Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (PS2, 2005 / PC, 2018)

Last week I spotted a deal for Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition on PS5 for the princely sum of £25. Sold. After I picked it up I realized I’d better get a move on in my series playthrough before it arrives.

With the first two games already under my belt I fired up the Devil May Cry HD Collection with no small amount of anticipation. I last played Devil May Cry 3 16 years ago on PS2 and have fond yet hazy memories of it. Back then I was a little nervous about harder games and this one had a reputation for being particularly unforgiving.

I eventually strolled out of the demonic tower of Temen-ni-gru a more patient, attentive and better player. In 2005 Devil May Cry 3 was tough but scrupulously fair. Screwing up meant a gigantic dent in your health bar and (in the original release) dying probably meant you were restarting the entire level. Countering that is that Dante is a Swiss Army Knife of violence and has the potential to clown on even the most gruesome boss (and also on a clown, now that I come to think of it).

This game (as well as Ninja Gaiden on Xbox) encouraged me push myself to master systems, consider what each inputs does and not to get greedy when attacking bosses. It’s a skill set that came in incredibly useful for From Software’s games and especially Sekiro.

I’m now older, wiser, more experienced than I was back in 2005. Surely notorious early roadblock boss Cerberus will be a piece of cake given my virtuoso skills?

Nope, that fucking three headed bastard creamed me.

A couple more tries later and I regained my Devil May Cry rhythm. Even with the years that have passed – and the many character action titles that surpassed this – this is still incredibly satisfying to play. Dante is fast, responsive and with a move-list a mile deep. Being able to instantly switch between two weapons and two firearms gives you a practically limitless array of combos – and the various styles pile on yet more variables.

My bread n’ butter is still Trickster, giving you a lot of movement options and letting you zip away from trouble fast. But Swordmaster and Gunslinger are both insanely fun and I love the way they unlock extra moves for apparently limited weapons. I did give Royal Guard a try, but try as I might I just can’t get the hang of it…

Chalk me up as a fan of this game’s ludicrous aesthetic too. Anyone who doesn’t see the excellence of a boss battle against a slutty vampire who transforms into an electric guitar weapon you proceed to rock out on isn’t living life to the fullest. Sure, the characters are prime mid-2000s edgy and the plot is barely present, but Dante isn’t taking things seriously and neither should the player.

For me, everything comes into sharp focus during the game’s boss battles with Dante’s moody twin brother Vergil: an enemy who’s roughly as powerful as you. As with the best boss battles it feels more like a dance than a fight, gradually learning every tell, counter-move and vulnerable phase and ruthlessly pushing towards victory.

The only genuinely awful thing is the music, in particular the battle theme which is a godawful hybrid of nu-metal and drum n’ bass. I’m usually too focused on carving up demonic hordes to pay attention to it, but yeesh it sucks.

Sadly I don’t have the time to get deeper into higher difficulties or the Bloody Palace mode, but I’m sorely tempted. Maybe I’ll pick up that recent enhanced Switch port so I can get into some Devil May Cry 3 on the movie.

DMC5: Special Edition is out on December 1st, so I’ll squeeze in the fourth game next month and that’ll mean I’ll have played the whole series. Yup, Devil May Cry, Devil May Cry 2, Devil May Cry 3, Devil May Cry 4… and Devil May Cry 5. The complete set!

The Room VR: A Dark Matter (PSVR, 2020)

I’ve been a fan of Fireproof Games’ The Room series for yars. Even after puzzling my way through countless mysterious boxes and interconnected rooms there’s still a thrill of excitement as a lock clicks upon, cogs whirl and lacquered panels blossom out to reveal yet more secrets.

After four games on mobile that gradually become more complex and technologically advanced, the franchise has moved to VR. It’s an obvious next destination for a series that relies on examining objects, a sense of solid tactility and a fun yet tense Lovecraftish vibe.

In A Dark Matter you play an Edwardian detective on the trail of the sinister Craftsman. To stop his (somewhat ill-defined) plan you must journey through a sequence of puzzle rooms, each more cunningly designed than the last.

The Room series has always had a lot in common with real-life escape rooms, but A Dark Matter really hammers the similarities home. The three primary levels are set in an Egyptology museum, an old English church and a creepy cottage in the woods and each of them is evocative and full of things to poke and prod.

Though the core building blocks of the puzzles remain the same (see lock with octagonal hole / search for octagonal key) there’s a feeling of grandeur and scale that pays off gangbusters. I loved the drama of unveiling a sarcophagus and peeling back the layers to expose the mummy within, or the simple thrills of pouring ingredients into a bubbling cauldron. When something supernatural happens there’s a spooky thrill that you just wouldn’t get from watching it on a 2D screen.

By far the coolest twist comes in the church stage, in which you end up solving puzzles by miniaturising yourself into them. Need to pick a lock? Zip inside and move the pins by hand. VR is great at scale and size and the disorientation you feel when you’re suddenly an inch or so tall works beautifully. It’s such a neat idea that you could probably hang an entire game on it, so it’s disappointing it’s only used so briefly.

There’s only a couple of downsides. I hate having to resort to these games’ hint systems – which always feels like admitting defeat. It was especially annoying that the two or three times I had to in this game weren’t because I hadn’t connected the dots, but simply because I hadn’t realised that a certain element was interactable (and I swear I had tried to move them). Perhaps instead of a text hint, a button that highlights elements you can move would work better.

Beyond that the game very slightly nudges at the edges of what the increasingly out-dated PSVR tracking can accomplish. 95% of the game works fine, though one puzzle involving a crystal ball feels a bit beyond the clumsy Move controllers.

Then there’s the fact that this is £25 for a pretty short experience. I didn’t feel short-changed, but it would have been nice to have just one more set of puzzles to work through rather than three major locations and two very straightforward mini-rooms.

While I wouldn’t want Fireproof to alienate their core audience on mobile this is seriously impressive stuff for a 16 person studio. Let’s hope we get a second VR The Room soon.

Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds DLC (PS4, 2017)

I liked but didn’t love Horizon Zero Dawn. The game span a compelling YA-inflected sci-fi mystery while refining tried-and-tested open world mechanics. It’s fun enough but there’s no stand-out element you can’t find anywhere else.

After finishing the main game I put The Frozen Wilds DLC on the back burner – but something tempted me back to this lush post-apocalyptic far future sooner than I’d expected.

So there I was, clambering up a cliff in the far north-east of the map and into a new snowy biome populated by violent robots and gruff snow people. This adventure is a smaller-scale story than the core game, taking us through the conflict between the Banuk, a proud warrior tribe and the ‘Daemon’ that’s squatting in the local volcano.

The Daemon is making the already very angry robots even angrier (and tougher) and it’s Aloy’s job to fix things. What follows is an okay story about battling AIs and tribal loyalties that’s decent (even if the new characters are all overly familiar stereotypes) but not a patch on the mysteries of the main game. Still, there’s a couple of cool fights and a fun extended set piece inside a volcano as the finale.

What I found a bit disappointing was how little the wintery environment altered the gameplay. Aloy constantly comments about how cold she is, but this never affects how she behaves: you can have her running around in summer clothes without consequence and moving through deep snow doesn’t slow you down.

It’s a shame, because while the realistic snow deformation and nice-looking snowstorms are attractive they’re ultimately just cosmetic. It compares unfavorably with Horizon Zero Dawn‘s Decima Engine sibling Death Stranding, in which a trip into the icy mountains comes with multiple gameplay complications that you must plan for.

The Frozen Wilds isn’t going to stick in the memory but it was fun while it lasted. Fingers crossed Guerrilla Games are refining the hell out of this gameplay for Forbidden West.

Night in the Woods (PC, 2017)

Night in the Woods is one of the most depressing games I’ve ever played. It’s also incredibly funny, full of cool moments and crammed full of witty dialogue. Most of my favorite games don’t just nail the usual video game stuff, they capture a whole mood. In this case it’s the gentle, sad sense of a loss of momentum and inexorable decline.

You play as anthropomorphic cat Mae Borowski, who has dropped out of college and returned to her small town of Possum Springs. She moves back in with her parents and returns to her high school social circle. The meat of the game is simply wandering about the town chatting to people and hanging out with your friends.

Humming away in the background is a mystery to be solved, but as everyone except Mae has a job and assorted responsibilities it’s kind of a slow-burner and only comes to the forefront in the final chapter.

So with its cute characters cracking wise to one another, what’s so sad about Night in the Woods? Well, for me Mae’s situation was painfully relatable – that’s despite me escaping my personal run-down ex-mining town and successfully making a break for the big city. I dodged the bullet that is currently barrelling towards Mae, and throughout the game I’m screaming at her to get out of its way too.

What’s particularly crushing is how sadistic a trap Possum Springs is. Like a frog in water that’s gradually getting warmer, this town isn’t obviously nightmarish. There’s a sense of small town camaraderie and a shared industrial history that binds the citizens together – but even that is shrivelling in the face of economic slowdown as the town’s economy and job prospects are sucked into a Walmart-a-like whirlpool.

It’s a story that’s told on the boarded up shop fronts, stressed workers gathering to smoke outside office blocks and once grand, now decrepit public amenities. Most of the characters put a cheery face on their plight, but them being all being cute animals doesn’t make them slowly sinking into the quicksand any less miserable.

The only real ray of light is an easily missed plotline that hints that the town’s left wing union traditions might be dormant rather than dead. You can read about clashes between miners and strike-breakers in the local library – and scratch away at the corners of the story long enough and you can understand your family’s place in this story.

But what you end up taking away is that we’re all living in Possum Springs – its troubles a microcosm of the final crisis of capitalism we’re all living through as the insanely rich become the ludicrously rich, our ecosystem collapses and social safety nets are sliced to ribbons.

Uhm. So yeah. Did I mention that Night in the Woods is also really funny. It is. Honestly.

Leaving aside the overbearing misery for a second, all its characters are deftly sketched and interesting. I suspect one of the reasons they’re compelling is because you choose to seek them out. For example, there’s no particular benefit on checking in with Bruce, a drifter who lives out in the woods near the church, but it’s nice to know he’s doing okay.

It’s also very rewarding that the more you explore, the more fun you have. There’s a lot of unique, missable events tucked away in the corners of the town, including a spooky boat ride through underground wreckage, an abandoned concert hall and the rat-infested remains of Mallard P. Bloomingro. After I finished the game I read up on the secrets and was pleasantly surprised that I’d discovered almost of all them organically – a decent testament to how fun nosing around Possum Springs was.

It’s real easy to recommend Night in the Woods. It looks, plays and sounds great (the soundtrack is full of earworms) – and the writing is top notch. But beware – the game has a sting in the tail and its slow-burning melancholy eats away at you over time.

Moss (PSVR, 2018)

Two years after picking up PlayStation VR I’m still reliably entranced by it. Simply being present in a virtual space is exciting and I love the way it blocks out the real world (during the lockdown it was a fantastic way to scratch the psychological itch of being stuck indoors).

It’s also the best way to show scale in a game: whether it’s the gargantuan nightmare bosses of Thumper or the extremely tiny. Enter Moss – in which you team up with a mouse called Quill for a fantasy adventure set in a miniature kingdom of woodland animals.

It wouldn’t take much to convert Moss into a non-VR puzzle/platformer, but you’d be sacrificing so much of its charm. The game casts you as the ‘reader’, a Studio Ghibli-lookin’ spirit that observes and interact with the world around Quill. You can reach into the world to move objects around, assist in battles by manipulating enemies and crane your neck around to peer inside the game’s many beautiful dioramas.

Screenshots and video simply cannot capture what it’s like to be in these places – with each type of environment (rustic, forest, ruin, town) executed beautifully – every environment another jigsaw piece in the tale of this tiny world.

But the star of the show is Quill. Her animation is Pixar-level incredible and is adorable from minute one. Throughout the game you build a partnership with her, guiding her through obstacles and helping her defeat the game’s clanking robotic enemies. I was a fan of her from minute one, but when we got through a particularly tricky puzzle and I realised she was holding her paw up to high-five me my heart melted and I realised I would die for this mouse.

Would Quill be as effective in a non-VR game? She’d certainly still be cute, but having her tangibly there amplifies all her other qualities. Despite being a silent protagonist she’s got more character than most game heroes as she makes daring leaps, looks nervous when you lean down to examine her closely or, best of all, smiles and stretches as you skritch her head.

The only real bummer is that Moss ends extremely abruptly. I didn’t know this was simply part one of a longer story, so the game just perfunctorily ending just as things got interesting was a huge anticlimax. Worse, in the two years since its release there’s no sign of a Moss Part 2. C’mon, let’s get this show on the road!

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PC, 2013)

As a huge fan of Hideo Kojima the following words stick in my throat and make me a little uncomfortable. Here we go: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is the best-written, most thematically cohesive and politically switched on entry in the Metal Gear franchise. And Kojima had almost nothing to do with it.

Ooh. *shivers* Feels kinda good to get it out of the system you know?

Don’t get me wrong, other Metal Gear games are more ambitious in both philosophy and design, but Platinum Games and director Kenji Saito display a purity of focus that continues right up until the credits.

Rising is primarily about post-humanism, the exploitation of developing countries and the inherent and inescapable immorality of the military industrial complex – all told through narrative, extensive CODEC conversations and the gameplay,

None of that is new territory for Metal Gear, but whereas other titles in the franchise play fast and loose in making actual ideological commitments Rising is straightforward and convincing.

We hear how politicians manipulate people into hating immigrant workers while profiting from globalisation, the militarisation and privatisation of the police and how corporations encourage debt as a way control people (among many other topics). It’s not groundbreaking analysis, but it’s a damn sight better than most video games manage.

These are all limbs of a core anti-capitalist argument that comes to a head in the final battle. Here you throw down with the embodiment of the Republican Party, who yells “Make America Great Again” three whole years before Trump travelled down that escalator. You end that debate by tearing his black heart from his chest and crushing it in your cyborg fist. Now that’s change I can believe in.

*splat*

You might argue that Rising is a bit on-the-nose, but I’ve always felt that subtlety is extremely over-rated and I’m quite happy to something just to be about what it’s about.

One of the main things I love about Metal Gear is combining the surreal and goofy with the deadly serious – and the political pondering quickly proves to be the delicious filling of a sandwich whose bread is composed of hi-octane, slicin’ and dicin’ cyborg fun. And lots and lots of impeccably cheesy buttrock.

The gameplay achieves a similar precision by making practically every action you can perform an attack. Parrying is done with the attack button, dodging is known as “defensive offensive” and is also an attack – even healing requires you to cut your opponents apart and gorge on the electrolytes within (a quick QTE that never gets old).

a decent summation of the series

This hybrid of Metal Gear‘s eccentric little touches and Platinum’s tuned-to-perfection combat tickles me just right. Perhaps some of is a consequence of being left nonplussed by my recent playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 4, which lays out an cool dystopian cyberpunk future and then fails to say anything remotely interesting about it in favor of canon wanking (also actual wanking).

In comparison to the stodginess of MGS4, this is streamlined and clear-minded, nailing what it sets out to do while being lefty as hell and generally pretty damn funny. I mean you get a ridiculous mariachi outfit and when you hide inside a barrel the hat sits on top. Come on people what more do you want?

My only wish is that Platinum had been allowed to refine this. Nobody does Metal Gear quite like Kojima does – but Platinum get pretty goddamn close. For me they’ve captured lightning in a bottle and it’s annoying that a sequel is extremely unlikely.

Rising also marks the end of my in-series chronological playthrough of the franchise. I began in 1963 with Metal Gear Solid 3 and worked up through the decades to Rising – experiencing the full saga of the fall of Big Boss and the establishment, destruction and aftermath of the Patriots. What did playing the games in this strange order tell me about the series?

Bugger all if I’m being honest. But it was fun.

So much so that I’m going to carry on with some other non-canonical titles. Maybe I’ll finally take the shrink-wrap off that £3 copy of Metal Gear Survive I fished out of a bargain bin.

Resident Evil HD Remaster (PC, 2002/2015)

In 1996 the Spencer Mansion was the most terrifying place in the world. I was frightened by DOOM at the time, so guiding a painfully vulnerable character through Resident Evil‘s creaking corridors was just too much. Hell, even the puzzles scared me, with their bizarre objects and juddering old machinery. I never finished it and even six years later was too chicken to go back when the game was remade on GameCube.

After all, if I was weirded out by the chunky graphics and low-res backgrounds of the PlayStation original, what chance did I have against the (at-the-time) photorealistic graphics of the remake?

Over the last few years I’ve been working through the Resident Evil series, figuring that if I could survive Resident Evil 7 in VR I can deal with anything Capcom could throw at me. And now, this game that once seemed so threatening and spooky surprised me by being like stepping into a comfy pair of slippers.

Sure, the Resident Evil Remake is tense, atmospheric and made me jump a few times, but it’s primarily goofy B-movie fun that has me cackling with glee when it got one over on me. Plus, somewhere along the way Resident Evil’s obtuse puzzle mechanics clicked and now I sail through every crest-based conundrum.

With the sense of horror dialled back a bit the Spencer Mansion reveals itself as a giant puzzlebox and one of the medium’s all-time great locations. Success requires a keen eye, a good memory and decent spatial awareness. The mansion is initially a disorientating maze full of dead ends that you gradually peel it open like an onion until, by the final act of the game, you know it like the back of your hand.

Combat is a little rougher, but I’ve learned the hard way that the best way to get through a Resident Evil game is to avoid killing as much as possible and get good at dodging the zombie grabs. The few bosses are a bit mechanically rubbish, but at least they look good and don’t slow you down so much.

But what really stands out in 2020 is how impossibly gorgeous Resident Evil still is. The pre-rendered backdrops are jawdropping, each one a beautiful composition that’s been tweaked to wring out every last drop of atmosphere.

Modern consoles could render these environments in real time 3D without breaking a sweat, but something would be lost in the process. With the fixed camera angles the developers have total control over what the player is seeing at any given moment, allowing them to micro-manage the ambience. It’s notable that the quasi-revisit to the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil 5‘s Lost in Nightmares DLC drains a lot of mystery from the place through being able to experience it in 3D.

There are only a couple of things that rubbed me up the wrong way. Chris’ tiny six-slot inventory is a pain to micromanage, the door-opening sequences quickly drag on (though there’s an essential mod that skips them) and the final boss is a bit of an anticlimax given the gargantuan mutants that tend to end these games. But hey, this is a remake and sticking to the script is probably for the best.

It’s often difficult to believe that Resident Evil is 18 years old: it plays, sounds and looks so great that I’m prepared to call it timeless. It might not be the most expansive or adrenaline-pumping title in the series, but it’s definitely the purest. If you’ve got this kicking around in your Steam library (it’s been in a lot of bundles) then give it a whirl. You won’t be disappointed.

From the cream of the crop to a game largely considered a disappointment: up next is black sheep of the series Resident Evil Zero. Can it really be that bad?

P.N.03 (GameCube, 2003)

I’ve always had a mild fascination with the fabled ‘Capcom Five’: the quintet of games unveiled by Capcom in 2002 intended as exclusives to boost sales of the flagging Nintendo GameCube. They comprised Viewtiful Joe, Killer7, Resident Evil 4, Dead Phoenix and P.N.03.

It should be obvious that the plan to keep these as GameCube exclusives didn’t last very long. Dead Phoenix was cancelled prior to launch, with the rest all making it onto PlayStation 2… with one exception.

That was bizarre sci-fi dance/shoot-em-up P.N.03, which received middling reviews, was never re-released and has sunk into obscurity… which is exactly why I’ve always wanted to play it.

You play space mercenary Vanessa Z. Schneider (the ‘Z’ makes her name futuristic), who has been hired to destroy baseful of robots that are running amok. Wearing her stylish Aegis exoskeleton, you must make it through a number of linear levels, defeat mechanised bosses and learn the dark secret of Schneider’s creation (surprise she’s a clone who cares).

But this isn’t just blasting robots, it’s blasting them with (early 2000s) style. The basic tone of the game is Space Channel 5 but less campy, with Vanessa toe-tapping, flipping and pirouetting her way through a tangle of enemy fire. The controls are idiosyncratic by modern standards but what you’re being asked to do is so simple that they don’t really get in the way. And anyway, successfully twirling your way through a hail of enemy fire and then activating your smart-bomb energy drives is very satisfying.

Or at least it’s very satisfying the first ten or twenty times. PN.03 had a truncated development cycle aimed at getting it out by the end of the financial year – a hard deadline that explains why the game constantly reuses environments, enemies and bosses. By the halfway point you’ll have seen practically everything the game has to offer. Then again, given it’ll take you about four hours to get to the credits, you may as well see it through.

It’s pretty easy to tell why P.N.03 has been forgotten. It’s a neat concept but executed perfunctorily. Vanessa Z. Schneider has no discernible personality, the levels are interesting in a 60s modernist kind of way (which coincidentally saves on creating textures…) and – the worst crime for a game that’s theoretically about dancing – the music is bland as all hell.

Oh well, another old game checked off the bucket list at least.

Dark Souls III: The Ringed City DLC (PC, 2017)

There’s a scene in an early Treehouse of Horror where Homer is sent to hell. A demon looms over him: “So, you like donuts eh? Well, have all the donuts in the world!” As he’s force-fed endless donuts the torturer becomes confused. Homer’s appetite cannot be sated, no matter how extreme the situation becomes.

That’s my relationship with Dark Souls III‘s The Ringed City DLC in a nutshell. This series is famously difficult and this is the final DLC of the final instalment – and From Software aren’t going to let you go without a fight. This comes in the form of an apparently never-ending rollercoaster of pain that constantly increases in complexity and cruelty. But, much like the now grossly bloated Homer, I want more. More. MORE!

Here’s a few of the ways The Ringed City kicks you in the nuts. You begin with enemies that fire killer projectiles and draw an army of crawling monsters from the ashy floor. Then you encounter apparently invincible floating angels that blast you with constant spears of light. Sweating yet? We’ve only just begun.

Now navigate a poison swamp swarming with enemies while also dealing with the angels (all of which was made much harder by the frame-rate randomly dropping into single digits). Then a boss fight with two giant demons attacking simultaneously. Kill them and one resurrects into an angrier, gianter and more fire-spewing-er demon with a fresh health bar.

You emerge gasping into the light, only to see a large hooded creature summon a hundred spectral archers that turn you into a pin cushion. It continues in a whirlwind of horrible monsters, killer locusts and hidden curse thralls. Oh, and another swamp. Yay.

I eventually stumbled weakly across a distant bridge: injured, out of Estus and desperately hoping for a bonfire… *FWOOSH* Incinerated by a dragon… Fine. Let’s do it all over again.

Dark Souls has often been hard but I don’t think it’s ever been more determined to stop me in my tracks than in The Ringed City. But there’s a bit of meta-plot in this series that’s always stuck with me. The miserable lost souls we carve through are those that have given up and ‘gone hollow’. People who quit these games are considered to have gone hollow. I resolved long ago to never, ever go hollow.

After much muttered swearing, grinding of teeth and a few quiet cups of camomile tea (drank while staring blankly into space) I triumphed over the final boss Slave Knight Gael, who was a right nasty bastard.

After he fell I was left standing at the end of the world – the last living thing in the universe with just a bonfire for company. No message of congratulations, no cutscene, no credits – all that was left to do was select quit game and reflect on the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with the series.

I later discovered that I’d missed out on a key NPC who would have explained what was going on in this DLC (I also learned I was very under levelled for all this, which partially explains why I died so much). Missing him meant that I didn’t know who Gael was, why I was fighting him and what the deal was with the creepy woman hugging a large broken egg at the centre of the game.

But then I’ve never been one to get wrapped up in lore. I’ve tried to be all *deep Aussie voice* “perhaps… the lace trim on this breastplate indicates that he may be… the lost Prince of Lothric…” but it’s just not my jam. I mean, I like that there’s a complex mythos explaining why this flaming knight just tore me a new one, but just knowing it’s there is good enough to me.

That confusion perversely made Gael kinda moving. Shorn of context for what I’m doing I’m just a mindless beast slicing and slashing because it’s all I know how to do. In the closing moments, when the whole world has been reduced to an blasted, burned ruin, what better way to sum up the series than two broken strangers tearing each other apart for no reason other than that’s what we do.

It’s an anticlimax, but for me at least, a poetic one. Despite The Ringed City making me want to tear my hair out on multiple occasions I ultimately enjoyed it. I guess in this instance the beatings really did continue until morale improved. This was the final exam Dark Souls set me and while I didn’t ace it, I’m happy with my passing grade.

Now, at last, after completing Demons’ Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III and Sekiro (and all their DLCs) I can rest.

Oh wait. I’ve got a PlayStation 5 and the remake of Demons’ Souls heading my way. The cycle continues.

Tell Me Why (PC, 2020)

I’ve been sold on whatever DontNod Entertainment put out ever since 2015’s Life is Strange. That game set down a template of young characters that don’t fit in dealing with lies told by older generations and their own supernatural talents. Plus, in a medium where the primary method of interaction is still violence, it’s nice to play the odd game where you can lie down on a bed and zone out to late-2000s indie music.

Tell Me Why isn’t a Life is Strange game, except it kinda totally is. You play as twins Tyler and Alyson as they unravel the death of their mother using their two-way telepathy and the shared ability to recall three-dimensional memories. To do this you amble about plausibly down-at-heel environments examining objects and getting into the occasional emotionally intense conversation. I mean, if it walks like a duck…

First up, and this is by no means a criticism, Tell Me Why is much a smaller-scale production than previous titles. This is three episodes long as opposed to five, features a small cast, reuses the same locations across multiple episodes and tells a personal story with no grand, world changing events. Even the supernatural stuff is very low-key and ends up as more a gameplay than narrative device.

All that’s to its credit as there’s a focus and sense and purpose to this game that was absent from its predecessor Life is Strange 2. The limited scope lets the game really plug into its themes of unreliable memory and the long-term impact of trauma.

Without getting into spoiler territory the game absolutely accomplishes its aims. Throughout the story you’re gradually discovering more and more context for the tragedy that kicks everything off, and the more layers you peel off this onion the more interesting it gets. By the time the big late-game revelations come they’re not much of a surprise – but that’s only because you understand the people involved so well.

That’s also a testament to the writing and performances, with August Aiden Black’s Tyler Ronan the obvious stand-out. When I first read that DontNod were making a game with a trans lead character I hoped for the best but was a bit nervous. But from my (cis male) perspective they knocked him out of the park – his behaviour and personality is informed by being trans but he isn’t solely defined by it.

In fact, though there are a couple of red herrings in episode one, Tell Me Why isn’t a game about trans issues, but rather a story that features a trans character. It’s especially refreshing that DontNod don’t stripmine Tyler for cheap drama. There are no frothing bigots in the game to heroically stand up to, instead he and his sister face polite small-mindedness and the occasional awkward moment with an older person, which feels way more realistic.

The only major downside from this being a slimline self-contained (and I’m guessing lower-budgeted) story is that you don’t ever get much say in the narrative. There aren’t even that many conversational choices to make and the ‘big’ choices generally only alter the mood of scenes rather than substantially change the story. You’re going to spend as much time watching Tell Me Why as playing it – especially as your superpowers amount to unlocking non-interactive cutscenes. Still, when the game is this well-directed and written it’s a pill that goes down easy.

But at this point you’ve got to know what you’re getting into with this type of game. This up there with the studio’s best writing and acting, is by far the best-looking game they’ve ever released and I applaud whoever decided to release as three weekly episodes rather than five separated by months.

I really hope Tell Me Why is a success and that DontNod use the three weekly episodes model as a template for future projects. More like this please!