For me, April was another bumper month of games. In this month’s instalment of “What I played”, I cover seven games including two brand new ones which I’ve reviewed, and even one unreleased one, all of which I covered for Entertainium. In boomer shooter Forgive Me Father I confronted eldritch abominations, cosmic horrors and a sometimes severe lack of ammunition. B.I.O.T.A., meanwhile, is a very entertaining 8-bit style side-scroller set on an asteroid plagued by ravenous mutants. Both of these games have largely flown under the radar, but I do recommend them.
The four older games I tackled in April were the impressive remake Black Mesa (2020), underrated open-world shooter Rage 2 (2019), baffling Japanese adventure Yakuza 0 (2015) and the excellent sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015).
Forgive Me Father (2022)
Developed by Byte Barrel, published by 1C Entertainment
As I mentioned in my Entertainium review, old-school shooters and the works of cult pulp fiction racist H.P. Lovecraft have been linked since at least as far back as 1996. Back then, id Software took heavy inspiration from the New England horror icon for various elements of Quake, most notably its final boss. “Lovecraftian” games are almost annoyingly common these days and I normally give them the swerve but I was pleasantly surprised by Forgive Me Father. Developed in Poland by Byte Barrel, the game represents a shift for them - from Mythbusters games to the Cthulhu Mythos.
FMF is definitely an old-school or “boomer” shooter. The combination of its Lovecraftian setting and comic book aesthetic is a little awkward at times, but the result feels like an equal parts combination of Dusk (2018), XIII (2003), and Blood (1997). Honestly, if any of those games appeal to you then you will get a lot of entertainment from what Byte Barrel has summoned up. The level designs are quite basic, but what it lacks in this respect it makes up for with sheer variety. Few games since the ‘90s have had such an interesting mix of settings, and they change up with almost every level. When I played the game just before release there were some significant balance problems, particularly to do with ammo supplies in the last third of the game, but these seem eminently fixable.
Forgive Me Father isn’t up there with the very best boomer shooters but it’s a very respectable effort which deserves to be better known - I certainly recommend this one to fans of the genre. This weird tale is available on Steam and GOG.
Developed by Small Bros, published by Retrovibe
If you’re looking for an example of what one person can accomplish in games development, you could do a lot worse than to play B.I.O.T.A. This 2D run-and-gun game with a retro, 8-bit look is almost entirely the work of just one man and it’s an impressive achievement. One happy advantage of contributing to Entertainium is the chance to review games I’ve never heard of, without any preamble or expectation - to just dive in. This is exactly what happened with B.I.O.T.A., and I very much enjoyed the six or so hours it took to escape the doomed asteroid known as Frontier Horizon.
What I liked most about the game is that it both summons up the magic of 1980s run-and-gun games, and adds a little extra spice and complexity. There are several playable characters, some available at the outset and some needing to be rescued or (in the case of a robot) bought. There’s a knack to choosing the correct character to deal with particular situations, and there are a handful of opportunities to upgrade the members of “the infamous Gemini II squad” and their abilities. Another real strength of the game is the chance to discover and use 54 different colour palettes. Old-school, four-colour games like this can become tiring on the eyes so the chance to switch it up is very welcome and I really appreciate how one of the palettes is called “Klendathu”.
B.I.O.T.A. is very much an under-the-radar game so if it sounds appealing I encourage you to check it out on Steam or GOG. Incidentally, publishers Retrovibe are putting out retro FPS Project Warlock II in June, which is looking to be shaping up nicely.
Black Mesa (2020)
Developed by and published by Crowbar Collective
In its own way, Black Mesa has to be one of the most extraordinary projects in videogame history. After Valve declined to make the effort to update their magnum opus Half-Life (1998), hundreds of fans spent an incredible 16 years doing it themselves. Eventually adopting the name Crowbar Collective, this group completed the final release in 2020. It not only rebuilds the Earthbound levels from the original game on the Source engine, but also features radically re-made and expanded versions of the Xen levels which closed out the original Half-Life.
Black Mesa, as the final release is known, is a staggering piece of work. It proves the Crowbar Collective to be a hugely capable and talented bunch, even if their re-imagined Xen levels are a decidedly mixed bag. Late chapter “Interloper”, in particular, is just desperately boring. Most of the game, though, is brilliant and this is due to a fusion of Valve’s original genius and the new team’s skill for making tweaks and improvements where necessary. What stands out most of all is how a virtue is made of linearity and simplicity. Half-Life, and now Black Mesa, benefit enormously from their entirely unbroken first-person perspective and the absence of any cumbersome upgrade systems, menus, collectibles, and other distractions.
Every style of game has become bloated with these systems in the last ten years and Black Mesa is a reminder of how a streamlined approach and clever scripting can create memorable moments, one after another. The falling elevator in “Office Complex”, the jet fighter flyby in “Surface Tension”, the electrifying climax of “Power Up”... Half-Life has more indelible moments than any other game I’ve played and Black Mesa recaptures their glory all over again. Separate projects are underway to remake Opposing Force and Blue Shift, the underrated expansions made by Gearbox Software of Brothers in Arms fame - I sincerely hope they see the light of day.
Rage 2 (2019)
Developed by Avalanche Studios and id Software, published by Bethesda Softworks
Recently, I wrote about Arthur C. Clarke’s 1993 novel The Hammer of God, in which a group of astronauts attempt to prevent a cataclysmic asteroid impact on the Earth. In Rage 2, it’s fair to say that no such effort was successful. As with the original 2011 game, this open-world shooter is set in a world devastated by the impact of the (very real) asteroid 99942 Apophis. Developed primarily by Swedish studio Avalanche with the support of id Software, Rage 2 was hardly a huge success. It received “mixed reviews” - often the death knell for any release - and quickly faded from the limelight after it came out in May 2019. Now, it has the ignominy of being seen as one of Bethesda Softworks’ recent failures, alongside the likes of Fallout 76 (2018).
Conversely, Rage 2 isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as Bethesda’s real hits, like Doom Eternal (2020) but in some ways, I think it should. The game actually plays like a bit of a precursor to id Software’s enormous success, in that it strongly encourages mobility and aggressiveness. I also think that Rage 2 is significantly more successful as an open-world shooter than most reviewers thought at the time. Crucially, you can play the game as much or as little as you like, and still get the chance to experience the full, albeit thin, story. I wrote quite extensively about Rage 2 recently, and my thoughts can also be found as episode 61 of the pod - but suffice it to say, I think this one is underrated and definitely worth a look if you picked it up for free in early 2021 via the Epic Games Store.
Yakuza 0 (2015)
Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, published by Sega
The Yakuza series is a big one, which these days sprawls across numerous sequels, remakes and spin-offs all rooted in the original game which came out on the PlayStation 2 way back in 2005. For a decade, the series was a hit for Sega in Japan, but was barely known at all in the West. The prevailing theory is that this had a lot to do with the cack-handed localisation of the original game, which hobbled the series’ prospects. All that changed with the release of Yakuza 0. This prequel, set at the end of 1988 and the beginning of 1989 in Tokyo and Osaka, transformed the profile of Sega’s cash-cow outside Japan. Since 2015, the series has performed well internationally and has contributed to the publisher’s recovering fortunes.
Here’s the thing: Yakuza 0 should not work. This action-adventure game is extremely long, stuffed to the gills with lengthy cutscenes, puffed up with drab minigames, and affords the player hardly any freedom at all in its two tiny, flat city settings. For these and a host of other reasons, Yakuza 0 has all the makings of an incredibly boring game. And yet - somehow, it does mostly work. The interlinked tales of gangster outsiders Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima are surprisingly compelling, thanks to a good script and a ton of quality voice performances. The game also benefits from its ability to transition frequently back and forth between stony serious crime drama and ludicrous comic farce. Much of the time spent actually playing is spent in combat, which is the polar opposite of something like Sifu - it’s generally easy, crude, flashy and arguably rewards button-mashing over actually learning the systems.
Yakuza 0 is such an odd prospect. I’d argue that it’s better thought of as almost more like a TV series than a game, due to the prevalence of cutscenes and the limited level of interactivity. I can’t see myself wanting to play more games in the series, but it’s definitely an interesting ride.
Loopmancer (not yet released, 2022)
Developed by eBrain Studio, published by Yooreka Studio
I’ve written about games on and off for many years now, and one thing I’ve only done on very rare occasions is previews of upcoming games. Opportunities for these are relatively scarce unless you’re on a big publication, and honestly I much prefer playing games that are finished to playing ones that aren’t. For that reason, I almost never buy games in early access. However, for Entertainium I did take up the chance to play a preview build - or a demo, really - of Loopmancer.
With an unspecified release date for later in 2022, Loopmancer is essentially a 3D, side-scrolling, Chinese action game with a cyberpunk theme and time-looping mechanics. My hot take on what I played is that it’s well, fine. Time loop games are a minor fad at the moment, and from what I saw eBrain Studio haven’t implemented this mechanic in a particularly interesting way. The graphics are quite impressive, but I couldn’t shake the sense of restriction, playing a 3D game from a locked 2D perspective, and having such a limited range of movement. My sense is that Loopmancer is unlikely to set the world on fire when it does see the light of day, but the devs may yet find ways to unlock its potential. In any case, you can read my longer piece at Entertainium.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015)
Developed by Crystal Dynamics, published by Square Enix
Back in January, I revisited the 2013 Tomb Raider game and enjoyed it far more the second time around than I had done back in the day. In April, I finally got around to playing the middle entry in the recent trilogy, Rise of the Tomb Raider. This proved to be quite good timing, as when I was part way through Crystal Dynamics announced that they are now developing a new Tomb Raider game, to be built on Unreal Engine 5. Then, it was announced that Crystal Dynamics and the Tomb Raider series has been sold off by Square Enix, and bought up by Embracer Group.
My hot take is that I’ve found Rise to be an excellent entry in the series. While Crystal Dynamics had boldly reimagined the Tomb Raider concept for the 2013 game, its sequel is inevitably a bit more conservative. The focus was clearly on expanding and refining the new formula, rather than replacing anything. Rise has more of everything than its predecessor. More equipment types, more weapon options, more collectibles, a larger and more open world, and so on. The setting is an isolated region of Siberia, which proves to be the site of the lost city of Kitezh. When Lara arrives there, she finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between the ancient defenders of this secluded, mysterious region, and the malevolent organisation Trinity, who want to plunder it.
The game benefits a lot from its excellent graphics, and Crystal Dynamics clearly knew exactly what they were doing - but then, they also reportedly had over $100 million to spend on their magnum opus. I plan to write at length about Rise, and look forward to completing the trilogy with Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) at some point this year.
That’s about the long and the short of it for April. You might remember that I said I was going to cover Subnautica (2018), but sadly I decided it really isn’t my scene and I have very little to say about it. Mysteriously enough, at the moment I have almost no idea what I’ll be playing in May, so we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, please do check out the writing by myself and colleagues at Entertainium, and if you like what I do please consider supporting via Patreon.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.