This Month on Playstation Plus – November 2016

A bumper crop this month as, with cross play function across a couple of games, I’m able to benefit from every title in the pack.

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (PS4)

Broadly similar in concept to Datura, which we looked at in September’s review, this game from The Chinese Room could be somewhat harshly described as a walking simulator.

Viewed in the first person, the plot sees you striding around an apparently abandoned English village, trying to discover what happened to the inhabitants. Clues are gained from radio and television broadcasts, as well as balls of light that appear, revealing conversations between our missing townsfolk and offering hints as to what may have transpired.

It’s a beautiful looking game. It is rare to come across a title that plants itself so firmly in the rural countryside of England and it is both a quaint and calming sight. Stumbling across a pub, a winding country lane or just a bag standard road name sign, it all evokes the look and feel of England superbly and is a refreshing change of pace from most gaming experiences.

Unfortunately I found the actual gameplay itself rather less appealing. It has received high praise from a number of respected outlets and perhaps with extended game time I might find more to enjoy. But after an hour or so of it, I was bored. Much like Datura and, in a more abstract sense, Journey, this is a minimalist experience. You are dropped in with little to no understanding of the world around you, nor how to interact with it. The initial experience is one of discovery as you push boundaries to see what is possible, leading to the first activation of a radio broadcast, sifting through an empty house or activating an ethereal conversation.

But in this rush to be clever, I found myself disinvested. Drip feeding the plot, keeping the player in the dark for large stretches as the game unfolds around you, is a perfectly acceptable story telling technique. But as Westworld so ably demonstrated, this only works if the underlying plot is compelling and sadly, unlike HBOs hit series, I quickly found myself looking elsewhere.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters (PS4)

Ah, now this is more like it. Maybe it says something about me that I enjoyed this far more than Rapture but then I’ve never pretended to be some sort of gaming sophisticate.

After crash landing in a hostile alien environment, you take control of the wonderfully named Dick Starspeed (and companions) as you attempt to overthrow an evil Emperor and presumably bring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Utter B-movie trope of course but that’s entirely the point. You see the gimmick of the game is that it is actually a film that you are watching / playing, complete with an accompanying commentary from the mad cap director, who passes judgement on special effects, genre cliches and character motivations. Armed with either a big whacking stick or ray gun, you bang and blast enemies including pesky aliens, alarmingly clever apes and dinosaurs, as well as opening crates and collecting goodies.

It borrows liberally from anything you care to mention; Planet of the Apes, Flash Gordon and Ratchet & Clank to name but a few. Graphically it looks great, although the camera does tend to zoom a little close at times. Death is generally well sign posted but should you fling yourself off a ledge in error the director claims that the wrong cut of the film was being shown and so it is rewound for you to have another go.

Extended play may expose its limitations. Whilst the dvd commentary concept is a neat one the underlying gameplay, whilst fun, is hardly revolutionary and may soon tire. Until then, strap yourself in for a rocket trip of fun.

Letter Quest Remastered (PS4, PS Vita)

Now here’s a game that will really snare you under it’s spell! (sorry. Not sorry).

Apparently your grim reaper character is desperate for a slice of pizza but unfortunately the forces of evil are equally intent that you shouldn’t obtain one. Cue a battle of wits as you try to complete each stage by stringing together letters into words to chip away the health of the beastie blocking your path.

It’s a neat little game. Graphically it is well presented in a cartoony format that will appeal to lower age groups. Indeed as a father it was fun to rope in my 5 year old girls to try and spell words together, although they struggled with the concept of only using the letters available. Still I can see the potential family appeal as they get a little older. This family friendly aspect is enhanced by the lack of timer. You are not under any pressure to answer so can take your time and properly look through the letter selection to build the biggest word possible. And the bigger the better as longer words, or those using less common letters (Q, Z etc) generate bigger scores and defeat enemies more quickly.

For adults, the simple concept is kept a little more interesting with the introduction of quests, collectibles and upgrades, including health bonuses, potions and cosmetic changes. Battles themselves are largely repetitive although things are occasionally spiced up by rogue letter tiles that have varying effects, from increasing your score to reducing your health.

A fun little diversion and whilst it is repetitive, it’s also a good way to introduce spelling challenges to a younger audience within the framework of a nice looking game.

Pumped BMX+ (PS4, PS3, PS Vita)

Another game that the kids might enjoy from our old friends at Curve Digital, responsible for previous PS Plus entry Ultratron. Unlike with Letter Quest, this isn’t something for the kids to play themselves necessarily, at least not at the age of mine. But when I put this on, both my girls and a friend’s similarly aged boy loved it.

At its core it reminds me that old 8-bit classic Kikstart 2. Grabbing the titular BMX, you traverse a set of increasing complex courses, trying to link jumps and tricks together to hit objectives and achieve high scores. Tricks range from simple flips to nose dives to handlebar spins. Difficulty can be added by a squeeze of the trigger buttons, requiring a fine line to be drawn between risk and reward as you balance high scores against a safe landing. Courses are short but feature packed, allowing you a chance to learn the layout and perfect your routine. Splat on the ground or grind to a halt and it’s back to the beginning, a real frustration when you are metres from the  finishing line but rarely do you hold a sense of injustice. If you stack it’s because you went for one flip too many, the mechanics and handling not at fault.

Pumped BMX+ started life as a mobile game and its roots come through like a bad dye job. But it looks terrific and the essential tutorial guides you through the basics of the gameplay so that courses feel challenging but never overwhelming.

Like some of the other titles here, longevity is questionable but whilst your interest holds, this is good fun.

DiRT 3 (PS3)

I was pleased to see this in the bundle. Fans of the series will know its lineage, a sub series of Codemasters Colin MacRae games. Whilst I never owned any of those titles, stable mate Race Driver Grid has been in my Steam games list for years, something that I have dabbled in, enjoyed and continually meant to come back to but for some reason never managed it. With the game engines between the series near identical, this seemed as good an excuse as any to jump back in the drivers seat.

Whilst sharing a degree of commonality with Grid, the two experiences are markedly different with DiRT based on rally driving versus the more circuit focused Grid. As such you often find yourself driving solo (well, apart from your co-pilot) in time trials, rather than racing against other cars, although this also features. There is a huge roster of vehicles, although for anyone other than serious petrol heads the name above the bumper is fairly arbitrary to the experience.

Graphically this is simply stunning. Vehicle models, backgrounds and crowds are all exemplary with roaring and dynamic sounds completing an impressive visual and aural package. Car handling meanwhile is customisable to your preference and skill level. At the lowest difficulty, this is a simple game of hold the accelerator down and steer with the game taking over braking, stability and pretty much anything else that doesn’t involve just going fast. Crank it up a notch and some of the training wheels start coming off, the player taking responsibility for corner braking and the like. It has a dramatic impact on performance. On easy, with all the options switched on, I cruised to victory at a canter. Nudging up one difficulty level and taking some responsibility, I found myself languishing at the back of the field, unable to complete the circuit without flying off the course repeatedly.

I found the jump in difficulty jarring, ultimately opting to stick with the easier level so that I could enjoy the driving and experience the courses whilst minimising my frustration but at the same time, the significant variation on performance demonstrates longevity, the game becoming a very different beast to master as you progress. As an overall game though I found it somewhat limiting. As impressive as the handling and mechanics are, I yearned for a more structured, standard racing environment, such as that found in the likes of Grid or Forza. The more specialised fare here is perhaps an acquired taste.

Finally I can’t ignore one particular fly in the ointment. Loading times between races are absolutely shocking. I don’t know if this is something to do with the PS3s rather sluggish blu-ray drive but there is no excuse for a (still fairly) modern console to drag its heels in this manner. If it wasn’t part of my PS plus subscription and I had to choose between this and the X-box 360 or PC versions, this would likely to be enough to put me off buying on Sony’s console.

Costume Quest 2 (PS3)

Our final November offering comes courtesy of Tim Schafer’s (ex-Lucas Arts) Double Fine Games.

A sequel to a game I have never heard of, Costume Quest 2 is a cartoon styled action RPG that tasks you with saving Halloween from a nefarious evil doer through means of time travel and dress up.

It’s clear from the first few interactions that there is some plot that I have missed from the first game but, whilst you feel a little out of place to start, that soon gives way to the zaniness of the game.

It’s kind of a mash up of RPG and point and click games. You move you main character around with the pad, everyone else following allowing a la Cannon Fodder. The point and click influence comes with the amount of dialogue you are presented with whilst every item you come across can be kicked or prodded to add sweets to your candy bag or reveal items. At the same time RPG elements come into play as you complete quests, don costumes and embark on turn based, point driven combat.

Add in a wacky concept, some superb cartoon graphics and humorous asides galore and there is the recipe for a fine game here. A shame then that I soon lost interest. Perhaps it caught me in the wrong mood (it’s been a long start to 2017!) but there was just too much dialogue and faffing around for my liking.

Given the pedigree of those involved there is likely a quality game here that I would do well to revisit at another time.

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Agreed with you on Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. It’s one of those games that is trying very hard to point out that video games are art – while sacrificing some of the better gameplay. Think I might take another look at Pumped BMX on the Vita though, I’m on a long train ride tomorrow so would like something to keep me interested!

I’m sure you’ve seen it, but Day of the Tentacle Remastered in this months games!? Top stuff Sony.