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Game Review: Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth

Many fantasy RPGs use the medieval era as a backdrop or inspiration to build their worlds: think The Witcher, Dragon Age, Divinity, Dark Souls. But even without the dragons, magic, witches and warlocks, there is something inherently fascinating about the era – it was, after all, a dangerous time rife with political intricacies, brutal wars and religious dogma; a time of towering castles, jousting knights and tyrannical kings.

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Enter The Pillars of the Earth, a story-driven point-and-click game set in 12th-century England. Based on the critically acclaimed 1989 novel by Welsh author Ken Follett, the game is divided into three books spanning 21 chapters and revolves around several characters, whose fates and lives are intertwined around the town of Kingsbridge. There’s Tom Builder, the mason whose life’s dream is to build a grand cathedral that will stand the test of time; Philip, a kind abbey prior who inadvertently gets dragged into a war involving two English lords; Jack, a young outlaw who grew up in the forest with his mother; Lady Aliena, a disgraced noblewoman who finds love in a most unexpected place; as well as a whole host of colourful, secondary characters.

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The world of Kingsbridge is one of upheaval and strife from the get-go. The country is in the middle of a war after the death of King Henry I, as two opposing factions vie for the crown – and the characters you play will all be embroiled in it one way or another. You start the game as Tom Builder, leading your family through the woods to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Your wife is pregnant, it’s the middle of a harsh winter, and you’re low on food and supplies. As things go, your wife dies in childbirth, and out of grief, you abandon your baby in the woods. Yep, this game pulls no punches – and this is just a small taster of what to expect in the following chapters.

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The real ‘star’ of the story, however, isn’t in its characters (although they are certainly unique and rich, with multiple layers). It is in the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral and what it represents. Ken Follet himself in interviews has said that his inspiration for the novel came from his fascination of medieval communities and their obsession with church-building. In medieval England, building a large and beautiful cathedral was seen as an everlasting monument to God, a way for them to make meaning of their lives and show their religious devotion. But at the same time, the church itself was a place rife with corruption, where bishops plotted to murder. Playing the game, I felt as if the characters are there to tell the story of the cathedral, rather than the other way around. Characters would live and die – but the Cathedral, despite being destroyed and rebuilt time and time again, would endure; the task of building it taken over by future builders. All this is beautifully brought to life with hand-painted portraits, each bursting with detail that makes each scene seem alive.

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That being said, TPoTE is not for everyone. The pace is extremely slow, and there aren’t a lot of climatic moments – it’s really more like reading a historical novel than playing a game, really. There isn’t much to do apart from interacting with objects. Your choices are not that important when it comes to the overarching narrative, but they do matter in relation to the fates of several characters and whether they live or die. You don’t get to solve puzzles other than a few easy ones which have more to do with using items in your inventory to interact with certain things on the screen than actually cracking your brain. And of course, once you’ve finished the game, there is very little replay value. Still, it offers good value — I completed mine in 12 hours, and I since I bought it on sale on Steam for RM15, I can’t complain.

Rating: 6.5/10

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Let’s Talk About Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: What Could Have Been A Great Game

I rarely buy games when they first come out. 

Previously, it was because I didn’t have a gaming device powerful enough to run them. But even after buying a new gaming laptop last year, I’ve only gotten older titles, because: 

  • they’re much cheaper, and 
  • if you haven’t played them before, what does it matter if they’re ‘old’ or new? 

Assassin’s Creed: Origins was one of the first games I played on my new laptop, since Steam had a sale. After that, I was hooked. I bought Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey as soon as I finished Origins, and I enjoyed it as much as the first. So when AC: Valhalla was released in November 2020, I was thrilled and bought it immediately; because unlike players who had waited for years for the new game, my AC journey felt continuous, so to speak. 

While I wouldn’t say I regret forking out RM200 for it, I can now understand, at least in part, why many players caution against buying games right off the shelves, especially if they’re from Ubisoft (apparently the company gets a lot of criticism from the gaming community due to lack of quality, bad business practices, etc. I can’t say for sure because I don’t play enough of their games to comment). But personally, comparing my experience playing this latest game versus Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla is definitely a ‘downgrade’, in terms of overall story and gameplay. And the BUGS. Oh, god, the bugs. More on this later. 

In previous installments, we played a righteous Medjay in Egypt, and a half-god mercenary with questionable morals, fighting for glory and riches in ancient Greece. This time around, we follow Eivor the Wolf-Kissed, a fierce Viking raider whose sole loyalty is to her clan and people (Like in Odyssey, you can choose between a male or female character. I chose to play a female). 

The story kicks off in the fjords of Norway, where a young Eivor watches as her entire family is slaughtered in a brutal attack by a rival clan. Saved by her friend Sigurd, whom she later calls brother, she is raised as a warrior of the Raven Clan, and exerts revenge on the leader of the rival clan who murdered her parents years ago. Returning triumphant, Eivor and Sigurd are shocked to learn that their father the jarl has yielded to King Harald, who intends to unite all the scattered clans of Norway under his banner. Refusing to live under another’s rule, the siblings renounce their father and board their longboats, seeking fame, glory and fortune on Anglo-Saxon shores, ie Britain. With no allies and very little influence in a new and unfamiliar land, Eivor must help her clan forge alliances and ensure a stable future. Along the way, however, she encounters a mysterious Order, whose influence seems to stretch all across Britania. And for some reason, they seem keenly interested in Sigurd… 

STORY AND CHARACTERS

When I played Odyssey for the first time, I didn’t like the protagonist, Kassandra. As a ruthless mercenary who only cared for money, she was so different from Origin’s Bayek of Siwa, who was a protector of the people and saviour to the oppressed. Eventually, though, she kind of grew on me. 

Image: Ubisoft

Valhalla’s Eivor is a different character altogether. She is rash, quick to anger and her solution for everything seems to be to rush headlong into a brawl. Fists first, questions later. But true to the Viking Code, she is also courageous, disciplined and places honour and loyalty above all else. Throughout the course of the game, she matures into a stronger leader, one who is more level-headed, takes advice, and can make difficult decisions in order to secure the future of her people.  So even though initially, like Kassandra, I did not like the character, she kind of grew on me too.

Most of the other characters in Valhalla are well-fleshed out. I really enjoyed the story arcs where players have to forge alliances, as you’ll get to meet some pretty interesting characters inspired by real life historical figures, such as Alfred the Great of Wessex (a king who led his people against Norse invaders) and Ragnar Lothbrok (a legendary Viking warrior who was called the scourge of England and France). Narratives are rich in Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture, and you’ll learn more about the dynamics between these two groups and how they struggled to live alongside each other during the Danish conquest of England; the political intrigue, the power struggles, the plots and the scandals. 

Of course, this being an AC Valhalla game, the Isu – the technologically advanced alien race that existed millennia before humans came to be – will also factor into parts of the story, but personally, I find the conquest of England arcs to be more interesting. 

As with previous instalments, players will also take a deep dive into mythology, and battle a mythical beast (in Odyssey it was Medusa/the Minotaur). There’s a segment where you get to play as Odin and explore the fictional realms of Asgard and Jotunheim.

**PS: I find Sigurd’s character infuriating, especially after a certain point in the story. Dude just seems like an asshole lol. 

GRAPHICS AND SETTING

Image: Ubisoft

No matter what you say about Ubisoft, one thing you can’t accuse them of is a lack of detail in the worlds that they create. Valhalla has plenty of breathtaking scenery, from the icy fjords of Norway with its sparkling peaks and colourful auroras, to the lush greenery and gentle woods of England, ripe to bursting with fertile farmland and rivers bubbling with fish. Asgard is absolutely stunning and includes everything you see and read about in mythology: the rainbow light bridge, the gigantic tree of life Ymir, the wondrous feast halls filled with mead and dancing. Granted, the setting doesn’t feel as culturally diverse compared to Origins and Odyssey (there’s a part of the story where you’ll have to travel to Vinland though), but it’s still immersive and a joy to look at. That being said, the map is huge and fast travel points are few and far between, which can make travelling from point to point cumbersome and boring, since the landscape doesn’t change much. 

GAMEPLAY

AC Valhalla largely follows the formula of its predecessors, with a few additions. Some of them are improvements; others feel somewhat clunky and awkward. I’ll start off with the ones I like. 

Raiding. Unlike other AC titles, which rely largely on stealth, Valhalla switches it up with raids. You travel around on a longboat for most of the game, since there are many rivers around England, and whenever you spot an enemy encampment or a monastery, you can blow a blast on your horn to have your crew raid the place and rob it of its treasures. This means dashing in to hack and slash your enemies, true blue Viking style. You can still go the stealth route if you want, but I personally find raiding much more fun. 

Social Blending. The game brings back the social blending aspect where you can blend into a crowd by hiding amongst people, pretending to do certain tasks like weaving or grinding, sitting on a bench, etc. It’s a blast from the past for those who have played older games like Assassin’s Creed 3. 

Mini Games. There are several mini games that you can play as Eivor, including drinking contests, Flyting (where you test your rhyming skills and gain Charisma points, which are required to access certain points on the map) and Orlog, a dice game. I find these mini games good for making more coin, and they’re a welcome distraction from the main story. 

Building your Settlement. When Eivor and co first arrive in England, you start off with just a couple of buildings, which you can upgrade to expand your village. You do this by gathering resources, which you get from raiding. Upgrading shops and buildings gives access to better equipment and items. 

Fishing and Hunting. Another nice distraction if you want to take a break from the story: you can basically fish in the river or hunt for animals and gather items in exchange for runes and equipment. 

Different kinds of enemies. There are many different enemy classes, each with their own attack style and specialties. If you’re playing for combat, then this will provide a good challenge.

Raiding a monastery for that sweet, sweet loot. Image: Ubisoft

Now for the ones I don’t like: 

Puzzles. Some of the puzzles are not intuitively designed. For example, sometimes you get obstacles which you’ll have to blow apart in order to get to a certain treasure. In most cases, there will be an explosive pot around that you can hurl at the obstacle, but at other times, you’ll have to shoot at something in order to clear it. The game doesn’t tell you which is which. There were times I ran around in circles for an hour trying to find a pot, only to look up a walkthrough and find out that I had to shoot something instead. 

I also hate the Anomaly puzzles with a passion. They’re puzzles that you can complete to find out more about the Isu, but boy oh boy. There’s a lot of repetitive jumping and climbing involved, plus puzzle combinations that no average person could have figured out on their own without looking at a walkthrough. 

Synin. Your raven is basically useless. It can’t attack enemies like how Kassandra’s eagle could do. I also felt like it was not as good as locating items, as compared to previous AC games. Some people actually prefer it this way, because they say it makes the game less “hand hold-y”.

BUGS 

I’ve dedicated a special section to this because the bugs in AC Valhalla are an absolute nightmare and makes the game almost unplayable. Bugs in a new game are normal, but Valhalla is on a whole new level. Makes one wonder why Ubisoft would even release it in the first place if they had this many issues … kind of solidifies the impression that they’re this money-grubbing company lol.

I don’t mind bugs if they’re funny, but not when they make the game unplayable.

For me, my problems started after they released this Christmas special event called Yuletide. It basically involves a party in your village, with drinking and archery contests, games and whatnot. What happened was that it broke my game: after participating in one of the drinking matches, my character would wake up drunk, even after reloading, and even when I wasn’t in my own settlement. The drunkenness would wear off after a bit, but the woozy, out-of-focus screen was annoying to look at, and the character wasn’t able to jump into action right off the bat. 

What really annoyed me, though, was when my fast travel broke. I could not fast travel AT ALL. Every time I did, my character would remain stuck in place, and I’d have to reload. Apparently this is a known issue and happens frequently to other players, because the game registers that you’re still in a raid or battle, even if you’re not. Now, if you know AC games, you’ll know that most of the time, the map is massive. I ended up travelling to each region on horseback. Sometimes a waypoint would be 6,000 metres away from my settlement, and I’d spend a full 15 minutes just riding my way across the landscape. This isn’t Death Stranding FFS.

Speaking of waypoints, some waypoints would not show up where they were supposed to be, cutscenes wouldn’t trigger, and NPCs that were supposed to be there to further the story did not appear. I’ve also had instances where my raiders turned into their base models (grey, faceless ones that looked like nuns), floated off the boat at the raid command, and Eivor would get stuck and die out of nowhere. Pretty creepy. 

I think they recently fixed the fast travel issue with a patch, and I was able to fast travel again and complete the main story. I got stuck in the Asgard arc, though, as it refused to let me battle with the mythical monster – the screen gets stuck and there’s nothing I can do except reload. After reloading for the umpteenth time, I gave up and uninstalled the game. So no 100% completion for me this time, which as a completionist, is frustrating. 

So in conclusion, bugs galore. If you still haven’t purchased the game, I suggest waiting for a few more months so that they can iron out all the kinks. Else, be prepared to want to smash your computer lol. It’s disappointing, as it could have been a great game otherwise. Now, it’s just …. Good (?). Considering the fact that there is so much content and that I only paid RM200 for it, I’d still say it was worth the purchase. 

It’s obvious Ubisoft has tried to inject a breath of fresh air into the game by adding certain mechanics, but it still feels very safe and formulaic somehow. Now that I’ve played three in a row with a similar format, I don’t think I would enjoy it as much if they came out with another AC title that plays the same way. If the franchise is to continue thriving, perhaps it’s time for Ubisoft to relook at what the series will be like moving forward.

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Review: The New Harry Potter Mobile Game – A Money-Grubbing Disappointment

I consider myself a massive Potterhead, so when I got wind that they were releasing a new mobile game called Harry Potter: A Hogwarts Mystery I was super psyched. The trailer looked pretty awesome as well:

…. they made it look more interesting than it actually is.

Gameplay-wise, at least.

Summary: 

You play a 1st year starting out at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The events unfold somewhere between the fall of Voldemort and Harry Potter attending school (yeah, you don’t actually meet Harry and his friends – but the school teachers are all there, as are a few main characters in the books like Nymphadora Tonks and Bill Weasley).

Your character carries baggage upon arriving, as the story goes that you are searching for your missing brother, whom everyone says went mad looking for the Cursed Vaults. Determined to find out the truth whilst proving your worth, you set out on your very own Hogwarts adventure…

So this is me.. or my alter ego, ‘Lynx Athena’. Yeahhhhh I would have named myself that irl if I could lol judge me all you want. 😀

I’ve always felt that if I were to go to Hogwarts for real, I’d be a Ravenclaw, but for some reason the Sorting Hat on Pottermore put me into Gryffindor (twice, on two accounts) so I wanted to stay true to that.

The game allows you to choose your own house… which took away the whole sorting hat ‘suspense’. Character appearance customisations are limited until later in the game.

Now here comes the disappointing part: gameplay. 

I was expecting a more open, MMORPG experience where you can walk around and explore Hogwarts. Instead, we get a very linear gameplay, where you basically complete a ‘story’ by … wait for it…. tapping. Like one of those Kim K games. And waiting for energy to fill. Which requires no skill whatsoever.

Major. Downer. 

Granted, some of the stories and events do give you choices to pick from which will grant you attributes (Courage, Empathy, Knowledge) which will further give you better choices in future events, but then comes the next infuriating part – the wait itself.

Unlike games where you can watch ads to refill your energy, HP: AHM has NONE. You’re basically forced to buy gems, or wait a really, really, really long time. The gems are not in small amounts either eg 55 gems for 10 energy wtf.

Also, when you’re doing a major story, you’re not allowed to ‘leave’ the event to go explore or do other stuff – you’re basically FORCED to wait it out. WHAT?

The story itself is pretty interesting, but having to wait for so long takes away from the immersion. Its obvious the developers are forcing players to buy energy – it’s either that or progress the story by playing for 10 minutes and waiting 8 hours to complete an entire event. I also really hated the fact that after waiting for the energy to fill, you also have to WAIT BETWEEN EVENTS WTF. As I’m writing this, I have to wait three hours in order for the next event to be available. So a full energy bar is wasted, coz I don’t have anything else that I can do during this waiting time. They should call it Harry Potter: A Waiting Game. 

That being said, the game’s few redeeming qualities, including a beautiful design that remains true to the movies. I feel like players will get bored of this quickly though. There is only so much detail you can look at before you get bored and uninstall this forever.

As of now, I’m keeping the game because I’m curious to know the story, but with it panning out at a snail’s pace, I doubt I’ll have it around for long. Which is really disappointing, seeing that I was so excited as to how they finally have some new Hogwarts material after so many years. I understand it’s free, but it would have been nice if the app wasn’t such a blatant money grubbing attempt on Harry Potter fans.

Overall: 2/5 – purely from the story and graphics. I have no nice things to say about the gameplay, other than the ‘story’ part where they give you choices to pick.