Like a giant bear, the games industry has been hibernating for the past three months, waking up only to toss out a Hitman 3 or a Little Nightmares 2. But spring is coming, and that big, unwashed bear is waking up. It means we have actual games, all with a passing chance of them being decent! Hooray and hurrah.
Xbox Series X|S players might decide that March is the time to try out Marvel’s Avengers, as it gets the shiny green badge that says its fully optimised. Yuji Naka – the brains behind Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights Into Dreams – kicks off his partnership with Square Enix in Balan Wonderworld. Plus, we get It Takes Two, the latest co-op offering from Hazelight, who gave us A Way Out and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
The indies this month are in a whimsical mood, giving us a spider-nightmare from the deepest bowels of Hell in the form of Kill It With Fire, and Merge Games try to convince us that buildings have feelings too, in the game Buildings Have Feelings Too!. Just your average month on the big black box.
It may sound like a bad nightclub, but Balan Wonderworld has fewer sticky floors and more of the colourful platforming that you would expect from super-designer Yuji Naka. He was the brains behind Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams, and he’s founded a new studio in collaboration with Square Enix. The first product of this partnership is very much in keeping with his previous titles.
Balan is a ringleader who has yoinked Leo and Emma, a pair of unwitting kids, into his Wonderworld. Through twelve stages, all accessed from a hub world, they’ll be looking for a way out. There’s a lot of what you’d expect from a modern platformer, particularly if you’ve played a Spyro or Banjo-Kazooie: the twelve worlds are separated by their themes, whether that’s a wind, ocean or woodland world, and they’re littered with collectibles – in this case, statues of Balan who’s clearly got narcissism issues.
But there are also some new ideas at play, as you can find and collect 80 different costumes, each with their own Kirby-like special attributes. That might seem a lot, and you can multiply that number further by playing with a co-op partner, as the 80 abilities combine and amplify each other.
Knowing Yuji Naka’s previous output, music will also play a huge part, so perhaps the nightclub comparison wasn’t too far off. Definitely one to watch and listen out for.
It Takes Two
Josef Fares, founder of Hazelight Studios, is an entertaining critic of the games industry, and always game for a controversial interview. He also has a thing for co-operative gaming. Having handed us Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out, which were best played with someone by your side, he brings us It Takes Two, which – as a title – could be the mantra for his entire output.
Hazelight’s games are often about family, and It Takes Two is no different. It’s about one that’s in danger of falling apart at the seams, as two parents argue incessantly, and their daughter feels the gap between them growing. What happens next captures all parties by surprise, as the parents are mind-swapped into two raggy dolls. It’s a kind of Honey I Shrunk My Parent trap, with the two pocket-sized dolls looking to get back home and undo the curse.
Why are we so excited for It Takes Two? There’s the stunning graphics, optimised for Series X|S. Oh, and there’s the opportunity to play a co-op game from the masters of the art. There are wacky abilities that combo off each other, like a gel gun that weighs things down, and then a partnering gun that makes the gel explode. But most of all, we love the idea of a co-op game where your two characters hate each other. It’s marriage counselling, the game, and we fully expect Hazelight to tug on our heartstrings with each session.
Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
Back from the undead, we have possibly the most unexpected remaster in recent memory: Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse. It’s one of those remasters where you could name twenty other games that deserve the treatment more, but – since we’re getting it anyway – we are chomping at the forehead to play it.
You’d be forgiven for missing this one the first time round. It originally came out on the OG Xbox, somehow developed on the Halo engine (you wouldn’t know it from looking at it). You played the titular Stubbs, a salesman who’s raised from the dead after a city gets built on his grave. You clamber up to the surface and start nibbling on the human buffet, quickly accruing a zombie army. With a single whistle, your horde can swarm over other humans and add them to your collection. Hey, gotta catch ‘em all!
It was the sense of humour that made Stubbs the Zombie a little blood-soaked gem. Making explosives out of body parts, and rolling around as just a head, was pure comedy gold. Hopefully it’s enough, as Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse looks – at least graphically – like the leanest of all remasters.
Hold onto those rose-tinted glasses a little longer, as we have the belated sequel to 2000’s cult PC classic, Startopia. This time round, we have strategy supremos Kalypso taking the reins, carrying on where Mucky Foot, the original devs, left off.
You’re the commander of the Spacebase Startopia, and your job is to create a tourism and hospitality hub that will attract all the ne’er-do-wells of the galaxy. There’s a revolving airlock of weird aliens coming into your little paradise, and they all have different needs. You’ll need to keep them spending their credits on three different decks of the Startopia: the Fun Deck, Bio Deck and Support Deck.
This has a fair few modes stashed away. You’ve got a 10-mission single player campaign, a co-operative and competitive mode, plus a sandbox that leaves you free to create any utopia you fancy. Our own Darren Edwards gave this a whirl through Xbox Game Preview and quite liked it, saying it was “shaping up to be a management sim in the truest sense”. He did tut at the number of bugs, however. Hopefully there’s been enough time to jettison them into space.
Marvel’s Avengers – Xbox Series X|S
For a period of about a month, everyone was talking about Marvel’s Avengers. There were those who hadn’t played it, griping about the look of cosplay – Tony Stark and the rest. There were people who had played it, saying it was great, that it wasn’t great, that it didn’t have any longevity, that Kamala Khan was a great main character, or that the loot was piss-poor. Everybody was talking about it, and then… they just stopped.
Perhaps longevity was the problem. Crystal Dynamics seem to have struggled to keep players interested in their mega-budget game, but not for want of trying. Towards the end of 2020, we got the free addition of Kate Bishop, and now we’re getting a doozy of a double-bill: Marvel’s Avengers is getting a fully optimised release on Xbox Series X|S, with increased framerates and up to 4K resolution, plus a new Hawkeye expansion, which sees the bowman go up against a beardy version of The Hulk, named The Maestro.
If you’ve bought Marvel’s Avengers before, then this is a free upgrade that ports over your saves without a quibble. If you haven’t played it before, and you want to make up for the lack of Marvel films on the big screen, then this might be enough to sigh and say “oh go on then, assemble”.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
We’ve got no hope of summarising why Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is worth playing on your Xbox, as we’re daunted at the mere thought of stepping into this massive franchise. There’s what, seventy of them? So, we visited Richard Dobson, our Yakuza-whisperer, for an explanation of why you should get moist at the mere thought of the sixth game.
“This one’s a really good one, split across a couple of locations: Kamurocho and new city Onomichi. It’s also the last one featuring Kiryu as the main character, so it acts as a kind of swansong. It’s definitely one of the best ones, and also – perhaps – the best look of the bunch, as it’s running on the newer Dragon engine. Does that help?”
Yes, Richard, it does help – thank you.
Ever wonder what Silent Hill might look like if you played it on the original Gameboy? No, we don’t suppose you have. But you’re wondering now, aren’t you?
Well, wonder no longer, as indie developer Hidden Fields is about to unleash the creepy Mundaun this month. Drenched in atmosphere and covered in hand-drawn textures, it’s a little black-and-white triumph that we can’t wait to play.
Except, we don’t actually know much about how it will play. There’s been precious little information about what Mundaun is, aside from a first-person adventure set on a secluded mountainside, with some puzzling and a few goats that seem to be dripping blood into each other’s mouths. It’s not really enough to get the hype-train going, but colour us intrigued.
It’s been a while since we were truly frightened by an Xbox game, so we’re looking forward to laying down some newspapers and giving this one a go.
Kill It With Fire
Sweet Jesus. Best keep those newspapers down. Kill It With Fire is an arachnophobe’s anxiety dream.
Imagine you’re in a house. The house is filled with stuff to pick up and examine. Now, imagine that, on any given item, there might be a tarantula. Or a jumping spider. Or a skittering hive of tiny spiders. You’d leg it, right? Well, you can’t, as you’re the exterminator, and it’s your job to clear out all those arachnids.
At least you have a few weapons in your arsenal. Rather than a can of Raid, you’ve got shuriken, shotguns, frying pans and a mighty flamethrower. There may be collateral damage, but you have to break some spider eggs if you want to make a spider omelette.
This one looks like a streamer’s dream, and we fully expect to watch grown people crying and freaking out at polygonal spiders erupting out of cookie jars. We may be among them.
Buildings Have Feelings Too!
There are a few releases each month that give you hope for the industry, bursting as they are with ideas and new ways to play. Kill It With Fire is one of them, while Buildings Have Feelings Too! is definitely another.
We’ve all played countless city builders, but we’re yet to play one where you are the city – or, more precisely, where you are one of the buildings in the city. In this curio from Merge Games, you wander along as a detached house, chatting away with the neighbourhood, and choosing where to place homes, butchers, bakers and more. Comprehend what the buildings want or need, and your city will flourish.
There’s a quaint Britishness to Buildings Have Feelings Too!, as the areas you develop are clearly based on various corners of the sceptered isle. There’s a Python-esque sense of humour wafting about, and the scratchy, sample-led soundtrack has a touch of Mr Scruff or The Avalanches about it. All-in-all, this looks like a lovingly crafted indie title that knows that city builders can be sterile, so oozes character all over the place.
There’s more to March, you know. We’ve cherry-picked the ripest of all the cherries, but there were plenty that we had to leave on the tree. Franchise-lovers will get a kick out of R.B.I. Baseball 4, Hunting Simulator 2, Monster Energy Supercross: The Official Videogame 4, and Monster Truck Championship, fully optimised for the Series X|S. Plus, if you’ve got a nose for a promising indie, then we’d nudge you towards 3 out of 10: Season One, Minute of Islands, Under the Jolly Roger, and Kaze and the Wild Masks.
What we’re trying to say is that March is finally kickstarting the year, and there’s plenty to play. Here’s hoping that April can keep the momentum going, and it’s got every chance, with Outriders, Judgment and the utterly unpronounceable Nier Replicant ver1.22474487139 all landing within its bounds. Just as lockdown starts lifting, the scallywags.