As with much short fiction, Leaving Lyndow takes as its heart a moment of no great consequence, a young woman setting forth to follow her childhood dream of exploration and scientific endeavour. Before she can board the boat bound for the future, however, Clara must farewell the people and places that have shaped her youth. A stroll through such formative environs promises a deep engagement with memories and feelings of nostalgia, but while Eastshade Studios makes a clear effort to capture and evoke emotion in the game, the island of Lyndow seems little more than window dressing. Attributing this quality to (or excusing it because of) the game’s brevity is tempting, but the evidence of countless poems and short stories shows that length does not dictate impact. Despite laying deep within the foundations of the game, however, Leaving Lyndow’s shortcomings are not enough to prevent it from being a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
A large part of Leaving Lyndow’s charm stems from its minimalistic design. The game follows the now-familiar tradition of first-person narrative adventures, stripping away all but the most basic interactions in order to give the unfolding story centre stage. With simplicity comes competence; the control scheme is straightforward, barely requiring even the few tutorial prompts the game provides, although Clara’s walking speed is, perhaps, a tad too restrictive. However, given the staid pace of the game and the detail baked into each environment, the decision to slow players down is justified. The inclusion of a small number of mini-games bolsters the core exploration and dialogue mechanics, but while each of them is a welcome diversion, they ultimately serve little purpose within the context of the narrative. Intended to suggest the bonds that exist between Clara and the friends and family members that surround her in Lyndow, the mini-games feel more like busywork than the authentic representation of a close connection because they reflect incidental character detail, mentioned only in the moment of their execution, rather than showcasing the deeper personalities of the people with whom they are concerned.
Compounding this issue is the sensation that the various characters hew too closely to archetype to be truly memorable. Clara’s mother is supportive, her uncle disapproving, her boyfriend reminiscent about the past, and a classmate jealous of her success. These differing opinions give rise to minor conflicts, though the only one that carries any real weight is the debate between Clara’s mother and uncle about the wisdom of allowing her to follow in her father’s footsteps, given that he died in a similar venture some years prior. This information is conveyed through an exchange of letters, and comments made by the two characters, but only serves to shine light on the conflict rather than the people, who are left seeming one-dimensional. Unfortunately, this lack of depth extends to Clara herself as the game offers only the most perfunctory insight into her state of mind. Though she visits the places of her youth in preparation of the journey ahead, nostalgia only sets in when convenient; most of her visitations do not seem like farewell at all, but rather the ordinary daily routines of an ordinary life.
Despite this pervasive sentiment, Leaving Lyndow is set on Clara’s last day on her island home, following her preparations to embark on her first expedition with the Guild of Maritime Exploration, a journey from which she may never return, and players, wisely, will never experience. The premise is rife with potential for emotional resonance, but the execution fails to generate enough enthusiasm to last even the entirety of the game’s one-hour runtime. Clara is too aloof, her dialogue options, even at their sassiest, too bland to provide any real indication of her personality, and with such a weak lead, the plot lacks a motivating force. The player’s malaise towards the narrative is reinforced by its directionlessness; Clara’s day consists of visiting five locations, three of which are explored at the player’s discretion, however this freedom comes at the cost of narrative consistency, as the areas are explored in isolation, the discoveries within going unremarked elsewhere. Without a guiding thread, an opportunity is missed to invest the game with greater coherence. Furthermore, Leaving Lyndow’s story too frequently operates solely on a surface level, steadfastly refusing to be drawn into a discussion of deeper themes.
Hints of such thematic engagement do exist, however. For example, both written words and environmental cues reference a recent disaster that caused considerable damage to Lyndow, but both also offer the prospect of a more fruitful future after the rebuilding effort is complete. As such, though the fates of Clara and Lyndow diverge, this shared hopefulness for an uncertain future ensures that they are, in some way, intertwined. Similarly, the large patch of Sacblossom plants at Clara’s uncle’s house in combination with an allusion to his proclivity towards consumption of Sacblossom wine suggests that he suffers from alcoholism, but the hint is fleeting and lacks further explication through his mannerisms or speech patterns. These examples are exceptions to the rule, however, with the environments being generally vacuous and void of deeper meaning. Despite this, the locales are among the most entrancing aspects of the game, the rounded architecture and ethereal flora offering an immediate disconnect from the real world and effortlessly evoking the fantasy of Eastshade. Of the five environments on offer, the forest is the most absorbing, eschewing the burden of conversation and providing the greatest freedom. The forest is also where Leaving Lyndow comes tantalisingly close to letting players know more about Clara—who she really is, and how her personality was formed—but the clues stop before any revelations are made.
Leaving Lyndow’s visual and aural presentation is also strongest in the natural environments. The artistry and gently-blurred visuals create the impression of a watercolour aesthetic that works most powerfully in the wildernesses. As with the architecture, the art style heightens the sense of the unreal and enables players to be drawn into the fiction far more readily than a more realistic style might. Similarly, the ambient noise is most enjoyable in the open air, with insects chirping and only the breeze for company, although the soft burble of conversation found elsewhere is no less convincing. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is entirely fitting, a collection of gentle classical compositions that foreground piano, panpipes, and strings to reinforce the slow pace of the game. Even removed from the context of Leaving Lyndow, the soundtrack is an aural delight, and a clear highlight of the experience, though not enough to elevate the gameplay or narrative to the heights of their potential.
Leaving Lyndow makes some curious adaptations to the “walking simulator” genre, utilising a series of small environments rather than an open hub, introducing NPCs to talk to, and shortening the experience, but these alterations are less successful than they could have been. Though the presentation is breath-taking and the gameplay competent, the writing leaves much to be desired, an unfortunate facet of the production that drags the game down considerably. As a first-person narrative adventure then, Leaving Lyndow is middling, lacking in characterisation and thematic depth, but as an exercise in world-building and a brief foray into the Eastshade universe, the game is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that promises better things on the horizon.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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