PlayStation Vita

I have a Vita and yes, it’s pretty amazing.

Hardware:

I went for the Wi-fi only version in the end. I wanted to get the Wi-fi + 3G version because get ALL the things, but decided against it after looking at how much Vodafone (currently the only Vita 3G provider) charge you. (Plus we don’t like Vodafone because they don’t pay their taxes.) It seems that the only thing you can really do with the 3G model that you can’t do with the standard one is use GPS – and while it would be well swish to have a pocket console that’s also a GPS, I don’t need it that badly.

The Vita is a more elegant shape than the PSP: its form is one continuous cartouche instead of having truncated shoulders. As with the PSP, the two shoulder buttons are contiguous with this shape, and are mirrored on the base of the console by two slits, presumably to attach wrist straps to. (A lanyard would be silly.)

It’s much easier (in convenience, not in accident-potential) to turn off or put into sleep mode than the PSP; you just press the power button quickly (to sleep) or hold it down (to turn off) instead of farting around with the PSP’s trigger switch’s position.

The screen is touch-sensitive, and so is the back, with two recessed inert areas on the back to put your fingers when you don’t want to touch the rear pad. The touchscreen has exactly the problem you’d expect – as it doesn’t use a stylus, it will grow a sheen of finger oil. This usually isn’t that visible, but it’s really obvious when you’re using anything that makes the screen display mostly white (such as the Twitter app), then you can see just how slick with oily interference patterns it’s become.

The touchscreen is remarkably sensitive, and I’ve made several accidental selections by just waving my fingers over it instead of actually touching it. It’s also capable of detecting two touch points: in many applications you pinch or spread your thumb and forefinger to zoom in and out, like a baffled finger-faced bird futilely pecking the screen.

There are two thumbsticks, and they’re proper thumbsticks with ball-and-socket bases as opposed to the PSP’s little slidey nonsense. The home button is curiously situated under the left thumbstick. Hard to accidentally press, true, but it seems more obvious to place it centrally under the screen, where the PS Vita logo is. The face buttons don’t appear to have pressure sensitivity (or I’m just sausage-fingered), but do have a nice decisive feel to them when pressed. It’s a little disappointing, as WipEout 2048 uses square for airbrake and I’m using to playing WipEout HD on the PS3 and being able to apply a gentle squirt of airbrake. The Vita’s face buttons feel much more digital.

The cameras – a front-facing one that looks at you and a rear-facing one – are a bit crap. You tap the touchscreen to take a picture instead of pressing a physical button, which feels wrong, and the shutter sound effect is obnoxiously loud. The cameras do badly in lighting other than very bright, and it can sometimes be hard to take a picture of something with the rear camera because the Vita’s shadow falls on it. Everything you photograph also looks quite desaturated and washed out. You can also record video using either camera. Again, the quality isn’t great, and if you have a nice phone you’re probably better off just using the camera and video on that. Even my 6 year-old Nokia lets you zoom in or out when taking photos or recording video, which the Vita doesn’t.

The Vita comes with absolutely nothing besides its charger and some AR cards (more on those later). No carrying case, or even a memory card (the PSP came with a 32mb one, which was much too small for a game or add-on, but was enough for save files and a few mp3s). There are also no game demos included or pre-installed. I bought a memory card with my machine, and it’s absurdly tiny. Seriously, you could swallow it without a glass of water.

The game boxes are just darling; probably about half the size of a DS game box.

Default software:

The Vita ditches the Cross Media Bar of the PSP and PS3 for a couple of pages of dinky bubbles. It’s a little similar to the Wii’s system of adding blocks (‘channels’) to the home menu. The menu is very customisable: you can rearrange the bubbles (within a set grid) and add and insert pages. I immediately shoved all the bubbles I don’t think I’ll use often down to an extra page on the bottom, and kept the top page for games and page 2 for apps I like. You can also change the background of each page. I haven’t uploaded any pictures to use as wallpapers yet, so I’ve used some of the default animated wave ones, going for a nice rich pink-red one at the top gradienting down to a pale yellow on the last page.

The first thing the Vita tries to get you to do after entering the time, date, your DOB, and doing a system update, is to play with the Welcome Pack. This introduces you to the device’s functions and is somewhere between toy and tech demo. It even has trophies for beating the best times etc. You can use the tilt control to make a wee stickperson on a skateboard dodge incoming marbles, tap some numbered bubbles in the correct sequence to make them disappear (showcasing the touchscreen’s ability to register two touches simultaneously by making you tap two equally-ranked bubbles at the same time), and take a photo of something and have the Vita make it into a little slidey-panel puzzle (boring – remember how disappointed Child You was when receiving a slidey-panel puzzle in a Christmas cracker). The most odd of these gamelets is Faces, in which you take a photo of something that looks like a face, and then the Vita animates it, making it blink and talk. The results are invariably terrifying. I took a photo of a little painting of a barn owl I have on my desk, and the Vita animated its beak in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the Navigators in Dune.

Near is a slightly sinister application that attempts to gamify your movement in the real world, and lets you see who nearby is playing what. You can set some locations as private (in which you’ll appear to other Vita users as an anonymous player instead of by your PSN name), so in the end I chose to let it show my location to other players, except for in a nice fat radius around my home town. You can also set individual games and apps to private.

The Vita also comes with a group messaging function for your PSN contacts, Google Maps (a little slow, but usable), and Party: essentially group chat using the mic. The web browser is much the same as the PS3’s. Nintendo had the right idea: they outsourced the DS browser to Opera. I’d love to see a version of Chrome or something for the Vita and PS3.

Test of anything with a browser: can it play Echo Bazaar? Yes, it can; it’s just rather clunky.

The onscreen keyboard is dire. I shouldn’t have to toggle another set of keys just to type an apostrophe or a number. There’s also no caps lock, meaning that to type anything in caps I have to keep tapping this button. That said, having it as a touchscreen makes it a damn sight easier to use than the Sixaxis-controlled PS3 keyboard (I do have a USB keyboard plugged into my PS3, but it’s usually under a pile of games and I can’t be bothered to excavate it).

You can take screenshots by pressing the Home and Start buttons simultaneously. I’ve yet to try this out because I’ve got only WipEout 2048 at the moment, and it sports a very fine screenshot mode of its own.

Other software:

Twitter app is ace. It even has a button for old-school RTs (used for writing MTs, as I don’t think there’s any way to copy and paste text). You’ll probably need it if you want to do any tweeting at all via your Vita; the actual Twitter website runs appallingly in the Vita browser, and often makes Javascript crash. The app only supports one account, though, unless I’m missing something.

The Flickr app is okay, pretty much what you’d expect. You can also upload photos you’ve taken with the Vita directly to Flickr, which I can’t see myself doing, as I see Flickr as a site for nice processed photos, not a place to dump your snaps.

Predictably, there’s a Facebook app. Not used it myself, but it’s there.

AR

The Vita comes with 6 AR cards, with basic QR code-like shapes on them, simple enough that if you lost the cards you could probably draw some new ones. Placing them on a table and pointing the Vita’s rear camera at them allows you to play some cute but gimmicky little games. You get 3 after redeeming a code in the PSN store (you can just download them free from there anyway, but the code conveniently loads them all into your download queue simultaneously): Table Football, Fireworks and Cliff Diving.

Fireworks is a piece of piss. You put an AR card down and it’s a house. The garden has a machine that ejects fireworks, and you can tap the fireworks to detonate them – do it at the apex of their ascent for more points. And that’s it. You can make it ‘harder’ by putting down 3 cards, each one generating a different building. Even with 3x the fireworks it’s still pretty much impossible to fail, so you can just sit there tapping fireworks until you get bored. Hardly a game at all; pretty much just a tech demo, and not a very exciting one at that.

Cliff Diving is quite funny: put down a card and a pool and diving board erupt from your table, and you then press buttons to make a little man do a dive. If you get it wrong the poor wee man crashes and you lose some of your prize money to his hospital bills. You can also use two cards at different elevations (one on a table, one atop a mug or something) and have the higher one be a diving board and the lower be a pool. It’s actually pretty hard to get both cards in frame in a manner that satisfies the Vita, and the game itself has limited appeal.

I didn’t get to play Table Football because it needs all 6 cards (3 for the pitch, 2 for the stands and 1 for the scoreboard) and I don’t have that much free space at my desk. I could go and try it on the dining table or something, but I can probably imagine what it’ll be like. I expect you’d need to play this one on a surface you can easily approach from all angles.

The AR seems to have the same problem the EyeToy had: it’s cute, it’s quite fun, but once you’ve been impressed by the tech it doesn’t have much to keep you visiting it, and you also need lots of room to play, and chances are you don’t have nice big open rooms like the people in the adverts. At the moment I can’t think of any use of the AR that would actually enhance a game rather than just look cool.

Demos I tried:

Lumines: nice, but it’s just Lumines. It’s still the exact same game you played on the PSP, just with different songs, backgrounds etc. There are a couple of new types of block, but can you really be arsed?

Dungeon Hunter: Alliance: crap. Game mechanics seemed okay, if generic (it’s an action-ish RPG), but the atrocious slowdown makes it unplayable.

I also downloaded the PSP game Daxter (an interquel between the first and second Jak & Daxter games) for £7, as it was one of my favourite titles on that machine (plug: I reviewed it for Gamestyle in 2006 here). It’s a little ugly, as the PSP game’s lower res is stretched to fill the Vita screen. I’d like to see a way of shrinking it to the original resolution, like you can do when playing PSone or PS2 games on the PS3. Speaking of PSone games, there doesn’t yet seem to be a way of downloading them to the Vita; I’ve bought a few for my PS3 and I’d quite like to put some of them on my new handheld. Considering you could play them on PSP, I’m assuming this is functionality that’ll be added to the Vita later.

Update: since this post was first written, PSone games downloaded from the PSN Store are playable on the Vita.

Swift*Stitch

Tl;dr: Yes, it’s definitely worth $7. It’s 11p per level. You might as well buy it; it’s probably better than all the crap you bought in the Steam sale and have never played with.

Swift*Stitch, it turns out, is not a tailoring sim, but “a game about going fast, taking the right route and trying not to crash into stuff”. ‘Swift’ presumably alludes to the blinding speed, and ‘stitch’ to the warp- and weft-style movement, as well as the slightly stitched appearance of the boingy walls. S*S has essentially two controls: hold the left mouse button to move your little ship vertically, leave it unpressed to go horizontally, boing off coloured walls to switch direction. It’s bloody hard. It elicited many angry mooing sounds. It’s also great fun, holding my interest more than my other recent purchase of Bejeweled 3.

It’s a challenging game, but S*S is wonderful in its implementation of non-guffbeakery. The learning curve is sensible. If you get it wrong, it’s always your fault. You can play any level whenever you want, instead of having to play through a level to unlock the next one (a wonderful bit of design that shows this game is meant for playing). The game invites you once and only once to switch to a lower speed should you crash like a sugar-rushing monkey. No remapping needed for a left-handed mouse. Don’t like mouse? Use keyboard instead.

The game also has some graphical goodies, such as ‘Invert colours’ (surprisingly nice) and ‘WTF mode’, which adds confetti and motion-blur. The best of these is Cruel camera, which simulates the camera operation of that of Homer Simpson distracted by a butterfly.

S*S is available for Windows and Mac. I can confirm that the Windows version runs nicely under WINE, albeit with a bit of jaggy scrolling in any speed class above 3 (no impediment to gameplay; it’s just not as pretty). Unfortunately, you can’t try the demo in Linux, as it requires Unity web player.

Update: Hot piss! S*S is now free and available for PC, Mac and Linux!

inFamous 2

It’ll do. That’s what inFamous 2 gives the impression of having as its design principle and intended player reaction. The first game was a fun if choppy-and-changey action adventure, and the sequel does very little to improve upon this. So little, in fact, that while the game engine itself is nicely polished, everything else feels like a first draft.

InFamous 2 carries on its predecessor’s cliffhanger: an enemy called the Beast is coming, and only Cole can stop it (of course). All Cole’s miseries at the hands of evil scientist Kessler were in fact a mentor’s exercise in preparing Cole for his inevitable showdown. Erm, thanks? You goit.
The game takes place in New Marais – a bonsai send-up of New Orleans replete with French architecture, swampland, a flood-damaged zone, and a tram service. It’s here that Cole must find six blast cores, which will amplify his powers and enable him to charge up a Beast-debuffing device. Wacky hijinks ensue as Cole searches for the cores, tangling with local crime bosses and swamp monsters on the way.

InFamous’s schtick is that you can choose whether to play urbexer-turned-electric-badass Cole McGrath as a goodie or a baddie – answering that old question of ‘why does everybody who develops superpowers turn into a vigilante?’ with ‘sometimes they don’t’.
The first game drew criticism for forcing the player down one path or the other and making it very hard to play a neutral Cole. 2 goes a little way to remedy this: far fewer powers are heroism/infamy-dependent, and while clearing a good mission still locks out an evil mission and vice versa, there is no longer any reputation requirement for taking a mission; so should you regret your wickedness, or want to turn infamous, it’s easier to start changing your ways.
Unfortunately, two sets of missions doesn’t come with two sets of cutscenes: Cole has the same dialogue in every cutscene regardless of karma, making for some sloppy characterisation and jarring gameplay/story segregation.

The electric man Cole is joined by new characters Nix and Kuo, who wield fire and ice and can even stack their powers with yours. This is pretty nice in gameplay, but is a poor piece of storytelling. The duo inexplicably hate each other – presumably the writers wanted to add a level of tension, but couldn’t be bothered to think of a reason for it. If feels as though there’s a missing cutscene in which Kuo trod on Nix’s jam sandwich. Just a couple of lines of exposition dialogue could have made this much more cohesive.
It’s also disappointingly similar to the first game, which has evil Sasha (cf Nix) trying to seduce you and goody-two-shoes government agent Moya (cf Kuo) directing your missions.

There are some problematic stereotypes in inFamous 2. Kuo is an Asian businesswoman who wears a modest business suit, and Nix is a black woman who wears very revealing clothing. There are two layers of tropes here. One is that (in the US at least, where this game was developed), Asian people are often portrayed as the ‘good’ or ‘ideal’ minority (stereotyped as being hardworking and intelligent) and black people are often portrayed as the ‘bad’ minority (stereotyped as being aggressive and uneducated). Kuo and Nix fall right into these categories. Nix is a particularly lazily-written character; chaotic neutral bordering on chaotic evil with no motivation for her destructive actions.
The characters’ clothing also falls in with the idea that ‘good’ girls are modest, and women who are open and comfortable with their sexuality are evil. Even their powers reflect this: Kuo uses ice (cool, suave, maybe even frigid) and Nix has fire (passion, anger, volatility). Ploddingly unoriginal.

InFamous 2 gives you some new abilities, including picking cars up with telekinesis and chucking them at helicopters. (Which means there’s no need to play Prototype any more; inFamous now has the best thing from that game.) It’s also got a little easier, and not to its detriment – checkpoints are denser, and the vehicle escort missions have been downgraded from buttock-clenchingly hard to a nice challenge.
Climbing is still an annoying endeavour, considering how much the game relies on vertical space as a player stratagem and to give the illusion of the city being much bigger than it is. Cole’s moves are slick but trying to get him to climb up a piece of scenery instead of magnetically pinging back to the previous hand-hold is sometimes ridiculous.

The game’s minimap is still really tiny and dark, and blast shards (power-up nuggets) still show up as indigo dots on the dark grey background. Amazingly, there’s no longer any altitude indicator for the enemy radar: enemies now always show up as red squares, instead of changing to indicative triangles pointing to enemies above or below. That was really useful and there’s no reason to have taken that out. The dead drops (exposition nodules) are now carried by messenger pigeons instead of being stuck to satellite dishes, and there’s no means of homing in on the birds like the dishes. You just roam around hoping to find a pigeon on your travels. Rubbish.

The user-generated missions are a lovely idea; it’s just a shame that they’re all a bag of wank. Sucker Punch have made the same mistake as Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet: assuming that people who aren’t actual developers have any level of game design ability higher than ‘suck’.

inFamous 2 is… good. You can’t say it’s not, and you can’t say it warrants a more exciting word. Its gameplay is more polished than its predecessor, but its story and characters feel like placeholders whose final versions were never implemented. Too often inFamous 2 feels like ‘I’m having fun pressing buttons’ rather than the ‘I’m immersed in this adventure’ it’s trying to be.

Fallen London

Towards the end of the 19th Century, London became the fifth city to be stolen by the underground Bazaar. The city exists now in the dark Neath, having little contact with the surface. So goes the story behind Fallen London, a single-player browser-based RPG.

The game uses Twitter or Facebook for authentication, so you’ll need an account with one of these to play. After choosing a name, gender (lady, gentleman, or ‘an individual of mysterious and indistinct gender’) and a silhouette portrait for your character, you begin the game incarcerated in New Newgate Prison, which acts as a tutorial level. After you break out, the city is yours.
It’s lovely to see a game so inclusive right off the bat – many games don’t let you play as a woman, let alone a non-binary person. You’ll also find that your character’s gender doesn’t lock you out of any possible romances with NPCs, or from wearing any type of clothes. The use of silhouettes for representation is also a nice touch, stylistically suitable for the time period and a way of letting you know that your character’s appearance is none of the game’s business.

Mechanically, the game isn’t exciting. All the gameplay involves clicking on multiple-choice paths; you’ll never have to react fast, or type anything except for numbers of objects you want to buy or sell. The hook of Fallen London is the progression of your character from penniless prison escapee to whatever you choose. Become a master thief. Join the University, and maybe get kicked out for being too radical. Become a sailor (sorry, a zailor) and explore the hidden islands of the Unterzee. The game also eases you into its backstory this way, gradually revealing the shocking secrets of the history of London and the Bazaar.

The Neath is a gripping playground for the mind. It’s a warped version of the real London, with its place names hauntingly familiar – Watchmaker’s Hill is an obvious expy of Greenwich, for example. Its subterranean location brings with it Lovecraftian horrors (anachronism, but there you go), and a different way of life from the surface. Mushrooms are harvested for wine, and London’s new proximity to Hell means devils walk the streets alongside the humans and zombies (who come in two flavours: the drownies and the bandaged tomb-colonists). There’s the odd zeppelin too, and you can buy goggles, but thankfully the game has hardly any steampunk wankerypop.

The user interface is themed like a card deck, with two pools of possible actions called opportunity cards and storylets. Storylets are location-dependent, and lock and unlock as your character grows. You opportunity card deck is the same wherever in the city you travel (unless you visit some really weird locations, which take some effort to get to). Every six minutes you receive another opportunity card to draw (from a maximum deck size of six), and you can then play it or discard it. At the start of the game you can hold only one drawn card in your hand at a time, but as you progress to better lodgings you can hold more. Playing a storylet or an opportunity card costs an action (discarding or drawing a card is free), of which you get at least 40 a day – more on that later.

Your character has four main stats, which you’ll spend most of the game grinding in order to unlock more storylets: dangerous (strength), watchful (intelligence), shadowy (stealth/agility), and persuasive (charisma). You can build up any combination that suits you, and there’s nothing stopping you maxing out all four. Each characteristic comes with a corresponding menace, should you attempt to bite off more than you can chew – trying to be too dangerous will get you wounded, failing to be stealthy enough will increase your suspicion, and so on. There’s no permanent penalty for dying, going mad, being re-incarcerated in New Newgate, or being exiled across the Zee, but it’s inconvenient.

As well as the four main stats, your choices in the game will result in you acquiring and losing characteristics such as ruthlessness, austerity, magnanimity, and hedonism. You can also make or break alliances, which tend to come in pairs that lock you out of (or greatly impede progress with) the other. Increasing your connections with Hell, for example, makes it harder to get friendly with the Church, and being a constables’ pet makes you distrusted by criminals. These connections are presented as equal and viable alternatives, with nothing inherently better about each. This all makes it much easier to play your character exactly as you want to play them; the game will rarely if ever force you to do something out of character just to move things along. Progress with all of these connections and quirks nets you – you guessed it – more storylets and cards.

Fallen London is an allegedly free game – around 90% of the content is free to play, with a few storylines and one location unlockable with real money. You can also spend money on an in-game currency called fate, which can sometimes buy you sneakier choices in storylets. For 35 fate (about £5.50) a month you can buy Exceptional Friend status, which will give you 80 actions a day instead of the usual 40. You can boost your actions once a day by ‘echoing’ a snippet of exposition on Twitter or Facebook, which will give you an extra 10 (for free players) or 20 actions (for exceptional friends). Doing this also records the snippet in your character’s journal, which gives you another bit of character development to play with – if you wish, you can echo (and edit) only the snippets most relevant to your Fallen Londoner’s interests, instead of just picking the first one available.

Though single-player, the game allows some minor interaction with your Twitter and Facebook contacts. Sometimes you and your friends will be able to give each other presents, give each other a little stat boost or help chip away at a debuff.
There is also an opt-in subgame called Knife and Candle, in which players attempt to murder each other in a polite and genteel fashion. Knife and Candle is periodically taken down for gameplay balance purposes – as of writing this, it’s still down with no indication of when it’ll be back.

Fallen London is a charming and immersive little world, and gently funny in its own way. It’s easy to pick up, and is very compelling – you’ll probably find yourself watching the timer until your next action refresh. It’s worth creating a Twitter account just to try it.

Originally published July 2011 (when the game was called Echo Bazaar).

Updates: the information about action refreshes is now incorrect. The bad news is that actions refresh every ten minutes, not every six. The good news is that everyone now has unlimited actions per day, Exceptional or not! Exceptional Friend status also costs 25 fate/nex, rather than 35. Nex has largely replaced fate, and the part about echoing snippets to Twitter appears to have been removed.

Darksiders

Most reviews seem to fall into either ‘this game is excellent; get it now’ or ‘this game is atrocious; don’t bother with it’, because no-one really finds a mediocre review that interesting. Just as well, then, that Darksiders is hard to describe without resorting to taking any word, adding ‘ing’ on the end and following it with ‘awesome’.

Darksiders is an unashamed rip-off of God of War (itself something of a blend of Devil May Cry, Onimusha and Prince of Persia), with a few elements ‘inspired’ by Zelda and Portal. Yes, Portal; Darksiders’ portals are even blue and yellow. In fact, it seems as though THQ were either calculatedly trying to pick out all the aspects of these games that make them enjoyable in an attempt to create a bestseller-by-numbers, or trying for an homage and hoping to escape ‘derivative’ status with immunity through excess.

Whichever it is, it works. There may be nothing new in Darksiders, but what it does do it does very well (with the exception of the storyline, which is pretty much an excuse plot). You’re War, you’re after revenge, and woe betide any angel or demon who stands in your way. War is nothing if not an equal-opportunities destroyer; he answers only to the Charred Council, who are a band of universal arbiters keeping the kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Man in check.

Yes, that’s War as in the Horseman of the Apocalypse. (Though disappointingly for someone who is being constantly addressed as ‘Horseman’, for over the first half of the game you’re on foot.) Due to a cosmic administration foul-up, the Apocalypse has been called too soon – before the Kingdom of Man is ready for it – resulting in Darksiders taking place in a literally post-apocalyptic world, whose few human survivors exist only as zombies. The game world consists of ruined human cities punctuated by lava-filled castles, jungly ruins and ash-filled deserts.

War fails to be a very likeable character, both in terms of aesthetics and personality. His armour is suitably tank-like, but his hair is long and not tied back, and his head-wear is a cloth hood, neither of which strikes this reviewer as practical for a warrior. Furthermore, his face is that of a normal human man’s, excepting his glowing blue eyes. Surely a fiery red would be more appropriate for War? While his lines aren’t quite as unsophisticated as Hulk-speak, they’re pretty plain-spoken, lacking the badassery of characters such as Kratos, without going far enough to be appealingly beige prose.

Overshadowing War’s character design is that of the Watcher, a servant of the Charred Council to whom War is bonded. He acts as your exposition provider and occasional helper (hold down your select button to hear a hint from him), and while he resents having to babysit you he delights in tormenting you. His acerbic personality combined with his sinister and ethereal appearance have the odd effect of making this reviewer like him and yet be hugely pleased when War finally breaks free of his hold and wrenches him limb from limb.

Darksiders follows the Devil May Cry/God of War pattern of fighting baddies interspersed with solving environment-based puzzles (including the classics ‘redirect the energy beam with mirrors’ and ‘activate a bunch of switches in logical order’). Like both these games, it includes some pretty amazing set pieces: riding a griffin with what amounts to a holy machine-gun in its mouth; riding your flaming horse, Ruin, while you shoot a giant sandworm in the face with a bloody big handgun; portal-jumping onto a huge robot’s head; and racing a giant to see who can slaughter the most angels. Aren’t you interested already?

Combat is pretty simple to get the hang of: to begin with, you have only one attack button, with which you wield your blade Chaoseater. Another face button is later assigned to your secondary weapon; a choice between a scythe and a slow but powerfully punching gauntlet. On one of the shoulder buttons is your currently-equipped gear: either a giant shuriken-like boomerang, a Zelda-esque grappling hook, a portal-making device, and a couple of others needed to open doors and see hidden structures. You can change any of these on the fly by assigning them to the d-pad, but as there are only four slots it can get a little annoying in the more puzzle-y areas, which will necessitate frequent re-assigning. Another on-the-fly menu is opened by a shoulder button and the d-pad, to which you can map items and War’s wrath abilities. As you have only four slots, this too requires juggling if you use all four wrath powers and are a frequent item user.

Despite its simplicity and relative ease, combat manages to be fun in the same way a B-movie is fun, and it’s pleasingly graphic without going quite as far as the grotesquery seen in God of War. And being able to pick up and throw cars at baddies is always a plus. The boss battles manage to be fun in part due to their sheer over-the-top-ness, and all require a bit of ingenuity. How can I hit that giant angry bat? Throw a sticky bomb at her, then throw your crossblade (shuriken) through one of the flaming torches to set it on fire and onto the bomb. The lack of health bars is a gripe, as the bosses take a while to down, leaving the player wondering if it’s actually working.

Along your adventures you’ll find, buy, and win enhancements for your weapons. Each weapon can have one enhancement equipped, and you can swap and change these at any time. Such effects include increasing the weapon’s power, the speed of its levelling, the speed at which your chaos meter fills up (the game’s beserker mode), or number of blue souls acquired (the game’s currency, coveted by the merchant Vulgrim – who also provides quick transport around the world by letting you teleport between his shops). It’s a nice little piece of customisation, though you’ll likely be slightly annoyed about having to choose which three you want the most.

As well as enhancements, you’ve also got hidden pieces of armour to find, in addition to health- and wrath-bar extenders, and demon artifacts you can sell to Vulgrim. While those who hate exploring and collecting will be glad to hear it’s feasible to progress without these, those who enjoy exploring game worlds will find that Darksiders’ excellent map system makes this a pleasant break from the action.

Darksiders is derivative and its lead character makes a bland avatar; its graphics are unobtrusively good – you won’t be jarred by pop-up but neither are they anything to write home about; and its environments are varied but fall just short of being properly atmospheric. But the gameplay experience itself is grand, and so much plain unputdownable fun that the game’s negatives feel unimportant. Oh, just get it.

Originally published July 2011, written sometime in 2010.