Traditionally, January is the weakest month of the year for releases, yet January 2021 doesn’t fail to disappoint. There’s not a lot to shout about, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some Xbox diamonds twinkling in the rough.
If you are in the mood for remasters, Series X overhauls and indie darlings then January still has your back. Xbox finally catches up with other platforms and gets the near-complete Yakuza Collection; Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game somehow sees the light of day, and there’s the release of The Medium, delayed from the holiday period of 2020, and now completely and utterly bug free and finished, promise. Squarely in the ‘triple-A, actually’ camp is Hitman 3, proving that January doesn’t have to be a desert of releases.
There’s even a few unexpected delights in the hamper, as games we’ve not really heard much about dazzle us. Read on and fall under the glamour of Iris.Fall, Bladed Fury, Cyber Shadow and TOHU. See, this year is already starting more auspiciously than the last!
The tail-end of 2020 saw a glut of shadow-based puzzle-platformers, which isn’t a sub-genre that we expected to see so often. Shady Part of Me, Morkredd and Projection: First Light were all cut from the same shadowy cloth, and now Iris.Fall could be seen as arriving a touch late.
It’s a little unfair, though, as Iris.Fall looks like it might be the most polished of the bunch, and it has ideas beyond shadow puppetry. You play the titular Iris, in a world that’s somehow beautiful and drab at the same time. Everything is doused in grey, but the cel-shaded stylings make Iris.Fall look nothing short of jubbly.
You are able to switch between light and darkness, physical form and shadow, at the flick of the switch, and this will take you through a clockwork/steampunk world to your destination. There seem to be a number of bizarre narrative centrepieces, as the story looks like it takes centre stage. One to watch.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game – Complete Edition
If you’re an ardent follower of the Up Next features, you’ll know that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World squeaked into the December rundown, and then didn’t surface. It seems somewhat appropriate for a game that’s been on-off for half a decade now.
If you remember the original before it was delisted for copyright reasons, this is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up in the Streets of Rage mould with a killer Amanaguchi chiptune soundtrack. It also mapped closely to the original Brian O’Malley comics, with you fighting each of the Evil Exes in hand-to-hand combat, all in the hope of winning Ramona Flowers’ hand.
There were lashings of video game references, and all the enemies exploded into Mario-style coins that could be cashed in for crazily good upgrades. In most other instances it was pretty conventional, but we’re nearing the 10-year anniversary of the movie, and it makes for an appropriate time for a re-release. Expect a re-appraisal once it strolls onto Xbox.
Sure, sure IO Interactive, we believe you. The marketing for Hitman 3 has been heavy on it being the end of the Hitman trilogy, and the swansong for Agent 47. The implication is that this is the telling of ol’ baldie’s death, but we’re not sold. If there’s anyone who could wriggle out of Death’s embrace, it’s the walking barcode.
It certainly looks and sounds the business – so if he dies, he’ll look good doing it. Trailers have been heavy on the rainfall and neon, as if aiming a kick at Cyberpunk’s bruised stomach, and the full power of the Xbox Series X|S looks like it is being put to use (don’t worry, Hitman 3 is gunning for the Xbox One too). For a series featuring a follically challenged protagonist, the quality of the hair in the trailers looks stupendous too.
The series has dallied with being full triple-A and getting the sales that IO Interactive have always deserved. Hopefully with this, the last in the series (as we know it), Hitman will step fully into the mainstream and make the big bucks.
Redout: Space Assault
Having played the pretty, super-fast but slightly vanilla Redout on the Xbox One, we weren’t sold on Redout: Space Assault. We assumed it would be another retreading of Wipeout and F-Zero, and wrote it off as a glorified DLC for the original game. Oh, how wrong we were.
Instead, Redout has considered Wipeout ‘done’ and moved onto mimicking another game from the era. It looks like Redout: Space Assault is taking aim at Star Fox, and we are so, so down with that.
If Redout did anything, it nailed the basics of the genre and upgraded the visuals to a slick, futuristic degree. In the case of Star Fox, we haven’t really had a modern, high-fidelity interpretation, and that’s why we’re excited about Redout: Space Assault.
Everything’s here that you would want from the above setup: you have wingmen and women, chit-chatting as you fly, showcased as 2D caricatures on your screen. You’re navigating asteroid fields and space ruins, and doing so on rails, as you move your ship to take down enemies that speed into your field of view (it even has the same lock-on graphic). And then there are bosses, because every Starfox memory features a boss.
Now we just need an on-surface tank section. Your move, Redout.
Another sub-genre that saw a resurgence in 2020 was the side-scrolling beat ‘em up, or ‘belt action’ game, which is just about the least-enticing name for a genre ever invented, next to walking simulator. Streets of Rage 4 and 9 Monkeys of Shaolin were there for the purists, while Foregone and ScourgeBringer stirred in some Metroidvania.
Closest to 9 Monkeys of Shaolin from that bunch comes Bladed Fury, an extremely striking beat ‘em up that heavily draws on Chinese history. The art style also seems to draw on Chinese calligraphy, with hair and banners reminiscent of Chinese characters. It sounds arty and pretentious but it’s so much more than that: watch the trailer to see how sweet this one is looking. It’s reminiscent of some of Vanillaware’s best work, and that’s a very good thing.
While NExT Studios are at pains to point out the reference point from Chinese history, it’s clear that Bladed Fury isn’t completely realistic or authentic. You fight gods and monsters, some bigger than the screen, and they have lasers and vehicles at their disposal. You get to wield a dragon bazooka at least once, so a documentary this is not. But who cares, in all honesty? This looks dynamic and blood-soaked, and we’re in.
If Yacht Club Games ring a bell, it’s most likely because you’ve lost countless hours to Shovel Knight, the studio’s previous release. That game oozed quality, so there’s no reason to think that Cyber Shadow won’t do the same.
It certainly wears its references on its sleeve. This looks like it was made on an overclocked NES, created from the spliced code of Ninja Gaidens, Shinobis and Mega Man. It’s dialled up to 11, of course, as the pyrotechnics, animations and bosses couldn’t possibly have been pulled off on the old architecture, but it’s certainly in the spirit of the times. And no doubt that will mean it’s rock-hard.
It’s not quite clear yet how this will diverge from the old favourites, as Shovel Knight showed us that Yacht Club Games know how to riff on classics but create something completely new. We’d bet on them getting it right.
The Yakuza Remastered Collection
There was a time when it looked like we’d never get a Yakuza on the ol’ Xbox. Playstation seemed to have the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio under lock and key, and we’d resigned ourselves to the fact.
Now we can’t move for Yakuza games, and it’s a very good thing. The end of the year saw spin-off Yakuza: Like a Dragon coming close to being a Series X|S system-seller, and Yakuza O and the Kiwamis have landed on Game Pass and the system as a whole.
Out of reach has been the core, original games, but that changes in January. The entire Yakuza Remastered Collection arrives on Xbox One and Series X|S, but – not only that – we’re getting them all to play on Game Pass too. That’s a whole lot of bizarre plotting, fork-lift-trucking and side-games of pool, for free (well, kind of).
No news yet of whether we get these physically, as they were published as a full collection on Playstation 4, but we’re more than happy to get them all digitally, with restored content and updated localisation in 1080p and 60fps.
Gods Will Fall
We had a chance to chat with Manchester-based studio Clever Beans recently about Gods Will Fall (pop over and see what they had to say), and we’re always going to show solidarity with a UK-based studio that’s taking the plunge into Xbox game development.
The game itself is an action-RPG in the Diablo mould, but there is something of a twist. There’s a Fable-like humour to the whole thing, and everything is more vibrant and colourful than its peers. We’d even go so far to say that there’s a claymation, plasticine-like edge to all the characters, which isn’t something you can say about a lot of RPGs.
You play one of eight warriors from clans in the overworld, and you’ll be delving into the realms of the gods. These are disgusting miscreants like Osseus, god of bone and sinew, and Morrigan, a giant raven of war. Gods Will Fall pulls on Celtic myth and then makes the figures truly grotesque, creating mobs for you to defeat and hulking god-bosses to take down. It’s certainly a diversion from the developers of the Wipeout Omega Collection.
Ride 4 (Xbox Series X Edition)
We’ve already reviewed Ride 4, way back in October (it seems like an age away). So what’s it doing here, in a January Up Next article? Well, it’s been thoroughly remodelled for the Xbox Series X|S and, by jove, it’s looking spangly.
We were solid in our praise of this two-wheeled racer when it first came out, giving it a 4/5. Paul Renshaw said: “as a representation of the speed and danger of bike racing, RIDE 4 is pretty bang on. The races are hard, the Time Attack is brutally unforgiving, and the online component holds its end up, with no difference in the way the game plays. For fans of two-wheeled death machines, there is a lot to like here and Milestone have, once more, made a good fist of the various difficulties of bike racing. With preset levels of realism to play around with, even veteran bike game racers will be able to find a challenge here”.
It’s on Smart Delivery, which means that owners of Ride 4 will be automatically up-rezzed to the new edition. The highlight is that this is at 60fps with a resolution up to 4K, but the computing power of Series X|S is also being harnessed for 20-rider races, which wasn’t possible on the old hardware.
Now, we’re big old fans of Bloober Team, having chucked a 4.5/5 at Observer (newly remastered for the Xbox Series X|S, should you be interested), and loving the Layers of Fear series. They know their way around a scare, and have a habit of creating worlds that feel completely and utterly immersive.
So, consider us fully on board with The Medium, from the same team. This was first shown in the Xbox showcase in July of last year, and we’ve been panting for it ever since. When it was delayed out of 2020 and into 2021, we were a little miffed, but we felt reassured that Team Bloober were looking to get things right. Well, now we get to find out.
It’s a psychological horror game, which is no surprise considering the studio’s previous output, but there is a definite Silent Hill flavour to everything we’ve seen so far. For one, Akira Yamaoka has been drafted in to provide the soundtrack, and he was the genius behind – you guessed it – the original Silent Hills. It’s third-person where Bloober Team have traditionally gone first-person, and then there’s the world, which has a habit of shifting from real world to Hellscape between heartbeats. It’s not quite clear whether this is down to your abilities as a medium, or whether something else is going on.
The Medium is a dedicated next-gen release, so we’re eager to see how much of the big black box’s processing power is used in making this oppressive world feel immersive.
Killer Queen Black
A bit of a selfish inclusion this one, as Killer Queen Black may not look like a worthy addition to an Up Next. But we’ve been playing this one for yonks on the Nintendo Switch, and we’d like to prep you for a multiplayer experience that kicks veritable arse, and does it in a way that we’ve never really experienced before.
There’s a bit of Joust in there, but otherwise this is a team sport that hasn’t really got a comparator. You join a team, and get to choose from three different classes. There are drones, duff on the battlefield, but perfect for picking up nectar and dropping it off at your hive. There are soldiers, melee and ranged enthusiasts who can take out the opposition. And there are queens, who are unmatched on the battlefield and, like in Chess, are to be feared.
Your aim, like a bee-based game of Quidditch, is to secure one of three different ways of winning. You have an economic victory, which relies on the drones filling the hive. You have a military victory, with the queen defeated. And then you have a slug victory, which mostly involves a lethargic slug being piloted to the other end of the arena. Because of course.
Trust us when we say that this is a late-night, after-pub game of excellence. We’re excited to see this on the Xbox, achievements and all.
Every time we sit down to write an Up Next, there’s at least one game that surprises by looking great and offering something new, yet without any fanfare at all. TOHU is that game.
Once an exclusive on Stadia, of all things, this is a 2D puzzle-adventure that looks a little like Machinarium by way of Tearaway. Every part of its world looks crafted and tactile, and you should check out the trailer to see just how original it’s looking.
We don’t know a huge amount about TOHU, except that you’re wandering through a murky wilderness scattered with rubbish and robotics, and you have the ability to switch to a diamond-headed robot occasionally. There are intricate puzzles to complete, and a whole lot of levers to pull. But that’s it: this is one of the first games from small independent studio Fireart Games, and we know little else. Let’s hope it follows up on the promise of its trailer.
Hopefully there is something in the – admittedly slighter – roster of Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S games coming in January 2021 that takes your fancy. If previous years are anything to go by, the months start ramping up with releases as we get to the spring.
In the meantime, have a rather Happy New Year from all of us at TheXboxHub, and may it bring a good deal more cheer than 2020. If all goes well, we should see the Xbox Series X|S begin to show off, producing sights and experiences like no other.