Category Archives: Games Reviews

Dear Esther, Landmark Edition (PS4)


Dear Esther, and so begins the letter of a lifetime, as you’re immersed in a world you’ve always known but hardly seen.

Originally released as free to play modication, the game was entirely redeveloped for a commercial release in 2012. Featuring a relatively new gameplay model at the time, the game was later mockingly referred to as a ‘Walking Simulator’ due to its minimalist player involvement – ultimately the only physical thing for the player to do is explore a Scottish island.

Having always wished to travel to an uninhabited Hebridean island this game provided me with the chance to do just that. It’s tranquil peace and the history the island preserves, either through basic settlements, shipwrecks or geology, is immense and is created here in painstaking detail. As you wander throughout the game the character’s voice sporadically gives you information as to the nature of his recently departed wife, as he recounts instances which led to her sudden death and also comments on the nature and history of this island.

I found that the game is certainly endemic of mental health and mental illness. The character, player unnamed, is certainly suffering from grief and this has led – over time – to illness and despair. In his grief he has essentially come to the most remote place he can find; and his intentions, although morbid, are incredible to watch. As you join him on what is his last journey there’s a sense of hope and exploration, an understanding of your own life and a peace you simply don’t get from Black Ops.

Originally developed as a research project through The University of Portsmouth the game is the creation of The Chinese Room, responsible for such other BAFTA nominated masterpieces as Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture and Amnesia; A Machine For Pigs. But it’s Dear Esther which never fails to capture me, despite how many times I’ve replayed this game, and its entire journey would take you just 90 minutes – something that you can do in an evening, drawing the curtains and submersing yourself in gaming.

Accompanying the game is an incredible soundtrack from Jessica Curry, which is nothing short of immense, and has also been released on Vinyl and CD so popular is the demand. I regret deeply missing the opportunity to see an orchestra tour the UK performing this soundtrack while a gamer engaged in playing this game on a big screen.

One particular scene, perhaps my favourite in the game, involves walking uphill towards an abandoned bothy built by a long since departed Sheppard. As you climb you can realistically feel the strength in the effort it takes, the game adjusting for the end pushing against you. One can only imagine what might happen if this was ever developed into 3D, and despite the harsh weather conditions, it’s possibly one of the most hopeful moments in the entire game. There’s a real sense of achievement as you finally manage to reach the bothy’s door and enter its tiny space.

Eagle eyed fans should also note the original game soundtrack is also available as a free download online from the developer, and you’d be best advised to take advantage of this while it still stands. In August 2018 Sumo Group, the parent company of Sumo Digital, acquired The Chinese Room for GB£2.2 million and thus downsized it to a fourth UK based production under Sumo Group. One can imagine both the “end of an era” but also the developers and founders of the group taking some time to consolidate their achievements while playing Dear Esther.

Walking Simulators may face criticism because you can, of course, always just leave the house and walk yourself – but the additional location of this game, its unique perspective and narration make it quite frankly unmissable. Now I’m off to hunt down a sealed physical copy on eBay. To replay once more.

WWF/WWE Smackdown! – PlayStation One

WWF Smackdown!
PlayStation One

WWF Smackdown was a revelation. Now referred to as the grandfather of modern wrestling video games, its arrival in early 2000 changed the way we played these kinds of titles, as well as pushing the boundaries’ of what the Sony PlayStation could do. Developed by Yuke’s and published in a collaboration between the developers and THQ, Smackdown (also called Exciting Pro Wrestling in Japan) was based on the World Wrestling Federation and named after the companies Smackdown! Television program.

Retrospectively, it’s the little things that debuted in Smackdown which make the difference, such as the introduction of a more comprehensive Create a Wrestler and Season Mode which give replay long past it’s standard versus matches. You can, of course, have a lot of fun with a multi tap, some controllers and several friends yelling in your ear as The Undertaker Tombstones Stone Cold onto the canvass; but the real longevity in Smackdown is present in its Season Mode.

Pre-Season makes little sense, though allows you to shape your character, decide who he will align with and what he will say. After that you’re just replaying Season after Season (and this can easily go on for 100 years if you want). The absence of commentary makes this feel like a quieter game than virtually every other wrestling title, whereas its often humorous to see wrestlers (dressed in full stage gear) talking with no sound while their mouths move in bizarre cut scenes. Just why was Ken Shamrock casually walking from the Boiler Room like that, and what made Al Snow so angry; we may never know.

Choosing a wrestler, or creating your own, you fight for gold and glory; taking on the likes of Val Venis, D Lo Brown, Mark Henry, The Hardy Boys and even The Godfather. The plethora of mid card wrestlers is fantastic, and should you choose to play as Paul Bearer (for example), there’s something slightly amusing about watching him handing it to The Rock. Unlockable characters are always a big part of wrestling titles and Smackdown is, unfortunately, a little of an exception in that respect.

You do manage to get some unlockable characters, however, they come in segments; meaning that they avoid the legal complexities of actually featuring within the game, the player must choose to mould them together. This was a particularly useful tool, in retrospect, as it does let me legitimately create ‘Naked Mideon’ for his first and only (unofficial) appearance in a video game. Dennis Knight would be proud.

Graphically, this title has aged well, with the character designs looking less jagged and jaded than Attitude before it and Backstage Assault after it. Wrestling historians, however, will argue that the lack of more modern canvass and design coupled with a very dated costumes for some wrestlers (at the time of release, The Undertaker had been absent from programming from several months and would return in his Biker persona quite soon afterward) mean it was already aged before release.

It’s perhaps not surprising that, with a considerable roster improvement and updated content, the games sequel Smackdown 2 was released just eight months after its predecessor. Normally games need time to flourish, to expand, even (in 2018) add some additional digital content to correct the costume changes and thus expand the life of the title – but Smackdown was a rare example of where THQ acknowledged their successes and their criticisms in equal measure and then worked overtime to do something about it.

The X Files – PlayStation One

The X-Files (PlayStation, 1999)

I remember it well. Christmas 1999 and my grandmother had just come to visit our family in the new house. But I was a broody teenager and a couch moved into my bedroom meant I had the perfect setup to park myself up in the Parker Knowles (it wasn’t a Parker Knowles) and play the Christmas present I’d been dreaming about all month. Nostalgically looking back it’s amusing that The X-Files for PlayStation was released in January 1999, and yet it would be December before I’d manage to get my hands on it, those being the pre Internet age in my house and also with me being a huge X-Files fan.

In fact, I can distinctively remember (probably due to the setting of the game being somewhere in Spring 1996, or Season 3; that its first release on PC in late 1998 was a full two years after the events of the game had transpired. Looking back, and knowing how fast technology moves, it’s unlikely such things would ever be tolerated again. But I digress.

The X-Files also had one other huge distinction on PlayStation, something which made it rather unique, even more so in the European market. It’s use of full motion video technology (called Virtual Cinema) resulted in a “game” which is actually a large number of cut scenes, interspliced with decisions that a player can make to move the game in a certain direction. Some decisions, such as whether you want to give some loose change to a toddler seeking a gumball, are wholly optionally and only occur if you do a certain set of things in a specific order; most, on the other hand, follow the standard point and click type regime which we’ve come to know and love.

You play as Agent Craig Wilmore, FBI’s finest, stationed at their Seattle Field Office. You’re quickly recruited by your superior to report on a case of two missing Washington agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, and quickly realise that this means you’re unlikely to meet them until the climax of the game. But life is a journey, not a finish line, so it’s Agent Wilmore’s investigation and cunning which lead you through an incredible four (that’s right, four) PlayStation discs. Unfortunately, this is where the game dips somewhat again, as four discs would normally mean hours of content and I ended finishing my first play through in a record three hours.

There’s not a massive replay element, although there are different paths you can take and relationships you can change, but ultimately the ending (the real ending) remains the same. Suffice to say that for such a successful program it’s unlikely as to whether the game would end with you having just killed Dana Scully and facing murder charges at a correctional facility. One particular Easter Egg is that an in game death leads to the revelation you are being watched by the cigarette smoking man; this is his sole appearance in the game and entirely optional.

Each disc contains an extended interaction with at least one supporting character from the franchise though, with AD Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) performing due diligence in the first disc. Of course, each will come up with a convenient excuse as to why they’re suddenly called away or not able to join you in person (see Lone Gunmen), meaning it’s unlikely the whole cast show up at a special birthday surprise for Wilmore organised by his estranged ex-wife. With that said, the technology present that made it popular to play as your favourite characters of the show, really impressed me at the time – and because of the video graphics being more aesthetically pleasing than the 3D sprites of some earlier PS1 titles, the game hasn’t aged all that badly.

Looking into the history of the game I’m surprised to see its production cost almost $6 million and last for four years, though that would explain a lot, even if it was filmed completely on Digital Betacam. Displayed at E3 in June 96 it was listed as having a release date the year after, but subsequently ended up taking considerably longer for the finished product to be released – and even longer for a PlayStation port.

That said, if you do get the game on PlayStation, it often gives a rare chance of using the PlayStation Mouse; the game is a real example – which people forget now – of how games like Discworld and Myst where once considered commonplace on the platform as a competitor to Sega Saturn and PC. Though, unlike Discworld and Myst, X-Files was too late to be considered for a Sega Saturn port (something that wouldn’t have worked, truthfully) though a Nightrap esque game on Sega Mega CD might have been curious. It shows you just how behind this game was.

That Christmas I played The X-Files to my heart’s content, a cherished Christmas gift I remember with fondness even now, from a time when that one present was enough to illuminate the broodiest of teenage kicks.