NULLED: Kholat (PC, 2015)

Chester Bennington once sang: “I tried so hard, and got so far 
But, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.” This could be the motto of Kholat, an initially impressive indie horror title from IMGN.PRO that gradually pisses away any goodwill it might began with.

Inspired by the notorious Dyatlov Pass Incident, you play someone investigating the mysterious deaths of camping party in the snowbound Russian mountains. You have a compass, a map and that’s it. The meat of the game is wandering off into the wilderness, doing some virtual orienteering, collecting diary pages and experiencing spooky happenings.

The design ethos is about capturing the fear of being lost in the wilderness: losing your bearings as a blizzard fills the air or in the inky blackness of a thick forest. Sadly for Kholat, this doesn’t make for a fun game. Theoretically, it could work if the developers were masters of the kind of subtle player signposting that Valve were so good at. But they’re not, and much of the game is spent slowly plodding aimlessly through very dull snowy landscapes.

And then there’s the insta-deaths. There are smoke monster things lurking in the woods that will kill you in a hit, there are invisible spike traps, falls that you should survive but won’t and rocks that tumble down and squash you without warning. It’s all terrible.

Though it does have Sean Bean gamely narrating a load of absolute bollocks. If you’d ditch the monsters (and to be honest, every death mechanic) and have better signposting on where to go, Kholat might be a winner. As it it’s just infuriating and, in what’s always the kiss of death for a horror game, quickly very boring.

BEATEN: Hellblade (PS4, 2017)

Ludicrously atmospheric action adventure with a fantastic aesthetic and some of the best audio design I’ve ever heard. Hellblade is a great example of what I like in games: a focused experience that tells a tale well without the usual bumph that devs pad out games with.

Ninja Theory has been threatening to make a truly great game for a long time, but have always fallen slightly short (Enslaved was the closest they got up to now). But with Hellblade they finally achieved their potential.

Though it’s mechanically simple, this game is all about the atmosphere. The goal is to simulate the lead character Senua’s psychosis and PTSD, which is achieved through hyper-realistic environments studded with surreal elements and some excellent binaural audio (this is best played with headphones on).

It’s also helped by that rarest of things in videogame: a decent script and acting. If there were an award for mocapped performance in a game, then Senua actor Melina Juegens really deserves it – she’s jawdroppingly great.

Buuuuuuut. About 90% of the way through the game I got hit by a save ruining bug. I ran past a flame I was supposed to light my torch on, and the game autosaved beyond that, thus breaking a puzzle. As the game only has one save file, I couldn’t proceed. I waited a week for a patch, but that didn’t fix it.

But full credit to Ninja Theory: after whinging on the internet, they got in touch with me and asked me to email them my save file. While they couldn’t fix the save, they did apparently use it to put together the patch that fixed the bug.

But the game was so good that I just gritted my teeth and played through the whole damn thing again. It’s a pretty short game if you know where you’re going, but that’s still five hours out of my life and the repetition slightly tainted what was otherwise a top-class experience.

NULLED: Street Fighter Alpha: Warriors Dreams (Arcade, 1995)

I’ve played a whole bunch of Street Fighter Alpha 2 and 3 on Saturn and Dreamcast, but had never tried the original. The general feeling is that it was a test run for better things to come, with the series really coming alive with the second entry.

This proved to be dead on. Street Fighter Alpha is still Street Fighter, so it’s fun on a basic level, but the package feels like a work in progress. Part of this could be that the Alpha staff were newcomers to Capcom (with the Street Fighter II team working on Street Fighter III).

The character selection is a bit limited and while the anime-inspired redesigns are nice (these sprites would stick around for many years to come) the backgrounds are largely uninspired. Finished Arcade mode with a couple of characters and decided my time would be better spent with Alpha 2.

Alpha 1 probably isn’t worth revisiting, but it at least laid down some good groundwork for the series to build on.

NULLED: S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC, 2007)

I had high hopes for this, having not played a STALKER game before. I know how much the series is loved, I adore the broken-down and miserablist aesthetic and had read so many cool stories about exciting and terrifying adventures.

Installed the mandatory fan-fix mods and a graphical upgrade and then played it and… it was terrible.

I’d read FAQs recommending that new players start on ‘Master’ difficulty, which makes bullets more lethal for both you and enemies (Deus Ex style). But I was sneaking up on enemies, shooting them point blank in the head and they responded by turning around and killed me.

I played for about 3 or 4 hours, dying repeatedly to basic bandits and I figure it’s got to have¬†something¬†going for it if it’s got such a rabid fanbase. But after a few hours I wasn’t enjoying myself and refunded it. I really tried my best, but every second I spent with the game was depressing, ugly and unfun and I’ve only got so much free time.

BEATEN: Tomb Raider II (PC, 1997)

I think it takes a certain kind of player to be able to get through a classic Tomb Raider game these days. You need a lot of patience, a willingness to get to grips with the antiquated (but still very usable) control system and a bit of technical know-how in order to get the games running on modern systems and look their best.

Tomb Raider II is (probably) worth all that. By comparison to the original Tomb Raider, Core Design is obviously much more confident when it comes the design: there’s more complex puzzles, driveable vehicles, larger levels, enemies fighting amongst themselves and Lara’s character model has been refined (I can only imagine the arguments over how much system resources to allocate to Lara’s impressive real-time physics braid).

That’s all put to good use in some really neatly conceived levels. The Venetian Opera House, in which you clamber around a dilapidated theatre and gradually wriggle your way to the exit is an early highlight.

But the best are the Maria Doria sequence. It starts in 40 Fathoms, where the level opens with Lara at the bottom of the ocean, pursued by sharks, having to get to a sunken cruise liner before she drowns. Then, over the course of three levels, you worm your way through a decaying upturned cruise liner (with mild shades of Titanic). It’s full of really striking designs, with the ruinous and damp really atmospheric.

Special mention also to the late Temple of Xian level, a winding puzzlebox of a level that’s pleasantly sadistic in its design.

Sure, the combat against human foes with guns isn’t great (this is where Lara properly begins her impressive body count) and there’s the odd unfair deaths that mandates regular quicksaving, but if you’ve got patience and maybe play about a level a day you won’t burn out on it.

Next up: Tomb Raider II expansion pack The Golden Mask.

BEATEN: Space Channel 5 (Dreamcast, 1999)

Space Channel 5: still funky twenty years later. I used to be pretty good on this back in the day, so when I asked my game randomizer to pick me something to play I was glad when this popped up. Took me a couple of tries of the first level to get my rhythm down, but I quickly got back into the swing of things.

It’s kind of unique in that it’s a rhythm game entirely based on sound cues rather than scrolling visual bars and so on, so you’ve really got to pay attention to the music and Simon says style rhythms. But really it’s all about the 50s futurist aesthetic, the intense level of camp and the groovy music. The pre-rendered background movie overlaid with real time polygons doesn’t look great, but it just about works.

Aced most of it, only having real trouble with the reverse directions final boss. I’ve got Space Channel 5: Part 2 on Steam so I’ll give that a go soon.

BEATEN: Titan Souls (PC, 2015)

Minimalist and exceptionally tricky boss rush game where one hit = death. The twist is that this rule applied both to you and the 17 bosses. The meat of the game is uncovering each bosses’ weak point and timing firing your one arrow at it.

It wears its influences on its sleeve, playing like a mashup of Shadow of the Colossus and A Link to the Past. I enjoyed getting through it, there were times when I was driven crazy by frustration.

For every well-timed chain of dodges ending with a pixel perfect shot. But these were preceded by the 30 times where I got quickly whomped into the dirt. Then there were the slightly unsatisfying battles where I randomly shot the arrow and happened to score a win by luck.

I beat every boss in the game, unlocked the secret final boss and got the full ending, so it must have been doing something right for me not to give up in annoyance.