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Batman: Realm Of Shadows Review

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Batman games have always focused on the legend, but never the man. That is to say in pretty much every game about the Caped Crusader you spend almost all of your time playing as Bats and rarely as Bruce. The experience is one of empowerment, of being the unstoppable Dark Knight. Although, the Arkham series did explore Batman’s twisted relationships with the super villains he puts behind bars. None have really looked at the duality of being Bruce Wayne being Batman. We see the superhero, but not the deeply troubled socialite that feels the need to take the law into his own hands.

That’s why Telltale’s new Batman series is a refreshing change of pace. Although you still rough up your fair share of goons as the Caped Crusader, it humanizes the legend of the Batman by having players spend just as much time playing as the man behind the mask, as the scourge of Gotham’s criminal underbelly, and is all the better for it.

Presented with a young Bruce who has only recently taken up the mantle of the Dark Knight, Telltale’s series strikes a similar tone to Batman: Year One, though visually it looks like a mash up of Rocksteady’s Arkham series and Warner’s classic animated series from the 90s.

Harvey Dent is running for mayor and Bruce Wayne is his biggest backer, but after mob boss Carmine Falcone crashes a fund raiser at Wayne Manor, questions begin to be asked about the Wayne family’s possible links to organized crime. While his family name is dragged through the mud in the press, and the GCPD come knocking looking for answers, Batman is in the middle of decrypting some sensitive information found on a flash drive recovered from Catwoman, lifted from a safe in the Mayor’s Office.

In a way never explored in a video game before, Realm of Shadows explores Wayne’s duplicitous nature as he uses his influence to gain information to help his investigation as Batman and vice versa, showing in more ways than one that money and influence are just as useful as super powers in Gotham City.

Despite long-time fans being able to predict exactly where the plot is heading (especially where Harvey is concerned), Telltale have thrown one curve ball into the mix by introducing a very different take on Oswald Cobblepot, AKA Penguin – who in this iteration is a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne – and after squandering his family’s fortune, returns to Gotham in order to start a revolution against the rich and powerful. Where it will go is anyone’s guess, but Telltale are always at their best when they enhance a mythos in some way rather than merely emulate it, so this change is welcome because Penguin is, well, boring.

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Though the choices will probably not change the over arching narrative a great deal in the end, like The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s Batman series presents us with an opportunity to delve into the psyche of the character and decide what kind of Dark Knight you want to become. Do you break a goon’s arm to get information out of him, or merely scare him? Do you give the dossier of info to the press or the Police? Do you let Falcone use his influence to help Harvey win the election or throw the bastard out on his arse? (Guess which one I went for.)

That’s not to say there isn’t any action; it opens with Batman foiling a heist at city hall and a roof top battle with Catwoman. The game also features Bats taking out a room full of mobsters in what can best be described as a QTE re-imagining of the predator sections from the Arkham games. These also feel far more responsive and a part of the action than before, with quick flicks of the left analogue stick and well timed button presses helping the action to flow nicely.

This being a Telltale game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the voice acting, especially seeing as Troy Barker can now claim to be the only actor to play both the Joker and Batman. To be honest, I preferred his Joker, though he’s still on fine form as the tortured billionaire turned vigilante. Richard Mognagle (better known as Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan in the Uncharted series) steals every scene as mob boss Carmine Falcone, while both Erin Eyvette (Tales from the Borderlands) and Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4) turn in fantastic performances as Vicki Vale and Catwoman, respectively.

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It’s also worth mentioning  that Telltale have finally got around to updating their engine, and though it uses the same, distinct cel shaded style of Telltale’s other games, it just flows a hell of a lot better with improved lighting and a better poly-count that make the visuals really pop. It also runs a really well on consoles (something the original, least until the PS4 and XBOne came along, did not).

In all, Telltale’s Batman series gets off to great start. Realm of Shadows gives players enough intrigue to mull over, and asks some pretty big questions to keep you hooked and looking forward to the next episode, while providing a rare take on Batman that sees the character of Bruce/Batman in its totality rather than as two distinct personalities merely existing within the same body. Its greatest achievement though is to make me care just as much about the fate of Bruce Wayne as I do about what villain is going to pose a new threat to the Bat.

Batman: Realm of Shadows was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer.

Developer: Telltale Games | Publisher: Telltale Games | Genre: Adventure | Platform: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One,| PEGI/ESRB: 18+/M | Release Date: August 02, 2016

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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