From Russia With Love (1963) Review

Theme Song – Film number two of this epic franchise is composed by Lionel Bart, and sung by English crooner Matt Monro. Like its predecessor, Dr. No, this film is slightly different went it comes to the tune, in as much as the opening credits include an instrumental version of the song From Russia with Love without the vocals.

The song itself is decent – Matt Monro’s smooth, strong voice suiting the lyrics and tone of the song perfectly – performed by someone who, though very popular and highly regarded by his contemporaries at the height of his fame, I think it’s fair to say could be described as somewhat overlooked these days – 7/10.

The Film

Once again starring Sean Connery as James Bond, From Russia with Love see’s 007 dispatched to Turkey; his mission to gain possession of a Lektor decoding machine from the Russians. His assignment is complicated, however, by the presence of Soviet cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who claims to have fallen in love with Bond immediately upon seeing his file photo; an obvious honey trap, as both M and 007 himself recognise. Unfortunately for Bond, as the British have been trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to get their hands on a Lektor for many years now, they simply cannot pass up the opportunity, dangerous though it undoubtedly is.

Indeed, seeking revenge for the murder of Dr. No and the destruction of it’s Caribbean operations (as per the events of the first film), terrorist organisation Spectre has orchestrated the whole thing in an effort to eliminate 007, create tension between the British and the Russians, and, during the ensuing chaos, procure the aforementioned Lektor for themselves. With the plan decided and the wheels put into motion, the nefarious head of Spectre, known only as Number 1, puts Colonel Klebb, a former officer in the Russian counter intelligence service, in command of the operation.

It’s Klebb who recruits Romanova (who, it’s only fair to say, believes Klebb is still working for the Motherland) and muscular assassin Donald Grant (Robert Shaw) who, with his deadly garotte wire come wrist watch, are given the difficult task of killing 007. Unaware of the perils that await him, everyone’s favourite schhheeecret agent rendezvouses with station chief Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) in Istanbul, who swiftly proceeds to explain to Bond that he believes the mission is a waste of time and that, before he can act, he must wait for Romanova to contact him.

Despite all the different agendas at play, the beginning of the film really sets up the story nicely, re-introducing us to characters and actors who, even at this stage, were well-known to cinemagoers and would eventually become stalwarts of the franchise over the coming years; 007’s boss M (again played by Bernard Lee) Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). From Russia with Love also introduces us to Desmond Llewelyn as Q, a role he would go on to play for 36 years before his tragic death in 1999.

Whilst awaiting contact from Romanova, Kerim almost falls victim to assassination himself and thus decides its safest for both him and 007 to lay low for a while in the quietest, most secure location he can conceive: a gypsy camp. During their brief sojourn in the camp, Kerim’s would-be killers strike again, only to be foiled once again by a combination of Bond and Kerim’s gypsy allies. Shortly thereafter, once Bond has settled a dispute between two gypsy girls the only way he knows how – with his penis – and Kerim has murdered his hapless assailant, 007 finally meets Romanova: who’s, naturally, just chillin’ in his bed.

The two strangers waste no time getting down to business (giggity), unaware that Spectre are filming the whole thing in case they need to indulge in a spot of blackmail at any point, before thrashing out a plan to steal the Lektor and return it to good old Blighty which, rather fortuitously, goes off without a hitch. Or, at least, it appears to.

“I think my mouth is too big”.

You see, as they attempt to escape with their ill-gotten prize by rail, things take a turn for the worse and, for a few minutes, resemble Murder on the Orient Express, as Bond finds both Kerim and Russian agent Benz (the man who’d been caught tailing them after the trio successfully stole the Lektor and played by Peter Bayliss) dead in the former’s cabin; the cause of death appearing to be suicide (‘SPOILER’ ALERT – it’s not suicide). In actuality, Grant, who, for the last few minutes, has been impersonating the British security officer dispatched to liaise with 007, is the perpetrator of these not-so-mysterious deaths and after foolishly ordering red wine with fish (a sure sign of evil intent), captures Bond.

Brimming with confidence following his success, Grant commits the same faux pas that would shortly become a hallmark of the series, revealing the entirety of Spectre’s plan to a defenceless 007 (just shoot him!!!). This, as it always would, gives Bond the information he requires to complete his mission and, more importantly, the time he needs to concoct an escape plan; in this case, using the simple lure of gold sovereigns combined with a boobytrapped brief case to overcome his foe after a pretty brutal and intense fight which ends when Bond disposes of Grant using the latter’s own favourite finisher; the garotte come wrist watch.

With that particular obstacle out of the way, Bond and Romanova appropriate Grant’s escape plan, destroying a helicopter and squad of Spectre troops, in the process, thanks primarily to some conveniently placed oil drums and the apparent stupidity of their pursuers (seriously, every single henchman heads straight into the flames).

Upon hearing this news, an enraged Number 1 has Kronsteen executed via the rather amusing method of a poison-tipped shoe-blade, and gives Klebb one last chance to complete the mission.

Believing they’re safe, and comfortably ensconced within a well-appointed Venice hotel room, Bond and Romanova are attacked by the now desperate Klebb (disguised as a maid), who resorts to the fatal footwear demonstrated in the previous scene, after Bond relieves her of her gun. However, before she can really ‘stick the knife in’, as it were, Romanova shoots Klebb dead with her own pistol.

Mission accomplished! There’s just enough time for Bond and Romanova to take a romantic Gondola ride, with a bit of nookie thrown in for good measure, before the end credits begin to role accompanied by Matt Monro’s excellent soundtrack.

Bond didn’t get the point. (Pun intentional)


From Russia with Love’s most notable feature is perhaps the strength of its performances. Sean Connery is once again superb as main protagonist James Bond, bringing his trademark levity to the role with more amusing one liners and off-the-cuff remarks. More importantly, he’s aided by strong performances from the supporting cast – something Dr. No arguably lacks. Daniela Bianchi provides some glamour in the form of Bond’s love interest Tatiana Romanova (not the voice however; that was actually provided by Barbara Jefford), while Lotte Lenya puts in a strong performance as shrill, stern-faced Spectre agent Rosa Klebb. Though special mention must be made to Pedro Armendariz, as Bond’s womanising ally Kerim Bey, and Robert Shaw for his gritty portrayal of main heel Donald Grant, both of whom are excellent in their respective roles.

Personally, I would say From Russia with Love is a stronger overall film than its predecessor Dr. No. The plot is more rounded and realistic, telling a traditional espionage thriller with a characteristically tongue-in-cheek James Bond twist, while the characters are far more engaging.

It’s not quite as spectacular in terms of scenery and backdrop as the first film – a natural consequence of the change in setting from the sun-drenched beaches of the Caribbean to the historical cities of Istanbul and Venice – but we are at least treated to a picturesque train ride through the Balkans and (on an unrelated note) some pretty impressive action sequences.


I think it’s fair to say From Russia with Love looks a bit dated when viewed today, however, I actually think this is one of the stronger 007 flicks. Though some of the scenes might seem a little bit cheesy in comparison to the likes of the Bourne films, it does more than enough to keep the audience entertained throughout and is a brilliantly made and expertly shot film – 9/10.


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Dr. No (1962) Review

Dr No Main

Over the coming weeks and months, our brother, Richard, will be reviewing every (mainline) Bond film in chronological order. Enjoy!

Theme by John Barry – The first James Bond theme song is slightly different to all the others that followed in that it is essentially the original theme that would go on to be heard in the background of all official James Bond movies, and is not a song sung by a top selling musical artist of the time. Written and composed by Monty Norman & the legendary John Barry, the theme itself is undoubtedly one of the most iconic film tunes of all time.

8/10 (not so much for the music itself, but for the legend it helped to create)

The Film

So, onto the film itself.

Starring Sean Connery – the first man to don the tuxedo for the official film franchise – Dr No. is set amidst the stunningly beautiful scenery of Jamaica in the Caribbean, where Bond is sent on a mission to investigate the disappearance of a British MI6 station chief name Strangways, and whether this was linked to a joint operation he was conducting with the American CIA looking into the possible jamming of US rocket launches, from the area around a mysterious island known as Crab Key.

Dr No 2

The name’shhh Bond…Jameshhh Bond

Following the initial musical intro, the film begins with the aforementioned Strangways being shot dead by hitmen known as ‘The Three Blind Mice’, who then go on to murder Strangways’s secretary, who’s in the process of signalling London; this sudden loss of communication the event that prompts MI6 to assign 007 James Bond to investigate.

Our first glimpse of the man himself – and the first time we hear the famous line “my name is Bond…James Bond” – is in a casino; a place we would see 007 frequent a lot over the course of the franchise. In this scene, as in every other set in a casino, Bond is taking everyone to the cleaners, notably, in this case, a beautiful woman named Sylvia Trench (Eunice Grayson) – no prizes for guessing what happens afterwards: the first of what would become an insane amount of romantic if, shall we say a little pushy, trysts with stunningly hot women.

It’s a very gentile beginning in terms of pace. We’re introduced to various characters during the first half an hour or so: 007’s boss (the person simply known as M); Q (although, in this particular film, he’s referred to as Major Boothroyd), portrayed for the first and only time by Peter Burton – the role later, of course, defined by the late, iconic Desmond Llewelyn; CIA agent Felix Lighter (Jack Lord) whose mission is the same as Bond’s; and local fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), who had previously been working with Strangways.

But, even after Bond arrives in Jamaica to begin his investigative work, things never really get going until the end of the movie; we don’t even meet creepy-voiced antagonist Dr. No – played by Joseph Wiseman – until the last knockings of the film.

As we slowly but surely progress through the film, we eventually meet bungling geologist/henchman Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), who tries and fails a good few times to dispose of Bond, using everything from ‘The Three Blind Mice’ (the unfortunate trio who cop it in the spontaneously combusting car shortly thereafter) to a ‘man eating’ Tarantula that he secretes in James’s hotel room, wherein it meets it’s end via the butt of Bond’s soon-to-be famous Walther PPK (poor spider). Unfortunately for the good professor, his final abortive effort to kill 007 costs him his life.

At this point, having found traces of radioactivity in rock samples retrieved by Strangways from Crab Key, Quarrel reluctantly agrees to ferry Bond over to Dr. No’s highly fortified island to investigate further. And it’s here that we witness one of the most iconic moments in cinema history; buxom blonde beauty Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) emerging from the warm Caribbean Sea; a moment so incredible it inspires Bond to sing for the first and only time in the franchise’s history.


Underneath the mango tree…

Conveniently connected to Dr No. via her father, Honey accompanies Bond and Quarrel as they traipse through the island’s radioactive swamp looking for a way into the nefarious doctor’s secret hideout. Before they’ve gone very far, however, they’re assaulted by an armoured, flame-thrower-equipped tractor; Quarrel is incinerated due as much to his own stupidity as anything else, while James and Honey are taken prisoner.

In typical James Bond fashion, after being de-contaminated and then drugged (I’m honestly not sure why this is done; to pass the time is the only reason I can deduce!), Bond and Honey join Dr. No for dinner which, like I said earlier, is actually the first time we see the film’s antagonist on screen. During this incongruous meal (perhaps, shortly after the fish course), we’re given a full account of the evil ne’re-do-well’s backstory; not just his motivations for disrupting the US’s plans for space exploration (because he works for a secret terrorist organisation known as Spectre; you know, the evil conglomerate that would provide the backdrop for most of Sean Connery’s adventures), but even why he has weird tin hands.

After a frankly amusing exchange during which Bond continuously irks Dr. No with disparaging comments about his sanity and goals of world domination, Bond is beaten by the guards and thrown into a holding cell, whilst Honey is taken away to an undisclosed location. Being the world’s greatest sleuth/luckiest human being ever to walk the Earth, it doesn’t take Bond long to escape his prison cell (via a conveniently placed and easily accessible ventilation shaft), and gain access to the main control room. Once there, Bond swiftly thwarts Dr. No’s masterplan by overloading the reactor, killing the Dr. in the process by submerging him in his own radioactive pool.


The man with the tin hands.

With the world safe and Bond’s mission complete, our randy hero finds Honey and escapes the island (with a little help from Felix), stopping halfway to safety for one final quicky. Ah, romance.


All in all, I would say this is a solid if unspectacular first outing for 007.

Sean Connery makes the title character his own, while the supporting cast do a decent job – particularly Kitzmiller and Jack Lord. However, though Ursula Andress certainly provides some eye candy, her performance is not particularly strong. Moreover, Dr. No is, in my opinion, one of the weakest in the entire Bond franchise, not helped by Joseph Wiseman’s lacklustre performance, with nothing to distinguish him from so many other megalomaniacal villains save his tin hands.

The plot isn’t anything to write home about either, and, as I mentioned at the very start of this review, the pace is rather slow. That being said, it certainly delivers some truly memorable moments, including the aforementioned Honey Rider emerging from the ocean, and some cracking one-liners.

And, though it’s admittedly a rather minor grievance, there are some rather conspicuous mistakes and production issues. First and foremost, there’s a very ‘of its time’ car chase which ends with the car chasing Bond somehow blowing up after falling down a hill, but there’re smaller things too, such as femme fatale Miss Taro seemingly mutable address or that highly amusing moment during one of the earlier fight sequences, for instance, which sees Bond swing with his right hand, only to end up connecting with his left.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh; the film was done on a very small budget and was shot in 1962, and yet is, in general, pretty well done.


Overall, I think a slightly above average rating is fair, due mainly, it has to be said, to its being the first in the series and thus the starting point of cinema’s longest-running franchise.


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Notorious (1946)

Notorious IMDb – 221/250

My unending slog through this list returns to classic Hollywood this week and includes my first foray into Hitchcock cinema, with the 1946 film noir Notorious from 1946. (Not to be confused with the Biggie Smalls biopic from 2009, though the similarities are endless).

Starring legendary actors Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and directed by perhaps Hollywood’s most famous director Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious tells an espionage story straight out of a James Bond flick, involving Nazis, dodgy bottles of sandy wine and a uranium sub plot, which struggles to maintain pace and interest despite a stellar cast and wonderfully written script, with Hithcocks signature style slowly starting to develop and improve, but not fully on show here.

The film starts slowly as it introduces the characters of Devlin (Grant) and Alicia (Bergman), and slowly builds up the key elements of this film; espionage, trust and a love of alcohol that seems prominent throughout much of American cinema at this period of time. (Devlin’s drink driving would certainly not be looked upon favourably now).

Alicia is tasked with being a spy for the American government, sent to infiltrate a Nazi organisation due to her previous relationship with one of its members, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). Grant essentially plays Alicia’s handler, but the two in typical Hollywood style of the time begin to develop feelings between each other despite what was for me a startling lack of real chemistry. (Their kiss scene, though thought of as ‘erotic’ at the time and ‘groundbreaking’, seemed out of place and just strange to my modern sensibilities).

Two of Hollywood’s biggest ever stars, Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman

While their relationship and love for one another felt exceedingly forced, (Alica’s complete devotion to Devlin bordered on the ridiculous), the espionage story was interesting, especially as Alicia ingratiates herself into Alexanders life, even going so far as to marry him.

The dilemma she faces and the danger she puts herself in makes her by far the most sympathetic character of the film, whereas Devlin, despite playing the manly hero at the end, really comes off as arrogant and unlikeable.

In fact Bergman is the clear star of the film over Grant in creating a character we can empathise with and root for, and Claude Rains as well does a fantastic job of managing to create a villain for the film who isn’t some over the top Nazi figure, but instead a character who in some aspects we can sympathise with, a character who seems trapped by those around him, including his tyrannical and shrill mother (Leopoldine Konstaintin), rather than a character of evil himself.

For a supposed film buff, this is rather embarrassingly the first Hitchcock film I’ve actually watched.

Sadly, the film really goes nowhere by the end. Like that feeling you feel when your favourite TV shows ends with a whimper (or a shot to black in one series’ case), Notorious ends feeling incomplete. While you could say the ending is ‘open ended’, I feel this is more of a cop out, as much of the story is left unexplained or unexplored.

Notorious is not one of Hitchcock’s best known works, and perhaps is instead a nice starter into my first taste of his work, but I was hoping for something better or at least something more memorable to make me think, this is why cinema loves Hitchcock. As it is, I just can’t see the hype. Perhaps later films such as Rear Window, North by Northwest or Vertigo might change my mind.

For me I will always associate Notorious with a film about Biggie Smalls and Tupac, not Nazis and uranium.

Notorious: 5/10

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The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show – IMDb 222/250

It’s a lovely bank holiday Monday, the sun is shining, the drinks are flowing, and I am inside writing a review for my IMDb 250. What a life.

My review this week is number 222 on the list, The Truman Show (1998), the comedy drama film starring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, the first man legally adopted by a corporation, whose life is made into a reality TV show without his knowledge. With a wife and good job Carrey seems to have the perfect life, but he begins to slowly realise that his reality may not be as real as it seems.

I first watched The Truman Show when I was younger and was a big fan of it, for no other real reason than I thought it was a good film well told, so I was intrigued to see how I would see it now as a more mature (cough cough) adult. The first thing I really liked about the film which I didn’t truly appreciate at the time is simply the idea and concept of the film. Writer Andrew Niccol created a truly unique idea which is well worth exploring and debating.

In the last twenty years since its release The Truman Show has only become more relevant with the birth of reality television, social media and ideas around surveillance. Perhaps the father of all reality TV shows, Big Brother debuted (sadly) on British television just one year after the release of this film, and what it has birthed is ‘structured reality’ TV shows like Made in Chelsea, Love Island and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Structured reality, essentially meaning not reality in anyway shape or form, is similar to the life Truman lives, only he is an unwilling participant in the show. He lives a ‘simulated reality’, and the audience gets to watch him grow up and live his life.

This may sound like boring TV and ludicrous to watch, and when pitching the films idea to executives I bet director Peter Weir had a hard time explaining it, but as the last twenty years shows us, we can’t seem to get enough of other people’s life and ‘reality’, no matter how tedious or trivial it is. This film wonderfully depicts our early obsession with another persons life before the birth of reality television. I would call it a cross between 1984 and Keeping up with the Kardashians, with Carrey adding some Ace Ventura type comedy in the mixer too.

Did The Truman Show inspire reality TV like Big Brother?

Another interesting theme for me that The Truman Show explores is religion. Although Truman is the central character of the film and show, it is Ed Harris as the creator and ‘God’ of the show Christof that is more interesting to analyse.

He sits in a TV station in the sky looking down on his subjects as the ‘creator’, and this allusion to religion mixed with the idea of the media as a type of God is very interesting. When Truman is trying to escape from Christof and his created world he is attempting to escape his God or father figure, and Christof tries to dissuade him from doing so, trying to say that the real world is far worse than the reality he currently lives in. Without going into theology or depictions of utopias, its possible description as an atheist film, it is something worth looking in to, and gives the film an extra edge and piece of interest for me, and the film has been analysed before in its allusions to Christianity, which is worth looking up.

Ed Harris plays TV exec Christof, but he could also be an allusion to God – his performance earnt him an Oscar nod.

A key element to this film outside the thematic ideas and drama is humour.  I found it to be well executed, not taking away from its overall foreboding message regarding surveillance, the media and reality, but adding to it in its ridiculousness. The people around Truman have to stay in character, and their attempts to do this while he is clearly on to them is very amusing, and I particularly enjoyed Meryl Burbank’s (Laura Linney) attempts to advertise during inappropriate times with Truman.

However a lot of the film hinges on your opinion of Jim Carrey as an actor. For some you may find his over the top acting adorable or charming, whereas others may find it cheesy and grating (pun intended). For me I think he is well cast in films such as Liar, Liar, The Mask and The Grinch, but I can’t help feel he is a little poorly cast here. With a different leading actor this film could have been greater, and possibly easier to digest as a genuinely thought provoking piece of cinema rather than a comedy film with some dramatic elements and cool ideas.

Although the humour worked and the concept brilliant, I did feel its execution was lacking. Director Peter Weir struggled to keep the world together and the story fizzles out during the latter stages, and the emotional depth of the film was shallow, lacking any real punch or even much sympahty for Truman, which should have been easy. The focus instead was too much on Carrey’s antics and felt like a vehicle for him to get into serious acting rather, than a film about the medias intrusion on public life. I can see why it is in the top 250, but I feel there is another story to be told here which could be far superior.

The Truman Show: 6/10

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La Haine (1995)

La Haine – IMDb 223/250

As I continue you my painfully slow process of watching the top 250 films on IMDb as of June 2015 (2 years I have been doing this…. reviewed 27 films), I’ve found the time/motivation to do my next review, this time of the gritty black and white French film La Haine from 1995.

Described aptly by some as urban cinema, La Haine tells the story of three early 20s, ethnically diverse Frenchmen played by Vincent Cassel, Hubert Konde and Said Taghmaoui, as they spend a day traversing through a divisive and troubled Paris in the aftermath of a riot.

Unlike the Paris we see in Hollywood cinema, director Mathieu Kassovitz stays away from the idealistic vision we usually see of the city of love and instead depicts Paris as a gritty and impoverished place riddled with class divide, racism and societal conflict, highlighted by his use of the black and white filter which creates a moody and inescapable feeling for us as an audience watching our three young protagonists. 

The performances from the cast were really spot on. Cassel does an excellent job of portaying Vinz as a youth in turmoil. His hatred towards the police is relatively justified but his distrust leads to unnecessary violence and anti-social behaviour, but Cassel manages to create sympathy for a character who really acts as an antagonist through much of the film, and someone who will divide opinion on his motivations and beliefs, even more so now on a modern audience.

Vinz (Cassel) becomes obsessed with killing someone when he finds a gun, which further develops his aggressive and antagonistic attitude

But the majority of the sympathy in the story lies on the young laps of Hubert (Konde) and Said (Taghmaoui), who have to deal with racism and abuse on what seems like a daily basis, which is depicted to us most vividly in a deplorable scene when they are racially abused and humiliated by a group of sadistic policemen, fueling their anger and hatred towards those in authority.

Hubert though is the one who seems the most driven to escape the life he has been given, and understands their behaviour of violence and aggression towards their aggressors isn’t the answer. He states poignantly ‘hatred breeds hatred’, and in the last scene of the movie we see this play out first hand, but it is a recurring theme throughout the film.

The most telling aspect La Haine for me though was how relevant it still is in today’s society. As the world inexplicably continues to march towards right wing politics which looks to divide and segregate nations and its people, this film set in 1995 has these same issues playing out on screen.

In fact it mentions Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen who like her daughter was the leader of the National Front, an ultra right party in France looking for much stronger immigration rules and a push towards right wing politics. Really the characters of Hubert and Said would be seen by Le Pen as the kind of immigrants who she would believe are ruining France, thus creating the divide we see in the film between them and authority, and the divide we still see in today’s society.

Although I understood the point the film was making though and the France Kassovitz was depicting, I still found La Haine a hard film to watch.

I sympathised with all three main characters, but I didn’t like them. I understood the circumstances that they find themselves in but this doesn’t excuse their at times aggressive and obnoxious behaviour, particularly in the scene at the art museum where rather than being rebellious they were simply hostile and rude, and you couldn’t condone their behaviour. I found it hard to identify with any of the characters without constantly trying to justify their actions, and the black and white filter although adding to this effect of the dark underbelly of Paris, did give the film a drab feeling.

As a political piece of cinema La Haine hits all the right notes and perhaps Kassovitz wanted it to be a hard and uncomfortable watch, patricularly for someone like me who doesn’t have to face the hardships Vinz, Hubert and Said go through constantly, but personally I felt we don’t really get a character we can fully get behind, nor a story which truly develops or intrigues until the very last scene, when it was already too late for me.

La Haine: 6/10

If you’re interested in French cinema, check out my review of Three Colours: Red

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The Walking Dead: A New Frontier review

Walking Dead main image

So much of episodic graphic adventure The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is right on the money. Following a group of mostly engaging characters, it tells an enjoyable story of family and loyalty brought to life by the striking, cel shaded art style that’s become synonymous with developer Telltale Games. It’s even got one hell of an ace up its sleeve in the form of everyone’s second favourite teen survivalist (after The Last of Us’ Ellie, of course), Clementine.

In fact, notwithstanding a couple of minor problems here and there, it’s difficult to pinpoint any truly glaring flaws with the finished article. Rather, like The Walking Dead: Season 2 and The Walking Dead: Michonne mini-series before it, A New Frontier’s biggest problem is an inescapable sense déjà vu.

Simply put, you can’t help but feel you’ve experienced many of these scenarios before.

Walking Dead image 1

Clem, like any self-respecting American teen, armed with a deadly weapon

Set roughly 4 years after the undead apocalypse ravaged the planet, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier chronicles the journey of protagonist Javier Garcia, who, along with sister-in-law Kate, nephew Gabe and niece Mariana, lives a peripatetic existence rather than settling in a single, potentially vulnerable location. That is, until a misunderstanding in episode one embroils them in a feud with the New Frontier; a community of not entirely unscrupulous survivors inhabiting the ruins of Richmond, Virginia, led by a tetrarchy which includes Javi’s estranged, hot-headed older brother David.

Over the course of the next 5 episodes, the narrative focuses on the Garcia family’s attempts to extricate themselves from the ministrations of this insidious and fractured society, and Javi’s desperation to keep his adopted family together.

When reduced in this way to its most basic form, the main premise hardly exudes originality, but when you factor in the various sub-plots – the most intriguing of which being the Javi-Kate-David love triangle – A New Frontier possesses enough to keep the average player invested in the tale. This is despite the odd misstep here and there, such as the actions of amiable EMT Elanor at the conclusion of episode 4 which, bizarrely, don’t appear to be affected by your previous behaviour towards her, Gabe’s unconvincing transition to adulthood or the presence of overtly ruthless thug Badger in a peaceful settlement like Richmond.

Walking Dead image 2

Clearly, the undead are also susceptible to teen angst

The absorbing if inconsistent narrative is mirrored in the cast of characters. Javi, Kate and David are welcome additions to the series, each bringing something a little bit different to proceedings. Revealed to have been a rather self-centred and irresponsible ex-baseball professional prior to Armageddon via regular flashback sequences, Javi doesn’t exactly fit the mould of a typical Walking Dead protagonist (not once does he utter “this is who we are now”), yet he still manages to shield his loved ones from the horrors that surround them. Kinder and more prudent, though similarly unprepared for parenthood, Kate resonates with the player in the same way as Sasha and Snow White from Tales from the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us respectively, in that you’re rooting for her from start to finish and acutely aware of the perils she faces on a daily basis. Lastly, despite his fiercely protective nature which at times manifests itself in brutal fashion, David ultimately comes across as a decent man who’ll do whatever it takes to keep his family and friends safe.

However, aside from diminutive amazon Ava and enigmatic drifter Jesus (a familiar face to anyone who’s read the comic books or watched the most recent television series), the rest of the supporting cast don’t cut such distinctive figures, feeling rather like generic, updated versions of previous characters. That being said, the closest thing to a poorly designed character in the entire season is only really the stereotypically argumentative, pissy teen Gabe; a young man who’s seemingly oblivious to humanity’s plight and totally unappreciative of Javi and Kate’s efforts to defend him against the undead plague.

I’m aware I’ve only mentioned fan-favourite Clem in passing up to this point. Unfortunately, this represents her relegation to a supporting role in the events of A New Frontier – much to the chagrin of some players. It’s true there’re a handful of flashbacks that provide you with the opportunity to guide her actions directly and discover what she’s been doing since Season 2; the problem is these sections are as infrequent as they are brief. It’s a real shame Telltale Games’ decided not to explore her character arc in greater depth during these segments; watching her evolution from philanthropic adolescent to the jaded and pragmatic survivor Javi encounters in the first episode would undoubtedly have been a fascinating tale.

Walking Dead image 3

Farage as he would appear to Shallow Hal

Conversely, if Telltale’s failure to create a truly original story is a little disappointing, the lack of anything other than minor refinements to the tried and tested gameplay mechanics that so perfectly suit this style of game is extremely pleasing.

The ability to cultivate your own (relatively) unique story remains the biggest draw and, from that perspective, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier matches the very best Telltale titles; even Tales from the Borderlands. The signature dialogue wheels allow you to develop Javi and, to a lesser extent, Clementine’s character’s in vastly different ways from one playthrough to another, consequently changing the course of the narrative, their personal relationships etc. etc. Meanwhile, whether a result of the studio’s years of experience or the improved processing power of current gen hardware, the momentous binary choices that are the fulcrum of each episode likewise have the potential to generate fundamental adjustments to the wider story. For instance, one character (I won’t say who) died towards the end of episode 2 on my first playthrough, but survived the entire season on my second leading to completely new exchanges and situations, vastly increasing the replayability of this otherwise linear title.

Semi-regular quick time events – press X to crush this zombie’s head, press Y to shoot an approaching bandit, that kind of thing – affords some semblance of action amidst a torrent of conversations, though certainly not enough to impress anyone who prefers more bombastic fair. Other than that, you’re restricted to walking around specific, claustrophobically small locations here and there that, aside from the odd bit of expository dialogue, merely delay the start of the next big event.

That’s not to say A New Frontier doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Although I didn’t try it myself, crowd play (making its Walking Dead debut) is a thoroughly interesting concept that does exactly what it says on the tin: it enables let’s players to cede control of decision making to the audience in one of two ways. Firstly, the host can either reserve the right to have final say on all decisions if they don’t trust their viewers; secondly, a majority vote determines how events will unfold. Whichever option you select, crowd play’s greatest attribute is its ability to provide the kind of community experience that’s such an integral part of all Telltale titles.

Walking Dead image 4

Jesus and his disciples

Elsewhere, though not quite as captivating as Firewatch or Life is Strange, the familiar cel shaded style and vibrant colour palette brilliantly convey the desolation of human civilisation. Cities lay in ruins; the rusted shells of cars litter the landscape and nature has already begun to reassert its dominance over the earth. Besides, given The Walking Dead’s comic book roots, it’s a particularly appropriate aesthetic choice.

Appealing as the visuals are, it does limit the quality of the character animations. Javi’s gait is comically unnatural, his movements incongruously jaunty, whilst the combat animations are pretty inelegant and feeble in execution. Fortunately, the largely impressive voice acting and excellent sound design helps to compensate for the problem. I’m especially fond of the bleeding effect at the edge of screen and the swell of the orchestra whenever you find yourself in a jam, a feature that never fails to ramp up the tension.

There are a few minor, almost trivial glitches worth mentioning. For one thing, the game struggles to render zombies en mass every once in a while, causing a touch of rubber banding. Additionally,  don’t be surprised if you see a recently deceased character appear suddenly in the background of a transitional scene at certain points although, if I’m honest, the latter is actually quite amusing, if immersion-breaking.

Episode length, on the other hand, is a slightly bigger issue. Whereas the component parts of Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones: Season One would take a diligent player approximately 2 hours to complete, each of A New Frontier’s 5 episodes can be finished in a leisurely 90-minutes; hardly a reasonable return for your £25 season pass. It’s so frustrating when you think how straightforward it would’ve been for the developer to add an extra 30+ minutes with expanded Clementine sections or a couple of additional sequences.

I know they say you should always leave them wanting more in the entertainment business, but this is just ridiculous.

At the conclusion of episode 5, fans are reassured that Clementine’s story will be continued in an upcoming, as yet unannounced sequel. And, while I’m reasonably excited for this next chapter, I personally think the series would benefit from an extended break. Much as I enjoy all things Walking Dead, like the long-running television programme, things are beginning to feel somewhat stale and predictable.

Let’s be honest, chances are Season 4 (as I hereby dub it) will revolve around Clementine and a new group of more or less good people battling to fend off a rival gang of unscrupulous individuals, culminating in the death of at least one close companion.

For this more than any other reason, Telltale’s latest foray into the zombie apocalypse just about scrapes an 8/10.

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5 insufferable video game companions

Main image

I wish you could be my companion

Where would the majority of video game protagonists be without their companions? If not for Wheatley’s guidance (albeit incompetent), Portal 2’s Chell would probably have succumbed to GLaDOS’ scheming long before the end credits rolled. Likewise, it’s almost certain Joel’s life would have ended prematurely and violently if he hadn’t met Ellie at the beginning of The Last of Us; the surrogate daughter that gives him a reason to keep going.

Sometimes, however, whether due to bad programming, writing or a bit of both, a title’s hero or heroine is weighed down by an attendant who inadvertently mars an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience.

Here follows – in no particular order – 5 such insufferable video game companions.

Roman Bellic – Grand Theft Auto IV


Roman (left) not badgering you about darts for once

Anyone who’s played GTA IV for any length of time will no doubt remember groaning with exasperation as, during burgeoning gangster Niko’s illicit adventures around Liberty City, his irksome cousin Roman calls for the 50th time that day, begging you to join him for a few jars at the nearest bar or a quick game of ten-pin bowling at the local alley.

It might sound innocuous enough, pleasant even, however, Roman seems to wait until you’re just about to start a mission on the other side of the New York-inspired metropolis before calling.

Worse still, should you reject any of his incessant requests – because, you know, you’re trying to establish a criminal empire whilst simultaneously protecting Roman from the loan sharks that want to shatter his kneecaps – his passive aggressive, peevish reaction leaves you feeling both irritated and strangely guilty. And, on those rare occasions when he’s not pestering you over the phone, he’s getting himself kidnapped by gangs of heavily-armed thugs.

After 40+ hours of his nonsense, it does at least make the crucial choice at the end of GTA IV pretty straightforward: take the deal and enjoy watching Roman get whacked on his wedding day.

Winston Smith (The Butler) – Tomb Raider 2

Released in 1997, I was a child when first I heard the unnerving rattle of Winston’s tea tray as he stalked video game doyenne Lara Croft around the grounds of Tomb Raider 2’s Croft Manor.

Restricted to the mansion itself, he’s only really a problem when you’re exploring this central hub/training area and thus isn’t as much of an annoyance as the other people on this list. Despite that, he remains the most memorable feature of the entire game; although, to be fair, that’s probably because 8-year-old me didn’t have the wit or dexterity to get past the first level, let alone complete the entire story. In other words, I spent more time with Winston than any of Tomb Raider 2’s other characters.

Still, Winston clearly had an impact on countless other players around the world. Perform a cursory search on YouTube today and you’ll find dozens of examples of one of the most popular player-created challenges of the time; locking him away in Lara’s meat fridge. I myself tried this once or twice, hoping it’d spare me from his intrusive solicitations.

Aware of this little side-objective, the developer provided players with a more aggressive solution to the problem in 1998 sequel Tomb Raider 3, allowing Lara to bring her signature pair of pistols to bear on the terrifying if well-meaning old butler.

Donald Duck – Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts

If only Donald was as silent as this picture

Unnecessarily convoluted narrative aside, I’m a big fan of the Kingdom Hearts series. Boasting enjoyable combat, a mixture of faithfully recreated fairy tale worlds and the cream of the crop from both Final Fantasy and Disney canon. What’s not to love?

Donald Duck.

Possessing a voice so irritating it makes Janet Street-Porter sound as melodious as Morgan Freeman by comparison, every word uttered by the maddening mallard is as painful as being forced to listen to an auditorium full of blackboards being scratched.

Unfortunately, as a powerful red mage, Donald is probably the most useful party member available to you; in the original Kingdom Hearts, anyway. Elemental spells like ice and fire enable him to target specific enemy weaknesses, whilst his cure spell takes the pressure off the party’s potion supply and lets Sora focus on hacking through hordes of Heartless with his Keyblade.

Long-time partner Goofy’s voice is only fractionally less unpleasant, but at least he’s capable of producing sounds that don’t render high-end ear plugs a necessity.

Any follower – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This entry is very much a result of the dodgy mechanics that, frustratingly, pervade Bethesda’s otherwise exceptional open world RPG Skyrim.

Be it blithely charging into a den of enemies heedless of your attempts to slowly and carefully pick off foes one by one from a safe distance with your trusty bow, blocking doorways or disappearing altogether, poor AI hinders each and every one of Skyrim’s numerous followers.

On more than one occasion during my most recent playthrough, for instance, I was left isolated amidst a swarm of foes, frantically downing healing potions as I tried to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, all because my chosen companion got his or herself knocked-out at the very start of the encounter contrary to my orders. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

You can command your follower to hang back, a tactic which does prevent them from alerting the entire dungeon to your presence before you’re ready to engage. However, apart from the fact this defeats the object of bringing some extra muscle, it can be just as infuriating to see your partner standing 20 feet away with their thumb up their arse, watching stony-eyed as you struggle to overcome a battalion of opponents single-handedly.

If they weren’t such useful decoys and effective damage sponges, I’d seriously consider playing through the entire game solo.

Hope – Final Fantasy XIII


Hope and Vanille: 2 of Final Fantasy’s very worst

Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a great game; some would go so far as to say it’s not even a good game. Yet, despite the unsatisfyingly linear design, cheesy script and rather dull combat, its biggest flaw is Hope; Lightning’s adolescent teammate not the “feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen”, obviously.

There isn’t simply one thing that makes him such an aggravating character, rather it’s a combination of factors. He’s surly, petulant and unaccountably blames Snow (a character not even Troy Baker can make endearing) for his mother’s death. And did I mention he sounds like a pound shop Christopher Mintz-Plasse without the awkward, underdog charm? Every time he opens his mouth you’ll wish Square Enix included a button for cracking him across the chops with the hilt of Lightning’s sword.

To cap it all off, due to the way the Crystarium works (FFXIII’s progression system), he’s the best white mage in the entire game by a comfortable margin and is therefore a vital party member for the duration of the main narrative and post-game quests, much like the aforementioned Donald Duck.

I realise there’ll be many characters equally deserving of a place on this list that don’t appear. Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Larry from The Walking Dead: Season One are two that spring to mind.

Nevertheless, I think most will agree the guys and girls who appear here withstand comparison with any of gaming’s most annoying characters.

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5 games to look out for at E3 2017

E3 image

It doesn’t seem 5 minutes ago since E3 2016 ended, yet here we are again eagerly awaiting gaming’s biggest event of the year.

Over the course of 6 action-packed days starting on the 10th of June, developers and publishers alike will gather together at the Los Angeles Convention Centre to showcase their latest games to the world’s press and, for the first time ever, a discerning public.

As always, there’s sure to be something for gamers of all shapes and sizes. However, amid the torrent of AAA blockbusters and indie gems, these 5 titles are, for my money, the ones to look out for at E3 2017.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

FFVII Remake

Two years on from that famously uproarious reveal during Sony’s 2015 presentation, and we still have precious few details about this long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake let alone a concrete release window.

Yes, we know that it’ll feature fast-paced action combat a la Final Fantasy XV, an episodic publishing format and a fully-voiced cast of characters, however, beyond that, there’s not much more to say.

Yet, with such little communication in the past 2 years, that seems likely to change at this year’s E3. I’m betting Square Enix will finally give us some juicy new details to keep us busy over the coming months, preferably addressing the planned expansions to the story and how the limit break and materia mechanics will work within a real-time framework.

Besides, surely Square Enix will explain more fully its decision to forgo external support and develop the game entirely in-house going forward; for instance, it’d be nice to know if the studio was unsatisfied with the way CyberConnect2 were handling the Remake, if the move will have any effect on the title’s development and why they chose to promote Haoki Hamguchi to lead designer.

As someone who feels equal parts excited and apprehensive about the game, whatever Square Enix deign worthy of public consumption, I really hope E3 2017 will go some way to alleviating my concerns.



One of the most interesting titles likely to make an appearance this year, Dreams is a game all about creation, sharing and pure unadulterated joy; in contrast to most of the games on this list.

First announced in 2013 and the brainchild of LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule, Dreams is a game of astounding ambition that looks to take the studio’s signature community creation facilities to a whole new level of depth.

In Dreams, players are essentially free to design levels and even worlds from the ground up, creating everything from basic environmental assets and sound effects, through to bespoke gameplay mechanics. In other words, it’s possible to create entirely unique games within Dreams itself. In addition, much like Media Molecule’s previous offerings, there’s an emphasis on sharing. So, if, like me, you find it painfully difficult to create anything noteworthy, you can simply download another player’s constructions to populate your levels. And, as always, the single-player campaign will teach you the basic tenets of building as you play.

With the likes of Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and perhaps even Bloodborne 2 (though I’m not getting my hopes up for the latter) on Sony’s E3 itinerary, Dreams would be an invaluable part of a remarkable show for the Japanese giant.

Days Gone

Days Gone

Not only is PS4 exclusive, third-person shooter Days Gone expected to appear at E3 2017, it will feature heavily, according to actor Samuel Witwer; the man providing the voice for protagonist Deacon St. John. Sounds good to me.

Seemingly similar in tone and aesthetic to PS3 masterpiece The Last of Us, some may accuse the title of attempting to cash in on the current, if waning, zombie craze. That, however, would be doing this extremely promising game a huge disservice.

The crowd tech alone was a revelation when it was unveiled at last year’s show, capable of filling our screens with vast hordes of freakers – SIE Bend Studio’s entry into the ever-growing undead pantheon. But, when you consider this incredible mechanic will be set within a huge open world, I don’t think I’m being too optimistic in expecting some thrilling, truly emergent gameplay when Days Gone eventually launches. And, intriguingly, that day might not be far off. Following news the development team has doubled in size over the past year, many speculate Days Gone is fast-approaching completion.

Could a release date be on the cards at E3? Maybe, though I have to say, I’d be content with learning a bit more about the core narrative, characters and the kind of missions we’ll be able to undertake during our adventures in the freaker-ridden American wilderness.

Death Stranding

Death Stranding

Roughly a week ago, Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima posted a Tweet informing fans he’d recently been in talks with SIEA (Sony Interactive Entertainment America). He didn’t explain what was actually discussed, but the timing of the meeting alone has convinced many in the gaming world that PS4 exclusive Death Stranding – Kojima Productions’ debut project – will feature in some capacity during Sony’s press conference on the 12th of June.

After all, little is known about the game at present, aside from the identity of the actors portraying the protagonist and antagonist (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen respectively), and that Death Stranding will be an action-adventure title in the same vein as the Uncharted series. That being said, as this is a Hideo Kojima title, it’s safe to assume there’ll be generous helpings of political allegory (revolving around pollution, it would appear), feature-length cut-scenes, innovative gameplay and quirky characters.

So, assuming it does make an appearance, we can be reasonably confident of receiving a new, more extensive trailer, though perhaps not a definitive release date. Personally, I would love to see a slice of gameplay showing us what we can expect from the dream combination of master craftsman Hideo Kojima and the incredible Decima Engine.

The Last of Us Part II

Last of Us part 2

Of all the games mentioned so far, the one I and many others would like to see most at this year’s show is The Last of Us Part II: who could resist the opportunity to experience another superlative human drama set amidst the ruins of civilisation?

Thankfully, Sony seem set to include Naughty Dog’s magnum opus during its presentation.

Taking place a few years after the events of the original, writer Neil Druckman has already confirmed two important elements. Firstly, The Last of Us Part II will focus on hate instead of love; secondly, players will step into the shoes of resourceful heroine Ellie this time around, leaving many to speculate previous protagonist Joel may no longer be on amicable terms with his surrogate daughter (have his actions at the end of The Last of Us caught up with him?) or, worse still, dead.

Unfortunately, given how early the much-anticipated sequel is through the development process – as was explained when it was first revealed at the PlayStation Experience 2016 – there probably won’t be anything substantial on offer at this year’s E3. Still, a new 60-second teaser or even a handful of screenshots would be more than enough to keep me going over the lean months to follow.

I could name dozens of other games that are well worth keeping an eye on in the build up to E3 2017; some of which I’ve already mentioned in passing.

However, I’m just as excited to see what surprises are in store for us this year. You can bet your bottom dollar a handful of developers will somehow manage to buck the modern trend and keep their games concealed from the public until the 10th rolls around. Could this be Half-Life 3’s big moment? No, almost certainly not. Still; we can dream, can’t we?

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Tales from the Borderlands review

Tales from the Borderlands 1

From left to right: Sasha, Rhys, Fiona and Vaughn

When Tales from the Borderlands released back in 2014/2015, I have to say, I wasn’t that interested. Possessing only a basic knowledge of Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands series of action RPG’s, I simply couldn’t justify spending money on a game I had no great connection to.

Fast forward now to May 2017 and, aware that the game was available for free to PS Plus subscribers, I decided to try it out for myself; thank goodness I did. I hadn’t even reached the halfway point of episode one before I realised Tales from the Borderlands is good – surprisingly good.

Featuring a cast of absolutely wonderful characters, along with an engrossing narrative and hilarious dialogue, it’s easily one of Telltale Games’ best.

Tales from the Borderlands 4

Spoilers: Handsome Jack is back

The central storyline follows ambitious yet likeable middle manager Rhys, glib Pandoran con-artist Fiona and their rag-tag group of adventurers on their quest to unlock the secrets of the Gortys project and, ultimately, to find the vault of the traveller, wherein lies a mountain of priceless alien artefacts. Unfortunately, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Aside from the trust issues that plague the team throughout their travels, they also have to deal with ruthless gangsters, corrupt executives and experienced vault hunters, all whilst navigating a series of increasingly dangerous events they’re completely unprepared for.

Utterly enthralling from start to finish, the narrative benefits from a story that’s far more malleable than perhaps all previous Telltale games. During my back-to-back playthroughs, for example, I experienced entirely different scenes as a direct result of selecting option B rather than option A, not to mention wildly divergent relationships that changed fundamentally as a result of my responses during conversations. The result is a game that boasts a level of replayability far in excess of other, nominally linear titles.

Yet, as enjoyable as it is to mould the plot yourself, I particularly enjoyed the upbeat tone of the game. Thanks to the quality of the writing, there’re plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments throughout the course of the 5 episodes, along with an overall sense of optimism and camaraderie that’s really quite refreshing in today’s cynical world. It’s not without the occasional instance of heartache of course (look out for episode 4), however, these more dramatic story beats come across as endearing and charming rather than cheesy or prosaic. It’s quite a change for Telltale Games when you consider how important bittersweet storytelling has been to the success of previous titles such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but Tales from the Borderlands certainly doesn’t suffer for it.

Equally well-written and engaging are the cast of characters. Rhys, Fiona, Sasha, Gortys, Loader Bot and Scooter impress the most, not least because they’re believable. Yes, many of the exchanges between them devolve into witty badinage and oftentimes they’ll shrug off what would be traumatic experiences for you and me in no time at all, but nonetheless, they each convey a sense of humanity. They have their own hang ups, hopes and fears, and thus feel truly three dimensional.

Bringing these excellent characters to life, the performances from the hugely talented voice cast deserve equal praise. Troy Baker is typically brilliant as intelligent if out-of-his-depth salary man Rhys; Laura Bailey is perfect as charming grifter Fiona and Ashley Johnson is unsurprisingly fantastic as naïve robot Gortys. However, putting in perhaps the best performance of all, Erin Yvette is absolutely outstanding as Sasha, successfully portraying a character whose cockiness and sardonic quips could easily aggravate some players she was played by a less skilled performer.

Tales from the Borderlands 2

Athena joins the party (not the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and defensive warfare)

In terms of gameplay, dialogue wheels and quick time events are the order of the day, although a smattering of new gameplay mechanics add a touch of individuality to proceedings.

Deviating little from previous Telltale Games’ graphic adventures, the dialogue wheels feature the traditional quarter of distinctive responses that enable you to fine-tune the personalities of the two protagonists. For instance, while Rhys was selfless and considerate during my first playthrough, he was ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving throughout the second, which, in turn, fundamentally changed his relationships with the rest of the group; especially Sasha. Meanwhile, if you prefer to play in a more reactive manner entering each conversation without a particular type of reply already in mind, you’ll be pleased to hear you’re only given a few sections to select your response. As a result, there’s added weight to every decision; you’ll often find yourself wondering whether you made the right call. Accordingly, Tales from the Borderlands possesses a flexibility that’s rarely seen in linear titles. The very nature of the signature choices – the one’s that’re recorded at the end of each episode – can change, depending on Rhys and Fiona’s actions.

Between conversations, action comes in the form of quick time events. As often as not, you’re tasked with simply moving the analogue stick in the suggested direction in order to avoid an incoming attack while, on occasion, you may be required to fire Fiona’s diminutive pistol, choosing the type of elemental ammunition you deem appropriate under the present circumstances. QTE’s might not be to everyone’s tastes, however, love them or hate them, they fit this style of game perfectly. After all, it’s the flowing narrative and inter-personal relationships that ultimately resonate with the player that make these games such a joy to play: shoehorning in obligatory cover shooting sections or esoteric puzzles a la The Witness would only be a hindrance.

A couple of extra little touches here and there ensure the gameplay feels distinctive. Rhys’ Echo Eye provides plenty of opportunities to learn more about the wider Borderlands universe and features a few amusing references to previous titles, whilst Fiona’s money gathering side-objective lets you buy a variety of cosmetic items at specific points during the season and, for those who’re willing to ignore their scruples and accrue as much cash as possible, hire polarising robot Claptrap during episode 5’s final mission (in case you were wondering, I really like the garrulous little guy).

And, with little exploration or unnecessary filler to wade through, Tales from the Borderlands is superbly paced, taking the average player no longer than a couple of hours to complete each episode. Consequently, the game feels neither too short (like the criminally brief The Walking Dead: Michonne mini-series) nor too long.

Tales from the Borderlands 3

Health and safety won’t be best pleased

Graphically speaking, Tales from the Borderlands continues the Telltales tradition of utilising a distinctive cel shaded aesthetic that benefits greatly from the superior power of current gen console hardware. The character models and environmental assets are sharper; the criminal-riddled cesspool of Pandora looks suitably grimy and dangerous, while Hyperion’s orbital headquarters Helios has an unnervingly clean and clinical appearance. The colour palette too is more vibrant and eye-catching than previous TTG titles. Likewise, although the facial animations are never going to be as expressive as the likes of Uncharted 4 or L.A. Noire so long as the developer favours stylised visuals, the PS4 and Xbox One does allow for more faithful simulacrums of human emotions; the best example I can remember off the top of my head is Fiona’s look of disgust as Rhys and Sasha make googly eyes at each other during the introduction to episode 4.

Elsewhere, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soundtrack, exemplified by the quintet of songs that play during the intro credits to each episode. Episode 3’s Pieces of the People We Love and episode 4’s To the Top are my particular favourites, complementing two of the most engaging and amusing scenes in the entire series.

Not everything about Tales from the Borderlands is perfect, however, much as it might seem from the almost unadulterated praise I’ve showered it with hitherto. Checkpoints for one can be a tad frustrating; on more than one occasion I’ve had to repeat a section of the story, thinking the game had saved before I turned it off. It might seem like nit picking, but I don’t see why manual saves aren’t available if to prevent this from happening at all, especially if, like me, you prefer to parcel out each episode in two parts. Moreover, like previous Telltale Games titles (Game of Thrones: Season One, especially) the frame rate can be a bit ropey during the more action-heavy sections. The climactic battle at the end of episode 5, for instance, during which there are multiple characters on screen simultaneously and plenty of movement, suffers from a variety of performance issues.

Regardless of these minor draw-backs, Tales from the Borderlands is an absolute triumph of storytelling and character design. The core narrative is ceaselessly funny yet compelling, so that, like a good book, it takes a concerted effort of will to stop yourself from ploughing through it in one marathon session. Only the most cynical of individuals will fail to enjoy this wonderful adventure.

But for me, it’s the characters that steal the show. At the risk of sounding somewhat twee, Tales from the Borderlands is one of those rare games that, upon completion, leaves the player feeling as if they’re saying goodbye to a group of dear friends – which is saying a lot for someone like me who habitually eschews human contact.

All things considered, I have no hesitation whatsoever in awarding this superb game a big fat 9/10.

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5 incredible Soulsborne player achievements

Dark Souls 3

Soulsborne players are an interesting bunch. Not content with simply completing From Software’s quintet of tough-as-nails action RPG’s – the series’ catchphrase isn’t ‘you died’ for nothing – a small sub-section of players seem to derive what can only be described as a masochistic pleasure from adding their own arbitrary challenges to make the experience even more punishing.

From beating the hardest bosses without taking a single hit to manipulating the in-game avatar with a controller made of actual bananas (see here for details), the fans of auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2009 original Demon’s Souls, Victorian-Gothic tale Bloodborne and the Dark Souls trilogy of dark fantasy adventures have performed some of the most unique gaming feats you’re likely to see.

To recognise some of these truly unbelievable player accomplishments, I’ve listed 5 of the most impressive feats to date, including a single entry from each of the series’ 5 constituent titles in an effort to provide the broadest view possible of these wonderful games.

Demon’s Souls – no hit run

Released exclusively on the PS3 back in 2009 – a time when the idea of a tango-coloured, bigoted and bewilderingly unintelligent buffoon leading the free world was farcical – Demon’s Souls transformed the gaming landscape, introducing players to the amazing fantasy landscapes, colossal bosses and arcane storytelling many of us have come to love.

A 30+ hour adventure featuring hordes of brutal enemies and imposing bosses, completing the game itself without destroying half a dozen controllers in frustration along the way is an accomplishment in and of itself for the majority of those who’ve undertaken the task. Not according to YouTuber Miltymilt (let’s players and their silly aliases).

Published only a matter of days ago, this intrepid individual managed to complete the entire game without taking a single hit from any of the monstrosities lurking within the corridors of Demon’s Souls’ dark world, only suffering environmental damage and the enervating effects of certain items over the course of his 3-hour speedrun. It’s true, he does avoid confronting any enemy he doesn’t have to, but it’s an extraordinary display of skill nonetheless.

Dark Souls – Speedrun with no healing or bonfires

Very similar to the abovementioned no-hit run, LobosJr conquered this hair-pullingly difficult game without using Dark Souls’ signature Estus Flask, healing spells or bonfires to rejuvenate his character at any point during his remarkably brief journey (like Miltymilt, this particular playthrough clocks in at around the 3-hour mark).

Moreover, as he eschews bonfires altogether (the game’s checkpoints and the only place you can refill your Estus Flask), his avatar remains at soul level 1 from start to finish, limiting his damage output and stamina pool, the latter of which is vital for both dodging and performing attacks.

A set of high-quality weapons, armour and gear make the challenge slightly more feasible, however, considering I, like many others before me, have failed to complete this game in any form to this day, you can’t begrudge him these little indulgences. Besides, LobosJr has undertaken numerous other self-imposed Soulsborne tests in the past, that make this look simple by comparison as you’ll see shortly.

Dark Souls 2 – Handmaid’s Ladle

In fact, the aforementioned LobosJr makes his second appearance right now in acknowledgement of his novel approach to conquering 2014’s Dark Souls 2.

Perhaps my favourite player achievement, LobosJr successfully completes the game relying on naught but the Handmaid’s Ladle for protection; one of the title’s weakest weapons, possessing the unfortunate combination of feeble base stats and a lack of any magical or elemental effects. What’s more, this particular campaign is on new game +7, which is essentially the hardest difficulty possible boasting as it increases the enemy HP, strength and abundance.

As such, it deals only a few measly points of damage with each blow, even against even the weakest enemies, reducing every skirmish into a war of attrition. To make matters worse, its frustratingly low durability means LobosJr has to retreat to a bonfire every 2 minutes to repair his frail cooking utensil, lest it becomes even less of a threat to the demons and fallen knights who stand in his way.

It must require the patience of a saint and a fierce love of the game to finish Dark Souls 2 under these conditions.

Bloodborne – completed using feet

When I first read of about this a few months back, my first thought was that someone had been patient (or perhaps bored enough) to attempt wonderful PS4 exclusive Bloodborne without using any weapons at all, utilising the series’ standard kick action as their only form of offence instead; how wrong I was. Celesterian Games had an altogether more unbelievable challenge in mind.

While I struggled to simply beat the game, Celesterian navigated the streets of Yarnham and prevailed over his adversaries using his actual feet to control his avatar, wearing socks for at least one of the boss battles and eating during others; I guess confronting the hideous denizens of Yarnham is hungry work.

Whether he possesses freakishly long toes or has spent years training them to perform the complicated task of manipulating a controller, it puts a dampener on the sense of accomplishment I felt when I beat Vicar Amelia, Gehrman and company with my boring old hands.

Dark Souls 3 – level 1, no rolling, blocking or parrying

A simple if no less impressive achievement, my final entry comes from TolomeoR who successfully finished the entirety of the latest and perhaps final Soulsborne game – Dark Souls 3 – without recourse to rolling, blocking or parrying using a soul level 1 character.

With some many limitations in place, TolomeoR was only able to avoid incoming attacks by walking or running out of the way, in turn requiring a deep knowledge of the game’s enemies and some startlingly swift reflexes. But what I find most astonishing, is his decision to forgo the path of least resistance and challenge every single one of Dark Souls 3’s mandatory and optional bosses, including the outrageously difficult Nameless King – an opponent I haven’t even come close to defeating.

Understandably, a feat of this nature wasn’t straightforward. According to the man himself, it took approximately 60 hours of trial and error to complete; 15 of which were dedicated solely to conquering the game’s final boss, the daunting Soul of Cinder.

In future, those that enjoy ramping up the difficulty of already punishing games like the Soulsborne series will have to look to the likes of Nioh, Code Vein and The Surge, following Miyazaki’s comments on From Software’s seminal franchise last year.

According to Miyazaki, the Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls 3 marks his final foray into the fantasy universe he created, suggesting the series might be done for good. However, he did provide a glimmer of hope for fans, saying he’d be happy to pass the reins to another should anyone else one day desire to build on his outstanding work.

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