The latest title in Sony’s long-running golf series, Everybody’s Golf VR is the first to bring the series to virtual reality. The transition isn’t without its bumps, with the biggest being a lack of Everybody’s Golf’s traditional competitive modes. But the PSVR golf game does deliver a fairly realistic golfing experience that’s both accessible to play and fairly challenging to master.
Everybody’s Golf VR abandons the franchise’s usual third-person view for a first-person perspective. The three-click swing mechanic (commonly seen in most of today’s golf games) is also gone. Instead, you swing your clubs with a PlayStation Move or DualShock 4 controller, hopefully in one smooth motion. The direction of the ball is determined by the angle you hit it, and distance is calculated by how hard you swing. There are other factors to consider when you’re on the course as well, such as wind direction and your elevation in relation to the hole.
Actually swinging your arms to hit the ball takes a bit to get used to, but the motion controls are remarkably responsive with a DualShock 4 controller. Once you’ve got the form down on your swing, you’ll be able to reliably hit the ball the way you want to. The same can’t be said for the PlayStation Move controller. Occasionally, the Move controller works fine, but I found myself more often than not being unable to even reach the ball with my club while swinging the Move. I ultimately just had to stop using it, as it became too frustrating to play a near-perfect hole only to be stopped short just because my club would not reach down far enough to hit the ball no matter how much I crouched.
In Everybody’s Golf VR, the golf balls behave as they’re expected to, obeying the laws of gravity when it comes to the arc of your shot or elevation of a slope, and their roll realistically heeds to changes in friction when terrain is affected by different weather patterns, like rain. As previously mentioned, the motion controls are pretty precise. The camera measures whether your swing misses the ball, glances off of it, or makes full contact, and then takes the angle and power of your swing into account. Shifting too much of your body weight to one side or curving your swing typically results in a lousy shot, while maintaining good form sends your ball flying straight as an arrow (provided there are no environmental factors to take into account as well). The game isn’t an exact representation of reality–you don’t have to swing nearly as aggressively as a professional golfer to achieve distances like one–but Everybody’s Golf VR sells you on the experience that you’re actually playing golf in your living room.
There’s a welcome variety of customization options in Everybody’s Golf VR, allowing players of all skill levels to enjoy time on the course. If you’re having trouble putting, for example, you can turn on vacuum holes–which suck the ball in provided you get your shot close enough. For a more challenging experience, you can tee up on longer versions of the courses where it’s harder to hit par. There are some nice accessibility options as well, such as the choice to play while standing up or sitting down, the option to change your dominant hand from right to left, and the freedom to choose between several sets of clubs–including one that makes it easier to hit the ball straight if you have limited mobility in your arms. There’s plenty in Everybody’s Golf VR to make the experience appealing to all types of players, and helpful tutorials give newcomers a chance to grasp the basics of the sport until they can get the swing of things.
Everybody’s Golf VR’s courses are populated with everything you’d expect to see in a golf game, like sand traps and trees, as well as a few things you might not, like dinosaurs. Occasionally, a bee flies in your face or the sound of a wave crashes onto a nearby beach. These sights and sounds are never distracting, but via a PSVR headset and headphones, they do make it feel like each golf course is full of life. Decide to look closely enough, however, and you’ll notice the golf resort’s reception area and each course is always eerily empty save for your character and either the receptionist or your caddie. It’s a tad unsettling.
Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody’s Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time.
Each distinct environment provides more than just a cosmetic change, as a course’s aesthetic translates into different environmental hazards to deal with; the Seaside Course is very windy, for example, and its holes have a lot more sand and water traps for your ball to be blown into. A course’s hazards aren’t enough to force you to drastically change how you play, but they do provide just enough of a welcome challenge to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. It’s fun learning about how a new course works, and satisfying to successfully deduce how to adapt to it. In the Seaside Course, for instance, you can risk timing your shot to a powerful gust of wind in hopes it will send your ball flying over an out-of-bounds area–which could save you an entire swing in the long run.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many courses for you to play on. And other than Practice Range, the only game mode in Everybody’s Golf VR is Course. In Course, you do have the choice of whether you play a random three holes from a course, the first nine, the last nine, or all 18. But with only three courses total, you’ll end up replaying the same holes repeatedly in order to unlock all the in-game rewards. It gets tedious after a few hours.
The lack of additional modes in Everybody’s Golf VR is a step back in comparison to previous titles in the series, many of which have one or two modes where you can face off against NPCs. As is, the only thing you can do in Everybody’s Golf VR is play a course by yourself while your nearby caddie yells words of encouragement. Everybody’s Golf VR does lessen some of its tedium with those caddies, though, as the eagerly helpful Riko and teasingly friendly Lucy help make your repeated trips out to the same collection of courses far less lonely.
Replaying courses allows you to unlock additional outfits for your caddie to wear, which is a fun cosmetic reward to chase after. You can also unlock a handful of Events by partnering with a caddie long enough. Some play out like romantically-charged mini dates, but most are just goofy distractions good for a laugh or two. Each caddie has her own unique set of four Events, and though their unlock rates are spread out enough that it will take you a few hours to see them all, once you do there’s nothing compelling to work towards in the game.
Despite the lack of different activities in Everybody’s Golf VR, the one thing it does do–provide a means of playing golf without actually having to go outside–is relatively enjoyable. Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody’s Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time. Everybody’s Golf VR’s best feature is its assortment of customization and accessibility options, though, as they allow both golf newbies and veterans to curate their desired experience and just enjoy playing a round.
Team Sonic Racing is a wonderfully varied, fast and frenetic kart racer that, while a little derivative on the surface, successfully carves out its own space with a focus on team racing. Although Sonic, Tails and the gang might not carry the same weight as their mustachioed counterpart in red, and despite a few technical hiccups, Team Sonic Racing stands tall on the podium as a fun and colourful arcade racer that’s easy for anyone to enjoy.
There are numerous types of races to kick things off with, including your standard four-race Grand Prix, Quick Races, Time Trials and both local and online multiplayer. However, most of the characters and circuits are locked behind progress in the game’s Team Adventure mode. Oddly, this mode features a fully-voiced, yet conveniently skippable story that you have to hit a specific button to see (on PS4 you hit Square to play the story at the start of a race or X to skip to the race only) making it very easy to miss entirely. But while the accompanying story is quickly forgettable, the mode itself gets a lot right in terms of variety and structure, which is great, because that’s where you’ll spend the majority of your hours trying to progress.
In Team Adventure, completing objectives throughout each event will unlock the next event along the overworld path, along with more of the story. But the real focus is obtaining new car customizations, characters to race with, and tracks to race on in single-player mode. Car upgrades are gained by spending credits earned through races on Mod Pods, an unexciting form of loot box that reward you with vinyls to paint your car with, or new parts to change its handling characteristics. The system feels tacked on and arbitrary; a simpler structure of doling out upgrades as rewards post-race would have been more fulfilling.
There are 14 different race variations altogether, and Team Adventure uses a mix of them all, breaking up the eventual monotony of the standard races. There are more hits among these modes than misses, like an excellent car handling challenge where you need to skim star gates on the track while drifting, without hitting them–the closer you get to each gate, the higher your score goes. Another highlight is a mode where your only goal is to take down as many of Dr. Eggman’s Eggpawns on the track before time runs out. But others, like a timed race where the checkpoints move around on the road while you dodge traffic, lack the enjoyable flow present in the stronger circuits due to a stop-start nature. Team Sonic Racing feels its best when it’s moving fast, not when you’re trying to get back up to speed.
There are seven worlds with three tracks each, and they each have their own sense of place and vibrancy. Casino Park is a maelstrom of colors, music, and slot machines, while Seaside Hill shows off circuits by the sea, replete with wildlife like a giant mechanical squid or a massive flipping orca. Many of Team Sonic Racing’s 21 tracks feature branching paths, with some opening up shortcuts or secret areas to discover. Stumbling across these always feels fruitful as they’re often filled with rings to collect, as well as helping you gain a few positions on the track.
Teams are made up of three drivers each, one from each available class: speed, technique, and power. Speed drivers can repel enemy projectiles by timing their boosts to perfection. The Technique class is more handling-focused and drive over different surfaces without experiencing any slowdown, while Power class characters can knock opponents out of the way more easily as well as crash through any structural obstacles without slowing down or being damaged. There is a tangible difference to how each class and character feels in terms of speed and handling, meaning there’s an advantage to picking a more favourable class for different individual events, but that’s not to say you can’t get it done with whichever character you like. Overall car handling feels wonderful, and drifting between corners flows like a breeze.
Out on the track, while your overall focus is on your own performance, the added element of team racing gives you a lot more to think about while sliding through corners and dodging rockets. If you spot a teammate stopped on the track, you can skim past them to give them a speed boost and get them back in the race, and you can follow the visible wake from your team’s leading driver to get a slingshot past them. If each member times it right, it’s possible for your team to leapfrog to the front of the pack in convincing fashion, and that feels excellent. Annoyingly, it’s nigh on impossible to practice something like this outside of multiplayer, as the AI aren’t quite up to pulling off this kind of strategy with great reliability.
Special items and boosts–known as Wisps–are laid across the track in various places, giving you an item to help your team or hinder your opponents with. Mechanically, many of these items and boosts bare a strong similarity to what you find in Mario Kart 8. While they achieve their purpose of helping you gap the field or compress the pack all while looking flashy, none of them are as amusing or fun as the Grey Quake, an item that flies out in front of the leader and grows huge rocky spires out of the ground, blocking the track.
There’s also a neat sharing mechanic that lets you request or share spare items with your teammates, and it comes with several cool advantages. Shared items are stronger and can often be used more than once, plus they fill your Team Ultimate meter. When this meter is full, you and your team can each unleash a powerful boost that not only makes you invincible, but also a wrecking ball, pushing anyone and anything out of your path to the front of the field. Timing the activation of the ultimate with your teammates also increases boost power, furthering the importance of keeping in sync. I did notice some consistent graphical stuttering whenever triggering the ultimate, but it only lasts a few frames and doesn’t really disrupt the action that much.
There’s both casual and ranked multiplayer, and while it remains to be seen how busy the ranked servers will be, our testing of the casual matchmaking prior to the game’s release was as smooth as expected. It could be a little snappier between races, but aside from having to be a little patient while the scores tally, it’s everything you can expect from an arcade racer. What is a little disappointing is the game’s performance in couch co-op. While not unplayable by any stretch, the framerate while playing two-player split screen on the PlayStation 4 Pro was surprisingly inconsistent, never feeling as smooth as you’d want, and certainly never matching its reasonable single-player performance.
The essence of Team Sonic Racing is good; its handling feels tight and smooth, drifting has a good flow to it, and the items are fun to use, as are the tracks to race on. It doesn’t bring much new to the genre, but it delivers where it counts. The racing is fast and fun, and the team aspects offer enough of a change to the formula to make Team Sonic Racing the endearing arcade racer it is.
You’re facing down the scattered remnants of the last, great Han warlords, and your entire adult life so far has been building to this moment. Ever since you first took up arms at the age of eighteen against the corruption bleeding China dry, vengeance has been the one thing driving you forward. People call you the Bandit Queen, spitting the title at your feet in battle before your twin axes cleave their heads from their shoulders. As your forces pursue routed, scarlet-clad warriors, you feel the gaze of one of your lieutenants upon you, pivoting almost too late to meet their steel with your own. However, you’re resigned to this by now, and he meets a gurgling end like so many before him who disagreed with your methods. No general suffers any threats to their rule, even when the peasantry starts to mutter about you and the old tyrant, Dong Zhou, in the same breath. There are no saints in Total War: Three Kingdoms, just a castell of death and destruction with its apex pointed squarely at the throne.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is essentially the Chinese version of The Iliad in construction. Larger-than-life characters, an at-times heady mix of romance and intrigue, and a hell of a lot of fighting are what define it. However, it’s almost entirely unique as a text because of the fact that it is widely treated as a reasonable record of the events of the turbulent period of 169 AD to 280 AD in Chinese history, despite embellishment. The Total War franchise is no stranger to adapting the militaristic trials and tribulations of our world’s past, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a work that has at times straddled the dual worlds of academia and fantasy.
While the popular Dynasty Warriors games have very successfully depicted the fantasy, it’s not been as easy to capture the intricate, personal stories of now-recognisable figures like Cao Cao, or to capture how they played into the wider scheme of the world as we know it. Total War: Three Kingdoms focuses keenly on those key figures and their motivations, using the literature’s extensive canon as fodder for your own strategic in-game actions. Thrown into the thick of the battles and diplomacy of 190 AD, you’ll need guts, gore, and perseverance to either unite China or to break the chains of oppression that hold its people fast, and Creative Assembly has succeeded in translating the themes from a decades-long, larger-than-life epic into a form that will appeal to both Total War enthusiasts and rookies alike.
For the uninitiated, Total War is a mix of turn-based strategy and real-time battles where you take full control of squadrons of warriors and watch them duke it out against your foes on a picturesque patch of blood-stained grass. When you’re not exerting military might on everyone else, entries in the series have historically focused on strategy elements akin to those that you would see in traditional 4X games like Civilzation. You have to balance expanding cities with diplomacy, manage population growth and happiness, and also deal with the very real concerns of keeping enemies off your tail. You do this by managing a series of complex, interconnected systems that influence everything from your inner circle to what a certain township might have to trade in winter. Give a town a governor with a green thumb and see trade flourish, or marry off a dissenter to an enemy and see previous peace treaties wither. As with every strategy title, the consequences of your choices are far-reaching, and Total War is an exercise in choosing wisely.
The first thing that will stand out with Three Kingdoms is how it puts its best foot forward on its production values. Dynamic weather, lighting, and beautiful watercolour environments–ranging from mountains to besieged cottages–paint a striking backdrop for the conflict and bloodshed to follow. Your generals themselves remain rendered larger than life and in great detail, and their idle chatter (fully voiced in Chinese, if you so choose) lend them a lot of personality when you’re taking your time deciding on your next move. The UI is also clean and well-designed; Three Kingdoms is a return to the usual gamut of interactive windows providing the minute details and statistics seen in older Total War titles, but information can be pinned and dismissed at will so you aren’t fighting a battlefield of clutter.
Detailed mechanics from previous titles return, which means a lot of information for more recent Total War fans to contend with. This is particularly noticeable when wrangling your allies, which is now essentially a full-time job. Managing relationships within your own coterie is no longer as easy as paying them to look the other way, nor are the effects almost instantaneous. It’s now a long game of min-maxing retinues, victories, ideal reforms, and placation. While you’re picking a general, faction identities are not as set in stone in practice as they may have been in previous titles. Playstyles ranging from expansionist and war-mongering to diplomatic can all be found in the same faction, and this translates nicely to create a dynamic inner circle.
Some of the streamlining done in recent Total War titles has been walked back, potentially to emphasize Three Kingdom’s focus on cults of personality in adherence with the source material for the game; your advisors and family members are all fully-fledged characters of their own with personality traits that will conflict, sometimes fatally, with your ethos. Making concerted decisions over a long period of time that are in line with your vassals’ beliefs are necessary to keep them keen, lest you cop a challenge and a sword in the back when you least expect it. The threat of defection from your wider allies is always on the horizon too; the factions fighting over China are as fractured as the land itself. Where Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia invited you to ruminate upon keeping your faction cohesive so as to ensure that your reformations would live on, diplomacy and faction politics in Three Kingdoms feel much more like putting pressure on a bleeding wound. Everyone starts at each other’s throats, with the major balance of power being in favour of the Han Empire.
Whether you were part of the Yellow Turban rebellion, an independent warlord, or a former seneschal of the Empire, everyone at the time was clamoring for a piece of the pie, and having that reflected in Three Kingdom’s mechanics is a nice touch. But you can sometimes feel pigeon-holed into conflict in a way that restricts your agency as a player. War declarations come hard and fast, with AIs as mercurial at decision-making as their portrayals in the source material. Sure, you can suggest marriage or pay a tithe, but taking the peaceful road often shakes out to be incredibly costly in negotiations. By the time you’re staring down a line of cavalry encroaching on your territory, you can often feel like you only have one real option: to fight to the death.
Combat in Three Kingdoms’ main campaign has two distinct strains depending on which mode you’re playing in: Romance, or the more traditional Historical option, which is more reminiscent of how Total War usually operates. While you can delegate combat to a dice roll of AI-generated auto-battling odds, getting bogged down in the minutiae of the battlefield is incredibly thrilling. You’ll marshal your forces and pit them against those of your foes’ in the pseudo weapons triangle of cavalry, infantry, and assorted others, all in real time. Whether it be a relentless siege against a settlement, meeting the Han empire in open combat, or simply trying to hold it together as someone else knocks on your gates with axe-wielding bandits, Total War’s depiction of battlefield conflict is where it has always excelled, and Three Kingdoms is no different.
However, the distinctive, much-trumpeted difference between Three Kingdoms and previous titles is the aforementioned Romance mode. This is where the fantastical merges with the historical in a way that offers you a new way to dominate opponents on the battlefield. In this mode, your generals stand head and shoulders above the rest, capable of single-handedly taking out entire squadrons on their own even as they yell out orders to the men rallying around them. In Romance mode, the strength of said generals grows in epic scale and scope over time, much in line with the fantastical deeds they perform in the source material. Generals also have the option to engage in duels with each other, which provides a spectacular, clash of the titans-style combative satisfaction. Three Kingdoms also lets you take these types of confrontations one step further in the new Battle mode, which lets you reenact famous skirmishes from Chinese history as these storied generals. It’s both nicely educational and a refreshing change of pace.
The game’s tutorial is decent at helping you parse the essential mechanics from the math soup, but it feels like a large expository information dump as Three Kingdoms attempts to get you up to speed on both the world’s ingrained politics and what to do with all these damn menus and buttons. You’re given a crash course in everything from how to wage war to how to manage the people under your rule within the first 20 turns, which is mechanically almost a lifetime in-game, but not very long at all for someone who isn’t familiar with Total War or the Three Kingdoms story to get properly acclimatised. But to its credit, Three Kingdoms does provide plenty of helpful supplementary material and difficulty adjustments to help rookies learn what they need to know to succeed, given enough time–from instructional videos to the pace in which the game unravels its conflicts on Easy difficulty, as well as the ability to streamline processes like waging war and building prosperous townships (the latter mostly through a one-size fits all approach to reformation). With enough patience, it’s easy to be infected with Total War once you finally get your mouth around that first, overly-large bite.
Three Kingdoms feels like a breath of fresh air. By harkening back to the intricacies of older titles and builds on some of the foundations laid by Thrones of Britannia, it offers a distinctly contemporary and thorough experience. This is the most ambitious that Total War has ever been, from the variety of different ways that you can enjoy the game to the sheer scope of the stories that they’ve weaved around each unique character’s playable experience. Three Kingdoms feels like the rightful evolution of the series, pulling from its roots in historical military tactics to come up with an engrossing modern strategy game that is always a delight, even in its less well-oiled moments.
When Darkwood originally launched in early access in 2014, it was an ambitious game that suffered from clunkiness and a lack of identity. In GameSpot’s early access review, writer Brett Todd admired its willingness to experiment with aesthetics and rework the concept of permadeath, but couldn’t get past the fact that it wasn’t quite ready to go on sale. Now, in 2019, Darkwood is an entirely new game.
It was inevitable that Darkwood would be compared to similar open-world survival games like the Burtonesque Don’t Starve, and from a gameplay standpoint their top-down perspectives and day/night cycles are similar. However, the most recent iteration of this macabre indie game is unwaveringly confident in itself. Darkwood revels in its eponymous darkness–even its daytime cycles are subjected to limited visibility, courtesy of its field-of-vision illumination. The best thing about this is that it doesn’t rely on nighttime to be scary. Even at the crack of dawn, venturing too far from your hideout can result in you coming face to face with blood-curdling, satanic sadists hellbent on mauling you to death.
The game assimilates a plethora of systems into its makeup, including crafting, bartering, and combat. Although the mechanics are quite complex, Darkwood offers an intense but fair learning curve. While the controls are clearly mapped out on the pause menu, learning how to manipulate some of the game’s ostensibly unimportant mechanics can give you a major edge as you progress into its more difficult areas. For example, the game affords you skills in exchange for cooking in ominous ovens. These skills usually only have a minor impact on the game, allowing you to benefit from a daily single-use perk such as running without taking stamina into account. However, these perks come at a cost: For every skill you gain, you must apply a negative effect designed to hinder you for the rest of your playthrough. These are incredibly minor, but in a game as brutally unforgiving as Darkwood, it’s essential to level up with caution, which subverts the entire idea of leveling up rapidly in the first place.
As a result, opting to favor survivability over gratifyingly quick forward momentum often allows you to live longer in the end–something that’s absolutely essential on Darkwood’s harder modes, where lives are limited. But even on Normal difficulty, it’s important that you recognize that this is an ambiguous world that necessitates experimentation. As the world deteriorates into madness around you, the only way to survive is to adapt alongside decay. Rather than help you, Darkwood’s systems affect you in a much more neutral way. I spent a night boarded up in a hideout that was fortified to the teeth with barriers only to be attacked by packs of demonic dogs moments before the saving grace of the sunrise. However, I also happened to survive three nights in a row by hiding inconspicuously in a cramped corner, praying that I wasn’t overwhelmed by hordes of red chompers in the twilight.
Because you’re never truly safe in Darkwood, it’s easy to lose track of time. Eventually, days seem to merge into one another, and it becomes startlingly clear that the majority of society has descended into an irreparable state of madness. People live in a perpetually frozen cycle of day and night in which there are only two recurring parts of the same day, repeated eternally. The characters you meet are mostly uninterested in speaking with you, but among the Silent Forest’s more amicable residents are an aspiring astronaut named Piotrek, who is attempting to build a rocket ship out of hunks of scrap metal, and a muttering musician who plays dissonant, apocalyptic notes on a broken violin in an effort to win the hand of a woman kept locked in the basement by her older sister–something made all the more horrifying by how poorly he performs. These post-plague virtuosos are at home in Darkwood’s chaos, and their chosen vocations reflect the fact that they’ve already been absorbed by the chaos of this dynamic and disintegrating world. That’s one of the most horrifying things about Darkwood: the way in which humanity learns to use madness as an asset in a world without order.
That’s one of the most horrifying things about Darkwood: the way in which humanity learns to use madness as an asset in a world without order.
There are, however, some aspects of Darkwood that indicate the transient nature of life in the forest. At the beginning of the game, you’re given the opportunity to euthanize your wounded dog, who sits outside your house whimpering in pain. If you choose not to, the dog transforms into a vicious varmint by the time you return later, ferociously clawing and gnawing at you in a deranged state of mindless violence. Darkwood’s narrative is ambiguous at the best of times and is mostly to do with choosing which NPCs to favor in various subplots, but easily-overlooked details like this dog’s fate tell disturbing tales of their own. As a result, some subplots only tell part of the story. Other details are intricately interwoven into the environment, and these narrative manifestations and the more ostensible plot points are of equal importance in understanding the world at large.
That’s what makes Darkwood so brilliantly-suited to console. Although on the surface a keyboard suits the game’s mechanics–namely its hotfixed inventory system and the quickfire solutions that are often necessary for survival in the night–there’s something much more visceral about playing with analog sticks and haptic feedback. Instead of simply pressing a combination of keys to attack anathemic abominations, you need to use hyper-sensitive camera control to succeed in combat. Dodging is mapped to an analog click, whereas shooting a gun genuinely feels instinctive because enemies close distance at an alarming rate. It’s easy to miss point-blank because of a knee-jerk reaction, and it’s the fact that you can be punished once and for all for doing so that makes the game all the more hair-raising.
What makes Darkwood truly special, though, is its world. At one point in the game, you visit an area simply known as “The Village.” Here, a group of deranged denizens worship a gnarled sow, deifying it as “The Mother of all Pigs.” Almost everyone in the village has descended into a state of utter insanity, with one of the town’s most domineering residents having developed a gravitation toward chickens after locking up her own sister to save her marrying a chagrined musician. Most of the citizens here immediately associate you with an aura of antipathy, but the fact they live in such an aloof society is horrifying. All around, the world is darkening and fading, and this singular town, serving as a bastion against a descent into savagery, is inevitably lost. Because you, the safe and sound player, get to witness it from an external perspective, The Village’s encroaching demise is drastically more affecting. This is the last of the world, and it’s due to go out not with a bang, but a whimper.
While Darkwood is an absolute marvel in terms of its aesthetics and gameplay–as well as its disarmingly dissonant score–I experienced several bugs that caused me to lose minor progress. In one case, I was trapped behind a disassembled tractor, which forced me to quit to the main menu and restart the game in order to press onward. On top of this, one of the game’s areas caused the frame rate to drop so dramatically that playing became a chore. This was easily rectified, again simply requiring a soft reboot, but these glitches are a disappointing nuisance plaguing an otherwise exceptional game.
However, these bugs aren’t game-breaking. And even though they irritated me, I couldn’t pull myself away from Darkwood, no matter how much its uncanny world made me audibly squeal. Rather than relying on jump scares–although they are present, to a minor degree–Darkwood psychologically unhinges you. You’re consistently lured into a false sense of security as you hole up in an ironclad hideaway before night falls, or when seemingly benevolent NPCs beguile you with promises of collaboration against the hordes of darkness. It’s horror by subversion, because it’s only when you’re safest that you let your guard down–and it’s only when you take that singular breath of respite that you concede to utter susceptibility. There’s nothing quite as scary as momentarily looking away before being drawn back in by a sound cue or a controller vibration. And before you know it, it’s fight or flight, as you fall into the fray of the unforgiving darkness and are forced to compose yourself within a split second or risk losing half your inventory.
In Darkwood, there’s an item you can show several NPCs called “photo of a road.” What’s interesting about this is that several of these entirely disparate wanderers have the exact same response to this curious snapshot. “Around here,” they say, “all roads lead to nowhere.” And as Darkwood’s forest is guzzled up by the rapidly encroaching night, roads are no longer places-between-places. Instead, they’re a communal necropolis, waiting for the creatures of the night to tribute more destitute dupes to its earthy, deathly soil.
One of the most macabre scenes in A Plague Tale: Innocence is the eponymous plague, manifesting in the form of cursed rats. These vermin have a malevolent, otherworldly presence, their incessant screeching and scratching on stone pavements and atop piles of corpses making for a nightmarish, cacophonous din. Like sewage sludge, these creatures pour out of crevices towards their unwitting victims, ravaging them until they are just skin and bones. It’s an incredibly grotesque and spine-chilling sight–one that will linger in your mind hours later.
But even though the rats are a constant presence in Innocence, they merely serve as the backdrop for its more poignant moments, featuring the two characters you’ll spend the bulk of your time with: Amicia and Hugo de Rune, a pair of young siblings who are suddenly thrust into this hellscape of war and pestilence. Set amidst the Hundred Years’ War during the Middle Ages, the comfort the siblings once knew as children to a noble French family has been ruthlessly shattered. The Black Death, too, has wrought terror upon the country, with the bulk of the French population either dying from the plague or eaten by rats. Compounding this is the Inquisition, a fanatical group of knights keen to get their hands on the last of the de Rune descendants. Surrounded with sludgy pools of grimy rats, and with murderous knights hunting them down at every other turn, the duo need to gather their wits, leaning on stealthier means to escape from this mess. But not only do you have to navigate through the bedlam as the teenage Amicia, you’ll also have to take care of the five-year-old Hugo; he panics and shouts for Amicia when she ventures too far from him–as any young child will presumably do when surrounded by a neverending miasma of death and decay.
This arrangement does give Innocence the appearance of an elaborate escort mission, but fortunately, the game knows how to subvert the tedium that’s so typical of such games. A huge part is due to how human Innocence is. Despite his neediness and naiveté, Hugo is easy to grow fond of. His childlike wonder cuts through the wretchedness of their circumstances, allowing him–and helping Amicia–to appreciate the beauty even in the bleakest of times. In one scene, he quickly takes off to a nearby pier, fascinated by the curious sight of bubbles from frogs in the lake. Even a small gesture from him, such as plucking a flower–a symbol of tenacity in such trying times–to gently place it among Amicia’s braids, captures the warmth of their relationship. Such moments are heart-wrenchingly sweet, and you’ll share Amicia’s growing attachment to Hugo; his companionship is even greatly missed when she has to be paired up with other characters you meet along the way. On a mechanical level, it also helps that the artificial intelligence behind the characters isn’t hopelessly illogical, at least most of the time. Hugo isn’t usually one to chase after a butterfly in the thick of trouble, but the game still has its moments where a companion might accidentally take a kamikaze dive into a pool of quivering rats. Thankfully, these blunders are mercifully rare.
With survival being the thematic core of the game, Innocence is, at its crux, a series of survival puzzles; you’ll need to avoid the ravenous rat colonies, as well as evade the knights of the Inquisition. The rodents are terrified of light and will scuttle away at its mere presence–a weakness you can exploit to make your way across death-stricken battlefields and cities. Yet key to survival is also vigilance; wander too close to the rats, and they will attempt to devour you, clawing at the fringes of the light as their teeth chatter with insatiable hunger. And when a few stray rodents manage to latch onto you, Amicia can drown in a whirlpool of vermin, as they viciously and noisily gnaw on her. Few scenes in video games manage to be quite as eerie as this, heightening the game’s cloying atmosphere of despair and danger.
What’s decidedly less impressive, however, are the members of the Inquisition. As children, Amicia and Hugo won’t survive most direct confrontations with these armored brutes, who are only too eager to swing their cudgels and swords upon discovering them. Luckily for the de Rune siblings, the knights are also dumb as rocks; these barbarians are easily distracted by loud noises or sudden movements, such as by smashing a pot near their feet or tossing a rock towards a nearby chest full of armor. After staring at the offending object for a minute, the knight will mutter a variant of “Guess it’s just my imagination”–the most hackneyed and quintessential line used by hilariously obtuse NPCs in stealth games–and lumber back to their post, completely bewildered by the sound. In another far more egregious gaffe, another knight, while gawking at rats stripping his comrade to the bones, would grouse about the pointlessness of searching for his murderer, since they must be far gone by now. He then settled back to his programmed patrol, his back turned against the torrent of crazed rodents. For a game whose storytelling relies heavily on its atmosphere of dread and fear, such illogical instances absolutely butcher the mood.
That said, the game’s puzzles eventually ramp up in difficulty in later chapters, which renders combat and confrontations unavoidable at certain points. As dim-witted as the knights are, they’re still mostly decked out in heavy armor and weaponry–and can make devastating enemies. To compensate for her lack of brute strength, Amicia can modify and augment her trusty slingshot and ammunitions with the right materials and a dash of basic alchemy, turning the humble tool into a deadly and versatile weapon. Hugo isn’t a passive companion either; reaching cramped, hard-to-access places is his forte, and he’s gutsy enough to crawl through smaller breaches in walls alone to open up new paths for Amicia–provided the coast is cleared. Other characters, like a talented young alchemist named Lucas and a pair of orphaned thieves called Mellie and Arthur, will come with vastly different capabilities–and each with their own affairs to settle in this dire tale.
Scenes of desolation and tragedy mark Innocence’s dark, intriguing world, tied together with a narrative that’s genuinely moving without resorting to fetishizing the children’s sufferings. Despite their challenging situation, the siblings make do with what little help they get, bolstered by Amicia’s astounding resourcefulness, to survive this catastrophic mess. The game also magnifies the cataclysmic impact of the Black Death through a lens of cosmic horror, invoking the frightful atmosphere of H.P. Lovecraft’s macabre stories; the slithering rats, whether they are scurrying in the dank blackness beneath the city or trailing around half-eaten cadavers, never fails to be disconcerting. On the other hand, its villainous characters are almost painfully one-dimensional, with predictable twists and turns in the plot. This renders some of its revelations lackluster.
Powerfully ghoulish depictions of the plague and rats aside, Innocence is ultimately an emotive story of resilience against harrowing odds. The game’s title is an obvious nod towards the loss of innocence the endearing young cast faces throughout their journey. But more than that, it also speaks of the depths of human depravity and the agonizing cost of survival in the midst of war. Despite the unremitting horrors of Innocence’s beginnings, the game occasionally lets in a faint glimpse of hope. One of my favorite moments is when Amicia spots another wildflower in a lone trek across the city, nestled among the decay of the rats’ revolting nests. Without her brother around, she picks it up, and places it gingerly in her own hair–a personal reminder to keep trudging on amidst the hardships, and a testament to her growing strength and tenacity. Despite flashes of predictability, moments like these will bring a lump to your throat, as it did mine.