Cuphead Review

Cuphead is a fiendishly difficult game that hides it’s old school run and gun inspirations beneath an, ironically, even older school artstyle. Looking every inch an authentic cartoon from the 1930’s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the cutesy and innocent appearance means you’re in for an easy time. Cuphead is not friendly, despite the jovial appearance of its two saucer headed protagonists – Cuphead and Mugman.

Studio MDHR have created a captivatingly beautiful game that has the gameplay chops to back up the gorgeous style it sells. Fans of old school shooters like Contra or Gunstar Heroes will feel right at home with the bullet hell escapades of the game, but there’s a few new wrinkles in here too that make the game feel modern, even if everything else skews 1930s cartoon meets 1980s fiendish difficulty.

Cuphead and his pal Mugman – as the introductory song tells us – like to roll the dice. They get roped into the dodgy King Dice’s casino, where they have a winning streak that lasts right up until a showdown with the devil himself. They learn the hard way that you don’t make deals with the devil, without a golden fiddle in sight. Satan gives them a choice, surrender their souls, or collect the soul contracts of a range of colourful bosses across the land who owe satan big time – in return for their freedom.

Cue a fantastic adventure across 3 different islands, fighting a range of bosses, and undertaking a number of run and gun levels which do exactly what they say on the tin. Cuphead (and Mugman, on co-op) have a few tricks up their sleeves to help them gather these souls. They’ve got the world’s most powerful pair of finger guns on their hands, a few super moves, a nifty dash, a parry move, and a small pool of customisable skills and powerups.

Where Cuphead really stands out is the way it crafts these basic systems into something that just feels like an absolute joy to play, even when you’re dying – which will be pretty consistently against the slew of incredible bosses, even if you’re experienced in the punishing old school titles that Cuphead is openly inspired by.

The run and gun levels break up the procession of boss battles, but make no mistake, these encounters are the meat of the game. Each of the three islands has it’s own theme and group of diverse bosses, each with multiple forms throughout the course of the battle. A finish line appears on the screen if you die in a bout, letting you know how far you where from the end, and how many more forms the boss you’re battling has. It’s both a taunt and a motivator, especially if you make it to the halfway mark on your first tussle with a new foe.

Each boss is an absolute joy to behold, and it’ll keep you going even when the crushing difficulty starts to wear down. From living zeppelins through to colourful genies, creepy clowns, and giant robots, each new encounter is more amazing – and fiendishly difficult – than the last. Each boss goes through multiple forms, each change richly detailed and animated, oozing character and charisma. Until they batter you senseless for the twentieth time.

Each victory is a fist pumping moment of pure elation, and in its toughest moments, Cuphead’s tight control and simple range of moves belies a depth that allows you to enter a satisfying flow in the heat of battle. Parrying pink enemy attacks rewards precision timing with an extra bonus card. Use one to activate a bullet type specific special move, or use a hand of five to pull off a screen filling special move.

The range of powerups available in the shop allow you to give your Cuphead or Mugman a certain play style, with a surprising range of depth available. You can give yourself an extra heart or two at the expense of some stopping power.

You can equip a smoke bomb to turn your dash into a ninja style disappearing act, allowing you a free frames of invincibility. Or you can go full bore for big damage, equipping coffee that makes your super cards charge constantly, whether you’re parrying or damaging or not.

There’s a wide variety in the bullets as well. You can equip two types and switch between them instantly in the heat of battle. The standard fast stream of blue bullets can be replaced by weaker heat seeking green bullets, or wild boomerang bullets that do more damage if they’re fired backwards. Alternatively, the charge bullets offer you the most stopping power, at the expense of being a charge and release move rather than a constant stream of bullets.

The range of abilities really lets you feel as though you’re specialising your moveset for each bout, or even just for your own playstyle. If you’re a master dodger, you don’t need extra hearts, but maybe you want that smoke bomb to escape bullet hell when there’s no other way out. If you struggle to run and gun, the heat seeking bullets allow you to focus on dodging, but they’ll stretch your bouts out to a little bit longer.

There are also a range of airborne boss fights, where you battle in a small helicopter. Your bullets are locked to a machine gun or bombs that drop in an arc in this form. Instead of dodging, you can shrink to a smaller, faster, and weaker plane. These levels were the weakest to me, purely because I couldn’t use my favorite set of powerups and bullets to best the bosses. They proved to be some of the toughest bouts, especially when aiming for A and S ranks in missions.

That’s another added layer of beauty to Cuphead. Beating the bosses first time around, you’ll be doing it by the skin of your teeth, but if you’re brave, the end credits don’t mean the end of the game. There’s added challenge in trying to get a perfect score on the levels, beating each of them on Expert difficulty, or completing a few secret challenges to get a special, secret mode… no spoilers here.  For a relatively short game, there’s bags of replay value, and as of the time of writing, I’ve got about twenty three hours in the game, with no sign of stopping soon.

The entirety of Cuphead can be played on co-op mode, which was how I did it first time around. It could be a friendship or relationship breaker, but in our modern gaming landscape, split screen co-op has gone the way of the dodo, so it’s a real treat to get a game that’s old school in this way too. There’s no specific co-op related achievements and the bosses scale in difficulty in a way that makes co-op just as challenging – if not tougher, due to the extra carnage on screen. If you’ve got a buddy, this is the way to play first time around, but maybe solo those perfect and expert runs.

I can’t heap enough praise on Cuphead, everything about it just feels so right. Visually, it’s a stunning game, like nothing you’ve ever seen or played before, and the way it marries old school run and gun games with a few modern sensibilities makes it something truly special. Something that is more than the sum of its already illustrious parts. Don’t even get me started on the jazzy soundtrack or the old school, scratchy voices and sound effects. I can’t get enough of it.

Blade Runner 2049 Review

Blade Runner 2049 is an astounding achievement. After walking breathlessly out of the cinema I feel like I need to lay all my cards on the table and just come out and say it. A sequel to a cult classic that defined sci-fi films and cinema itself shouldn’t be this good – it couldn’t be this good. It’s impossible, an anomaly as strange and unique as it’s predecessor. Yet, here we are.

Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the original, bringing us back to the bleak, neon soaked noir hellscape of the original, fiercely evocative of Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel, but we’re not stuck to the confines of bleak California by night. Modern technology and a beefy budget allow the film to show us the city in hazy, smog filled day time, and even take us beyond the city limits to the bone dry wasteland of San Diego, and the orange neon, hazy hellscape of Las Vegas – looking for all intents and purposes like regular Vegas does anyway.

2049 puts us in the synthetic shoes of Officer KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner like Deckard before him, tasked with hunting down replicants, mainly the last of the discontinued but long lived Nexus 8 models in hiding across the planet. After coming across a Nexus 8 (Dave Bautista) on a protein farm, he discovers a buried box of old ones that lead him on the trial of a discovery that threatens to tear the fragile society of this dystopian earth apart.

In the three decades since we’ve been in this world, much has changed. Earth’s ecosystem has gone the way of the dodo, leaving the world reliant on replicant run protein farms, like the one we find the hulking Bautista tending to, wearing a tiny pair of glasses. The Tyrell Corporation, responsible for the renegade Nexus 8’s from the first flick has been bought out and rebranded as the Wallace Corporation.

Led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, in creepy Jesus form) the corporation essentially rules all, sending more advanced replicants to work slave labour on the colonies off earth, and keep the lowly earth underclasses fed with synthetic crap and pacified by sexy holograms.

Many of the themes of the first film are revisited, and the idea of humanity playing god and subjugating their “lesser” creations is writ large. More so than the first film, the replicants of Blade Runner 2049 are docile, and easily identified by a serial number printed on their eyeballs. There’s a curious fixation on eyes once more, tied as windows to the soul. Niander Wallace is blind, and sees with a menagerie of creepy drones. He’s also in many ways, as you’ll see in the film, soulless himself.

While Blade Runner needed the iconic Voight-Kampff machine to tell replicant from human, no such formalities are needed here. Replicants are under no illusions that they are actual human beings and are treated as such, subjugated and hated by the humans they serve.

Director Denis Villeneuve brings us a bold and beautiful film, that’s uncompromisingly uncommercial, slowly paced, languid, and gorgeous throughout every single second of its considerable running time. This is not an action sci-fi blockbuster, devoid of depth and substance. When violence enters the frame, it’s brief and unflinchingly brutal. There are no protracted gun fights, no spectacularly sized finale. Blade Runner 2049 will not set the box office on fire, but in the same way that the original attracted a slow burn of devoted cult followers, this follow up will surely garner praise from that same crowd.

Criticisms are few and far between. While 2049 milks many of the notes and scenes of the original film, it feels more like a desire to join the dots of the universe rather than crassly callback, pay homage, or even telegraph easter eggs for Blade Runner buffs. The sequel tells it’s own story that links to the first in increasingly surprising ways. Gosling is perfect as K, playing it somewhere between his role in Drive and his startling turn in La La Land. It feels as though the role was made for him, his wry, understated charisma a subtle counterpoint to the gruff, noir detective that was Ford as Deckard.

Perhaps the weakest link is Leto as Wallace. He only appears to monologue and be generally a bit of a bastard. He doesn’t share any scenes with Deckard or K, and feels more like he was slotted in because there was space for another villain in the script. His god complex and technologically augmented vision adds an interesting wrinkle to the underlying themes of whether replicants have souls, and what constitutes humanity, but otherwise, he has little reason to be around save for providing exposition and an evil scheme.

Since he’s on the poster, it’s not a spoiler alert to say that Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, the titular Blade Runner from the first film. However, what’s truly surprisingly is the punishment that Villeneuve puts old Ford through. A return to the role should have been easy for him. A quick cameo, a few gruff lines, and then perhaps he could go the way of Han Solo in the seventh Star Wars episode. Instead, we get to see Ford tossed into perhaps the best performance of his entire career, plumbing great emotional depths from an aged Deckard. There’s tears and rain here, for sure, and even a heaping of snow this time around.

It’s hard to not just keep heaping praise on Blade Runner 2049. It’s an astoundingly anti-2017 film, a slow burning, visually gorgeous sci-fi epic that flips a synthetic middle finger to Hollywood and it’s formulaic, cookie cutter big budget extravaganzas. Holding the blackest mirror up to our own world Blade Runner 2049 succeeds in all the ways it’s predecessor did, and then some. It’s a sequel that didn’t need to exist, and now I can’t imagine a world without it. Everyone must see this.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Review

There was a point in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, somewhere between the robot dogs and the secret base underneath the lake in Hyde Park, that I thought to myself that the film had jumped the shark. Then I remembered that the follow up to 2015’s stellar Kingsman: The Secret Service had never pretended to be realistic, and neither had it’s older brother, and they’re all the better for it. Even if the second time around, it often feels like it’s retreading old ground.

The Golden Circle picks up soon after the end of the first film. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) or as he is now known: Galahad, is now a full fledged member of the Kingsmen and is in a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) who was the butt – sorry – of the crude joke that ended the last film on a bum note.

However, a catastrophic attack on the entire Kingsman organisation leaves Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) on a journey stateside, to team up the the Kingsmen’s American counterpart, the Statesmen. A new threat emerges in the form of drug lord billionairess Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who has released a virus into illicit drugs across the globe, holding the entire world hostage unless her demands are met.

It’s a nifty setup, that gives director Matthew Vaughn caveat to clear house and introduce a slew of new Hollywood stars in the form of the Statesmen, who are named after alcoholic beverages rather than knights of old. Jeff Bridges joins the cast as their leader, Champagne – he prefers Champ, and Halle Berry shows up as Ginger Ale.

Channing Tatum hams it up as Tequila, and Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones and Narcos fame joins as Whisky. The Statesmen are a lot of fun, bringing a new angle to the mythos of the Kingsman universe. They own a distillery instead of a tailor, and have a net worth of a number that I don’t think I can count to.

There’s a real sense that everyone involved is having a ton of fun, and as in the previous film, the fight scenes and set pieces are thrilling, edited in a kinetic, CGI pumped up fashion  that makes for an ultra violent, fantastically silly spectacle. The second time around, we seem to double down on stupid gadgets and even stupider situations, and a lengthy cameo from Elton John is at times hilarious, and other times a little bit cringy.

Julianne Moore is an absolute joy, chewing the scenery as Poppy Adams, but she doesn’t have any direct contact with the Kingsmen until the last twenty minutes or so, which leaves the film leaving strangely disjointed for much of its running time.

A trip to Glastonbury halfway through feels like a complete change of gears at a time when the film needed something to up the ante. In fact, much of the globe trotting outside of the Kingsmen’s first trip to America feels entirely redundant. Watching Eggsy and Whisky place bets over who can insert a tracking device into a side villain’s girlfriend feels squirmy in the way that the first film’s final joke did, but The Golden Circle also redeems itself around a number of these issues with Eggsy’s attitude towards his girlfriend, and other women in the film.

It’s no spoiler to say that Colin Firth returns as the original Galahad, as the promotional material and posters for the film gave it away months ago. His return allows for Eggsy to hit some interesting emotional notes which invest the character with a bit more depth than you might expect from what we see elsewhere in the film.

In many ways, The Golden Circle’s biggest flaw is that it’s the second film in the franchise. Much of what was fun and fresh the first time around feels a little silly and disjointed here. While the film treats a number of subjects with a bit more dignity than you might expect from a flashy, stupid blockbuster, there’s still no denying that it’s a weirdly unconnected film driven forward by pithy jokes, blood, and stylish violence.

Halle Berry, Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges are underused in such a way that it feels like they were only on set for a few days, and while there’s room for growth in a sequel, it’s debateable as to whether we really need one. The Golden Circle seems to be evidence of a law of diminishing returns and a number of call backs to scenes from the first film are just a reminder that it felt much more clever and witty than this film does. It felt like the large popcorn I snarfed down while I watched it. Enjoyable at the time, but once you’ve had a chance to digest it, it’s strangely unsatisfying. Elton John’s potty mouth is worth the ticket price alone, however.

IT Review

IT has some clown sized shoes to fill. Pennywise the Clown has been etched into horror legend by Tim Curry thanks to his incredible performance in the 1990 made for TV classic. While it skews campy and a little cheesy now, it’s ruined many a childhood, including my own, when I first saw that bulbous headed clown pull little Georgie into a storm drain when I was just five years old.

2017’s IT gets off on the right foot from the start, by scrapping the formula of the TV movie and King’s novel, and frontloading the story with the kids – or The Losers Club – and leaving the adult stuff out aside for a second film. It has a double benefit of making things feel fresher, and also keeping the story tightly focused.

IT kicks off with the death of Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) at the hands of It (Bill Skarsgard). This is the catalyst for the events of the film, and the disparate members of the Losers Club come together in the first half, bonded by being outsiders, bonded by their fears of the bullies in their lives, and soon, their fear of It.

With the entire principal cast being kids, IT lives and dies on the performances of the young’uns at it’s centre, and boy do they do the film proud. Stand outs are Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough, the leader of the gang, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, who has a number of standout moments.

IT is different from it’s predecessor in that it doesn’t aim for straight up horror. It seems to take a number of cues from Stranger Things, Netflix’s 2016 runaway 80’s inspired hit. In fact, this iteration of the film transplants the setting of Derry, Maine, to the eighties. There are a few pop culture references that come along with it, but nothing so grating to pull you out of the film. It works, and even readers of King’s massive tome would agree that Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) would definitely want to spend his summer trying to perfect the art of Street Fighter.

There’s no topping Tim Curry’s Pennywise, and director Andres Muschietti doesn’t try to. Skarsgard’s iteration of Pennywise is different. With a more victorian flavour to the costume, it seems more of a starving, wild animal rather than an evil jester. It still jokes and teases the children, but it’s eyes are unfocused, it drools when it speaks. You can see the ancient evil under the skin before it ever shows its rows and rows of razor sharp teeth.

The scares in IT are often it’s weakest parts, however. While there’s some startling special effects on display, a number of the scenes fall flat beyond the initial jump. There’s a sense of creeping dread throughout, but in many ways, the film feels like an adventure tinged with horror rather than an out and out screamfest.

It works to the benefit of the film, then, that the dialogue is so good, the Losers are so likeable, and the script brings all the disparate elements of King’s novel into a tightly wrapped, well packaged adventure. There’s a sense of terror but no sense of real peril, but it works. Like Stranger Things, the vibe isn’t of out and out horror or a torture porn flick with some CGI monsters. In some ways, the marketing of the movie is doing it a disservice, but point me to a marketing campaign that doesn’t.

Fans of the novel will enjoy the nods to the wider King universe, and the ways that the film swings away from the novel usually work in favour of the story – especially in excluding that one scene which has been discussed to death online.

The 2017 retelling of this story feels like it’s best adaptation yet. Even though it’s set in a different time period, if you’ve read the book, these versions of the Losers, and of Pennywise, feel ripped straight from your imagination when you first opened the hefty, thousand plus page tome. If you haven’t read the book, or seen the 1990 film, then you’re in for a real treat. Go see IT.

Three Fourths Home Extended Edition Review

Rows and rows of Nebraska corn pass as the daylight dies. The gas is running low, and the blaring of the tornado sirens almost drowns out the sound of the muted music on the radio. You click it off, but the sound of your mom nagging in your ear blends with the screeching sirens, and it feels like the storm is inside your head. The rain grows heavier, and your foot squeezes the accelerator, as the fuel needle creeps lower and your speed creeps up…

If you’re the kind of person who mocks Gome Home and it’s similar friends for being “Walking Simulators”, you might want to turn and walk away now. For all intents and purposes, Three Fourths Home is a driving simulator. Or to put it more accurately, a driving-while-on-the-phone simulator.

The game is rendered in muted black and white, with very basic graphics. It’s all nothing more than a stylish vehicle for what comes down to a choose your own adventure story. You’re twenty-something year old college student Kelly Meyers, driving home in a massive storm, with a tornado on the way. As you drive, you talk to your family on the phone.

Through these conversations, a moving and nuanced story about a family going through some hard times slowly drips out, with a range of dialogue options allowing you to decide the kind of person you want to be. Are you kind and nurturing, or do you close yourself off, dripping poison from your tongue, pulling the pin from the truth and throwing it like a frag grenade?

There’s a sense of impending dread throughout, and it’s not just caused by the darkening road, and the increasingly loud screeching of the tornado sirens. Three Fourths Home spins a rich and compact tale of millennial angst and uncertainty, and the low-fi feel and droning sounds of music, the road, and eventually the sirens give an unsettling feeling. It reminded me the way that Gone Home spun a feeling of dread throughout, as if you were going to find a body in a closet at any moment.

I had a similar feeling here. I realised at times, that I was so engrossed in the dialogue, that I was no longer paying attention to the road. Driving is simple, holding the right trigger makes you accelerate, and letting go of the button stops everything – the music, the rain, the dialogue, everything creeps to a stop. There’s no escaping the difficult dialogue or awkward conversations, but interestingly, you can choose not to engage in it at all. At any point, you can stop replying, and finish your drive with no dialogue spoken at all.

It’s poignant, because through the bonus epilogue episode in the Extended Edition, along with extra content in the form of Kate’s photography project, and a range of her brother’s short stories, you get a deep, and real sense of this family, and the trauma they have experience. While the dialogue can be light, funny, and incredibly evocative of a real family, it also deals with these issues softly, treading lightly across the open wounds of the Meyers.

The core story takes about an hour to complete, and the epilogue adds another half an hour or so. The epilogue changes things up a bit. You’re waiting on the bus, in the snow, and you can start to walk, and call your mother. This call is framed as something that didn’t happen, an opportunity to make up for lost time that’s hinted on throughout the main story. There are multiple different ways to finish this segment of the story, and you can opt to not have that cathartic conversation at all. You can choose to say what you should have said, rather than what you actually did.

There’s a secret ending that provides an extra feeling of closure too. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you that you must get it. It represents the most complete experience of the game, and leaves you with a sense of catharsis that… well honestly, you’ll need after this. Since so much of the game is about discovering this family and their story, this extra content doesn’t feel like needless fluff. It’s essential.

Three Fourths Home is as basic as basic goes, gameplay and graphic wise, but it’s such an excellently crafted way to tell the story it wants to tell. It’s a perfect example of the incredible ways that games can tell stories that no other medium can offer. Three Fourths Home sneaks up on you, punching you in the gut, winding you before you even realise you were under attack.

Castlevania Season 1 Review

An American produced Anime based off a 1989 video game that was the third entry in a relatively niche franchise that many seasoned gamers aren’t even all that familiar with. You’d be forgiven for assuming that anything that came out of this mix would be terrible. I assumed the same. However, Netflix’s Castlevania animated series defies all expectations by being genuinely pretty damn good. It’s not without it’s flaws, but there’s a lot to love here.

Based on the aforementioned 1989 game Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the series scraps a veritable tome of convoluted series lore, instead opting for a simple opening. After his wife is burned at the stake after being falsely accused of witchcraft, Count Vlad Dracula Tepes promises revenge, stating that all the people of Wallachia will pay with their lives.

They do, and the slaughter begins, with Dracula’s army of demons laying waste to the land, murdering droves of innocents in horribly messy ways. Disgraced Demon Hunter Trevor Belmont reluctantly takes up arms against Dracula’s forces, along with the help of a few allies along the way.

It’s a simple premise to start, but where the show thrives is that it’s not afraid to tackle adult themes, and add buckets of visceral and grisly gore. While it’s easy to assume that Dracula is the villain, things don’t feel quite that straightforward in Castlevania, and over the course of it’s brutally short first season – just four episodes – you’ll find yourself struggling to decide where your allegiances lie. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that it’s perhaps the church who are the evil ones.

It’s not a new idea, but Castlevania puts it across with real panache. Dracula is a sympathetic character and a real bastard. A charismatically scary, evil monster, but with a real justifiable motivation for his behaviour. Elsewhere, Trevor Belmont is in many ways, an anime protagonist cliche. He’s powerful, confident, sexy, and always drunk and hungry. He seems like a bumbling fool until he tears your eye out with his whip. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself but someone ends up helping everyone else anyway.

It’s short running time allows Castlevania some real time to pull you in, setting up the world and the characters nicely. While the animation is usually high quality, it occasionally suffers from it’s anime style. It consistently feels like a homage rather than the real deal, cutting corners in animation and style the way weekly Shonen anime does.

The character designs are relatively uninspired, and the animations are occasionally ropy and lazy. It’s a shame, when the voice acting and the script are so fantastic, often being let down by flat animations and cliched characters.

The second season has already been confirmed, with eight episodes on the way, double the length of this season. Hopefully a second run will allow more time and budget for the visuals to be polished up. Castlevania Season 1 is an exciting debut from a Netflix original that we had no reason to expect anything special from at all.

It leaves you wanting more, and despite it’s flaws, it feels like it’s all over a little too quickly. Castlevania is an engaging, thrilling watch, well written, funny, and brutal, despite its relatively one dimensioned source material and occasionally lacklustre visuals.

Slime Rancher Review

Some video games are easy to describe. You’re a soldier and you shoot things, you race against other cars, you’re a anthropomorphic cat with goggles and a time bending vacuum cleaner…

Others, like Slime Rancher, defy easy description. Monomi Park’s game is a first person space slime farming simulator. You play as Beatrix LeBeau, a rancher who has landed thousand of light years from earth on a strange alien world filled with varied terrain and a wide range of strange, adorable slime creatures.

All from first person view, you suck these slimes up with your space vacuum, and deposit them into pens to collect their poop (known as plort) and use it to buy equipment upgrades, more pens, and gain access to new areas and strange new slimes.

Early on, your farm is barren. You’ve got one pen, and a few pink slimes running about. The game teaches you how to move, and how to suck up these slimy suckers and deposit them into your corral, where they bounce around excitedly, milling over the top of each other. Feeding these fine fellows causes them to squeeze out plort, which is currency here. You suck up plort, and you toss it into a machine to get some newbucks in return.

That’s the essential feedback loop of the game. Explore, find new slimes, get more plort, upgrade your farm, unlock new areas and gear, explore more, repeat. However, Slime Rancher is so sickenly adorable and so fluorescently vibrant that you don’t really care.

The game manages to dodge a few of the pitfalls of farming and resource management type games with the fun and the character of the slimes. Running around the world sucking up slimes, gathering other creatures and food, is more compelling than these sorts of games usually managed. The excellent Stardew Valley recently revitalised the Harvest Moon type formula, and while Slime Rancher’s depth pale in comparison to the gargantuan Stardew Valley, it approaches the genre in a way that feels entirely unique and fresh.

There’s peril to be found in Slime Rancher too. You can die, and beasties out in the world called Tarrs are ready to destroy you and your slimes. If you’re not careful, you can find these Tarrs in your homestead as well. If a slime eats a plort from another slime, you’ll get a giant hybrid of both.

They have big appetites, and drop two types of plort, making them ideal for poop farming. However, if they eat the plort from a third type of slime, then they’ll transform into a Tarr. One errant Tarr can decimate an entire farm, as happened to me when I was out exploring the world. I came back home to my farm empty, save for one giant tabby hybrid who had somehow managed to avoid the slaughter.

In many ways, Slime Rancher laughs at the meticulous planning that it’s genre buddies encourage. Slimes will escape from pens. They will eat your chickens, raid your gardens, and eat each other’s poops, turning the whole place into a mess of crazy slime.

You can upgrade everything to automate feeding and plort collection and make it harder for slimes to escape, but one mistake, and you’re back to square one.

Luckily, you keep all your upgrades, and there are more slimes than you can carry roaming the wild range of environments you’ll find in the game. Slime Rancher gives you a perfect push and pull between exploring further and further, and running back to your farm to deposit your new slimes, grow new food, and sell some plort.

Exploring is just as fun as building your farm, and the whole thing feels so laissez faire that to read guides on the best farms to build and so on seems like the boring way to approach the whole thing.

However, Slime Rancher’s simplicity is probably it’s biggest weakness. Exploring and running all the way back to the farm, only to run back again, can get a little boring, and it doesn’t take too long to feel like you’ve seen everything. The game is still fun, but it’s a game you’re likely to fall out of after a dozen hours or so.

Even still, the time you spend with the game is tonnes of fun, the slimes are adorable, and there’s a laid back, low stress feel to the whole thing that is refreshing in a genre usually dedicated to squeezing every valuable second out of every in game day.

Slime Rancher is a farming game like no other, eschewing boring resource management for a beautiful, vibrant world, and adorable and unpredictable slimes to contend with. While you might not explore every single inch of what the game has to offer and might get bored after a while, it’s a sheer joy until then.

Destiny 2 Beta First Impression

The Destiny 2 beta went public yesterday for folks on console, but if you pre-ordered the game you’ve had access to it for a while now. Bungie have been hasty to make it clear that the beta is based on an older build of the game. The beta offers an opening mission story mission called Homecoming, a strike called Inverted Spire, and a taste of PVP with two Crucible playlists.

Homecoming seems to be the very first mission in the campaign, or at least the earliest one, and right off the bat it makes all the right moves to actually give the story some stakes, give you an antagonist more visible than “The Darkness” and make use of some of the great characters established in the first game. Homecoming opens with The Tower under attack, the defences have been broken, and the last city on earth is falling.

Your guardian is summoned at speed from where ever else in the galaxy you where, and you rush back to find familiar, safe locations from Destiny in complete ruins, with The Cabal swarming from all sides. Every class Vanguard gets something exciting to do in this mission, finally giving you some direct interaction with some of these characters as you fight alongside them. The mission ends with you coming face to face with the leader of your foes, a lovely chap called Ghaul, who kind of looks like a Grunt from Halo on steroids.

Ghaul beats you up, and all but destroys your ghost, before tossing you off the edge of his ship. The effect he has on you and your little wisecracking companion seems to suggest that we’re going to see a Metroid style power-down at the start of Destiny 2. The beta starts you with a high level and gear to match it, and I would bet that next in the story, you find yourself on a quest to get powered up, retrieve your ghost, and take the fight back to Ghaul and his cronies.

Already, it’s a story much more interesting than the original Destiny’s initial campaign. We have friends, a clear foe, emotional stakes, and a reason to want to shoot someone in the face besides levelling up and loot.

Inverted Spire strike plays a bit more with some of the platforming and gameplay changes that Bungie started to introduce in later expansions to base Destiny. There are teleporting portals that whip you across the stunning landscape at great speed and a great deal of downwards platforming.

The first part of the mission involves disabling a giant drill, which makes for a fun segment of dodging spinning blades to destroy three generators. Later, the giant drill is an environmental hazard and a friend as you fight your way into the crater, dodging the drills and luring enemies into them.

It’s a lot of fun, and the boss at the end of the strike feels epic, on the scale of the final showdown with Crota at the end of The Taken King. There’s a fun conceit of the ground disappearing in different phases of the battle as you plummet deeper into the planet and the battle grows more intense. Sadly, the boss is a bit of a bullet sponge and ammo for your power weapons is thin on the ground in this encounter. However, Bungie have said they’re aware of dodgy power ammo drop rates and will be fixing accordingly.

In terms of skills, weapons and so on, there are a few fundamental changes that have been made. It’s a shame that the beta doesn’t really allow you to choose abilities, level up your class, or play about with equipping armour and weapons, so it makes it a little harder to gauge what’s new and how character development might advance. However, the weapons themselves have undergone a fundamental change that is sure to divide Destiny fans.

Weapon slots are divided between kinetic, energy and power weapons. Kinetic weapons feel like regular primary weapons – hand cannons, auto rifles, pulse rifles and the like. Energy weapons are a hybrid class of non-power weapons with an elemental flavour to them. This means side arms, but also any hand cannon or auto rifle with something solar, void, or arc going on. Power weapons are where your traditional one shot one kill weapons now live, including rocket launchers, grenade launchers, and perhaps most startlingly, sniper rifles, fusion rifles and shotguns too.

In PvP it seems like a good fit, giving battles an interesting ebb and flow where combat gets closer quarters and more hectic as the match runs on and the power ammo starts to spawn. In PvE, it does seem well suited for adding a bit more variety to battle, allowing you to lower a solar foes shields and quickly switch to a vanilla hand cannon to land a few devastating headshots.

However, in situations like The Inverted Spire’s boss encounter, it felt odd to have five shots with a sniper rifle on him, and then have to switch between my SMG and hand cannon to polish off the big bugger, especially with no power ammo to be seen.

The Crucible will feel like home for big fans of Destiny’s PvP. The new Countdown mode is a lot like bomb/defuse modes from other shooters, such as Counterstrike. It feels interesting and the new map Midtown has a few interesting lanes and sights for intense defusing and planting battles.

However, the mode does seem strongly suited for going in with a Fireteam of friends rather than going solo. Control returns, feeling much the same. The new class abilities provide interesting potential in PvP as they do in PvE, many being more focused on buffing and protecting team mates rather than just destroying foes. I think it’ll take the full release to get a better idea of how all these abilities will come into the mix.

Overall, Destiny 2 feels more like a half step from the first game rather than something that rewrites the rule book. It’s still not meeting the promise of the original game when Bungie hyped it into oblivion, but as a fan of the first game, I’m now cautiously optimistic at the thought of stepping back into Destiny’s world come September time.

American Gods Season 1 Review

If you’ve read the American Gods book, you’d balk at the idea that Neil Gaiman’s fantastically inventive and richly textured novel could ever be turned into a television show that would really do it any justice.

The world of the silver screen seemed to agree, as the TV adaptation of the novel was bandied around from producer to producer, resting at HBO for a while before being abandoned, and finally coming to rest in its home of Starz. With Bryan Fuller as showrunner, alongside Michael Green, hopes were high for something special. Arguably, the debut season of American Gods does not disappoint.

American Gods starts with Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) being released from prison early after the untimely death of his wife, Laura Moon (Emily Browning). Soon after leaving prison, he is approached by the enigmatic Mister Wednesday (Ian McShane), offering him a strange job as his body guard. Wednesday is a conman who seems to know much more about Shadow’s life than he lets on.

The basic premise of American Gods is that gods are real, and they’re created and empowered by how many people believe in them. Faith, prayer and belief make them strong, and without these things, they begin to weaken and eventually disappear altogether. Wednesday wants to wage a war, the Old Gods against the New Gods – who are characterised by the likes of Media (Gillian Anderson), Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Mister World (Crispin Glover).

The show loosely follows the novel, hitting all the same plot points, while also expanding on the lives of secondary and tertiary characters, and also creating a few new ones along the way. American Gods captures the dreamlike, ethereal feel of the novel by essentially making each episode a bat shit bonkers thrill ride of music, gorgeously shot scenes, and buckets of gore, with a hefty dash of sex thrown in as well.

The result is something that feels unlike anything you’ve ever seen on the silver screen. The closest show I can think of for comparison is Fuller’s own Hannibal, and the inspirations of that show weigh heavy on much of American Gods.

All its artistic appeal wouldn’t matter a dime (or a lucky gold coin) if the story didn’t have the chops to back it all up, and American Gods remains strong throughout it’s short, eight episode run. Several of the episodes feel like mini movies that tie into the overarching plot, and every character is compelling. While initially you’re reluctant to move away from the scenery chomping glory of Mr Wednesday – with Ian McShane in perfect form, as always – you soon become invested in what’s going on with the rest of the characters, too.

The majority of the episodes start with a cold open, detailing how different gods first reached the fertile land of America, some of these become central characters, some of them fade away, but each serves as a thematically unique, mini episode before the main meat of the story.

That’s not to say that every weird twist on convention or quirk of the story works. While the episode focusing on Laura Moon, Essie MacGowan, and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schrieber) was a fantastic, self-contained story in its own right, it felt out of place as the episode before the finale.

Even the ending of season one itself didn’t feel like an ending. It felt like it was building for something bigger to come next. If I hadn’t of known the season was only eight episodes long (or should that be short?) then I would have been wondering where the rest of it was.

Despite a few missteps, American Gods – and Starz – should be praised for the conventions that the show eschews in favour of pushing some boundaries. An explicit scene of gay sex is handled with tenderness and care, coming across as a celebration of love and sex between all genders and orientations. Bilquis’ explicit sex scenes are handled with a mix of titillation, grandeur, and religious fervour, giving the sense that there was no other way to introduce this character. It also makes it all the more heart breaking to later see her fall, and her strange relationship with the New Gods later in the season.

American Gods, the novel had a heady, heavy story full of subtext, nods to other literature and myths, and characters, scenes and plot turns that took time to digest. The television show doesn’t make it any easier on the viewer.

While Shadow Moon and Mr Wednesday offer a narrative thread to hold on to, very little is made explicit. The dialogue is cryptic, the characters are enigmatic, and it all feels curiously dream like. It’s a show that demands your full attention, a show that you watch episode by episode, slowly savouring each scene. Despite a few flaws, the eight episodes feel far too short, and you’ll finish up craving more. With Season two already confirmed, and coming in at a heftier ten episodes long, it’s thrilling to think about where Fuller and Green are going to take us next.

Better Call Saul – Season 3 Review

Better Call Saul doesn’t feel like a Breaking Bad prequel anymore. Season three, perhaps more than any other reason before it, pays fast and loose with the connections between the two series’. Despite this, it feels like the show has really carved out it’s own identity that takes a few familiar characters and gives them room to breathe in a show that’s tonally miles away from it’s meth addled older brother.

To watch the show waiting for ‘Slippin’ Jimmy McGill to become Saul Goodman is quite frankly, a waste. Better Call Saul doesn’t care to excite you. It’s beautifully shot, languishly paced and in turns hilarious, terrifying, and emotional.

Season three picks up right from where season two’s cliffhanger left us, with Jimmy confessing of his crimes to Chuck out of guilt for his brother’s ailing health. Jimmy has no idea that Chuck has been surreptitiously recording him, and it’s this that colours most of the first half of this season. Alongside this, we hop back to Mike’s story, as he mixes with Gus Fring and finds it increasingly harder to keep out of the business and stay on the straight and narrow.

Both intertwining tales continue to be as fantastic as each other, with Mike’s story providing something of the Breaking Bad flavour, while Jimmy’s story is very much his own. Later in the season, we also start to see much more of Nacho, one of Don Hector’s cronies, and a man who has his own reasons for seeing Salamanca take a fall.

Season three takes many twists and turns, and more than easy season before it, wears it’s Breaking Bad connections on it’s sleeves. We start to learn more about Hector Salamanca, his temper, his health, and how his drug smuggling operation lines up with Gus Fring’s. Characteristically of the series, we also see a number of characters hatch elaborate plots to take each other down that are a thrill to watch.

It also delivers our best slice of courtroom drama yet, in a confrontation between Chuck and Jimmy in an embittered legal battle. In many ways, it feels like Better Call Saul’s big showdown, the battle between the villain and the hero, but as anyone who’s seen even a single episode of this show knows, there are no clear white hats or black hats in the world of ‘Slippin’ Jimmy McGill, and the show plays with this expertly.

Things take a turn after this pivotal point, and we see Kim and Jimmy suddenly living two very disparate lives. Better Call Saul gives us the massive confrontation that we wanted, and arguably the best result we could have hoped for. Even still, we walk away with a bitter taste in our mouth, and it’s Kim that carries the most of this, which becomes especially clear as the series goes on.

Season three is as gorgeously shot and avant garde as both seasons before it. The opening episode of the season spends about five minutes showing Mike strip a car looking for a tracking device, and we get to see him strip the car down to almost nothing in a fantastic shot sped up scene that is a joy to watch, even if the actual act is somewhat boring.

We spend around the same amount of time watching Chuck search for sources of electric around his house. Better Call Saul continues to tell us so much about the characters and the world they inhabit without needing to use a single word. Subtle cues, character tics, and scenes like those described above give the show a rich texture. It’s not for everyone, and while some could argue that often not a whole lot happens in each episode, I could watch these characters not doing a whole lot at all for several more seasons.

That’s to say nothing for the way the end of the third season leaves things lying. In many ways, I could criticize it because Jimmy seems to repeatedly end seasons back at square one, but there’s been enough change to the status quo here that Season 4 is set to be very unpredictable indeed.

The problem is that now, I don’t want to see Saul Goodman, because we’ve spent three seasons with Jimmy and Kim as fantastically, fully fledged characters in of themselves, and for things to get to the morally bankrupt and financially secure lawyer of Breaking Bad, we know that things have to go bad for more than a few of our favorite faces.

Season three is another example of how Better Call Saul is rivalling it’s older brother on all fronts, and often surpassing it. It stands as strong as the two seasons before it, and in many ways surpasses them, as there’s no more world building or foundation laying work to be done (except for Mike, in one scene) but instead, we get a whole season of these fantastically crafted, gorgeously shot, and astoundingly acted characters butting heads at every turn. Roll on season four.