplay.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Solid Snake, face, gun

Luke was watching while Pete and I streamed the game on Twitch, and kindly sent me an email last week to try and explain it all. I can’t deny that I’m still confused though. There are so many plot elements, not all of which seem completely relevant or necessary, and there are far too many names for someone who struggles to remember the characters are like I do. There was the impact of streaming too: sometimes it was hard to follow what was happening in-game at the same time as trying to keep up with chat.

Luke also told me about the controversy surrounding MGS2 at the time of its release. The tanker section, where you play as Solid Snake, was released as a prologue so fans were understandably annoyed when they got their hands on the full release and realised they’d be spending a lot of time with Raiden. I’ve also read that Kojima came up with the idea of this new protagonist to appeal to female players, after hearing female debuggers working on the original Metal Gear Solid say that it wasn’t appealing to them. More about this later.

I agreed with Athena before starting that I could attempt the title on the easiest mode and I’m glad I took this option. I had to pass the controller to Pete on several occasions because there were sections I struggled to get to grips with. My main issue was the way the camera angle changed whenever you entered a new scene so I never knew which direction I’d be moving in (the main reason I’ve never felt totally comfortable with classic point-and-click series that make the transition from 2D to 3D).

The thing is though, for all the things I found confusing or frustrating about MGS2, there’s a part of me that enjoyed playing it. After our stream of the last section of the game, my other-half and I both admitted to each other that we’d actually had quite a lot of fun. Maybe it was the fact that we could finally say we’d experienced a Metal Gear title, or that we’d played while discussing it with friends over Twitch, or that we just never knew what the plot was going to throw at us next. It’s difficult to put my finger on it.

I can see why the series is one of Athena’s favourites. Certain elements might come across over-the-top or not aging well, but it must have been pretty amazing to experience a release that like that on the PlayStation 2 when it was originally released back in 2001. As Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and Phil explained to us, there was nothing on the market 19 years ago which was as cinematic or ambitious in what it was trying to deliver, so I can imagine it was something truly spectacular for players at the time.

I’m afraid I can’t end this post without saying something about the game’s depiction of women though, and I’m not sure what it is that annoyed me the most. Maybe it was that Emma both looks and behaves like a 12-year old girl despite being 18, and Raiden has a good long look at her butt as she climbs down a ladder above him. Or perhaps it was that girlfriend Rose feels the need to call him regularly and constantly brings up their relationship every time he wants to save, even though he’s on an important mission.

As Kevin from The Lawful Geek said in chat: Kojima can’t write a female character to save his life. But my annoyance could also come from the designer creating the protagonist for female players, as if a hunky blonde hero is the only thing we’re interested in when it comes to playing video games. It almost feels like he treats a person’s view of the opposite sex as something that’s purely sexual; his characters’ interactions are very voyeuristic and it’s as if people are measured in terms of their sexual worth.

I might not like all the characters. I might think the cutscenes are excessive. I might feel that MGS2 is incredibly self-indulgent and as Brandon from That Green Dude said, could have benefited from an editor going through it and telling Kojima ‘No’. But playing this game has definitely been an experience and one I’m glad I’ve had. In the very least, it gave me the opportunity to play something I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and be more open to the idea of further game-swaps in the future.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Raiden

Speaking of which, my next collaboration is lined up already. I’ve shared before that I really dislike turn-based combat because I just don’t have the patience for it, so Ellen is going to try and convince me otherwise with her gift of Final Fantasy XIII. In return I’ve gifted her both Her Story and The Madness of Doctor Dekker, to help cure her of her aversion to full-motion video (FMV) after she watched us play Dark Nights with Poe and Munro in May (perhaps not the greatest example of the genre).

Thanks so much to Athena from slogging through Fable and for giving me the chance to experience my first Metal Gear game. Here’s to more game-swaps!

Plea of Thieves: peaces of eight

One of my favourite things about video games, other than narratives, is exploration. I love the feeling of being transported to somewhere wonderful and given a new world to discover, not knowing what lies in store around the next corner or over that mountain in the distance.

This is the reason I find myself always returning to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). I might put the controller down for a while after playing it constantly for several weeks, but you can guarantee I’ll end up going straight back to it after a few months. It’s thanks to Solarayo from Ace Asunder (my gorgeous partner for The Great Blog Crawl event) that I’ve reinstalled it again recently after she decided to try it for herself during the lockdown. It’s amazing how quickly you get back into it and it feels as though you’ve never been away.

video game, The Elder Scrolls Online, Argonian, female, lizard, woman, book, reading, library

There are so many things to enjoy about this game. Find a book and the tales within help create a world which feels living, with its own history and colour. Dungeons provide plenty of action if you’re brave enough. And when you’re tired of slaying monsters, you can head in any direction and simply run because there’s all sorts of other things waiting out there. A villager who’ll reveal some local gossip, a hunter chasing a fox, a clifftop with a beautiful view; all simple events that don’t have any real impact on your journey but ones which add more depth to your adventure.

This partly explains why I’ve always been keen to give Sea of Thieves a go, even though it’s taken me over two years to get around to doing it. I can’t deny that my fondness for the Monkey Island series has helped too: there’s just something about swashbuckling characters who are out to seek their fortune which is attractive. The blue waves, sandy white shores, swaying foliage and shadowy caves of Rare’s 2018 release always appeared as though they were hiding plenty of secrets and buried treasure.

So why such a long delay? Well, as I’ve written before, I’ve never been all that keen on competitive titles. Long workdays, family commitments and adult responsibilities mean I don’t have enough time – or the desire – to improve my skills to an adequate level to be able to compete. The lockdown may have given a lot of us more time to play video games but in my ‘normal’ life, it seems pointless spending the few free hours I have being slated by my teammates for not being good enough.

But when friend-of-the-blog Phil offered to give me an overview, I gratefully accepted. Here was my chance to finally try out Sea of Thieves without being made to feel completely useless by a group of strangers online and I knew he’d be patient with my lack of hand-eye coordination. In preparation for our session, I created a character (a blonde-haired pirate in honour of Guybrush Threepwood) and worked my way through the short tutorial, trying to remember the buttons so I wouldn’t let our small team down. So far, so good.

In fact, the Maiden Voyage section captured exactly what I thought the game would be like in my head. You awake on a dessert island and are greeted by the ghost of the Pirate Lord who kindly guides you through the controls. You’re given the opportunity to explore after finishing with him and this was exactly what I wanted: beautiful beaches, tranquil waterfalls, abandoned caves, secrets notes and the promise of treasure. If the rest of the title was like this, I immediately knew it was going to be one I enjoyed.

And for the first hour, it was. Phil showed me where the Mysterious Stranger was so I could find out more about the three Trading Companies; where the Gold Hoarders were located so I could collect our first voyage from them; and how to loot barrels for food and cannon balls. Less usefully, he also showed me how to drink enough grog to make your character throw up – and then how to catch the vomit in a bucket and throw it over your teammates (that’s just his sense of humour). After spending a short time at the Outpost, it was time to hit the seas.

I’ll admit, he thankfully did most of the work while we sailed but I tried to help where I could and not get in the way. I could see here why playing with a team was beneficial because there were several jobs to take care of at once, including steering the ship and angling the sails. We made it to the spot marked on our map and finally set out to find some treasure on a small island – after I was momentary distracted by how cute the snakes were and became sidetracked with chasing a pig along the beach.

The good news was that we eventually managed to find what we were looking for. The bad news is that we also found other players.

Before we could even make it to our ship with our loot, we were ambushed by a team of four others. Obviously I’d predicted this because Sea of Thieves is a competitive multiplayer; but what I didn’t expect was just how relentless this group would be. They kept knocking me down repeatedly and were waiting for me every time I respawned. They even ignored our white flag once we’d raised it and after my fifth death in a row, I gave up trying to defend myself or attack them back. Was this supposed to be fun?

Sea of Thieves, video games, sea, beach, island, ships, pirates

I was aware we’d eventually end up in battles with other players. But I hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly, and I was hoping I would have been given more time to prepare for it. The initial enjoyment of sailing in our boat, discovering dessert islands and even being crushed by a massive Kraken eventually sunk below the waves, along with my desire to continue playing. That was the one and only time I played Sea of Thieves; I’ve now uninstalled it from our Xbox One and I’m sure I’ll ever bother returning to it.

Don’t get wrong: I completely understand that the cause of my disappointment with the game was me. I’d been focusing on the exploration elements I’d been attracted to and not what the title fundamentally was – an online action-adventure multiplayer where participants strive to become a Pirate Legend. When it became apparent that what I was searching for here wouldn’t be delivered in the way I wanted it to be, and the gameplay was going to be far more competitive than I could ever get into, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed.

I spoke to Phil about this the following day and he mentioned a thread on the Sea of Thieves forum, where someone had posted a suggestion for a peaceful mode for ‘people who just want to complete voyages and not be bothered by other pirates’. I checked it out for myself and was surprised by how many negative responses they’d received. Comments such as ‘I’m pretty sure it says in the name SEA OF THIEVES not sea of peace’ were not only grammatically incorrect, but not very respectful.

I don’t get it. Why would certain players feel so hostile towards the implementation of a new mode which didn’t change anything about the competitive aspect they enjoyed, but had the benefit of welcoming different kinds of players into the community? Rare would expand their customer-base as a result and could potentially use the extra profit earned to implement further improvements to the game, and surely that’s a win-win situation for everybody? If being a pirate means I must deal with scallywags like the people on that forum, it doesn’t seem so appealing any longer.

Have you ever wanted to play a game in a way other than it’s been designed? And how do you feel about exploration or non-competitive modes in new releases? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Whiplash: weasel your way out of this one

COVID-19 has meant many gaming events have been cancelled this year. EGX Rezzed has been pushed back by three months; Insomnia66 was abandoned in favour of Insomnia67; and my other-half and I made the decision to not go to the London Gaming Market in March.

This may have been the right choice but obviously we were disappointed. You see, not only were we looking forward to picking up some additional games for our PlayStation 2 and Master System collections, we were also planning to meet up with the awesome Luke from Hundstrasse at the event. We hadn’t seen him in person since the meeting for the first time at EGX Rezzed in April 2018 and so we’d all been excited about some retro-gaming talk over a coffee or two.

In addition, Luke and I had been plotting a collaboration about our time at the London Gaming Market: we were going to search the stalls to find an obscure title for each other within an agreed price limit, so we had something to take home and review. Rather than letting the coronavirus ruin our plans completely, we decided to carry on with our project using snail-mail and you can find out about the strange games I sent to him in this post on his blog (he knows how sorry I am).

One day a package landed on my doormat and opening it revealed 2004’s Whiplash for the PlayStation 2. It’s not a release I’d ever heard of before this collaboration, but at first glance it certainly seemed to fit the brief of being ‘weird’. The front of the case pictured an angry white rabbit being thrown at a pane of glass by a weasel and I was surprised to see the Crystal Dynamics logo in the bottom corner; this looked nothing like a Tomb Raider game and I wasn’t sure Lara Croft would approve.

As with all good retro games, the accompanying booklet provided a lengthy overview of the storyline and characters (I really miss those manuals). The title is set within the walls of the Genron Corporation, a high-tech laboratory where animals are used to test products for humans. Spanx is a crazy weasel once used for electro-shock testing; Redmond is a know-it-all rabbit who failed his last mascara test in the makeup lab; and they’re now due to be chained together and shoved inside the Genetic Recombinator.

The company’s diabolical plan is to fuse them together into a freaky new creature but a miracle happens: our heroes somehow escape from their cage at the last second and now they must get out of Genron together. What lies in front of them is a perilous journey through a place where chimps with afros are given extreme haircuts, hamsters are fired at walls just to see how well they stick, and a cheery announcer provides messages about new product lines and how the abuse of animals is great.

Whiplash, video game, box, PlayStation 2, Spanx, weasel, Redmond, rabbit

Although there are two main protagonists here, Whiplash plays like most 3D-platformers from the PlayStation 2 era and it’s clear the developers drew inspiration from releases such as Ratchet & Clank. The left analogue stick or directional buttons control Spanx (and drag Redmond along behind him on the chain) and pressing L2 gives him the ability to sprint or scurry along rails. Tapping X makes the character jump and he can interact with the world using the triangle button.

So what’s the point of Redmond if the player is controlling Spanx? Well, the testing of Genron’s super-hold hairspray means that his fur has turned into a super-tough suit of armour so he makes the perfect indestructible tool. He can be used as a whipping weapon to defeat oncoming enemies, thrown into air-purifying spheres and turned into a grapple, swung around the weasel’s head to provide a gliding skill and attached to ziplines. It seems like the rabbit got the raw end of the deal.

A selection of baddies including scientists and robotic spiders will try to prevent your escape but the combat isn’t difficult. A variety of combo moves are available including an Air Smash and Hyper Dash, but mashing the square easily deals with most of them if you can’t remember the buttons like me. It’s worth noting that enemies won’t be completely destroyed and will eventually wake up after being temporarily stunned; but if you can’t be bothered to put up a continued fight in a particular area, you can simply run around them.

Although your main objective is to get the hell out of Genron, you can do a lasting service for animals everywhere by hitting the company where it hurts the most: in the bank. Freeing creatures around the facility sees them take revenge on their captors and makes your escape slightly easier, and you can drive Genron into bankruptcy by destroying everything that isn’t nailed down. This is probably the most fun part of the gameplay mechanics and it’s great seeing Redmond enter Hyper mode once he has caused enough damage.

Sadly though, it’s not all good with Whiplash. There are a fair amount of lasers-in-corridors and fire-ducts-in-ventilation-shafts sections which feel like filler. The hub-based level system can be difficult to navigate and sometimes it’s not clear what your immediate objective is. And as with a lot of old games, bad camera angles cause unnecessary deaths and frustration when they don’t look in the right direction – so much so that I passed the controller to my other-half for a lot of our first session.

I’ve seen been back and played the game again off-stream, and I can see a certain sort of charm even though I haven’t finished it yet. The title’s absurdist humour is its highlight and I love the way the protagonist’s personalities are reflected through their movement and one-liners. Even when they’re standing still, Spanx and Redmond perform little dances or look around for enemies; and Redmond comes out with phrases such as ‘You do realise I’m a rabbit and not some sort of asbestos plush-toy, don’t you?’

But again, it’s not all positive here. The relationship between the characters is a pretty violent one and although this suits the type of humour Crystal Dynamics were going for, at times you do find yourself almost wondering whether it’s entirely appropriate. The poor bunny is electrocuted, set on fire, filled with helium, frozen in ice and dumped in radioactive waste. Pete and I couldn’t help but look at each other and grimace each time Spanx shoved Redmond into a grinder to open a door.

Whiplash appears on Wikipedia’s List of controversial video games and this references an article published on The Telegraph website on 15 February 2004. It reports concerns from several bodies about the way animal testing is depicted and Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson is quoted as saying: “It is a nasty and vicious way of prejudicing young minds for the rest of their lives… Young people with fresh minds need to be brought into an understanding of the problem with both sides of the argument being put forward in a rational and reasonable way.”

Whiplash, video game, weasel, rabbit, Spanx, Redmond, grappling hook, electricity

This is despite the whole premise of the release being against animal product testing and it not causing the same reaction when it was released in America during the previous year. In a statement, publisher Eidos Interactive said: “Whiplash is based in a fictional animal-testing laboratory where the object is to rescue all of the animals and destroy the evil testing lab. Although the video game is fictional, we hope that it raises positive awareness of animal testing among children.”

Whiplash may not be the best game I’ve ever played but it’s definitely one of the best choices Luke could have made for our collaboration. It perfectly meets our brief of being something ‘weird’ and the gameplay, artwork, voice-acting and humour encapsulate the feeling of the early 2000s. On top of all that, the stories about the controversy mentioned above are a reminder of how overreactions to video games were quite common back then and it’s a nice slice of gaming history.

The next London Gaming Market is due to take place on 19 July 2020 and who knows, maybe Luke and I will get to do a follow-up on our project in person there. Until then, stay safe everybody.

Locks, mini-games and The Outer Worlds

My other-half had been eagerly awaiting the release of The Outer Worlds for weeks before it came out. All the talk online referring to it as Fallout 5 had reignited my stepson’s obsession, and the pair of them could frequently be found together discussing news about the game.

I was the odd one out in our family. I may have had a vague curiosity about what Obsidian Entertainment’s RPG would be like but it was nowhere near the level shown by Pete and Ethan. Since the release of Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption 2 last year, I’ve become extremely aware of how hype around new big-budget titles reaches ridiculous heights; and even though the attention surrounding The Outer Worlds wasn’t as crazy, it was enough to put me off and make me steer clear of reading anything about the game.

It didn’t stop me from watching Pete play it for a while though. When he asked if he could take over the living-room television one Saturday evening, I saw it as a good opportunity to get in some backseat-gaming while lounging on the sofa with a bar of chocolate. But although I could appreciate how pretty the game was, and how much effort the artists had put into its design, it just wasn’t holding my attention in the same way it did with my husband – I ended up dozing off after a couple of hours while he continued on.

There was one thing I remember being surprised by before falling asleep however. Very early on in the title, Pete approached an abandoned box in the hope it contained something valuable to aid him on his journey. When putting it in focus, he was offered the opportunity to lockpick – but rather than being presented with the sort of mini-game we’ve all come to expect from RPGs when selecting to do so, the crate simply opened. No challenge, no pressure – just an open lid.

Why had the developers made this decision? I came across an article published on Polygon recently that may hold the answer. As author Patricia Hernandez wrote last month: “The Outer Worlds seems to do everything in its power to remove friction from the experience, instead opting to get me back into the action as quickly and as smoothly as possible.” It’s all part of a ‘pragmatic philosophy’ built into the title’s design, so it isn’t weighed down with filler content to increase gameplay length unnecessarily.

But removing lockpicking though, a standard part of most RPG releases? I wondered how players felt about mini-games for these situations and out of 14 responses to my tweet, they were a complete mix of opinions. Anthony from Videogame Crosstalk said: “Actually, ya! A quick break from the usual gameplay and makes it a bit more immersive, even if the minigame itself is unrealistic.” But Cameron from Dragon In The Castle felt the opposite and told me: “Not in the slightest. Fiddly bloody things.”

So what it is that people don’t like about these mechanics? I think Rob from I Played The Game! may have hit on something when he said: “Like with so many mini-games, I like them until I’ve worked out how to ‘solve’ them. Then they’re just a chore you need to get through.” Katie from The Gaming Diaries said: “Depends on if I can do them!” And Shelby from Falcon Game Reviews even picked up on the inspiration for this post: “Honestly, while playing The Outer Worlds, I’ve grown to love not needing them.”

I can understand these points and the decision to leave out the mini-games does fit in with that ‘pragmatic philosophy’ Hernandez referred to in the article mentioned above. The older we get, the more adult responsibilities come our way and these all result in a reduction in the number of spare hours we’re able to devote to gaming. When we do get a chance to play, we don’t want to spend it on a mechanic that seems unnecessarily – or even worse, one that lessens our enjoyment of the overall gaming experience.

Personally though, I feel a little sad that the designers made the choice to not include lockpicking mini-games in The Outer Worlds. It’s one of the aspects I enjoy about The Elder Scrolls Online: those moments when you find a chest hidden from plain sight and have to complete the challenge before the timer runs out. It’s even more thrilling when you discover one that’s a ‘Master’ and another player is right behind you; can you get this difficult box open and claim the loot inside, or will you fail and give your follower the opportunity to jump in?

It just feels strange that something as complex – and in certain respects, dangerous – in real-life as lockpicking can be reduced to a single button-press. The absence of a challenge you participate in seems to make the event less important somehow. Now, as described by Hernandez: “If you have a high enough stat, or if you have the right tools, you just press and hold a button for a couple of seconds and voila: you did the thing. That’s it. That’s the whole idea.”

But then video games are a way of escaping reality, and busy players don’t want to spend their time fiddling with hair-pins. I’m still torn though. Have you played The Outer Worlds and how do you feel about its lack of lockpicking mini-games? I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.