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Tethered Review | Hangin’ With My Peeps

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The launch line-up for Sony’s PlayStation VR has been incredibly strong and diverse, and arguably better than many console launches. Among the initial titles is Secret Sorcery’s Tethered, a god game, best described as a cross between Creatures and Settlers, and set in a fantasy world full of cute creatures for players to lord it over. Though it is not among the genres one might instantly associate with virtual reality, Tethered is one of PSVR’s best titles at the moment.

The visuals immediately capture attention through the palpable sense of power they convey. The player is literally sat in the clouds, staring down at floating islands teeming with life. Flocks of birds soar through the sky, butterflies flutter above flowers and mushroom patches, while rivers flow into waterfalls that cascade into the ether.

The player’s worshippers are the adorable Peeps, a happy race of wide eyed creatures that resemble a cross between a Lombax and a Mogwai. As their God—sorry, Spirit Guardian—it is the player’s job to keep them happy and alive. This goal is achieved by completing tasks and growing the settlement. Through this process, the spirit energy needed to restore balance to the world and complete the level is released. From their seat in the clouds, players direct Peeps to collect resources and construct buildings, so that the creatures can survive the night. When the sun goes down, monsters emerge from beneath the island, attempting to steal resources and savage the cute little worshippers. It is then up to the player to stop the vicious little blighters from doing either.

The main way players interact with the world is via Tethered’s titular gameplay mechanic. In order to use the weather to affect the landscape, or have a Peep perform a task, players look at one thing, and hold down the X button on the controller before releasing the button on the object they want the first thing to interact with. For example, to order a Peep to chop down some trees, players look at the Peep, hold X, look at the forest area they want chopped down, and release X. At this point a blue string of light connects the Peep to the forest, tethering them. The Peep will then clear the area until either no trees are left or the wood store is full.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaWtOB2S708

As well as tethering Peeps to complete tasks, players can also tether the weather to different parts of the environment. For example, sunshine is used to hatch the Peep eggs that occasionally fall from the sky, or help crops in the fields to grow. Players can also combine different types of weather; for example, combining rain and sunshine forms a rainbow that cheers Peeps suffering from despair. Like people, Peeps need direction in their lives and food in their bellies or they succumb to sadness and suffer from despair: a terrible affliction that ultimately leads to them committing suicide by hurling themselves from the edge of the island. The little critters even stare up at the player with eyes that scream “this is your fault” before they do it. One way to ensure the Peeps do not succumb to despair is to keep them occupied. While any Peep is capable of performing any task, a number of different classes exist that make Peeps better at fighting, harvesting, prospecting, farming, or mining, with these skills becoming progressively more essential to player success. Despite this, the prevention of Peep suicide becomes impossible beyond a certain point. The player is forced to watch the gaming equivalent of a puppy kill itself because it did not have enough stone to mine or mushrooms to eat.

The despair mechanic is a mean-spirited one that shows a darker side to an otherwise twee game. Thinking about it though, a darkness lurks just beneath the otherwise saccharine surface of Tethered. As an example, if a player fails to hatch a Peep egg in time, it turns orange and a weird leech-like creature springs forth and slinks under the island. Kill it before it escapes and the Peeps will eat it. However, if it reaches the underside of the island, the slug will return as a monster hell-bent on killing the Peeps. This process suggests that the Peeps may be as monstrous as the things that kill them in the night; the happy little creatures are, in fact, cannibals.

Each level grants a series of unlocks and, as in many strategy games, it is up to the player to make effective use of resources to execute new abilities, from building barracks to train heroes, to upgrading mines to produce more ore. The upgrade trees can seem a little overwhelming at first, as plenty of freedom is offered from the outset, but the building and upgrading mechanics quickly become familiar.

Tethered-Peep

The little touches are wondrously executed in VR. For instance, the instructional pop-ups that appear often ask the player to open a sub-menu, which sometimes appears behind the first, allowing players to peer around one menu screen to look at another, or lean down to look underneath it at their burgeoning settlement below. The player’s view is affected by their position as well, so they can lean in to peer at a particular item or Peep. The execution simply feels magical.

The music—provided by LittleBigPlanet composer Kenny Young—emphasises this sensation through some beautifully whimsical string-led pieces that shift into darker, more menacing tones as nights draw in. The audio cues for each interaction and event are also incredibly well thought out, and help players to focus their attention towards the arrival of another egg, a weather cloud’s timer running out, or the arrival of a monster, all without cluttering vision with an array of icons.

Ultimately, the key question that surrounds VR games such as Tethered is whether it needs virtual reality to work. The answer is simply that the title could have been released as a straight strategy game without the need for a headset. There is nothing in the game’s key dynamics or mechanics that could not have been achieved by playing with either a keyboard and mouse or controller. In doing so, however, Tethered would lose something utterly integral. Being part of the world brings out its sensory strengths, and their resulting emotional responses. In particular, playing with headphones on, with no other distractions, makes the player feel as though they have become the Spirit Guardian; a watchful protector to the Peeps, fully immersed in this magical world that they alone control the fate of.

Tethered is a delightful experience that shows the potential ways through which a wide range of genres could benefit from virtual reality, rather than simply first person experiences.  It is a playful, twee, yet surprisingly dark god game that successfully places players wholly into its world. For PSVR owners, Tethered is essential.

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Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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