TREK TO YOMI REVIEW: CINEMATIC SAMURAI

Shinto mythology describes Yomi as the Japanese word for land of the dead. It is said to be where the dead go to dwell and apparently rot indefinitely. It’s comparable to Hell or Hades and it’s here that much of Flying Wild Hogs’ and Leonard Menchiari’s samurai hack ‘n slash game Trek to Yomi takes place.

“Once one has eaten at the hearth of Yomi it is impossible to return to the land of the living,”. One site told me as I was researching the meaning of Yomi.

Trek to Yomi (published by indie darling Devolver Digital) begins with a flashback where we meet young samurai Hiroki training with his sensi. It’s a good introductory sequence that introduces you to the basic combat that will become crucial as you progress. Hiroki’s arsenal includes fast upward slashes with his katana and slower paced but more deadly downward strikes. As the adventure continues, Hiroki gains access to a bow and arrow, throwing knives and a handheld canon.

Trek to Yomi

Suddenly, there’s a commotion outside. Hiroki’s sensei grabs a spear, tells his ward to stay where he is and runs off to fight bandits invading the village. Hiroki, of course, doesn’t listen and runs off in search of his master only to see him slaughtered before his eyes by the bandit leader. Hiroki’s village is burned to the ground, along with its inhabitants, he vows to avenge them and his love Aiko. Hiroki must venture into the underworld of Yomi to avenge those he loved. 

Stunning visual style

Right off the bat, Trek to Yomi has a stunning visual style, with game play taking place across a 2.5D plane. It has an old black and white film grain that is reminiscent of the samurai films of old from Akira Kurosawa. Sometimes the camera will pull back, revealing sweeping rice fields, cascading waterfalls and mountain backdrops. Several times I just sat back and took in the view before me. With Hiroki often silhouetted in the foreground with the sun shining through trees with falling leaves. It really is stunning in its presentation.

Adding to the immersion is the dialogue is in full Japanese, really adding to the atmosphere of being drawn into a Japanese samurai movie of the 1950s. 

When Hiroki explores the game world it’s in 2.5D, meaning he can move left and right, forward and backwards, exploring. When combat is activated the perspective shifts to a flat 2D plane with Hiroki having to fight foes coming from his left and right.

Trek to Yomi

Hiroki faces off against a variety of foes, some armoured, some brandishing long spears, others gruesome apparitions of their former selves. Most can dispatch with simple slashing moves. As things progress, more complex moves are unlocked, but to be honest, I found it a struggle at times for my old man gamer brain to remember some of the more complex combinations. Instead tending to block, parry, thrust, slash and roll when confronted with a handful of enemies all at once. That said, being on a 2D plan means enemies only attack you one at a time from the left or right, though.

Straddling the realms

There are three difficulty modes: Kabuki (Story), Bushido (Normal) and Ronin (Hard) . I used throwing knives, portable cannon and bow & arrow quite a bit to clear out enemies when things got a little hectic. Small shrines dotted about the game world act as save points, refilling your health and stamina meters.

At about the halfway mark, perhaps slightly after, the game takes a dramatic and supernatural turn. With Hiroki suddenly finding himself wandering the creepy realm of Yomi, it’s pathways piled high with human skulls and mutant villagers inhabiting its houses. It’s in Yomi that Hiroki begins his descent into seeming madness to avenge those he vowed to protect. What follows is Hiroki banishing the spirits of the bandits he killed when they were alive and ultimately facing off against the bandit leader who slayed his sensei and vowed to kill you when you were a child.

Trek to Yomi

It’s in Yomi that the game takes a tonal shift towards a much darker narrative (throwing a few easy-to-solve environmental puzzles into the mix as well) but deep down I think the overall arc here is asking what price will you pay to avenge those you loved the most?

Life, death and the trek to Yomi

Trek to Yomi really surprised me in that it wasn’t a game that was on my radar until a game play video dropped into my inbox from Devolver Digital’s Australian PR team. I shouldn’t have been surprised: It’s from Devolver Digital, a publisher who delivers on its often quirky indie titles.

While Trek to Yomi starts off as what seems a traditional “hack ‘n slash” it soon takes an intriguing turn, stepping things up a notch with Japanese notion of the land of the dead that plays a fitting backdrop to a game that explores, life, death and everything that straddles them both.

Highly recommended.

HP Omen 16 gaming laptop: Gaming power

HP’s Omen gaming laptops have always been solid performers when it comes to gaming hardware.

I’ve always been a fan of its gaming line-up and after spending time with its Omen 16 laptop, I’m even more of a fan of the hardware.

The review model I had was packed with an Intel 11th Gen i7-11800H (@2.3FHz) CPU, 32Gb of RAM, an nVidia GeForce RTX3070 laptop GPU (8Gb memory), a 1Tb SSD, a 16-inch 144Hz 1080p panel, Bang & Olufsen speakers and is running Windows 11.

The Omen 16 has a chonky 200w charger that ensures enough power to the innards and the Omen 16 really does look smart, with a great build quality and an appearance that doesn’t outlandishly scream: “I’M A GAMING MACHINE, EVERYONE.” It’s subtle in its design.

Connection-wise, on the the left side we have the power socket, a hinged ethernet port, USB-A 3.0, HDMI, USB-C with thunderbolt, a mini display port, the headphone jack and an SD card reader. The right hand side has two USB 3.0 ports.

Primarily aimed at the gaming market, the Omen 16 has a huge mesh grill on the underside of the chassis, letting you catch a glimpse of the substantial cooling system. Raised rubber feet mean the cooling fans have plenty of airflow and ventilation to keep things cool. It’s hefty in the hand but passes the backpack test.

HP is known for cramming it’s laptops with bloatware – and sadly, there’s a fair bit of it here in the Omen 16. I counted no less than eight HP programs (not including the HP specific Gaming Hub software) plus perennial bloatware antivirus McAfee and a trial for ExpressVPN. McAfee was the most annoying of the bloatware with it’s constant nagging but thankfully its reminders can be disabled. Frankly, the amount of bloatware is too much, HP.

System boot up from cold to the load screen was 14 seconds thanks to the SSD with Intel’s Opthane software and showcasing its gaming credentials HP’s Gaming Hub software lets you tweak the hardware to eek as much performance out as you can or change the lighting under the keys.

For example, you can under volt the system – where you reduce the CPUs core voltage without reducing the CPU’s performance) – meaning less power consumption and heat. There’s also balanced or performance modes, and an in-build graphics switcher so you can flick between the integrated graphics and the discrete RTX3070 GPU to ensure you’re getting the best graphical power when you need it the most.

Right, onto the bench marking. Let’s play some games on this thing.

I tested the Omen 16 with bench marking tools Cinebench, Catzilla, Heaven and 3D Mark (Timespy & Firestrike) and using the in-built benchmark tools in Batman Arkham Knight, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I also played God of War and RDR 2 a fair bit because, well, I just like those two games a lot.

As you can see, 3D Mark’s Firestrike demo returned a score of 18.063 and Timespy a score of 1112, and Tomb Raider returned an average frame rate of 123 frames per second with nVidia’s DLSS set to Quality mode and using DirectX 12. Unfortunately, I don’t have my bench mark images for RDR 2 or God of War as I, ahem, accidentally deleted them from a USB stick when I was clearing out unwanted data – and I’ve already sent the laptop back.

Suffice to say, it performed nicely with Red Dead Redemption with a mix of quality settings, same for God of War, although I noticed periodic slow down in the latter sections of the game, especially when there were a lot of enemies on screen. It didn’t last long but it was noticeable.

I also felt that performance dipped a little when on battery power (the system seems throttles a little to conserve battery life) but that’s to be expected. As I do with all laptops that are desktop replacements, I’d recommend to keep it plugged into mains power when you are gaming. This isn’t one for extended gaming sessions at the cafe if you’ve left your charger at home!

Look, HP’s Omen 16 does what it says on the box – and it does it very, very well. In fact, it’s probably the best performing gaming laptop I’ve reviewed on this blog.

It’s well built, has good battery life, has a good screen and performances extremely well with any game I threw its way. HP also tells me that the Omen 16 uses recycled plastic for the key caps, recycled metal and ocean-bound plastic for the speaker enclosure.

That said, it’s not cheap but decent gaming laptops never seem to be, right? The Omen 16 starts from $NZ4,699, depending on whether you go for an Intel CPU or AMD processor, and the review configuration – if I’ve read things correctly – would set you back about $NZ5499. That’s a fair chunk of change.

However, if I was looking for a more portable gaming machine to replace my desktop PC – which I partially rebuilt last year with a new motherboard and Intel 11th Gen i5 CPU – I wouldn’t hesitate to put the HP Omen 16 at the top of my list.

Interview: NZ Retro Magazine’ s Karl “After” Burnett

Former NZ TV actor Karl Burnett has long had a love of retro video games – he was introduced to Invaders on the Fountain Force 2 machine when he was a child – so he decided to publish New Zealand’s only print magazine dedicated to retro video gaming. The first issue was printed this month and I caught up with Karl “After” Burnett to talk about the process of creating a print magazine and what he thinks is the greatest retro game of all time.

Tell me about your video game background. You mentioned you were an avid reader of Computer and Video Games magazine back in the day (as an owner of a ZX Spectrum I pored over Crash! Magazine) but what was the console/games machine that sparked the video game interest for you? Was there a specific video game that just blew your mind?

It was when I got home one day, possibly from school or kindy, when I heard blips and beeps coming from the lounge. The door was shut and dad led the way, saying “do you know what that is?” I replied “video games”. To this day I don’t know how I knew that as Invaders, the game that my sister was playing on that brand new Fountain Force 2, was the first game I’d ever seen.

How did that interest develop over the years? Have you always had a fondness for “retro” games specifically or have you delved into modern games but always been drawn back to the old-skool gaming experience?

I always kept up with modern gaming. Until the Xbox360 I had owned every console of every generation. I wasn’t blown away by that generation as developers were taking far fewer risks with creativity. There were very few games that I wanted to play. I did love Grand Theft Auto V.

After that I got an Xbox One and again, there’s not a heap of stuff I like playing. I picked up GT7 recently for the PS4 Pro and I’m enjoying that (apart from the weird mobile game aspects etc) but I also picked up Elden Ring and it’s just too complicated for my old brain. I’m not a fan of crafting or messing about in inventories – leveling up and that sort of thing. I know it’s an RPG but those elements have all snuck into action games these days. I just prefer the purity and simplicity of retro games – I mean, gathering crap to make a spear that’s just going to break isn’t fun in my book. Tomb Raider really annoyed me with all that stuff. Even Transformers Devastation, as good as it was, had weapon crafting. Why!?!

What was the catalyst to create NZ Retro magazine? What was the light bulb moment that prompted you to go “Yeah, I want to publish a magazine about retro video games”?

I was writing for the UK magazine Sega Powered and I really enjoyed it. I’d toyed with the idea of creating a magazine a couple of times in the past. One was a new car magazine named The Wheel Deal, which I thankfully decided to put online instead, and the other was a retro gaming magazine that just never happened. So I decided to finally give it a go.

Walk me through the process. You’ve got a background in writing but was producing the magazine a more monumental task than you anticipated? Did you ever get to the point of asking yourself “What the hell am I doing?” and go back to whatever it was you were doing before?

I had a pretty good idea what to expect, from working full time in magazine publishing in the past. I’d done plenty of design work as a game developer, so I knew I could make it look semi decent too. There were some hurdles on the last day caused by my lack of knowledge on the printing side but nothing major until after I’d shipped issue one and the printer closed its doors.

When did you decide Kickstarter was the way to go to fund the magazine? Were you surprised at the support you received or did you think there was enough love for retro games that it was a sure thing?

I’d actually funded the first couple of issues myself. The Kickstarter was to help with the next couple of issues – I hadn’t done a great job of selling advertising! I was blown away by the amount of support. I thought there’s be enough people to sustain it but it was good to know I was right!

Launching a new magazine in the current climate was a big risk for you (I see printer Ovato has closed due to paper shortages etc). Was that at the forefront of your mind during the whole process? 

I didn’t actually see it as much of a risk, more a last chance. I’d pulled out of university as I realised halfway through my degree that programming computers is only fun if it’s done for fun. I decided I didn’t want to be a coder and I’d quit a great job to go and study. There were no suitable jobs around and I really wanted to be writing again, so I thought I might as well give it a go. I knew  that niche magazines were taking off around the world – especially retro gaming ones – and there were none in New Zealand so I filled the void. A lot of people in various Facebook retro groups I belong to voiced that they wanted it, too.

What are you most happy about with the magazine? The foreword by Julian “Jaz” RIgnall? The poster art by Trevor “Smila” Storey? The fact that you actually got the magazine out and to supporters?

Jaz was pretty much the biggest influence on my writing and I doubt I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for his work back in the day. So yeah, having him in the mag was awesome. Trevor’s art is great too – he’ll be doing plenty more for NZ Retro. But the be great thing was the magazine itself. It turned out really well. There are a few small things I’ve changed since but over all I’m really proud of it.

What does the future hold for NZ Retro magazine? Are we likely to see any love in future issues for classics like Westworld’s Blade Runner or Lucasarts masterpieces like like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle?

I LOVE point and click adventures. They were the story driven games of their time. I suppose some did have crafting, though! And inventories! How ironic. I’ll definitely cover them as I get better and faster at making the magazine as those types of games take a lot of time to play for review.

What is the greatest retro game of all time?

Tempest 2000 on Atari Jaguar or Need For Speed on 3DO. The greatest game ever made in my opinion is GTAV.

Disclaimer: I was a backer of the first issue of NZ Retro and it’s a bloody fine magazine. If you’d like to find out more about NZ Retro, you can visit its webstore at http://www.nzretro.com or subscribe to future issues via Patreon: patreon.com/nzretro

Devolver Digital’s Double Doozy

There was not one but two announcements from publisher Devolver Digital this week, with one of them being a new game in one of point-and-click adventure gaming’s most famous franchises.

The announcement of Return to Monkey Island, the long-awaited follow-up to the legendary Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge by Ron Gilbert’s Terrible Toybox in collaboration with Devolver Digital and Lucasfilm Games, was somewhat of a surprise to most of us, especially those of us of thrived on Lucasfilm’s excellent point-and-click adventure games. Here’s hoping there’s a return to insult sword fighting! “You fight like a dairy farmer!”

Details are light on the ground for Return to Monkey Island and the trailer doesn’t reveal any game play but Gilbert, who was behind the Kickstartered point-and-click game Thimbleweed Park, tweeted about it on April 5:

Anywho, here’s a link to the short announcement trailer

The second announcement from Devolver this week was another game play trailer for Trek to Yomi, the Japanese samurai inspired game that I previewed on this site a couple of weeks ago.

The trailer is long – it’s 15 minutes – but gives you a good taste of what to expect from the game when it’s available from May 5.

Trek to Yomi preview (PC version tested)

Publisher Devolver Digital is always full of surprises and Trek to Yomi, a game set during feudal Japan is another surprise that has come out of nowhere, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I knew nothing about the game until the Australian-based PR team for the game got in touch asking if I was keen to preview the first opening hour or so. I watched a couple of trailers and was intrigued. Insomniac’s Ghost of Tsushima has left an itch for more games based on Japanese culture and samurai lore so could Trek to Yomi scratch that itch for me? Let’s find out.

Coming from developer Flying Wild Hog and Leonard Menchari, Trek to Yomi starts with a flashback of young samurai trainee Hiroki training with his sensei and it’s a good training sequence that introduces the sword-play that will become crucial as the game progresses. Hiroki’s arsenal includes fast upward slashes and slower paced but more deadly downward strikes.

Suddenly, Hiroki’s sensei grabs a spear, tells his ward to stay where he is and runs off to fight the villagers who have invaded the village. Hiroki, of course, doesn’t listen and runs off in search of his master only to see him slaughtered before his eyes. Hiroki vows to avenge his death. 

Trek to Yomi is a 2.5D game with a striking visual style: It has an old black and white film grain that is reminiscent of the samurai films of old. At times the camera will pull back, revealing rice fields, waterfalls and mountain backdrops, and a few times I just sat back and took in the view, Hiroki often silhouetted in the foreground with the sun shining through trees with falling leaves.

As you can see from these captures, which I took from the game, it really does have an amazing visual presence.

Adding to the immersion is the dialogue is in full Japanese. It really adds to the atmosphere of being drawn into a Japanese samurai movie of the 1950s. So far, so good.

When Hiroki explores the game world it’s in 2.5D, meaning he can move left and right, forward and backwards, exploring, but when combat is activated the perspective shifts to a flat 2D plane with Hiroki having to fight foes coming from the left and right.

Most of the time you can dispatch foes with simple slashing moves and as he progresses he unlocks more complex moves but, to be honest, I found it a struggle at times to have enough time to chain together some of the more complex combinations, instead tending to thrust and slash when confronted with a handful of enemies at once. It’ll have three difficulty modes: Kabuki (Story), Bushido (Normal) and Ronin (Hard).

The preview build only allowed for about an hour of game play – essentially the first two missions – and ended with Hiroki fighting one of the game’s bosses so it’s really hard to say how the game will be as it progresses and how the story develops.

My interest is definitely piqued by Trek to Yomi’s visuals and the Japanese narrative and location but with such a short preview build, it’s too early to say whether the game is style over substance.

I guess I’ll find out when the full game is released later this year, right? 

Byte sized review: D-Link AX1500 Mesh system M15

D-Link’s AX1500 mesh system in its natural habitat: The suburban home.

If you need a wi-fi mesh system that will extend your home’s wireless signal, D-Link’s AX1500 mesh system M15 is well worth a look.

I’ve used several D-Link wi-fi extenders in the past and found them useful in expanding weak wi-fi around a house.

Like D-Link’s other mesh systems set up with the AX1500 mesh system is pretty simple. In the past, I’ve set up D-Link extenders using the company’s smartphone app then scanning the supplied barcode. This time, though, I decided to connect two of the units to my router via the WPS button.

If you decide to use the app, you’ll need to download the D-Link Eagle Pro AI app which the company says lets you manage your network more efficiently. D-Link recommends one unit for a house up to 210sqm, two units for a house up to 370sqm and three units for a house up to 500sqm me. My house is single-storey and around 226sqm so I used two units.

Within minutes, I had two AX1500 units set up and extending my current wi-fi network. The first was around 5m from the router, which is sited in the garage, but the signal had to pass through one door and two walls.

The second unit was sited perhaps at the farthermost point of the house: In the corner of the family room next to the kitchen. The wi-fi signal would have to pass through several walls to reach it.

Using Ookla Speedtest, I did two speed tests standing next to each D-Link unit (one using a server 7km from my house in Christchurch, New Zealand; the other in Culverden, which is 90km north of my home). I also did a test using a server in Sydney which was over 2000km from my house.

The first test from the unit placed in the family room came back with a download speed of 201Mbps and an upload of 73Mbps (ping of 3ms, jitter 5ms). The second test came back with a download speed of 227Mbps, 95Mbps upload (ping 6ms, jitter 1ms).

Speeds from the second unit (in the master bedroom and closest to the router) were 318Mbps up, 247Mbps down (7km away server, ping 6ms, jitter 1ms) and 224Mbps down, 240Mbps up (90km away server, ping 2ms, jitter 1ms). The server in Sydney returned speeds of 281Mbps down, 134Mbps up (pin 40ms, jitter 2ms).

With the ability to connect up to four units to your network, D-Link’s AX1500 mesh system is a good choice to expand home wi-fi networks. While I’m unable to say how it will perform in a two-storey home, where the signal will need to pass through multiple walls, for my 225sq single-storey home it worked a treat, allowing me to stream countless hours of online content, download games to my PC and consoles and do general internet stuff without skipping a beat.

D-Link’s AX1500 mesh system M15 (three pack) will cost you $NZ399.99 and $AU379.95. Thanks to D-Link Australia for the review units.

EAGLE PRO AI AX1500 M15-3PK Mesh System (3-Pack)
• Dual-band AX1500 Wi-Fi 6 delivers blazing fast connectivity with increased range and reliability

• Blanket whole home coverage up to 500sqm

• Up to 1200Mbps (5GHz) and 300Mbps (2.4GHz) speeds

• AI-based Mesh capability with compatible AI Wi-Fi Extender or Router

• AI-based Wi-Fi and Traffic Optimiser monitors and improves your network automatically

• Supports WPA, WPA2, and the latest WPA3 Wi-Fi Security

• Clean Network Initiative compliant for security and privacy

• Voice control compatibility with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa

Trek to Yomi: Way of the Samurai

I have to admit that Trek to Yomi wasn’t on my radar until I was contacted by the local PR team about possible preview codes. Heck, I didn’t even know the game existed until that point.

Well, two trailers later, Trek to Yomi is well and truly on my radar. My “yes please when can I play this game?” radar.

Set in feudal Japan, the game has a real Akira Kurosawa vibe to it and comes from game designer Leonard Menchari (Riot: Civil Unrest, The Eternal Castle), studio Flying Wild Hog and publisher Devolver Digital. Players will face off against myriad enemies across beautiful and terrifying lands, including spearmen, archers, riflemen and even beings believed to be nothing more than folk tales and Menchari has said on social media that the game is inspired by “old Japanese cinemas from the 1950s and 60s.”

You can watch the latest trailer here:

The game’s rather sparse website says it’s coming Spring 2022, which I’m assuming is the Northern Hemisphere, so that means, hopefully, it’ll be out in the three months or so, given the country I live in is heading into Autumn soon.

Colour me very, very intrigued.

Gran Turismo 7: Get your motor running, head out on the highway

The Gran Turismo series has a long pedigree with Playstation.

It’s long been a mainstay series that has pushed the boundaries on whatever PlayStation it has appeared on. This year, the franchise celebrates 25 years of the racing simulator appearing on Sony’s gaming machine.

Twenty five years longevity is a massive achievement so it’s fitting that Gran Turismo 7 is perhaps the series’ most impressive & accessible yet. It’s not perfect but it’s close.

Before you even start racing proper, there’s Music Rally, a surprisingly addictive mini-racing game where you race around a track, against the clock, while a musical soundtrack plays in the background. The timer counts down in the beat to the music with Music Rally kicking off with Hooked on Classics 1 & 2 (performed by Royal London Philharmonic Orchestra, an album I actually own on vinyl), blasting from your speakers while you drive a Porsche 356 Speedster ’56. It’s insane.

Every time you pass through a checkpoint the crowd cheers & claps and time is added to the clock. Race ends when the song finishes. Once you run out of time, you can watch the replay. While watching the replay, I realized I gave a fellow competitor driving a Mazda MX5 a good ole shunt in the rear while rounding a corner!

After Music Rally comes the controls set up section. You can pick from three control schemes. Traditional, which uses the left stick to steer; Using the D-pad or using the PS5 controller’s motion controls where you tilt the controller. This was my preferred control scheme. I don’t have a steering wheel and pedal set up so using holding the controller like you were gripping a steering wheel just felt natural.

I need to talk about the Dualsense controller’s motion controls some more.

Frankly, it is brilliant and adds a level of immersion to a driving game that I’ve not experiences before. I found myself instinctively holding my controller in front of me, arms outstretched, hands gripping the controller like it was an actual steering wheel. As I turned my hands into each corner, I actually also found my body position shifting slightly, mirroring the position of my hands. I hate using the word game-changer – I cringe every time I see it and every time I use it – but honestly, the motion controls with GT7 is just that: A game changer.

Accelerate and braking is controller by the R2 and L2 buttons, respectively, R1 changes your view and other buttons control various other functions. You can have as many or as few driver assists as you like, with difficulty starting at beginner, which has every assist activated, to expert which has every assist off. I’m not a seasoned Gran Turismo professional so I stuck with intermediate difficulty but turned braking assist off.

Graphically, Gran Turismo 7 comes with Performance mode, which targets 60 frames per second at a native 4K, and Ray Tracing mode, which isn’t full ray tracing: It’s just implemented in race replays, demo scenes and the ‘scapes photography mode.

I stuck with performance mode as quite frankly GT7 looks so freaken good that I didn’t miss the ray traced features.

Perhaps one of the most impressive features of GT7 graphically is the often at times simply mind-blowingly stunning time of day cycle, especially when the sun is starting to set in the distance and the landscape is bathed in the orange glow of the disappearing sun.

As is the way with Gran Turismo, your road to greatness starts at the bottom, giving you just enough entry credits to buy a used car from the local car dealership.

Cars range from the Honda Fit Hybrid and Maxda Demio XD to Subaru Impreza WRX Type E to a Lamborghini Murcielago LP 640 – but, sadly, you only have 20,000 credits so you’re restricted to the Fit, Demio or a Toyota Aqua S. I went with the 2014 Honda Fit Hybrid.

Then there is the Car Cafe, a seemingly strange destination at first but it soon turns out to be a rather interesting location. Owner of the Car Cafe, Luca, issues you challenges through “menus”. It’s all very high brow, and the challenges generally task you with completing a series of races in order to collect, say, three European classic cars or three Japanese compact cars by placing in the top three. The cars are the prize for winning the series (if you can’t be arsed racing you can always just buy the car, of course).

The first race I took part in was the Sunday Cup at Northern Isle Speedway: I won a zippy Mazda Demio. In my second race, I won an impressive Toyota Aqua (I genuinely think the Aqua is a neat week car).

My first car collection was obtained, I’d completed the first “menu” and I was sold on Luca and his Car Cafe.

With Gran Turismo 7, the basic fundamentals haven’t changed: The more races you compete in, the more credits you earn, the more of “locations” you unlock, the more cars you can buy.

Before too long you’ll be putting in the miles obtaining a new category licence, you’ll be taking photos at the ‘scapes photo centre, you’ll be upgrading forks, brakes and engines to eek as much performance as you can from your current pride and joy and you’ll be … pressing your nose against the glass at Brand Central as you drool over the luxury cars that will take you most likely a lifetime to afford (or hours and hours and hours of driving)!

Gran Turismo 7’s music is a strange mix, too. at times that almost clash with each other. It’s a real eclectic mix with races having at times quite poppy, modern tunes while menus have more orchestral scores, with grand pianos and saxophones. The soundtrack selection is quite odd at times and forgettable, to be honest.

One thing I didn’t like was that races were the old rolling start – and you’re always at the back. Why, oh why, do racing games insist on doing this? Why place me last out of 12 cars and force me to fight my way through to the front of the pack? I’m not Lewis Hamilton, for goodness sake.

I lost count of the number of times in my career that I busted a gut in, say, my little Citroen Clio, screeching around corners on tracks like Alsace, the occassional touch of bumpers, trying to make up ground lost by starting last to end up 4th by a lick of paint.

There’s definitely a grind with Gran Turismo 7, though, the more you progress but that has always been the way with the series: You have to put in serious time tuning, practicing and racing to achieve greatness.

That said, there is an incredible amount of depth here, there’s so much minute detail that dyed in the wool car afficionados will be positively salivating as they tune their race cars to the nth degree just to gain that crucial extra horsepower. It’s not a racing game, remember, it’s a driving simulator.

GT7 also has a rather splendid photo mode and all of the images with this review were captured with it. I’m especially fond of the ‘scapes photo mode which lets you place cars into images of iconic world location. The Mini and Corvette were photographed in front of the New Zealand South Island’s stunning geography, including Lake Pukaki.

It’s inevitable that Gran Turismo 7 will get comparisons to the Forza Horizons series – that’s just what some gamers do, right: Compare a game on one platform with a similar one on the opposition platform.

For me, though, I’d liken the Gran Turismo series to an avid collector with a stable of classic cars that they polish on weekends and take out for Sunday outings. Forza Horizons 5 is the young, enthusiastic racer with the Subaru Imprezza with lowered suspension who loves nothing more than cruising as fast as they can on a warm Summer’s night, tunes blasting from the eight-speaker Bose sound system. Both games are brilliant in their own right but both appeal to very different audiences.

I’ve yet to check out the multiplayer – the servers weren’t online yet – and the game seems to have micro-transactions embedded in it as I noticed a few pop ups when the game’s roulette-style reward system was in play that linked to the PlayStation Store, clearly allowing players to top up their in-game credits balance with real-world money. Frankly, I wish games would just stop this micro-transactions bollocks.

Twenty five years on, Gran Turismo is still a cracker driving game and it’s rather fitting that Polyphony Digital’s latest creation is such a finely tuned experience that just sings on the PlayStation 5.

Disco Elysium The Final Cut (Nintendo Switch)

Disco Elysium, a video game based off a table top role playing game, is complex, dark, confronting, sad – and at times pretentious – but you know what? I love it.

The game opens with main character Harrier “Harry” du Bois (we only learn his name as the game progresses, however) waking in a disheveled room at The Whistling Rag Inn hotel room, hungover and with no memory of what came before. He’s also stark naked and hungover.

Du Bois has no idea who he is or what he does and the first few moments task you with finding your missing shoe (a broken window is a clue to its whereabouts), and getting dressed. As the game progresses, du Bois learns he is a detective in the Revachol police – and his gun and badge are also missing – and he must solve the mystery surrounding the body hanging from a tree in the vacant land behind The Whistling Rag Inn set amid political turmoil in a dystopian city ravaged by a war decades earlier.

The game was first released in 2020 and the The Final Cut brings fully voiced characters and a wealth of additional content and it’s a game that will polarise gamers with its unique lead character skill set, heavy dialogue and frequent internal monologues where du Boir debates with his own psyche on his place in the world.

Played from a top-down isometric perspective and set in the poor district of Martinaise in the city of Revachol, du Bois meets Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi – perhaps the stand out character in the game for me – who informs him they have been assigned to investigate the hanging man. What follows is exploration, investigation and discussion – often at times quite deep and confronting – of Martinaise as du Bois battles with himself to solve the case and the political machinations working behind the scenes to protect those responsible for the crime.

My first game ended rather prematurely, without much investigation, after du Bois struggled mentally with the hard time he was getting from a drug-addict, foul-mouth youth called Cuno, who was playing in the yard where the hanging took place. Du Bois’s morale took a massive hit and he just gave up on life. Fade to black. Reload last save point.

I learned quickly that saving often is the key here as I died two or three more times in the next hour or so, once after kicking a furnace in a building and suffering a heart attack.

At its heart, Disco Elysium is all about asking the right questions of people and knowing when to push further and when to back off. There’s no combat and the topics are confronting, dealing with subjects like sex, drugs and racism. At times it’s an uncomfortable ride.

The interrogations of inhabitants can get quite complex, too, and I think that is what hooked me: Random thoughts reveal loose threads that can be pulled to slowly reveal the truth about what happened in Martinaise.

There’s also a lot to unpack, too, as you delve deeper & deeper into the story: I think I’ve got about 10 active quests at the moment, many of them picked up from side characters, ranging from opening the door to an apartment for a shady union boss (no questions asked) and buying a pair of label pants from the foul mouthed kid to finding the missing husband of a woman and who called the police about the hanging.

Handily, your journal logs every task you’ve picked up and and certain things can only happen on certain days, such as the controls to the dock that crosses the river won’t be fixed until Wednesday.

After 9pm every night, Harry can also go back to his hotel room to sleep (or he can continue investigating the city) – provided he has paid the manager of the hotel the required amount of money for the night earlier in the day. Money can be found on the streets or gained by recycling bottles at one of the local stores.

Disco Elysium has an interesting – and rather complex – skill tree and depending on the direction conversations go, a different thought process or skill might suddenly jump into the conversation. Key skills like intellect, psyche, physique and motorics have sub-skills that can often steer a line of questioning, sometimes not always with a good outcome. I did find the skill tree complex but the more I played, the more I was drawn into the world of Disco Elysium.

Visually, Disco Elysium has a real painterly graphic style to it, which is quite stunning at times. It also has a great soundtrack with specific tracks kicking in depending on the location you are visiting.

Technically, I noticed the odd slow from time to time while exploring Martinaise – I’m sure the poor wee Switch is bound to be pushed to the limits with Disco Elysium – but it was nothing major and when I started playing load times between locations were extremely long but a recent update has cut load times dramatically, almost instantaneous in some cases.

I loved Disco Elysium and I am being drawn more and more into the adventures of troubled detective Harrier “Harry” du Bois and Kit Kitsuragi, who is a calming and measured voice in all the chaos. Yes, it’s pretentious at times & perhaps a little too clever for its own good at others, but I loved it. It’s perfect for the Switch, too.

Something just clicked with me over Disco Elysium and if you asked me what it was exactly, I’m not really sure I could put my finger on it but I think it’s a number of factors combined. I’m really just adoring the intriguing story line, a lead character who has flaws, and how what appears to be a simple conversation can suddenly lead you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

Disco Elysium is one of the most intriguing and fascinating games I have played in a very, very long time.

Horizon Forbidden West (PS5 version)

It’s said that the second album is often the most difficult but with Horizon Forbidden West, Guerilla has built on the foundations of its original creation and created a sequel worth playing.

Taking place six months after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy must once again, save the earth from a catastrophic threat by re-activating Gaia, the powerful AI that helped her defeat the ruthless Hades in the first game.

I played Forbidden West on the PlayStation 5 and diving into the settings menu sees the PS5 version offering two key graphics modes: Favour Performance and Favour Resolution.

Performance provides a higher frame rate but a lower resolution (1800p upscaling to 4K) while resolution runs at 4K but at a lower frame rate (30FPS). I played most of the game on performance mode, wanting better performance given the game’s constant combat, but it looks damn fine in both modes to my untrained eyes. Frame rates in performance mode seemed pretty rock solid, too.

Central to the Horizon series is the machines that wander the game world, a veritable zoo of robot animals bellowing flame, bellies full of flammable fuel and mouths full of razor-sharp teeth.

This time around, though, Aloy not only has to contend with a menagerie of new machines, she also has to content with Regatta, a rebel Tenakth warrior who has tamed the machines and seeks revenge on her people. There is also a new group of enemies that present a much stronger human challenge than Aloy has ever faced before.

The Forbidden West is a big world with desert plains, snowy mountains, rivers & lakes & lush forests, and the environments really are diverse. It’s a land littered with the metallic corpses of human tanks and enemy machines from the events of the first game.

Guerilla says it has listened to player feedback and I believe them here. The climbing mechanic feels much improved over the original game and the narrative is much tighter this time around. Voice acting, too, is more natural, especially for the main ensemble cast, and the visuals, especially underwater, are quite honestly wonderful. Character facial animations are some of the best I have seen in a long time, with highly expressive faces.

One thing Guerilla hasn’t done is change the fundamentals with Forbidden West: Aloy still creeps through lush forests and decaying buildings, hiding in shoulder high grass, avoiding  patrolling monsters but it all takes place in a much, much bigger and more detailed world than that of Zero Dawn, which already was impressive on the PlayStation 4.

I’m just over 30 hours in Horizon Forbidden West so I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on things and I have to say it has captured my attention much more than the original ever did, which I just didn’t gel with. It’s great to see that Forbidden West has improved on Zero Dawn – but it’s not without its faults.

Taken using Horizon Forbidden West’s photo mode.

As in the first game, Aloy scans machines for weak point points using a device called a focus. Machines might have an un-shielded component that can be sheared off and used against it or a component that she needs to complete a weapon build.

There are now hub villages where Aloy can stock up on resources, upgrade weapons using work benches, get side quests (like collecting the ingredients for a chef’s famous stew) or meet up with old friends. She also has a much larger skill tree that in the original game which can be upgraded to improve things like her hunting, stealthiness and combat prowess.

Aloy also has some new gadgets this time to help in her quest to save humanity: The pullcaster will not only let Aloy reach high vantage points but lets her pull open vent covers or drag crates that can be used to access facilities and buildings. She has an arm-fitted sail that lets her glide from high points or from a tall structure onto a tall neck. It’s a nice way to quickly descend from a mountain top and you’re able to cover a fair bit of ground this way.

In more than 28 hours with Forbidden West (which is seemingly only around 25% of the game’s overall completion), I have collected three key components of Gaia, defeated countless rebels and machines, traipsed through the sandstorm-ravaged remains of Las Vegas, swum in crystal clear waters, ascended high peaks and recruited new team mates to help the fight.

So far I’ve completed 12 main quests, three side quest, killed 189 machines killed (91 by critical strikes), overrode four machines (mainly chargers), killed 100 human kills, collected two relics from ruins, lit 78 campfires (I like to save often), ate 437 medicinal berries and obtained 20 legendary items, including all four special gear items.

I climbed tall necks, took on giant machines, saved some miners from certain death and wander countless kms by foot because I forgot to override a charger every now and then.

OK, criticisms.

I felt at times the game world just had too much stuff to do outside the main quests. This is something that all open-world games seem to suffer these days and I think at times Forbidden West suffers from it, too. Pull up the game map and there is almost a bewilderingly huge amount of icons dotting the landscape of things to find: It often became a mass of campfire icons, question marks indicating unexplored features, rebel camps to clear out and undiscovered machine grazing grounds.

Talking of rebel camps, I honestly couldn’t be bothered clearing out the rebel camps as it didn’t really seem to make much difference to the main quests – and fighting the human enemies most of the times was just, well, not fun.

I also felt that at times the game fell into the tried-and-true video game tropes space and I encountered the odd graphical glitch, too. Nothing major but enough to notice. Generally it was pieces of buildings that were missing as Aloy approached the structure then suddenly loaded into view when she got close enough. The HDR also did weird things from time to time, especially when I transitioned from the map screen back to the game, with all the game particles popping a brilliant white before settling down.

Taken using Horizon Forbidden West’s photo mode.

I’d also suggest playing on normal or above difficult as testing it out on Easy mode for a bit proved no challenge at all, even when facing against some of the most fearsome machines. If you want a challenge, stick with the higher difficulty levels.

Horizon Forbidden West builds on the solid foundations laid by Zero Dawn and while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, this sequel gives us a more expansive world and a much stronger narrative. I have enjoyed my time with it immensely and highly recommend it.

Horizon Forbidden West is also a technical showcase for what Sony’s PlayStation 5 is capable of with a truly talent development team.

What a time to be a gamer, eh?

A big thanks to PlayStation NZ PR for the early game code.

Taken using Horizon Forbidden West photo mode.