Fans of the nasty yet engrossing Dark Souls games had been forced to stick with last-gen systems. But now PS4 players get a taste of the action, thanks to the release of Bloodborne, which gives the franchise a new-gen makeover while leaving the aspects that made it so appealing intact.
Sony devotees also get to continue playing out their 80s cop show fantasies in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, which is available on the PS4, PS3 and Vita. Xbox One owners should be jealous, but at least they’ve got the brilliant, mesmerizing exclusive Ori and the Blind Forest to chew on. There’s also the new strategy game, Code Name S.T.E.A.M., to ply 3DS owners.
(PS4, $60, Mature)
From Software, the devious minds behind the Dark Souls games, deliver the spiritual successor to that franchise to the PS4. The same trappings are all there — a darkly gothic setting, adversarial multiplayer that lets cruel players screw with the progress of others, scarce resources and brutal deaths lurking around every corner. The setting is a medieval fantasy realm in which the populace has transformed into beasts by a rampant virus.
Just as in the Dark Souls games, progress is an arduous and frustrating grind. You’re slaughtered by seemingly invulnerable enemies, then forced to backtrack to gather the resources, abilities it will take to advance. Only masochists need apply. Unrelentingly brutal, Bloodborne throws its nastiest stuff at you from the beginning, forcing you to adapt to its vicious flow or tap out and move on. Those who stick with it are rewarded with a thrilling sense of accomplishment, proving their mettle and unspinning the fascinating, twist-filled story. While last year’s Lords of the Fallen trod similar ground and satisfied Dark Souls fans, it feels like just a practice session compared to the main event that is Bloodborne.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M.
(3DS, $40, Teen)
Buy Code Name S.T.E.A.M. on Amazon here
Fire Emblem developer Intelligent Systems brings its affinity for turn-based strategy to an alternate-history steampunk setting. A mixture of historical and literary figures, including Abe Lincoln, John Henry, the Cowardly Lion and Tom Sawyer, discover an alien invasion and band together to form Strike Team Eliminating the Enemy Menace. Taking cues from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the action unfolds from an isometric point of view, as you and the aliens jockey for cover positions and get the jump on each other, seizing resources and making ambushes.
Each movement and shot fired uses up a steam gage at the bottom of the screen, which you need to monitor carefully because using it all up without thinking your move through is a good way to end up out in the open, exposed to annihilation. Levels play out as intense game of cat-and-mouse, rewarding precision and planning over raw firepower. Relentless enemy attacks keep you on your toes, with surprise reinforcements popping up at inopportune times to stress you out. The only drawback to the structure is unskippable enemy movements, which grind the game to a halt as you wait for your opponents to maneuver. It’s a sign of faulty design when you have to have another game handy to play as you wait for your own game to allow you to play. There is enough good in the game to make it worth playing despite its slowness, so fans of strategy should give it a shot.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
(PS4, PS3, Vita, $15, Mature)
A mixture of Grand Theft Auto-style ultraviolence, 1980s cop shows and grisly humor, Hotline Miami has quickly established itself as one of the most talked-about indie franchises. Some of the game’s more sadistic moments have gotten the sequel banned in Australia, spurring the developer to encourage people to pirate the game. Those who live stateside and pay for it will find it well worth the $15. Unfolding from a top-down perspective, you send your thug through corridors, knocking out enemies with swinging doors, then picking up blunt objects and firearms to clear out the next room.
Quick, unexpected deaths are the norm, but rapid restarts minimize the frustration. It’s common to find yourself dying in the exact same way several times in a row in the span of seconds before finally thinking up the right course of action and advancing, only to have another comical death strike you down and send you back to the start. Once you get going, a fevered rhythm develops, making for an exhilarating experience that makes you feel like a true action movie badass. The game may not be much to look at, because of the way it embraces retro visuals, but is as much fun to play as just about any puzzle-based shooter.
Ori and the Blind Forest
(Xbox One, $20, Everyone)
Microsoft is hurting for well-executed Xbox One exclusives, and finds just that in this downloadable gem. The side-scrolling Metroidvania adventure plays out like Child of Light, Never Alone and Valiant Hearts, unspooling a fascinating story while challenging you with a string of interrelated environment-based puzzles. You play as an orphaned forest spirit out to save his devastated world from destruction, using mystical abilities such as wall-running and flame conjuring to survive. Clever level design makes you feel smart for tackling the challenges, while rarely throwing things in neutral with roadblocks that are too tough to handle.
Surprisingly emotional for a video game, there’s a sense of loss and nostalgia that flows through the somber but hopeful tale. The fascinating story unfolds layer by layer, hinting at depths that are revealed later on in the manner of a Hayao Miyazake anime. The design plays into the storytelling by rarely stopping things cold to dictate backstory, choosing instead to dole out background and plot points as you play. Of all the first-party Xbox One exclusives, Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the least heralded but most fascinating. Xbox One owners who don’t give this one a go are missing out.