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Risen (Xbox 360)

Rated: 16+.

Story: Some generic fantasy world has undergone a cataclysm thanks to the release of a whole load of titans. You're shipwrecked on a small island that's remarkably untouched by the chaos elsewhere. (Well, apart from the ancient temples full of deadly monsters which have risen out of the ground, that is.)

rifle the corpses of your shipmates for suppliessearch the beach for survivors and then head inland, looking for clues as to what is going on. The stern warriors of the king's Inquisition have taken control of the only town and have a plan to deal with the titans. Are they part of the problem in the first place, though? Then again, the rebels led by the former governor, Don Esteban, are a dubious bunch, too...

Gameplay: This is a serious role-playing game. The kind where you have to blat countless opponents over the head to gain enough experience to go up a level and then spend ages sifting through your character's inventory in order to trade items and equip the best loot. There are quests to go on and dungeons to explore. There are also endless monsters to be eaten by because your armour's rubbish and you haven't levelled up your sword skill enough.

You control a single character from a third-person perspective. Combat is surprisingly tricky, involving a mix of timing, footwork and strategic use of the environment. Going up a level brings learning points which can be used to improve skills, provided you can find a suitable trainer and enough gold to pay them. Skills range from sword and bow proficiency to alchemy (for making potions), lock picking, prospecting, smithying and sneaking. Later on, magical abilities can be learned as well, allowing such things as telekinesis, levitation and transformation.

Save System: Save at any time. It's a pretty slow and clunky process, though, considering how often you'll want to save. See those ostrich things just next to the start location? They'll kill you. See that wolf over there? It'll kill you. See its four friends hiding in the undergrowth? They'll kill you quickly. See that empty corridor? It will kill you quicker than that... Then the lizardmen hiding round the corner will kill you some more, just to make sure.

Comments: I'm a big fan of the sort of computer role-playing games that are descended from Dungeons & Dragons. I can't be doing with the tedious battles and melodrama of Japanese RPGs but I like exploring ruins, collecting loot, running errands for villagers and agonising over whether to spend my next upgrade on improving my lock picking or sword skills. I originally bought my 360 to play Oblivion and didn't regret it.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then you shouldn't play Risen. Simple as that. Risen is for fans of the genre. It doesn't pander to newcomers and is full of foibles and irritations that only veterans will put up with. If you like the sound of exploring an open world and living the life of a wandering adventurer, play Oblivion and Fallout 3 first. If you love them, Risen might be worth a look.

Since Oblivion came out, similar releases have been thin on the ground. There's been maybe one a year - Two Worlds, Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Sacred 2. (I suppose Fable 2 counts as well but it's more an adventure with RPG elements than a full RPG.) I've had to make do with what was available. Despite all their flaws, I quite enjoyed Two Worlds and Mass Effect.

Risen should be onto a winner. It's easily better than Two Worlds and much more complex and expansive than Mass Effect. The only problem is that two similar games came out in the same month - Ego Draconis and Dragon Age Origins - and, in the New Year, there's Two Worlds 2 and Mass Effect 2. Suddenly there's competition in the world of wandering exploration and looting.

Risen doesn't really seem to have been expecting this...

The game goes out of its way to kick you in the teeth. This is probably best exemplified by the way it displays a gold value for treasure you find but only ever lets you trade stuff for one-fifth of the marked price. Handing over mountains of treasure for almost no return is demoralising. Much of the game is taken up by scraping together the gold essential for training. This involves fighting monsters but fighting monsters without being killed requires getting some training.


All in all, Risen is rock hard. On 'Normal' difficulty, it's consistently as difficult as Fallout 3 ever gets on 'Very Hard'. This can be tiresome. That said, there are well-designed dungeons, excellent quests and some interesting moral dilemmas as you decide which faction to side with. For every flaw, there's a fantastic feature to be discovered - if you're prepared to persevere. It can easily take twenty hours to get to the point of learning basic magic, for instance. The dialogue is well-written but presented in a tedious manner. Some elements of the interface are cunningly adapted for the Xbox, others are ripped straight from the PC and are laborious without a mouse...

It's a bit of a mess.

It's not broken, though, and it's already being sold cheap. If you know your bolts from your arrows and your teleport stone from your ice crystal, it'll make you smile (when you're not gnashing your teeth in frustration).

Conclusion: The very definition of a 3/5 game. If you like complex, free-roaming RPGs that take their influence from Tolkien rather than manga, then you'll get plenty of enjoyment from Risen. If you don't, or you're not sure, you're liable to give up in disgust after half an hour.

Graphics: Dark and rough but adequate. An update from Xbox LIVE fixes the worst problems but you'll still have to be willing to put up with distant objects popping up from nowhere, combined with some stutter when the action gets hectic.

Length: Very long.

Rating: 3/5.


Moon (DVD)

Starring: Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey.

Rated: 15.

Story: Sam Bell is coming to the end of a three year contract supervising an automated mining operation on the moon. He's had no company the whole time apart from a robot which sounds like it was designed by the same team as HAL. Even the satellite is out, so he can't have live conversations with Earth - he has to make do with pre-recorded messages from his wife who is beginning to seem apprehensive about his return.

Unsurprisingly, this isn't exactly turning him into a poster child for mental stability. With only weeks to go, he starts to suspect he's not quite as alone as he thought. This leads to something of an existential crisis. Sadly, he has no one to talk to but himself and a mechanical version of Keyser Soze. Things go quietly downhill in a ponderous, Space Odyssey kind of way...

Comments: Moon is difficult to categorise. It's a science fiction film of a sort which isn't often made these days. There are no lasers, space battles or sweeping alien landscapes. It's one guy on the moon going a bit mad. The space setting is as much about giving an excuse to raise questions of individuality and identity as it is to look cool. This is a pleasant change. That said, it all feels very familiar, aping the spartan whiteness of 2001 and feeling reminiscent of a dozen movies where the crew of a space station/ship/colony get hunted down and eaten. Most of these associations are purposefully invoked in order to set up surprises later in the film but it does mean Moon sometimes lacks individuality of its own, overwhelmed by references and in-jokes.

There's some brilliant cinematography but it's not actually that impressive to look at - it's only brilliant when you think about the effort they must have gone to in order to get some of the shots. Trying to remember this while simultaneously avoiding thinking about the daft plot and the questionable science is tricky.

And yet, despite its flaws, Moon is unquestionably engrossing. Sam Rockwell is fantastic throughout and the pacing of fresh revelations is excellent. It feels likes something is always going on, even though very little actually happens. The story itself might not stand up to a second viewing but I'll probably watch it again at some point anyway, just to pick up on the little details and marvel at the clever camera work.

Conclusion: Good but lacking in identity. (Which is rather ironic...)

Explosions: None.
Space battles: None.
Time-travelling killer robots: None.
Exotic, green alien women: None.
Chesney Hawkes songs: One.

Rating: 4/5.


Barnyard Bingo

Barnyard Bingo box.

Cost: £10-£15.

  • Upright 'barn' dispenser with a hole at the top and a gate at the side. The discs are loaded into the hole. Each time the gate is opened, one disc comes out.

  • 12 discs in 4 colour-coded sets of three animals.

  • One plastic bingo card for each colour. (Blue, red, yellow and green.)

  • Plastic storage case/board.
Gameplay: There are three variants to the game. In each one, players take turns to open the gate and release a disc.

  • Colour bingo - If the disc is the player's colour, they put it on their bingo card. If not, they put it back in the top of the dispenser. The winner is the first player to get all three discs of their colour.

  • Barnyard bingo - Players need to collect discs of any colour to complete a set of the three animals on their card.

  • Barnyard race - The bingo cards are ignored. Players choose a disc as a playing piece and put it on the grid on the inside surface of the storage case. Each player must choose a disc showing a different type of animal. When a disc is removed from the dispenser, the animal shown moves forward one space on the grid and the disc is returned to the dispenser. The player whose piece reaches the end of the grid first is the winner.
Object: Who cares? This is all about posting things into the top of a machine and then pulling a lever to have them come out the bottom with a 'Sproing!' noise.

Game length: Under five minutes.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 3+. Younger children could join in as long as someone makes sure they don't try and snack on the discs. Children over five aren't going to stay interested for long.

Comments: This was one of the surprise hits of Sproglette's third birthday and I might well have bought it for every toddler I knew if I'd been able to find it on sale anywhere. As so often seems to be the case with decent stuff, however, it was immediately ousted from shelves by all kinds of games that don't really work and toys packed with rubber aliens and slime. Looks like it's been re-released, though, or someone's found a stack of the things at the back of a warehouse. (At time of writing, Tesco direct have it in stock.)

Barnyard Bingo in action.

Small children like animals, posting things, pulling levers, funny noises, surprises and brightly-coloured pastic. In a stroke of genius, Barnyard Bingo has all these things. The game itself is almost superfluous. This is probably for the best, since it's hard to get kids to follow the rules anyway. They always want to match both colour AND animal at the same time. There's also no skill to winning and the whole thing can be over in a couple of minutes. Nope, the fun is in posting animals and then pulling a brightly-coloured plastic lever to make a funny noise and see what appears.

This can literally go on for hours.

Fortunately, unlike with games involving dice, you won't end up doing most of the work counting out movement or spending your whole time reminding children to take their turn. They'll happily get on with it themselves. Even better, they'll be more than willing to take your turn for you, allowing you to grunt gentle encouragement as you lie on the sofa, resting your eyes.

The rattling and sproing!ing can get tiresome after a while but it's nowhere near as loud as Hungry Hippos.

Conclusion: Very useful for entertaining a pre-schooler with minimal effort on a rainy afternoon.


  • Posting, a lever, animals, a funny noise, surprises AND bright colours.

  • Simple.

  • As much a toy as a game.

  • Can keep small children fascinated for ages.

  • Seems to encourage invention and experimentation in a way that so many 'specially designed' educational toys just don't.

  • Sturdy storage case.

  • Actual game isn't that interesting.

  • Pictures on the outside of the box are wrapped round rather than attached, so come off the first time the game is opened.

  • Lever wouldn't survive being sat on.

  • Sproing! Rattle, rattle. Sproing! Rattle. Sproing! Rattle, rattle, rattle...
Rating: 4/5.

Credit Rating Info

Last week, I got sent some PR material to tell you all how to improve your credit rating. Unfortunately, it's quite long and is somewhat lacking in the whole jokes/kids/explosions department. (It's also discretely endorsed by a 'higher interest' credit card.) If I stuck it up here, it would simply give the wrong impression. This is a place for time-travelling killer robots and slagging frustrating toys which have limited volume control.

On the other hand, all my credit cards and household bills are in my wife's name - if anything happens to her, I know I'm going to be needing some credit rating information in a bit of a hurry. This being the case, I've hurled it back through time and hidden it in among November's posts where it's out of the way but still accessible.

(If you're interested, better head there now before the killer robots get to it...)

Terminator - Salvation (DVD)

Starring: Christian Bale and Sam Worthington.

Rated: 12.

Story: It's the future... but the future of an alternate past where nuclear war has already happened. Or something like that. Anyway, everywhere is covered with dust and burnt-out cars, and the machines have taken over large chunks of the world. The human resistance is surprisingly well-equipped with submarines, fighters and helicopters, and has a plan to take the fight to Skynet, the computer leading the robots.

Meanwhile, John Connor, the prophesied leader of humanity, struggles to make anyone listen to his stories of time-travelling cyborgs and explanations of how he's older than his own dad. For some reason, no one agrees to put him in charge...

Comments: Right. Let me get this straight: in the original Terminator, a cyborg travelled back in time to stop the victorious leader of the post-Apocalyptic humans from being born. In the process it both brought about his birth and the Apocalypse. In Terminator 2, a couple more temporal tourists cancelled nuclear Armageddon. Only for it to be reinstated in Terminator 3 and bypassed again in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Then they put the cyborg in charge of California. Or was that before? Possibly. But was it before the original now, the actual now or one of the alternate nows? I'm not sure.

Who am I again?

I dunno. I've lost track of which Terminator timeline is the official one. It doesn't really matter for this new sequel, however. All the time travelling has already finished (even though it's yet to happen), Judgment Day has come and gone, and it's down to a straight fight between humanity and the machines. Cue lots of explosions in the desert.

Paradoxes aside, Salvation has all the established hallmarks of the Terminator series - a friendly cyborg, a robot that won't die, a strong female character (who just happens to be hot), someone saying 'Come with me if you want to live', an endless fight in a factory and lots of stuff blowing up. It's a fun return to a fondly-remembered franchise. That said, the generic wasteland setting and the lack of time travel does make it a little bland in its own right. It's all action and no plot and gets a bit silly by the end, finishing with an almost comically literal take on "it's what's in someone's heart that counts." Bale's performance is totally forgettable. Thankfully, Worthington manages to display enough charisma for the both of them.

Still, if you're in the mood for explosions and killer machines, this is one of the better choices available. (After the first three movies, of course... and the TV series... and The Matrix... and, oh, never mind...)

Conclusion: Booms, guns, robots, planes, bikes and Moon Goodblood. Turn it on and break out the beer.

Explosions: Loads. If it's on the screen, then it's liable to go up in a ball of flame at any moment.
Time travel: None.
Talk about time travel: Lots.
Impossibly tough robots: Dozens.
Will it be back?: Almost certainly. Going on past form, expect more time travel, a female cyborg and a detonation every three seconds.

Rating: 4/5.


Playmobil Pirates Boarding! (DS)

Rated: 3+ but there's lots of complex text. Players will need to be able to read fluently to get the most from the game.

Story: Pirate One-Eye must search out the nine pieces of Blackbeard's sea-chart in order to find the mermaid and rescue her from the 'wicked' soldiers.

There's a possibility this may not be all that historically accurate...

Gameplay: The two main elements of Pirates are sailing and platforming. The sailing involves steering your ship between islands, avoiding reefs and enemies. Once you've upgraded your vessel and acquired cannons, you can defeat opposing ships and monsters to claim loot. The platforming is some basic 2D jumping with a touch of sword-fighting thrown in.

The main way to make money for ship upgrades is by trading goods between islands. This adds a little more interest to the missions, since most of them merely involve sailing between two islands, doing a brief spot of platforming and then sailing back again.

Occasionally, One-Eye must dive for treasure or fire rubber rings using a catapult to rescue shipwreck survivors. There are also a number of mini-games. These are simplified and limited versions of Blackjack, Air Hockey, Zoo Keeper, Battleships and Boom Boom Rocket. It's only necessary to win each one once to progress in the main game but they can be played additional times to win extra gold.

The Battleships mini-game can be played 2-player using 2 DSs and a single cart.

Save System: Automatic save on landing, setting sail or completing a mission. It's worth noting, however, that if your ship sinks, you don't die and get to return to your last save - you wash up on the nearest island and have to buy a new boat. This can be a huge setback. It's worth switching off the DS and reloading the game before the auto-save kicks in.

Comments: First impressions of Pirates are favourable. The graphics are good and the intro movie is reminiscent of the style and humour of the LEGO computer games. More than that, the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek and there's an ambitious mix of gameplay styles. It appears that Pirates has the potential to be a Playmobil take on Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass and deliver an epic free-roaming adventure.

Sadly, although there's plenty of freedom to sail anywhere, there's very little point. A free-roaming adventure normally has a fairly linear main story but plenty of distractions, side-quests and hidden corners to reward experimentation and exploration. Pirates really only has a main story and it's mostly made up of what would count as side-quests and distractions in a better game. It consists almost entirely of 'go there, fetch that' missions.

None of the constituents of the game are particularly broken but they've all been done better elsewhere. The diving sections are a direct borrow from Phantom Hourglass, for instance. In terms of level design, the platforming segments are twenty years out of date. Much of the sailing feels like filler. Without puzzles, secrets or even much variation, completing the game becomes a question of perseverance. Sprog1 (aged 9) lost interest after an hour or two and went back to the complexities of Pokémon.

That said, Sprog2 (aged 7) loved Pirates. He enjoyed the trading and didn't mind the repetition and lack of challenge. He was just annoyed that once the mermaid was free, he couldn't go back and do more sailing around without starting a new saved game.

Pirates is by no means a disaster. It's certainly been given some love and care (if not much imagination). Ultimately, however, the game will only to appeal to a very narrow age range of children. Children not much younger than eight will struggle with reading all the dialogue, while children who aren't much older will get bored with the basic nature of the gameplay.

Conclusion: Diverting for eight-year-olds and Playmobil fans but quickly becomes a grind for anyone else.

Graphics: Some pleasing 3D characters on a 2D background. Captures the Playmobil look.

Length: Short - 5 or 6 hours.

Rating: 3/5.

Dubit Family Panel

Dubit have asked me to let you know that they're currently looking for parents to join their Family Panel.

Dubit is a UK youth marketing agency that started out as a Young Enterprise company 10 years ago, created by 13- to 15-year-olds who wanted to improve the way young people are marketed to. It's grown from there but the idea is still the same - people are more likely to buy something if it's recommended to them by a friend or presented to them in the right way.

Members of the Family Panel team work on promotional campaigns, raising awareness about products, brands and services. Rewards can include cheques, vouchers and free merchandise. There's also a regular newsletter with offers and exclusive competitions.

Dubit are looking to recruit parents onto the Family Panel to promote only brands they love. Campaigns can last from one week to three weeks and generally consist of offline work (for example, handing out samples to friends who are parents) or online work (sharing opinions with friends via email and social networking sites).

For more info and to register, visit If you have any questions, you can email Rachel at Dubit.

Obviously, I haven't tried it myself yet but I'm off to sign up. I'm actually a bit miffed I missed their recent Cheestrings promotion. My kids love the things and Sprog1 can take half an hour eating one. I could have kept him quiet for weeks with the free samples and got paid for it into the bargain. Drat.

Never mind, I'll see what they hook me up with and keep you posted...