Reviews Category RSS Feed | Reviews RSS Feed on en Launch Media Network Ghostrunner Review: The World Bleeds Red and Neon Mon, 26 Oct 2020 10:01:16 -0400 John Schutt

In Ghostrunner, death is inescapable for your enemies. You die over and over, but when you’re done, your enemies stay dead, and you are the only one left standing. You carve your way to the top of a cyberpunk megastructure covered in neon as you listen to a slick synthwave soundtrack, keeping time with the death you deal. And, at times, it is as badass as it sounds.

Ghostrunner is a game in dire need of a replay mode for both your failures and final success. Something similar to what's found in Superhot or Katana Zero would be welcome because the game’s aesthetic and its gameplay combine to showcase what a robot ninja is actually capable of. It would have been satisfying to see it from every angle imaginable.

Its story doesn't boast the same quality as its gameplay, sadly. It’s a trope-filled, predictable affair that does little to enhance the core experience. The pacing is all over the place, as can be the difficulty and annoyances. None of it makes the game less enjoyable to play, mind: it just detracts from the overall product enough to be noticeable. 

Ghostrunner Review: The World Bleeds Red and Neon

Ghostrunner follows the same basic rules as games like Super Meat Boy, Katana Zero, and Superhot: be hit once, and you’re sent back to a checkpoint. Smart play is vital, as is a deep knowledge of all the mechanics you’ve been introduced to. 

Quick reflexes and decision making are key, as well. This is a game meant to be played at high-speed, moving smoothly between traversal one second and a flurry of blades the next. Then, between moments of slaughter, you’re avoiding death traps and dashing over bottomless pits at obscene velocities, only stopping to admire the derelict city around you.

You rely on core skills like wall running and a Sensory Boost, the latter of which slows time and allows you to avoid projectiles and other attacks with more freedom. Over the course of the game, you unlock additional abilities, most of them geared towards more effectively killing your enemies. Style isn’t tracked like in Devil May Cry, but your abilities are intelligently stylish by default. 

Getting Around

Ghostrunner’s levels break down into two distinct area types: traversal and combat. Traversal areas center around precise platforming and judicious use of your various movement abilities. Most of them are about going up, but some have you descending via a slide. Either case has you learning when to jump, dash, grapple, and slide, and by the end of the game, these portions will be lengthy and complicated. 

Each combat arena is self-contained, so you won't avoid any of them. You must combine what you learned in the traversal sections with all the abilities you’ve gained to that point to succeed. You learn about new enemies one at a time before the game quickly ramps up the complexity. 

Your ability to make decisions on the fly is paramount, as, by the game’s end, two things will be true: your reaction speeds will be lightning-fast, and your death count will be high. Until you know how a room or a fight flows, there isn’t much room for error, and you will die at least a few dozen times on the harder ones.

How you use your enemies’ abilities to your advantage determines success in the later levels, as does optimal movement. Experimentation is a worthy tool, as what you think you can do and what you can actually do are often the same

Facilitating your trial and error is a fairly forgiving checkpointing system. Failing halfway through an encounter always sends you back to its beginning. It’s only the start of that encounter and not the level or area. For more difficult platforming and traversal sections, there are additional restart points. Boss fights also have multiple checkpoints, with one exception. 

Failure is an important part of the learning process, and on PC, at least, the restarts are instant. Your mistakes are almost always the cause of failure too, because, by the time you’ve seen the whole room, you know where an enemy or hazard will be, when, and your preferred route to them.

Enemies and obstacles are easy to understand once you’ve been up against them enough times. It’s ultimately a matter of staying calm under pressure and learning rather than hitting your head endlessly into a wall.

Sights and Sounds

A game as fast and frenetic as this one needs a soundtrack that drives adrenaline and pushes the player to greater and greater heights. Ghostrunnerdelivers. Pulsing baselines and powerful synths are at the heart of the score. While the music can be a somewhat standard synthwave from time to time, it’s never boring or intrusive. More importantly, it’s good enough to make repeated failures more bearable. 

The sound of slicing through your foes is just as satisfying. The metal-on-metal zing shows off the power in your sword arm, and the flop of a bisected corpse on the ground tells you just how dead they are. Enemy attacks all have a unique tone, so even if you aren’t looking at them, you know who you’re fighting.

Characters are well-voiced, though there’s nothing spectacular about the acting. It is exactly what it needs to be.

The art design and aesthetics, however, are outstanding. Each section of the tower you move through has its own personality, but everything is bathed in neon. >Ghostrunnerloves to show off the power of Unreal Engine 4 too, with stark lighting changes and contrasting colors, blood spatters, and oil puddles reflecting the dying world around them.

While the world itself isn’t a masterclass of cyberpunk narrative design, the artists and environmental designers spared no expense making everything look as slick as the combat and movement.

Falling Out of the Sky

There’s a lot to love about Ghostrunner, but there's no shortage of small things to complain about as well. The biggest issue is its inconsistent wall running. Sometimes my character would stick right to a wall and jump gracefully to the next. Other times, I’d find myself falling into a restart because I didn't wall run when I thought I would.

The pacing is another large problem. Most of the game happens at breakneck speeds, but the portions where you gain additional abilities and upgrades slow everything way down, stripping you of most of your movement abilities in the process. Suddenly, I would find myself standing over a cyberspace abyss waiting for a platform to rotate so I could gather part of a key. 

The cyberspace sections are infrequent enough, but they almost always occur late in a level where you're already on edge and don’t want to come down until the clear screen comes up. But out of nowhere, rote platforming and simple puzzle solving appear in a game about being a stylish robo-ninja with superpowers. To say the transition can be jarring is putting it mildly.

Then there is the customization screen, where you augmented your abilities using a Tetris-style grid and shapes. I appreciate that I could make my killing techniques even more powerful, but more than once, I found myself taking time to optimize the grid just a little bit more, taking the pace of the game and slamming squarely on the brakes. Even the cyberspace levels had me moving. Futzing in a menu did not.

The story is also something of a pain point.Ghostrunner is predictable in the extreme, with each narrative beat existing only as a framework to reach the next combat and traversal area. The villains are bog-standard cyberpunk tropes, and the hero’s reasons for doing what he’s doing are nothing to write home about.

There are several opportunities to expand on the world that never gets explored, like going outside into the rotted wasteland or interacting with the characters you meet over the story’s runtime. 

I encountered a few bugs in my playthrough as well, from getting stuck in geometry to crashes and the like. I played on a pre-release build of the game, and I imagine most of these are likely to be fixed when the game launches on October 27. 

Ghost Runner Review — The Bottom Line


  • Incredible combat and lightning pace
  • Great soundtrack and aesthetic
  • Smooth performance even on the highest settings


  • Weak story and worldbuilding
  • Pacing issues
  • The occasional bug and crash

Ghostrunner offers satisfying combat in a well-constructed, beautiful cyberpunk world. You will feel more and more powerful as the game moves on, and moving through the world is always a wonderful experience.

There are a few holes in the story and mechanics that could have seen additional tuning, but if you’re in the market for a fast-paced slash-em-up set in a bleak future, Ghostrunner has just what you need.

[Note: 505 Games provided the copy of Ghostrunner used for this review.]

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review — To The Glorious Future Fri, 23 Oct 2020 13:15:02 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 has a lot riding on its shoulders. It's the culmination of the past eight games in the Trails series, tasked with exploring lingering mysteries and bringing everything to a satisfying close while still telling the story of New Class VII and the Erebonian Empire.

It's a tall order, and Trails of Cold Steel 4 reaches for the stars to make it work — and it pays off. Though it falters just a bit at times, Cold Steel 4 is an unforgettable experience and one of the best games in the series.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review: To The Glorious Future

Political realism and intrigue has always been one of the Trails series’ most compelling factors.

War and RPGs go together hand-in-hand, but rarely has war felt as personal as Trails of Cold Steel 4 makes it.

Cold Steel 4 picks up two weeks after everyone almost literally went to hell at the end of Cold Steel 3, opening with an ominous prologue. The Erebonian government declared war on the Republic of Calvard in retaliation for their assassination attempt against the Erebonian emperor.

Thors Branch Campus students and faculty have been scattered to the winds, and Class VII, minus some important members, wakes up in the Hexen Clan’s village. Without getting too far into spoilers, Rean Schwarzer is missing, and Class VII with Randy Orlando in tow set out to uncover the truth behind what went down at the end of Cold Steel 3.

The journey starts with Juna and co. revisiting the same places in nearly the same order as they did in the previous game. But there’s a key difference this time: the shadow of war hangs over even the far corners of the empire

Political realism and intrigue has always been one of the Trails series’ most compelling factors. Cold Steel 4 is absolutely loaded with it, more than almost all of its predecessors.

The imperial government wasted no time preparing for war, and you see the effects of its conscription and requisition everywhere, in buildings taken over for military purposes and even in the shops. 

With the military siphoning supplies and stymieing commerce, prices for non-weapon goods have increased in all the shops — except the national chain that allied itself with the government.

Even those who would oppose the war find themselves eager for revenge against Calvard. The Great Twilight unleashed at the end of the previous game amplifies the fear, anxiety, and pain in people’s hearts, making them easy targets for the government’s populist rabble-rousing and propaganda.

It’s in the turmoil leading to war that you clearly see for the first time in the subseries why Class VII exists: to stand against a tyrannical, fascist government when all other options failed. 

Cold Steel 4 is thick with layers, and in a lot of ways, it cements the Cold Steel series as The Wheel of Time of RPG fantasy.

Opposing tyrants isn’t new territory for RPGs. But seeing it unfold both on the backs of every citizen you meet and against the backdrop of Class VII realizing its purpose makes it more involved and effective than ever — even if it did take four games to see it happen.

It’s only half the story, though, and just one of many such payoffs.

Class VII’s initial goal is finding and freeing their missing members, including Rean, but Rean’s story is tied inextricably with the supernatural side of Erebonia’s history and every game before it.

So it's probably stating the obvious, but Cold Steel 4 is thick with layers, and in a lot of ways, it cements the Cold Steel series as The Wheel of Time of RPG fantasy. Suffice to say, it’s fertile ground for some hefty worldbuilding and helps Rean come into his own as one of the more interesting and dynamic RPG protagonists. 

In the process, Cold Steel 4 answers so many questions lingering from earlier games while raising just as many, if not more, questions as it answers. 

It’s also loaded with spectacular set pieces and boss fights from the first part of Act I up through the very end.

Granted, these have a good deal of the series’ usual anime guff, from pre-battle speeches to in-the-nick-of-time arrivals from other characters. But it’s to Cold Steel 4’s credit that it even executes the cheese well.

Thankfully, doom, gloom, and foreshadowing aren’t the only order of the day. Cold Steel 4 has its fair share of quiet and lighter moments, though a few of them are the usual, completely tasteless chest-centric ones that JRPGs need to just… stop doing.

Assault isn’t a joke, and it really shouldn’t be that hard to understand. For what it’s worth, there’s just one scene that crosses the boundary, and it’s at the very beginning. But even one is too much. 

After the opening act, the pacing takes a bit of a hit. It’s not all bad though. 

Act 1 and the Fragments segment after it really could be Trails of Cold Steel 3 Jr. and maybe should have been a separate game. After its big opening sequence, Act 2 resets the stage, as it were.

You’re traveling around western Erebonia via airship and gathering intel about key events and people while completing quests as the tension ramps up again. 

It’s not a deal-breaker by any means. The transition from gradually increasing tension to sweeping, dramatic closing act and then back to square one is just a bit jarring, partly because those set pieces make it so easy to get swept up in what’s going on in Act 1.

However, it’s handled better than other “part two” Trails games. Quests are always relevant to the situation and provide a handy means of earning money to outfit your ever-expanding crew. Events still move at a fair clip too, and nothing outstays its welcome.

The wider premise of “find missing person X” isn’t the most compelling at first. However, even this pays off. It’s a smart way to introduce important threads and flesh out other characters’ stories — including other Thors students from both campuses — that would otherwise be overshadowed. 

True, not everyone gets the development they deserve, though that’s not surprising with a cast this size. The (horned) lion’s share of character development goes to New Class VII.

The plot layering is expertly handled to where you can still understand and enjoy the major events even if Cold Steel 3 was your first game.

It’s disappointing Old Class VII gets left by the wayside a bit, following after their role at the end of the previous game. But as a trade-off, both here and throughout the game, New Class VII gets some of the best development (including voice work) in the whole Trails series.

Act 3 picks up the pace again in a dizzying zigzag around the empire as the story builds up and pulls all the different cast members together for a grand finale. (Except it doesn’t. Load your game after the credits to get the true final sequence and ending).

Because Cold Steel 4 is essentially the culmination of everything that happened in the past eight games, the Erebonian crew gets plenty of help along the way from the stars of the Trails in the Sky games and the yet-to-be-officially-localized Zero/Azure games.

As a result, there are several plot points, characters, and references tied to those games and keep Cold Steel 4 from being as newcomer-friendly as Cold Steel 3.

The plot layering is expertly handled to where you can still understand and enjoy the major events even if Cold Steel 3 was your first game. In fact, some of the best character and plot development builds on what Cold Steel 3 did.

But it does create more moments where you might be left scratching your head, where you know you’re missing something that the in-game summary notes don’t cover. It also means some of the bigger fanservice-y moments are reserved for long-time fans.

The plot and character developments are the biggest new things Cold Steel 4 brings to the table. Yet even though combat and other gameplay elements are recognizable from Cold Steel 3, nearly everything is improved even more than Cold Steel 3 improved on Cold Steel 2.

There are plenty of scenarios — including the many fantastic boss fights — where you still need your wits about you. 

Cold Steel 4 tones the Break system down to reasonable levels and makes some welcome alterations to the Order system. Enemy Break meters are beefier this time, so you can’t spam Juna’s Order to stunlock as often. AT-delay-reducing Orders aren’t as powerful this time either.

You have to pull out all the other stops instead, especially on Hard, making for a more robust and enjoyable combat system. It’s even better thanks to a tweak with the Master Quartz system that lets you equip the same secondary Master Quartz to any character. 

You can feasibly break the game with this if you’re so inclined. But there are plenty of scenarios — including the many fantastic boss fights — where you still need your wits about you. 

Speaking of boss fights, Cold Steel 4 adds new parameters to some of them that shake up your strategies. You’ll need to finish in a set number of turns or complete some other objective to obtain the bonus AP needed to S-rank that chapter, and it’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Thankfully, the difficulty is still adjustable as always, so if you just want to breeze through and enjoy the story, you can.

Divine Knight/Panzer Soldat battles are the best they’ve been in the Cold Steel series with a snappier pace and more options open from the start.

Dungeons are mercifully shorter in Cold Steel 4, for the most part. Neverending slogs like Cold Steel 3’s Dark Dragon Nest are the exception instead of the rule.

Outside of battle and dungeon crawling, you’ve also got a wider range of other activities to spend your time on. 

Vantage Masters returns, with more opponents and cards and a higher level of strategy required. Certain locations have casinos where you can blow your cash on card games, and you even get to visit the happiest place on earth a few times, Mishelam Wonderland. 

Then there’s the deliciously addictive Pom Party, the Trails version of Puyo Puyo, with the added bonus of increasing bond levels with certain opponents if you win.

Cold Steel 4 also brings back Trial Chests, minus the puns that accompanied them in Cold Steel 2. Overcoming these specific combat scenarios strengthens  Orders for one of the characters that takes part, so they’re more of a necessity than a sideshow.

Basically, this game is huge. You’re in it for the long haul, but the reward is undeniably worth your while.

Lost Arts and the powerful mini-bosses that guard them also return if you want an extra challenge with a honkin’ big reward waiting for you.

It wouldn’t be Trails of Cold Steel without bonding events. These don’t show up until later in the game, but they’re more important than ever. The bonding events delve deeper into their sub-stories and even tie up some of their threads left dangling from earlier games. Just keep some tissues handy, though that goes for parts of the main story too.

Cold Steel 4 adds more optional sub-events in certain places that expand the story even more and more Active Voice events in the field with banter between party members and commentary on the surroundings. It’s a small set of touches, but it makes the world feel even more lived in than usual.

Finally, there's the usual set of in-game novels to find and read, including "Three and Nine," a direct tie-in with follow-up game Hajimari no Kiseki's Miserable Sinners.

Basically, this game is huge. You’re in it for the long haul, but the reward is undeniably worth your while.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review — The Bottom Line


  • A grand story and fantastic conclusion to the Cold Steel series
  • Strong character development for most of the cast
  • Deftly handles countless tie-ins with previous games
  • Best battle system and boss fights of the Cold Steel games
  • Absolutely massive with so much to do
  • Excellent soundtrack and voice work
  • Pacing dips just a bit after Act 1
  • Some character development gets let out

I knew Trails of Cold Steel 4 was supposed to tie up the series' loose ends, though it surprised me not just how many loose ends it ties up but how well it balances almost everything. It's a game that could easily buckle under its own weight and never does.

The pacing and Old Class VII development aren't that bad. It's just that I can't call Cold Steel 4 a must play when it depends so much on playing at least Cold Steel 3 first. That's not really a criticism. It's just how these games work.

If you've played that — which I strongly recommend for anyone who enjoys RPGs — and have even the slightest interest in what comes next, then yes, it's absolutely a must-play.

[Note: NISA provided the copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 used for this review.]

Pumpkin Jack Review: Simply Spooktacular Fri, 23 Oct 2020 00:15:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

I remember the first time I learned of Pumpkin JackThe game's sole developer, Nicolas Meyssonnier, shared a GIF of the work-in-progress on Twitter and it just happened to hit my timeline  thank you, algorithms. I was immediately enamored.

Visually, Pumpkin Jack seemed both nostalgic and modern, like so many of the 3D platformers of yesteryear recently remade, and it enticingly walked this line in what looked like a perfectly ghoulish setting for October. It seemed like an amazing concept, but there's only so much you can glean from a GIF.

Flash forward many months and the frightfully fun game has arrived on schedule, just in time for the Halloween season. Thankfully, this headless horseman rides to town with all its charm intact.

Pumpkin Jack Review: Simply Spooktacular

Pumpkin Jack is a 3D platformer that any fan of the genre will instantly recognize. The pumpkin-headed anti-hero is new to games, and it's a never-before-seen Halloweentown in which he jumps about, but the mechanics of his traversal as well as the enemies who stand opposed to his tricks and treats are all of a piece with the genre greats.

Meyssonnier hasn't shied from the comparisons in pre-release. In fact, Pumpkin Jack is advertised as a homage to games like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter especially, though it's MediEvil that will draw the strongest comparisons to anyone other than the developer. That's because like the defunct Guerrilla Cambridge's undead adventure, Pumpkin Jack fits the Halloween season like a Fortnite costume on a pre-teen.

Every single aspect of Pumpkin Jack is designed to be appreciated right now, in October. On his exploits to rid the world of good, Jack bounces about cemeteries, explores haunted mines, and even invades Santa's Village to inject a bit of Burtonesque macabre into the snowy hamlet, all while the excellent original music paints a scene of frightful fun.

Every level glows like a fresh Jack-O-Lantern with vibrant oranges, greens, purples, and more, and a hint of foggy haze envelops the world, ensuring every level feels like the lighthearted holiday hit it wants to be. This is a game built for, and quite clearly by, fans of Halloween. 

Though October is clearly the ideal time to soak in Pumpkin Jack, its mechanics ensure it can be enjoyed year-round. A platformer lives and dies by a combination of its jumping fluidity and its camera controls. Joyously, I found no problems in either case.

The double-jump ensures Jack always hits his target and the level design carries players through smartly, using environmental cues rather than any guide arrows. It's a surprisingly immersive game for something that feels like a reverse episode of Scooby-Doo.

Combat is similarly enjoyable, and while it can be a bit button-mashy in some instances, there's always just enough skill in knowing when to dodge-roll around a horde of skeletons and other ghouls to ensure it's not a totally brainless affair.

Every level delivers a new weapon unlock to your radial menu too, like a scythe, a shovel, or a magic wand that fires off a burst of spells like shotgun shells. I found which weapon you use mostly comes down to personal preference, as they are about equally viable in almost all cases, but the creativity and aesthetics behind each weapon are fun throughout the roughly six-hour game.

Each of Pumpkin Jack's half-dozen levels guarantees a few gameplay beats. They all focus mainly on the aforementioned well-designed 3D platforming and beat 'em up combat. They each introduce puzzle sections of a familiar type, like building light bridges or playing something like Memory. They each also make time to break up those sections with on-rails moments like a runaway mine cart, a dash through the woods atop a ghostly horse, or a rickety kart race against fiends who stand in your way.

These are mostly fun and forgiving enough, except for the roller coaster-like mine cart, which sometimes requires a precision that feels unfair, especially when its one-hit-kill fail state can push players frustratingly back to start often.

Every level also ends with a boss fight, the likes of which are more full of tropes than a stadium of red barrels, but I didn't mind. Pumpkin Jack doesn't reinvent the wheel designed by its genre predecessors, but it doesn't seem interested in doing so.

When boss battles consist of jumping over this attack, dashing that one, then hitting a glowing spot, you get it right away. It uses the language of video games seasoned players will know and new players will understand quickly, which is good since the game is usually such a treat for young and inexperienced players too.

When it's not so suitable for that audience, it comes down to two things. On one hand, there are no difficulty options, and while it's not a hard game for anyone who has played the games that inspired it, Pumpkin Jack can demand a modest mastery of the controller smaller hands just won't have yet.

Secondly, while the game has no voice acting, there is a story told through speech bubbles, but Jack treats everyone rudely that as a parent, I found some of his impatience for literally everyone he meets a bit tiring. There are funny moments too, like when you face down a pair of witches concocting a vegan brew, but I did find myself wishing for a version of the anti-hero where he wasn't so mean to everyone when my son was playing with me.

I think that approach also comes from the era that brought about Pumpkin Jack. It feels very 1990s, very Ed, Edd, and Eddy, to have your lead character constantly talking down to everyone. But today's cartoons, like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, are more about expressions of friendship and honest feelings.

It's been a revolution, and as Pumpkin Jack takes so much from a bygone era of mascot- and cartoon-led fiction, it misunderstands  or willfully ignores  this welcome sea change. In turn, it can feel a bit at odds with itself, hostile to the younger fans that will unavoidably be drawn to this game like their nostalgic parents.

Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn't consider Pumpkin Jack dazzling to look at, and as the gameplay holds up too, it makes for a fantastic alternative Halloween stream for those looking for something totally festive without the scares.

Pumpkin Jack Review — The Bottom Line

  • Reliable, sensible controls make for fun 3D platforming
  • Familiar but enjoyable puzzles, boss battles, and mechanics
  • A gorgeously spooky setting and excellent original music
  • A somewhat hostile, condescending sense of humor
  • No difficulty options 

I've written a lot this season about the many fitting games launching ahead of Halloween. Normally I focus on horror games, the genuinely frightening stuff that players love to find ahead of the candy-filled, unofficial holiday. But in Pumpkin Jack, players both new and old will find an alternative way to celebrate the bewitching season.

With levels reminiscent of beloved 3D platformers and an irresistible audiovisual experience, playing Pumpkin Jack this Halloween is exciting and youthful like trick-or-treaters finding the house giving out full-size candy bars.

[Note: Headup Games provided the copy of Pumpkin Jack used for this review.]

NHL 21 Review: The Hockey You Know, For Better or Worse Wed, 21 Oct 2020 15:49:25 -0400 RobertPIngram

If it seems like the Tampa Bay Lightning were lifting the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history just the other week, that's because it was just the other week. While most years the latest editions of EA's NHL series drop in the run-up to a new campaign, when fans are champing at the bit for the season to start, this is 2020, and nothing in 2020 is normal.

At least, nothing in the real world of 2020 is normal.

While sports have had to undergo massive changes to business as usual, including delays, pauses, and fanless bubbles, sports gamers know that franchises have an almost supernatural ability to make much ado about comparative nothing when it comes to changes and innovations.

Unfortunately, though NHL 21 arrives with all the standard pomp and circumstance of a new year's release, it feels like a lot more of the same. That includes all the excellent highs the series has to offer and, sadly, some of the same frustrating lows.

NHL 21 Review: The Hockey You Know, For Better or Worse

While it's not entirely without its flaws ... it is perhaps the most satisfying of all the sports simulations available.

Full disclosure: I have spent a lot of time playing NHL 20 and FIFA 20 over this summer of self-isolation. As a result, it can be hard to view the newest experience through the eyes of a new player, or someone who hasn't played an NHL game in a few years. While I will look at some of the pros and cons of the changes in this year's game, I want to first assess what players without any prior expectations can find when they boot up NHL 21.

The good news is that if you're considering making the jump into digital hockey, be it for the first time ever or the first time in a while, NHL 21 is an excellent game in that vacuum. While it's not entirely without its flaws, which grow only more frustrating when you've seen them year after year, on the balance, it is perhaps the most satisfying of all the sports simulations available.

Controls in NHL are extremely fluid. Using one stick to skate and the other to control your stick opens up a world of stick handling and dekes. Although some of the moves can be extremely challenging, and will likely remain well outside of the comfort zone of most casual players, the game provides a lovely training mode that quickly walks you through the basics of play and gets you comfortable enough to head out for a proper game in short order.

NHL 21 also features a range of modes to provide variety. There's the sporting-game standard Ultimate Team mode, where you slowly build a team of players by completing online games and challenges to open new packs of cards with new, hopefully-better, players. Pond hockey modes, including one-on-one and three-on-three games are also back, as well.

All told, it's a strong offering that is a worthwhile addition to any gaming collection with a hockey-shaped hole.

What's New: Lot's of Sizzle, Minimal Steak

If you're not an every-year buyer of NHL games and have a recent addition,  NHL 21 becomes a harder sell. While I advocated for NHL 20 doing just about enough to justify its purchase last year, the same can't be said of the latest edition. While there are new tweaks and features, they don't add up to $60 of new content if you aren't a fan of the HUT mode or feel the need to stay up to date on it.

Some of the lack of updates isn't entirely on developers. With the NHL's entire schedule thrown off by COVID-19 and a start date for next season currently existing only in the form of targets, not concrete answers, it's understandable that roster situations are fluid.

The draft just happened last week and free agency is still underway. However, when the biggest dig thrown at new sports games is that you pay full price for a roster update when even that isn't properly in place, it is a big dent in appeal.

There is also an upsettingly minimal amount of development put into the pond hockey modes. The two single-player circuits still send you on a tour of each conference that culminates in Las Vegas and Washington, respectively, champion representatives that are now two seasons out of date. When jumping into one-on-one modes, the starting pros unlocked are the same ones you'll find in NHL 20.

The Be a Pro mode is more of a mixed bag. On the positive side, NHL 21 represents a major improvement in representation as developers have finally solved the complex puzzle of how to incorporate women players as an option. If you want to play as a woman, you can choose to do so, with the game otherwise playing exactly the same. 

[Be a Pro's] approach to balancing traits, skills, and experience is the best blend of player development in any of the major franchises for my money.

The other big addition, the use of interviews and interactions, is more hit and miss. While it is a concept I enjoy seeing added to the game, and it helps to further distinguish the mode from standard play, the novelty runs off fast.

It is understandable that pouring resources into writing may not have been a priority, but it's still frustrating to be given the choice of three responses only for, time and time again, all three to make you sound like a bit of a dork, even when the game is describing one as the Star or Charm option.

Overall, Be a Pro remains a strong mode, and its approach to balancing traits, skills, and experience is the best blend of player development in any of the major franchises for my money. That said, this year's tweaks feel more like waxing your used car than buying a new one off the lot.

The final big addition, at least until NHL 94 Rewind drops at the end of the month, is the new HUT Rush mode. Featuring speedier games that reward players for skills and tricks, it offers a change of pace for online play. However, it also comes at the expense of Online Seasons and draft modes, meaning some players will actually find the change to be a net loss.

NHL 21 Review — The Bottom Line

  • The engine plays extremely smoothly and feels as fast and fluid as a real NHL game
  • The various pond hockey modes provide a fun change of pace from traditional games
  • Franchise mode offers a deep array of immersion options, with the ability to turn them off for a less-intensive approach, as well
  • Lack of change and innovation makes it hard to justify an upgrade for owners of NHL 20
  • Stickwork on defense still provides significantly more risk than reward, with tripping penalties so common you're often better off leaning into a body-heavy approach
  • Teammate AI is less effective in set-piece offenses when established in the offensive zone, making effective play on breaks overly important

The biggest condemnation I can offer for NHL 21 is that I could largely have just copied and pasted my closing for last year's game into this spot and spent a minute making some tweaks to the cons, and it would still work.

For players who haven't bought a hockey game in recent years, my recommendation is full-throated. While there are still some gameplay elements that aren't quite right that skew the way you play, in general, it provides a strong and entertaining simulation of fast-paced hockey. 

If you've already got a copy of NHL 20 and are enjoying it, and you aren't a HUT addict who doesn't want to be left behind, there's little here to make me recommend picking this year's edition up.

At least until real-world rosters finalize, the differences between last year's version and this year's version are minimal and hardly justify the expense. In that case, you're probably better off getting another year out of what you've already bought and seeing how things change for NHL 22.

If you do decide to take to the ice, you'll find a good game here, but it's just more of the same. 

[Note: A copy of NHL 21 was provided by Electronic Arts for the purpose of this review.]

Amnesia: Rebirth Review: You Won't Soon Forget It Mon, 19 Oct 2020 13:23:02 -0400 Mark Delaney

It's been 10 years since Amnesia altered the course of horror games forever. Survival horror like Resident Evil has never disappeared, but alongside it came a new generation of defenseless "hide-and-seek" horror that exploded onto the scene with Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

A decade later, Frictional Games has returned to the series that gave the small Swedish team their credentials as maestros of a wicked symphony. That proposition implies the team has something important to say, and when the credits roll on Rebirth, the message is clear.

Though Rebirth doesn't vault over the horror heights set by its predecessor, it also seems less concerned to do so in the first place, and its story cements it as something uniquely unforgettable.

Amnesia: Rebirth Review: You Won't Soon Forget It

Amnesia: Rebirth opens with the added flair you'd expect to find in a sequel 10 years in the making. Rather than simply having your character, Tasi Trianon, waking without memory like Daniel in Brennenburg Castle, her journey into an unforeseen hellscape begins in a plane crash over the Algerian desert.

Awakening from the crash to find her entire crew of engineers, a doctor, and even her husband and professional partner have disappeared, Tasi has the familiar task of piecing together what happened using only the clues she may find along her travels.

The desert's scorching conditions are at once unforgiving and unique for the series, which to date has never had to render daylight. Midsommar proved daylight horror as a concept, but here, Rebirth uses these outdoor sequences only for puzzles and extended story beats. It's in the dark depths of caves, abandoned armories, and otherworldly habitats where Frictional scripts all of its scares.

Those scares, however, are fewer in number and more forgiving than those in The Dark Descent.

Rebirth starts slow in that regard, with about an hour between the game's opening desert disaster and its first attempt to scare the pants off of you. By the end credits, you'll notice a consistent tension in your jaw as you've actually been gritting your teeth for seven or eight hours. But it's often just that, a tension, less rarely a sense of pure terror. 

That's not to say Rebirth never hits the horrific highs of the series' original game. It's just those moments don't come as often, and they sometimes feel more scripted, like chase sequences designed for your survival on a first try if you properly follow the game's well-crafted level design cues.

Frictional also seems to have added some mechanics that make the game less frustrating at the expense of some of the horror.

Like before, navigating through the darkness makes up a large portion of the gameplay in Amnesia: Rebirth, and you'll rely on quickly-extinguished match sticks and an oil lamp with its own dwindling reserves to get through the harsh darkness.

In The Dark Descent, if you ran out of these visual aids, you were stuck pushing sightlessly toward the next literal light at the end of any given tunnel.

In Rebirth, Tasi's eyes seem to adjust to the dark better, and after a moment, you can sort of feel your way along walls with more visibility than before. You'll still need to contend with her Fear levels (replacing the series' Insanity meter), so sticking around in the dark for too long isn't viable. Still, it's no longer as daunting to cross the darkness seeking the next fleeting moment of respite.

The most dramatic shift in how the game aids players at the expense of some scares comes when you hit fail screens multiple times in one section. Rebirth seems to reload Tasi's whereabouts and puts you on the path to freedom as a way of preventing you from replaying the same area over and over.

It could be frustrating to replay a section countless times, no doubt, but the system here ends up feeling a bit like a cheat code. Twice in the game's scariest sections, I was lost amid encroaching horrors and died a few times only to respawn at what I'd call the 90% marker of a level. From there, I merely had to push ahead to the obvious exit.

These feel like smart accessibility options for those that don't want to replay sections over and over, like Frictional has data confirming some players ditched the earlier games when they couldn't make it through certain chapters. But in all cases, the most hardcore of horror fans will find these helpful nudges take away some of the game's most terrifying sections because they lessen the blow of failure.

It seems it's a tradeoff the studio is happy to make because the story in Rebirth is its best attribute and deserves to be finished by everyone. Tasi's adventure into darkness is familiar in its methods but unique in its details.

You'll still find notes to recall little bits of the past you've lost, you'll stumble upon grim scenes of explorers that long predate you, and loading screens tell their own secondary plot of Tasi and Salim's life before the crash. These are the tools of every Amnesia game, but Frictional manages to fill them in with details that haven't been seen before.

Though the story feels inspired by some other horror fiction, it's never more than that. Nothing here is homage or heavy-handed reference. Frictional is a studio that expertly understands horror as a genre, both using and subverting tropes in fascinating ways. As a result, Rebirth feels wholly original and treads ground that few ever do in games.

It's hard to say more than that because the game has a few story beats that totally alter things early on, and you should witness them for yourself. It all unfolds like an irresistible novel, and even as the game would dare me to move through its threatening world, I did so almost entirely in one long sitting because it's so well told and unlike anything I've seen in the genre, games or otherwise.

I can thus only speak in more vagueries to its ending. But it's on that has stuck with me obsessively since I hit the credits days ago. Offering multiple endings is new to the series, and though I only saw one of them, the final choice it asks players to make provides for the same sort of internal philosophical debate that Frictional's masterclass SOMA did. Albeit, Rebirth's does so with a much more personal proposition at the center of its thesis.

Behind me is the part of Rebirth where I live through its foreboding caves and unforgiving deserts, but lying ahead is a long road of inescapable internal anguish over my actions in the game's final moments. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has Rebirth beat in a measure of fear, but in its story, Rebirth makes a strong case for being the best game in the series.

Amnesia: Rebirth Review  The Bottom Line

  • A gripping story that will stay with you for a long time
  • Alternate endings via a final choice that may prove paralyzing
  • An ever-shifting setting that feels original to the genre
  • More relenting and forgiving than the original

In a crowded month of new horror games, Amnesia: Rebirth could go down as the scariest of the bunch, even as it doesn't hit the mark of its genre-defining predecessor. In an effort to get everyone to the finish line of its fantastic story, this sequel is more forgiving than you may expect, but that's not to say it's a far cry from the horrors that put the studio on the map.

It's just clear this time, like it was in SOMA, that the horrors are supplementary to a masterful narrative that takes center stage, which further cements Frictional Games as one of the most reliable creators in both the medium and the genre.

[Note: Frictional Games provided the copy of Amnesia: Rebirth used for this review.]

Cake Bash Review: Cream of the Crop Thu, 15 Oct 2020 14:14:22 -0400 Henry Stockdale

Let’s be honest: Whether you’re the type to visit the local bakery frequently or you simply enjoy an odd biscuit with your cup of tea (or coffee), many of us can’t resist indulging in the occasional sweet treat.

Usually seen as comfort food, sweets aren't traditionally associated with competition, especially a four-player brawler. But that’s exactly what Cake Bash aims to dispel.

Developed by High Tea Frog, this party game is a frantic multiplayer experience both online and locally. Though you can play the game's campaign mode alone against the AI, Cake Bash's wider appeal lies within its multiplayer component and party options. Tastefully, it delivers a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Cake Bash Review: Cream of the Crop

It’s a lot of fun with friends

If you ever wanted to beat up a cupcake as an eclair or have ever fancied wailing on other baked goods as a donut, Cake Bash has you covered in more ways than one. 

Get Tasty is Cake Bash’s campaign mode, which can be played alone or with friends. It offers several rounds of games where players vie to become the tastiest cake. There are seven playable sweets available, all of which are based on common cakes and pastries, and each has its own name and different skins, adding a gentle touch of personality to the mix.

Depending on your performance in the campaign mode, Get Tasty rewards you with chocolate coins, which are used to buy cake toppings between rounds. Those toppings give you points as well, awarding bonuses if you get a matching set of three. Whoever has the most points at the end wins.

The rest of the game's action is split into two categories, Bash and mini-games. There are five Bash modes in total, each awarding points for completing set tasks.

Sweet Victory sees you collecting toppings for your cake and punching other players to knock theirs off. Fruity Pie has you throwing fruit onto a pie. Cookie Bash tasks you with smashing as many fortune cookies as possible. Hundreds and Thousands has you competing to gather the most sprinkles. And Sprinkler sees you holding onto your sprinklers for as long as possible.

All this mayhem occurs within several creatively designed arenas, too, taking your cakes to five hazardous locations. From a patio table to the sunny beach, each stage has a series of hazards, such as pigeons or beach balls, that players must carefully navigate, keeping action quite lively.

Individually, there isn’t much to these games, but as a collective, they offer good variety in bitesize portions, and it’s a lot of fun with friends.

It doesn’t take too long to unlock the bulk of this extra content, which is a shame, but it strongly encourages replayability to keep players coming back.

Bash games generally share the same gameplay mechanics: a standard attack that allows for quick combos, which can also be charged up for a “megabash” to stun opponents, and a dash that keeps cakes from getting hit. Adding more strategy to each game, the dash can only be used three times before it needs to be recharged — and it has a long cool down. 

Weapons also drop onto stages, letting you whack other cakes with lollipops or launch throwable items like saltshakers, temporarily stunning your opponents. Put together, it's a basic set of gameplay mechanics but one that’s rather easy to pick up, letting anyone join without difficulty.

Minigames, on the other hand, are considerably shorter affairs, but these also diverge from the standard campaign gameplay. There are eight mini-games altogether, and that includes the world’s first Gateau Royale, Fork Knife, where players avoid getting hit by cutlery on a gradually shrinking cake.

Fondue or Die lets you skewer chocolate covered fruit for points, whereas Campfire lets you roast the finest marshmallows. Though they make for an enjoyable alternative to bash modes, certain minigames require more precision than you might expect from a game like Cake Bash, leading to some mistakes and a little frustration. 

Progressing through Get Tasty unlocks each game for individual play, too, and each can be selected via the Recipe Mode.

Finally, Cake Bash also has unlockable collectibles in the form of new skins. Nabbing them all involves hitting set criteria, like playing three matches on a particular stage. It doesn’t take too long to unlock the bulk of this extra content, which is a shame, but it strongly encourages replayability to keep players coming back.

Cake Bash Review — The Bottom Line

  • Excellent fun in multiplayer
  • Great variety of modes
  • Plenty of replayability
  • Cute visual aesthetic
  • Can unlock all the content pretty quickly
  • Minigames feel a little too precise at times

There’s a lot to love about Cake Bash, and High Tea Frog has made an excellent party game for their debut title.

With a variety of entertaining games, some lively stages, and good replayability, it’s a fun experience, especially with friends. We only wish there was more of it on offer. Though some minigames feel a little finicky, it’s otherwise a sweet treat all around.

[Note: Coatsink provided the copy of Cake Bash used for this review.]

Aquanox: Deep Descent Review — A Shallow yet Explosive Dive into the Briny Depths Thu, 15 Oct 2020 11:00:01 -0400 Jason D'Aprile

Aquanox: Deep Descent has been in development for a while now. It’s the sequel to a series that started in the 90s with Archimedean Dynasty, continued in 2001 with Aquanox and its sequel, Revelation, a couple years later. You don’t really need to have played those artifacts to get into Deep Descent though. Just bring your love of blowing things away into the briny depths.

Originally teased in 2016, Deep Descent has finally managed to surface and, for fans of the series, it certainly feels and looks the part of an Aquanox game. While this isn’t the most graphically impressive trip we’ve taken lately, Deep Descent does a great job of conveying the tension and claustrophobic nature of being trapped in a deep-sea metal can where death can come from any direction.

Aquanox: Deep Descent Review — A Shallow yet Explosive Dive into the Briny Depths

At this point, it’s safe to assume the overall B-grade nature of the game, including the voices, is almost intentional.

Deep Descent looks like a quintessential Unreal demo game, with that familiar lighting and smoothness of textures. As a result, the game doesn’t exactly visually distinguish itself beyond just being underwater. Graphics are good, but compared to, say, Subnautica, still have a generic look.

The rest of the presentation is a mixed bag as well. Sound effects, ambients, and the score all get the job done, but this entire series has a history of impressively sketchy voice acting, and Deep Descent certainly follows that tradition.

You’ll hear the same canned and phoned-in enemy sound bites all through the game and even the main cast voices are, at best, B-movie level. At this point, it’s safe to assume the overall B-grade nature of the game, including the voices, is almost intentional.

Aquanox: Deep Descent is also buggy as hell. Getting stuck on invisible architecture, watching the front-facing guns just jerk and blink, and general, if minor, instabilities were commonplace while plumbing the oceanic depths. The most annoying glitch had to do with the cramped control pad controls. The thumbstick buttons are by default assigned for moving straight up and down, which in itself seemed inconvenient.

Unfortunately, the game attempts a situational dash move just mashed into this as well and on all the gamepads we tried, trying to move straight up or down resulted in suddenly and uncontrollably jetting in that direction until the sub smashed into something. It didn’t do this with the mouse and keyboard, but proved a constant annoyance otherwise. It was something carried over from the preview build we hoped would be fixed

Aquanox has some light trading, crafting, and upgrading systems to it. You’ll constantly need to find side gigs outside the main story to earn more money for better ships, ship parts, and weapons. The game takes the usual space shooter template from Privateer, Elite, and Rebel Galaxy into the water, and it provides a lot of things to do if you just want to explore the world and enjoy the watery gameplay.

Kill pirates, trade, rescue other submariners, etc. There’s nothing new here, but it’s a well-tread path for a reason and the more I played Deep Descent, the more I found myself overlooking the problems and just enjoying the ride. Part of that enjoyment is the different feel of the combat, which is the core focus of the game.

As a submarine-based game, Aquanox doesn’t just feel like a space game with more bubbles. The pace is slower, more methodical, and much closer range. Mixing up a variety of guns and torpedoes with a strong focus on shield management, the combat is definitely closer to arcade-style action than simulation. Fighting is fun and intense, but not without some basic strategic elements that amp up the challenge.

It’s fun and a solid entry in the overall ship-based shooter genre.

Between missions, you’ll spend time at undersea bases and large carrier subs. Here you can upgrade, find side quests, and chat with the other crewmembers. Conversation sometimes offers response choices but is still mostly primitive and linear.

It’s disappointing the series hasn’t upgraded this aspect of the design at all over the years to add more meaningful reasons to visit these hubs beyond just commerce and mission acquisition.

One thing Aquanox has plenty of is lore. After 20+ years, the world of Aqua is pretty ripe with backstory if players want to bother to look. In Deep Descent, the player wakes up from cryosleep to find themselves in the post-apocalyptic mess of an entirely aquatic world. Warring factions are everywhere, trust is in short supply, and random acts of violence are everywhere.

It's not a particularly original story and the writing is ripe with tropes and cliches (it starts with you looking for a shady character named, of all things, Nemo), but it gets the job done between shooting bouts.

Aquanox: Deep Descent Review — The Bottom Line 

  • Fun, distinctive combat
  • Great undersea world to slide through
  • Lots of things to blow up and see… get blown up
  • Buggy as hell
  • Overall game design hasn’t evolved much over the last 20 years
  • Very B-movie-level presentation, writing, and performances

Shooting things is definitely the focus of Aquanox: Deep Descent. After so many years, it’s a shame the series hasn’t evolved, branched out, and deepened more. For what it is, and despite the flaws, bugs, and missteps, Aqua is still a fascinating place to explore and blow things up in.

Is this a great game? Not by a long shot, but it’s fun and a solid entry in the overall ship-based shooter genre.

[Note: THQ Nordic provided the copy of Aquanox: Deep Descent used for this review.]

Oculus Quest 2 Review: Big Improvements, One Big Drawback Wed, 14 Oct 2020 16:40:40 -0400 Gabriel Moss

I've been a VR fan for three years.

After I got my first fix, way back in 2017 with the Oculus Rift's First Contact app, I knew I was in love. VR quickly grew into a well-worn escape route when everything else in the world was too much to bear.

I followed the Oculus Quest launch and purchased one when it was first released. Then I owned a Rift S, which was better than the original Oculus Rift in resolution and comfort but was still chained to the computer.

And now here I am, sitting in my writing chair with a brand new Oculus Quest 2 in my lap. Feature-wise, Facebook's second crack at fully-wireless VR is, without a doubt, the best virtual reality product I've ever owned.

However — and this is a big "however" — I can't recommend the Quest 2's sleek new design, vastly improved resolution, and souped-up framerates without also addressing Facebook's troubling new policy in the wake of its launch.

Read on to find out what the Oculus Quest 2 improves over its forebears, and why that pesky attachment to Facebook can potentially be a dealbreaker.

Oculus Quest 2 Review: Big Improvements, One Big Drawback

Initial Thoughts

Between the smaller and cozier layout, almost-4K per-eye visuals, adjustable refresh rate, improved controller and hand tracking, and an immensely more powerful XR2 processor, there's quite a lot to enjoy about the new Oculus Quest 2.

Those who don't already own an Oculus Quest are in for a treat. The Quest 2's base 64GB model, priced at $299, is the most affordable wireless 6DoF VR headset — a wireless, computer-less VR headset that includes hand-tracked controllers and head tracking — that we've ever seen.

Likewise, with the Quest 2 boasting "twice as much" processing power and visual capabilities as the original Oculus Quest, it's fair to assume that game sizes will ultimately increase. This is why it's great that Facebook has offered a 256GB model of the Oculus Quest 2 for $399, the same price that owners of the original 64GB Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift CV1, and Oculus Rift S each paid for their devices.

And much like the original Quest, the Quest 2 is also completely wireless by default. It can still hook into an optional gaming PC via USB-C, from which you can still play any PC VR games you own either on Steam or in the Oculus Rift library.

Of course, the necessary cable to do so comfortably — the Oculus Link cable sold directly by Facebook — is an added purchase, which is a bummer. However, as of this review, you still have the freedom to tap into your Wi-Fi connection and wirelessly link into a gaming PC using Virtual Desktop.

In fact, wireless is the most enjoyable way to play those great PC VR games like Half-Life: Alyx and Asgard's Wrath.


Wi-Fi 6 is included in the package this time around, making downloads and streaming much smoother and more accessible. I haven't tried wirelessly streaming games from Virtual Desktop on the Oculus Quest 2, but in theory, its inclusion of Wi-Fi 6 on a 60GHz antenna should make a dent.

This poses a much better solution for wireless PC VR gaming and media consumption than the Wi-Fi 5 band that was built into the first-generation Oculus Quest.


The Quest 2's LCD display resolution of 1832 x 1920 per eye makes games, video content, and text appear crisper and more lifelike than they ever have before in an Oculus headset.

Facebook claims that the Quest 2 boasts a 50% increase in pixel density over the previous Oculus Quest, which has a resolution of 1440 x 1600 per eye, and it certainly shows.

There's a clear improvement in quality and sharpness that makes sitting down in front of a virtual movie theatre in BigScreen or exploring the solar system in Titans of Space that much more engrossing and believable. Though god rays remain an issue, the screen door effect is finally gone.

It's actually surprising just how far we've come from the original 1080 x 1200 resolution of the Oculus Rift CV1 and HTC Vive. Re-experiencing the content you enjoyed on those headsets would feel like a true "next-gen" experience on the Quest 2.

Of course, the sweetest part of the deal is the inclusion of a new "experimental" 90hz mode. For context, 90hz was once considered the "gold standard" of VR refresh rates. In comparison, the original Oculus Rift CV1 ran at a steady 90hz, but the Oculus Quest only ran at 72hz or 60hz, depending on the mode.

This mixes the best of both worlds, erasing the concessions that needed to be made to get the first-generation Quest to work. In doing so, Quest 2 makes good on the original Quest's promise of offering "PC-quality VR."

Controllers and Tracking

I love to work out in VR, using games like FitXR and The Thrill of the Fight to get my fitness boxing and shadowboxing in. However, my Oculus Quest controllers would lose their position if I swung too fast or too hard.

One of the subtle improvements over the first-gen Quest is how much better the Quest 2's Touch controllers seem to be at accurately pinpointing my hand placement during high-intensity maneuvers. No longer do I have to watch my fist fly out 20 meters in front of me when I'm going for the knockout punch.

I assume that this is due to improvements in the Quest 2's camera and tracking system in general. Whereas the original Quest offered an experimental hand-tracking mode that was temperamental and difficult to control, the same mode in Quest 2 seems to pick up and recognize the precise movements of my hands and fingers for longer.


For those who really struggled with discomfort when wearing the original Oculus Quest for too long, Quest 2 solves that problem. Sort of. The smaller dome indeed makes it easier for the headset to fit comfortably on your face without being too front-heavy, but there are some tradeoffs here.

Instead of an IPD (interpupillary distance) slider, there is now an adjustable bracket that only comes in three settings. Unless your IPD is 58, 63, or 68, you'll find yourself faffing about with these three settings until you figure out which one looks good enough. However, you can't adjust the bracket while your face is inside of the headset, so the whole process is just annoying.

The adjustable head strap that comes out of the box is finicky and weird, and it certainly doesn't feel like a good replacement for the strap design used in the Oculus Quest and Rift CV1.

That said, I reviewed the Quest 2 with the Elite Strap, which mimics the best feature of the halo-ring strap design of the Rift S: there's a dial that tightens and loosens the Quest 2 fit around your head, and it makes the process of putting the thing on so much less tedious than it would be otherwise.


As usual, there are built-in audio speakers that sit inside of the strap mounts. If you've worn a portable Oculus headset or a Rift S, you already know that these in-strap speakers pale in comparison to the quality of proper headphones.

But I noticed that the sound was slightly more robust in the Oculus Quest 2 straps, with absolutely no crackling at the highest volume level, something that was a prominent issue on my original Oculus Quest.

Battery Life

The battery life is effectively the same in the Oculus Quest 2 as it was in the first-generation Quest. Assuming you treat the battery well, it should give you about two hours of use per charge, even when you play games that push the Quest 2's bells and whistles.

The Facebook Dilemma

Finally, the major drawback of the Quest 2: Facebook's direct involvement, which has become more and more anti-competitive and intrusive. Now that Oculus accounts and Facebook accounts are effectively the same thing, Facebook requires new Oculus users to turn over their Facebook account information or get the boot.

This may seem like no big deal, but it's already led to users being inexplicably banned from their Oculus headsets and content libraries. Since Oculus is all digital, your content library is entirely in the hands of Facebook, who has the right to discontinue your access to your Oculus Quest 2 and everything you own inside of it.

That also applies to users who delete their associated Facebook account or get banned somehow. A suspension on the social media site could also imply loss of access to your Oculus Quest 2. Because of how stringent Facebook has become with its user agreement, it's unlikely that using a "burner" account will be a winning strategy down the line.

The Good News

Being in Facebook's system doesn't mean you're stuck with games and apps exclusively from the Oculus catalog. Many Oculus Quest owners have used a method called "Sideloading" to gain access to unofficial games and Virtual Desktop.

So far, any fear of Facebook squashing this method has been unfounded. Once you're plugged into your Facebook account, you're still given the same amount of agency to do the same things you could do before — just as long as you aren't caught breaking Facebook's terms of service.

Oculus Quest 2 Review—The Bottom Line

  • Completely wireless VR
  • Most affordable VR on the market
  • Wildly improved visuals and performance from its predecessor
  • More comfortable than its predecessor
  • Still not as comfortable as I'd like
  • New dependency on Facebook accounts worrying

As a longtime fan of Oculus headsets, I'm thoroughly enjoying my time in the Quest 2. It's clear that the Oculus Quest 2 is the highest-quality piece of VR hardware that Facebook has produced thus far.

Unfortunately, if you're opposed to Facebook's practices, it may be hard — if not impossible, Facebook account status pending — to appreciate the Oculus Quest 2 at all.

[Note: Facebook provided the Oculus Quest 2 unit used for this review.]

FIFA 21 Review: Great Pitch Action That Stumbles in the Final Third Mon, 12 Oct 2020 13:25:46 -0400 LloydCoombes

Another year brings us another FIFA, with this year’s version bridging the gap between current-gen and next-gen consoles. While FIFA 21's on-pitch action has improved over previous years with small, meaningful additions, much of the game feels like a re-skin marred by some bizarre defensive changes.

Much like Madden 21 and NBA 2K21, it feels like FIFA 21 is just waiting for its next-gen counterpart to arrive.

FIFA 21 Review: Great Pitch Action That Stumbles in the Final Third

We’re back to the kind of kamikaze keepers that EA tends to fix within the first few weeks of a new FIFA launching, and they’re crazier than ever.

FIFA 21 offers the best football gameplay the series has ever seen, thanks to a surprising new focus on less predictability on the pitch.

It’s no longer a given that your player will trap the ball and turn on a dime, and new player collisions breathe life into tried and true blocking and marking gameplay. It helps that they create new tackling opportunities, too. 

Everything feels a little looser in this year's version, with gameplay rewarding players for trying to find the open man in space rather than constantly looking for the center forward. It’s a smart change that makes build-up play more important than it has been in years, and brings FIFA slightly closer to the likes of Pro Evolution Soccer.

Crosses also feel more deliberate, as well. Each ball into the box feels distinct and useful, making it much more important to stop supply by closing down wide-players.

Still, that’s not to say it’s harder to score wonder goals, thankfully. Expect to see the net bulge more often than not with responsibility for your 30-yard screamer shared between an excellent shot and sub-par goalkeeping.

Yes, we’re back to the kind of kamikaze keepers that EA tends to fix within the first few weeks of a new FIFA launching, and they’re crazier than ever. While the aforementioned air of unpredictability undoubtedly causes goalies to punch the ball more often or spill the occasional shot (all kinds of things you could feasibly expect on match days), they’ll now run to the other end of the pitch to attack a corner when losing 4-0 and approaching half-time.

While we expect to see this ironed out in the coming weeks, for now, it’s somewhat alarming to see the likes of Alisson surge forward, miss the ball, and then concede a shot from around the halfway line.

There are also more than a few instances of center-halves refusing to cover their teammates, getting caught in two minds about what they want for their post-match meal. More often than not, though, defenders are well organized.

FIFA 21 also sees the ousting of longtime commentary duo Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, and while Derek Rae and Lee Dixon may not be to everyone’s tastes, they do at least have some new dialogue this time around, much of it focused on Ultimate Team. 

Win, Buy, Sell, Repeat

If Ultimate Team is your mode of choice, then you’ll find that it remains as compulsive as ever. Win matches to earn coins, spend those coins on players via auction or through packs, and wheel and deal until you have the squad of your dreams.

New this year is couch co-op play, letting your friends jump in with you. There's also a new focus on stadium customization, including crowd chants, a team’s nickname (it never fails to raise a smile hearing the commentators discuss “The Kittens’” chances of winning), and pitchside trophies.

The metagame still revolves around pace, so faster players are at a premium, but defenders no longer match a player’s speed, so explosive players come into their own. 

Still, if the mode hasn’t grabbed you in the past, or you don’t trust yourself not to invest in the allure of card packs with incredibly low chances of decent players, there’s little else that’s truly new in FIFA 21.

Career Mode still training with the reserves

With [Player Career Mode] having barely changed outside of its menu aesthetic and a handful of new training drills since FIFA 16, it’s getting harder and harder to excuse.

Last year’s street-set Volta mode returns with a new two- to three-hour campaign (and online co-op), but Career Mode continues to be a footnote in EA’s mind.

The “Manager” side of career mode adds the likes of a 2D match simulation feature that feels ripped straight from Football Manager, only with the ability to jump in and play out key moments (or the whole game) yourself, and it works remarkably well.

There are new training routines to implement, and finally, loan-to-buy deals to consider when investing in new additions to your squad.

“Player” mode, however, fares much less favorably. With the mode having barely changed outside of its menu aesthetic and a handful of new training drills since FIFA 16, it’s getting harder and harder to excuse.

Despite the focus on Ultimate Team (perhaps understandably, given the revenue it generates), Career still lacks a huge amount of features. Players can’t step off of the bench, for example, meaning you’re either in the match-day squad or you’re not, and there’s still no real way to earn a move to your dream club other than requesting a transfer and hoping for the best.

FIFA 21 Review The Bottom Line

  • Each match feels less predictable than FIFA 20
  • Manager Mode offers fun new ways to influence games by jumping in
  • Fee upgrades to the next-gen versions
  • Player career is the same as it has been for four years
  • Goalkeepers are prone to rushes of blood to the head

Just as with Mesut Ozil, FIFA 21 shows plenty of talent in areas where it applies itself. However, just as with Ozil, it neglects some of the fundamentals it needs to succeed, freezing out Player Career Mode entirely and offering very little off the pitch that we haven’t seen before.

Still, on the pitch, FIFA 21 offers great tactical gameplay despite some wobbles, and it seems primed to continue that into next-gen.

Genshin Impact Review: A Much Bigger Impact Than Expected Fri, 09 Oct 2020 17:25:06 -0400 George Yang

Genshin Impact has made quite the impact since its release on September 28. Of course, the game garnered attention mainly because of the similarities between its art style and the art style of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WildGenshin Impact also borrows quite a few mechanics from Breath of the Wild, including its stamina meter, climbing mechanics, and enemy outpost structure. 

However, Genshin Impact does quite a bit to differentiate itself from BotW and carve out its own identity.

Genshin Impact Review: A Much Bigger Impact than Expected

Genshin may adopt the same open-world structure as Breath of the Wild, but it has more direction. Its story quests and side quests are tracked in the menu and feel more MMO than adventure game, something that contrasts with Breath of the Wild’s laissez-faire design.

There’s an individual leveling system for characters, as well as an Adventurer Rank, which can be increased by opening treasure chests and completing various tasks throughout the world such as quests and dungeons. The higher a player’s Adventurer Rank, the more the game opens up.

The storyline introduces you to many different characters, but it only seems like the first few you meet join your party permanently, with no strings attached. That's important because a fifth character can join your party temporarily during certain story segments before leaving when the encounter is finished.

Another aspect that makes Genshin Impact stand out from other JRPGs is its gacha system.

For the uninitiated, the gacha system here is essentially a gambling system where players “wish” for a drop that can provide them with new weapons and even new characters. For example, the extra fifth character that typically joins your party during a story mission usually only joins permanently if you’re lucky enough to pull them from a wish.

While the Wish system is surprisingly non-intrusive at first, it can lead to some insidious problems. The four characters you receive initially are relatively average performers compared to those unlocked through the Wish system. Further, with a few exceptions, the only way you can get the other characters is through the Wish system. 

Normal for gacha games, you can use real-world money to purchase Wishes as well, granting you more chances to unlock items and characters, but the gambling nature of the gacha system can take an addicting turn as you progress through Genshin Impact.

Each character has inherent abilities that can only be upgraded with special material, and this special material seems to only manifest when you pull a duplicate character. And that character is then converted into said material, putting a premium on certain pulls. 

As players progress into later stages of the game, I can see the urge to spend real-world money to get better items and characters increasing. I anticipate that more characters will be given away as part of future events, but that remains to be seen. 

Genshin Impact’s combat system is a standout, offering real-time action similar to Ys, but playing most like 2017’s Tokyo Xanadu. You can have one character out at a time but can also switch between a party of four at will, playing into the game's elemental system where individual element types can be combined into unique attacks.

For example, using a fire elemental attack sets enemies ablaze. If you switch to a character that deals Electro damage, both elements will cause an Overload, which deals Pyro elemental damage over a wide area.

It’s a great system that encourages players to think tactically about what kinds of attacks they’re using and adds a lot of variation to Genshin Impact’s moment-to-moment gameplay.

Primarily a single-player experience, Genshin requires an always-online connection since it is a free-to-play game with microtransactions and daily events. Players can also participate in co op with up to four other people, with the choice to play solo or with friends an appreciated one. 

Genshin Impact is incredibly beautiful. Its Asian-inspired cities and colors are quite a sight to behold, made more impactful by the sheer scale of the environments. Exploring and uncovering more of the map is always fun to do as you venture out to find new secrets. However, some of the character designs are a bit off.

You’ll undoubtedly get used to the main cast and how they look, but overall, they aren't distinct enough, with some looking like nothing more than generic anime characters.

Your main character, the Traveler, doesn't pop out or have any defining quirks compared to other gender-neutral protagonists. It doesn't help that the Traveler is a silent protagonist, either.

Though it would have been nice if the playable characters had more unique designs between them, like those in the Tales of series, some characters, like Lisa, shine through due to their personalities. Her flirtatious nature stands out whenever she's on-screen.

The full English voice acting here is incredibly impressive as well. All of the main characters deliver their lines well and don’t sound out of place for the world or genre. 

Genshin Impact Review — The Bottom Line

  • Very fun action-oriented gameplay
  • Breathtaking visuals make the world a pleasure to explore
  • A free-to-play game with an impressive scope
  • Seemingly harmless at first, the gacha system could eventually lead to some potential gambling issues
  • Technical issues are present, especially in the PS4 version
  • Character designs could have been more unique

Genshin Impact can struggle to perform on the PlayStation 4 Pro. In its bigger cities, and even in some cutscenes, there’s visible lag. Sometimes, pop up issues occur as well, where enemies don’t appear on screen unless you get very close to them.

Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be a way to remap any controls, which is pretty disappointing. Add to that a somewhat messy UI, there is no glossary to look up pop up tips or tutorials after they've disappeared, and Genshin Impact isn't perfect. 

However, it is certainly much better than I was expecting, and I don’t think it’s fair to call it a Breath of the Wild clone. After all, we’re past calling first-person shooters Doom clones.

It’s a baseline comparison, but Genshin Impact’s unique blend of gameplay, gorgeous environments, and lighthearted story, along with a gacha system found in many Chinese mobile games, provides an experience that might feel new to western audiences.

So while it's held back by technical hiccups and level gating in Adventurer Ranks and a gacha gambling system, Genshin Impact is still an enjoyable time.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review: Deciphering What Works Fri, 09 Oct 2020 10:41:33 -0400 Mark Delaney

Every October feels like the perfect time for a scary game, but this year, the month of Halloween really delivers with plenty of new releases in the horror genre to satisfy all kinds of fans. This Is The Zodiac is one of those games. 

While other scary games in October 2020 will let you fend off twisted caretakers, maddening monsters, or ancestral witches, only one game pits players against a real-life monster like The Zodiac Killer.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking seeks to be a largely faithful historical fiction game using both elements of horror and crime scene investigation. In neither case does it feel like it does enough, but there are still parts of the game true-crime obsessives will appreciate.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review: Deciphering What Works

It's a great premise, but in practice, things never quite live up to their potential. The voice acting misses more than it hits.

Decades ago, The Zodiac Killer terrorized California's Bay Area for years and ultimately went uncaught. Whoever the Zodiac killer was may still be alive today, taunting the police and journalists who sought to unravel their cryptic letters and establish the modus operandi and criminal profile for the slippery assailant.

Seemingly inspired by Fincher's Zodiac, which chronicles the efforts of a real-life local newspaper grappling with the Zodiac murders, This Is The Zodiac Speaking casts players as an investigative journalist. The masked murderer takes a strange liking to you early on, and when you barely escape his grasp, it leaves you traumatized but unable to step away from the investigation. 

It's a great premise, but in practice, things never quite live up to their potential. The voice acting misses more than it hits. Largely, this game made overseas uses actors foreign to the roles they're playing. Virtually everyone you meet, besides a handful of characters, has a European accent. 

This is the sort of compromise one often sees in an indie game. I can almost forgive it entirely because other parts of Zodiac show a detail-oriented interest in the subject matter, so you figure it must've been a dream project for the developers.

But then such a project deserves a more fitting cast. It's regularly jarring to hear these characters talk, and even those who do sound American don't deliver any standout performances. I like the tone of the protagonist's voice, but his delivery often leaves immersion out of the equation.

Gameplay mainly consists of investigative sections, both in the safety of your own home, as well as at several crime scenes. Players must retrace the steps of the Zodiac and their victims one murder plot at a time by exploring an area and finding clues that eventually create a timeline. Once more, it's interesting in theory, but it doesn't hold up in practice. 

This loop ends up meaning players will scan high and low over every object and surface to find interactable items, many of which are just there for show or to spur a voice line on the side. The main items you'll need to find can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to discover, and this process is made worse depending on which game mode you chose at the outset.

The game's greatest attribute is its understanding of the Zodiac murders.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking smartly offers two ways to play: Serial Killer Mode and an investigation mode. The former is more akin to a hide-and-seek horror game, where Zodiac will often be at the crime scenes, and it's your job to avoid their gaze or else wind up their next victim.

This mode quickly turned me off from the game because the Zodiac's vision cone is faulty and frustrating to navigate. The distance at which they could spot me seemed inconsistent at best and unfair at worst, and after a short while with the game, I switched to the investigations mode, which I enjoyed more.

In investigations, the game essentially pivots to a "walking sim," which I use as a term only because it's so familiar. I happen to enjoy such games quite a lot, and Zodiac benefits from this alternative gameplay style because it's the better way to play, giving players unlimited time and space within a level to piece together clues.

These parts work better because the game's greatest attribute is its understanding of the Zodiac murders. It may seem insensitive to some, but This Is The Zodiac Speaking's many crime scenes are mostly faithful recreations of real-life incidents. When you're overlooking a parking lot or a churchyard, some of the scenery may be different, but the victims' names and modes of death are torn right from the police reports.

In this way, the game becomes a morbid museum to the subject matter in investigations mode, which I appreciate quite a lot. I've seen movies, read articles, and listened to podcasts on Zodiac, but this game still taught me some new things which I was later excited to see were based in fact.

Details are plentiful, and you're encouraged to pause to do more reading and explore levels to take in the game's retro-stylized presentation, which gives the whole game a look of a movie poster from the Zodiac era. Unlike the voice acting, the developers seem to understand the limitations placed on them and work well to make the game stand out a bit, even with something looking so low-res.

In between the investigative sections, the game's fiction portion of its historical fiction genre classification continues to flesh out the story of the journalist who seeks some sort of closure with the case, but these elements aren't ever as interesting because the truth is already stranger than this fiction. Plus, those voiceovers never deliver the cinematic quality the game clearly wishes it had.

This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review — The Bottom Line

  • At its best, it's like a museum to one of true crime's great mysteries
  • Uses limited resources to give the game its own visual style


  • At its worst, it's like a faulty hide-and-seek horror game
  • Voice acting and fiction plot set within the real-life events both underwhelm

This Is The Zodiac Speaking is two games in one, and while neither is stellar, one of them is certainly better than the other. In Serial Killer Mode, the Zodiac's pursuits feel broken and will leave you more frustrated than frightened, but switch the game over to its more investigations-heavy mode, and the true-crime nerds will get a kick out of the many details strewn about the game.

All other scary games in October 2020 will likely better serve your Halloween horror fix, but this game will be the only one among them that simulates a museum-like approach to a real-life monster.

[Note: PlayWay provided the copy of This Is The Zodiac Speaking used for this review.]

Star Wars Squadrons Review: Double Aces Wed, 07 Oct 2020 12:43:39 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Star Wars: Squadrons may be the most immersive Star Wars game I've ever played. Not because it was built from the ground up to make expert use of virtual reality, but because it's interactive in a way that only a handful of other Star Wars games have been.

Harkening back to the classic space combat sims of the early- to mid-1990s, Squadrons takes what worked in those games and mixes it with Rogue Squadron and Battlefront 2's starfighter assault to make the best of both worlds. 

What comes out on the other side is a smart and addictive combat simulator that rewards impulsivity and mastery in equal portions. On the one hand, Squadrons is much more arcadey than X-Wing or Tie Fighter, but on the other, it's undeniably more complex than starfighter assault, arguably the most compelling mode in 2017's BF2

This is a game that can be difficult to learn, but one that rewards in spades for those willing to put in the time. 

Star Wars Squadrons Review: Double Aces

The greatness of the campaign, though, lies in how it expands the universe fans love so dearly.

Squadrons is split into two parts: a roughly 10-hour linear campaign mode and a boundless competitive multiplayer mode, the latter of which is further divided into two modes: dogfight and fleet battles.

Most of Squadrons' campaign mode takes place after the Battle of Endor, pitting the now-fractured Empire against the coalescing factions of the New Republic. It tells a rather expected yarn of betrayal and revenge through alternating mission sets between Imperial and New Republic forces, and its relatively self-contained nature means it doesn't (yet) have a larger impact on the galaxy as a whole. 

Despite that, the narrative is entertaining and one of the better tales in the microverse of Star Wars video games.

The greatness of the campaign, though, lies in how it expands the universe fans love so dearly. Intelligently, Squadrons doesn't pit players against the Death Star (or some other world-wrecking superweapon), nor does it take us back through the catalog of worlds we've already seen.

Instead, it takes the opportunity to create new and dazzling locations that are as indelible as the rolling clouds of Bespin or the spiraling vortex of the Kaliida Nebula. The closest the game comes to retreading ground is with the inclusion of Yavin Prime, but that location is so aesthetically different than the orbiting moon from A New Hope that it might as well be in a completely different solar system. 

From the Zavian Abyss to the Nadiri Dockyards and Galitan, Squadrons' world-building is just as realized, if not better realized, than the post-Jedi galaxy in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. The design team at Motive should be proud of what they've pulled off here. 

That feeling of a grander universe at your fingertips is helped along by a memorable cast of characters, New Republic and Imperial alike. Standouts include Gunny, the Mimbanese leader of Vanguard Squadron, and Shen, the battle-hardened pilot of Titan Squadron. 

Interactions with your squadmates are point-and-click affairs, similar to X-Wing and Tie Fighter, and essentially insignificant to the game's larger story. Still, they're essential for Star Wars fans looking for clever Easter eggs and callbacks or more insight into the galaxy at large, specifically the rank and file soldier living the war day in and day out.

Admittedly, it's easy to classify these conversations as maladroit exposition dumps best left on the cutting room floor, but they are one of the best viewports into a Star Wars world unencumbered by The Force we've gotten in years.

Since Squadrons is a space-flight combat simulator, you spend a lot of time in hangars and briefing rooms, in both single-player or multiplayer. These beautifully-realized spaces hum with the activity of droids, mechanics, engineers, and other capital ship personnel such as New Republic soldiers and Imperial stormtroopers. 

Of course, the ships are front and center, and each side has four starfighters: X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings, and U-Wings for the New Republic, and Tie Fighters, Tie Bombers, Tie Interceptors, and Tie Reapers for the Empire.

While in the hangar, you can fully inspect each ship from multiple angles, including from inside the cockpit. The level of detail for each fighter is mind-boggling, both outside and in. Every curve, laser cannon, torpedo port, switch, button, instrument, and screen has been lovingly recreated down to the smallest facet.

The hangar is also where you outfit your ships with new weapons and modules before entering combat. An armory of laser cannons, missiles, and bombs is at your disposal, and you can install new hulls, engines, and, for some ships, shields to tailor ships to your playstyle.

There are only a few instances in the campaign where you can change ships or pick from the entire fleet, but multiplayer allows you to pick any ship from the get-go. Thankfully, every ship is available from the start, no unlocking required. 

You will, however, spend time unlocking new weapons and modules, as well as the various vanity items available. These include new paint jobs, decals, and in-cockpit items such as hanging ornaments, bobbleheads, and awesome holograms. 

And no, Star Wars: Squadrons does not have any microtransactions whatsoever. Everything can be unlocked with either Requisition or Glory, both in-game currencies earned through skill. Currency points come from participating in competitive dogfights, completing the campaign, performing well in Fleet Battles, and completing challenges.

The things you do to get Requisition and Glory aren't revolutionary and revolve around systems found in similar games, such as Battlefront 2. But it's heartening to see EA leave some of its more predatory mtx strategies out of its latest Star Wars effort, and it helps that even though challenges and tasks are superficially mundane (such as "destroy X enemies during Fleet Battles"), there are strong and engaging systems built around them. 

Combat feels incredibly immersive; there's a heft to your movements combining VR and HOTAS that's as close to piloting a Star Wars starfighter as we'll ever get. 

Combat, what we're really here for, is fast and exacting. Squadrons' 14 campaign missions put you in various on-brand scenarios, from reconnaissance missions to bombing runs and full-on frontal assaults. Regardless, each always devolves into some sort of dogfight, and while that can become a bit rote by the end of the story, there's a lot of action to keep you in your seat. 

Multiplayer is split into dogfights and Fleet Battles. Dogfights are 5v5 sorties that act as the game's Team Deathmatch mode: five starfighters against five starfighters. Fleet Battles, though, expand things a bit. These are 5v5 affairs that also task players with taking down enemy capital ships and flagships. These conflicts feel more like the classic Star Wars space battles fans are used to, with AI-controlled fighters filling in the gaps. 

It's possible to jump into the cockpit in all of these modes and find success without knowing exactly how everything works, but the meat of Star Wars Squadrons lies in mastering its relatively complex systems. 

Veterans of X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, or any of the flight simulators of the 1990s likely won't classify Squadrons' gameplay in that fashion, and I surmise they will find it less complex than those games. But there is a lot going on, especially for those who aren't familiar with the genre. 

Understanding a starship's individual speed, maneuverability, shields, and firepower ratings is essential to survival in the cold void of space. On top of that, there are the modules I mentioned earlier, which buff and debuff those systems.

Then there's power management. 

Rerouting power at the right moments is perhaps the most involved meta of Star Wars Squadrons, more so than unlocking new weapons and subsystems. Knowing when to divert power from shields to engines or to a ship's weapons system is critical in keeping up with and ultimately destroying other fighters. 

EA Motive smartly made the constituent elements of the system easy to understand with tutorials and the ability to battle AI before taking on real people, but the minutia of systems management straddles the fine line between arcade and simulation in ways that demand both practice and patience.

Star Wars Squadrons is a stunning game. Planets, starships, and characters are beautifully rendered and designed. On my PC, which consists of a GTX 1080ti (11GB), an i7-7700K, and 32GB of RAM, I was able to get a silky-smooth 60FPS at 4K on ultra. I noticed a bit of screen tearing in hangars and briefing rooms when turning my character, but that was eliminated when I locked the refresh rate to 60Hz. 

But where Star Wars: Squadrons really takes off is in virtual reality. 

To say piloting an X-Wing or Tie Fighter in VR is mind-blowing would understate the impact virtual reality has on this game, especially when you pair that capability with a flight stick or other HOTAS setup. Combat feels incredibly immersive; there's a heft to your movements combining VR and HOTAS that's as close to piloting a Star Wars starfighter as we'll ever get. 

There's no way to accurately convey the power of being able to turn your head left or right to look out of the windows of an X-Wing or Y-Wing, and once you've been inside a Tie Reaper and leaned all the way across the empty co-pilot's chair to check a readout in real-time, there's just no going back. 

That's made better because the entire game is playable in VR, campaign and multiplayer included.

In my time with it, I never noticed any frame drops or stuttering, even in Fleet Battles, which see the most ships on-screen at any given moment. Though the graphics take a hit on my rig (and those with beefier systems or better setups may not even notice) and campaign cutscenes play out in what amounts to virtual desktop mode, it remains an awe-inspiring experience from beginning to end.

Star Wars Squadrons Review — The Bottom Line

  • Tremendous VR experience
  • Tight, frenetic combat
  • Faithfully recreates feel of classic space combat sims
  • Memorable characters and locations
  • Fun Easter eggs and clever callbacks
  • HOTAS support on all platforms (even old ones, like 2001's Saitek X45)
  • Short campaign and limited multiplayer options
  • Relatively steep learning curve for new players
  • Some unfair checkpoints in missions
  • No B-Wing

Star Wars: Squadrons isn't perfect. Some of the checkpoints in the campaign set you too far back from the action, and objectives can be unclear at times. It also has a bad habit of letting allies follow you in the completely wrong direction instead of leading you to your destination. In missions with few landmarks, it can be a bit frustrating.

Other small missteps include a relatively short campaign (which feels uncomfortably imbalanced to one faction near the end) and limited multiplayer options. Larger multiplayer conflicts would be a welcome addition, and in some ways, starfighter assault feels grander. More modes would also mitigate the sense of fatigue that can set in after your 20th dogfight or 17th fleet battle. 

There's also no B-Wing, which frankly, is just unacceptable. 

But Squadrons does a lot of things right. And it's the closest thing to a new X-Wing or Tie Fighter we're going to get. Though it's a stand-alone game, it's also a fantastic complement to Battlefront 2's starfighter assault mode, giving aces new and old two very good options to choose from. 

It's an utter shame that EA doesn't plan to support Squadrons after launch with DLC or content updates, as there's still so much of the galaxy to explore. Perhaps they'll have a change of heart. Outside of Jedi: Fallen OrderStar Wars Squadrons is the best Star Wars game they've ever made.

[Note: EA provided the copy of Star Wars: Squadrons used for this review.] 

Ys Origin Switch Review: Ascending the Heights Tue, 06 Oct 2020 14:23:00 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Nihon Falcom's Ys series prioritizes gameplay over story, but Falcom did something different with Ys Origin. It's a prequel story laying the foundation for the rest of the series, so it doesn't feature most of the things that make Ys recognizable like exploration or the hero Adol Christin.

What it does feature is an excellent combat system, pitch-perfect pacing, and a riveting story told in a unique way. This is nothing new since the game's seen multiple releases, but now it's on Nintendo Switch with nary a performance hitch in sight (unlike its other portable iteration on the Vita).

Ys Origin on Switch is one of the most focused, fluid, and exhilarating action RPGs around, even with a few rough edges, and it absolutely should be on your radar if you're a fan of the genre.

Ys Origin Switch Review: Ascending the Heights

The story is hyper-focused just like the game’s structure.

Ys Origin opens with a slick anime sequence showing the game’s prologue in action. It’s clean and stylish, but beyond that, it’s smart. It sets the tone for Ys Origin’s fast pacing and ties the story in with all the fighting you’ll be doing right from the start.

Like Falcom’s other experimental game from the same time, Trails in the Sky the 3rd, Ys Origin is structured differently from other games in the Ys series.  Origins is more dungeon crawler than RPG. The entire game revolves around fighting your way through Darm Tower, so tying the story to that fight from the get-go helps keep it from feeling rote or stale later on.

The story is hyper-focused just like the game’s structure. The twin goddesses of Ys have gone missing right when their people are under attack from a demonic threat. A party of warriors from Ys’ noble houses descends to the surface to find and rescue, if need be, the goddesses while dealing with the never-ending hoard of demons inside the tower.

Origins features three different playable characters: Yunica, Hugo, and [redacted]. The third character isn’t a complete secret, but knowing their relationship to the rest of the story ahead of time does spoil some of the buildup.

Each has their own plot path and reasons for making it to the top of the tower and finding the goddesses.

Even though Origins leads into the first two Ys games, it’s newcomer-friendly. There are plenty of nods to other games in the series, such as major characters, item names, and bigger plot points.

But they’re not vital for understanding what’s going on, and Origin's plots are all compelling as a standalone story. Origins functions both as a good starting point for anyone interested and a satisfying lore expansion for existing fans, like all good prequels should be.

However, Falcom did do some mind skullduggery with Origin’s story, and the result is a mixed bag. 

The full story plays out over all three paths, so just one character’s perspective doesn’t tell you everything that’s going on. You can skip to the third character after finishing Yunica’s or Hugo’s story, but here’s the kicker. Neither Yunica’s nor Hugo’s story has the official canon ending, the one that leads into Ys I & II Chronicles.

The true ending is reserved for the third character. It’s definitely worth seeing, and the different playstyles keep gameplay from feeling stale (more on that in a bit). But playing a game two or three times to find the true ending isn’t something everyone has time to do. 

There’s a surprising amount of story for a dungeon crawler, helped, again, by the pacing and some snappy localization.

In an ideal world, Origin would have a cross-story structure like the developers used for Hajimari no Kiseki, where each main group has a different story to tell in the overall plot. As it stands, it’s up to you whether you want to see the full thing in Origin.

Fortunately, all of the endings are good in their own right, so you’re not getting cheated if you only play once.

There’s a surprising amount of story for a dungeon crawler, helped, again, by the pacing and some snappy localization. Whether it’s a major scene or just a brief glimpse of what’s going on, each cutscene teases just enough to make you want to push forward. 

Ys games are often fairly linear, and Origin’s single location with one main path is even more so. That means you move forward every time you play, even if it’s just making it to the next statue or solving a few puzzles, and it can’t be stressed enough how good that feels.

Unlike Darm Tower in the first Ys, the Darm Tower in Origin is much more visually interesting. Each major section follows a theme — water, fire, sand — and has its own (very good) soundtrack, and you’ll often pop back outside for a time to see the world on fire beneath you.

These visual cues add to the sense of progression, and seeing the world in ruins from time to time helps keep the main story front and center. 

At its heart, though, Ys Origin is a snappy combat game. Fighting is just as fast and fluid as the rest of the game and feels even more so thanks to Origin's running at 60fps on Switch.

Yunica, Hugo, and the third character have unique playstyles and abilities, so even fighting the same enemies and bosses as a different character feels like an entirely new experience.

Yunica specializes in melee combat and is best if you want a more traditional Ys experience, while Hugo wields a wand and works better from a distance. 

Admittedly, it takes a bit to open up. Combat feels slightly one-note when you first start out, especially with Hugo since he doesn’t have as many attack options. But the feeling changes once you acquire your first magic ability.

Like with bosses, each character has different magic available. For example, Yunica’s wind element magic helps her hover in the air and repels enemies, while Hugo’s wind element creates a shield that absorbs attacks and deals damage.

It creates a welcome range of new combat possibilities you can use to make a unique playstyle for all three characters.

Ys Origin is a blast to play.

However you play, you’ll need to be on your game for Origins’ bosses, which are some of the finest in the series and almost steal the show from everything else. The best way to describe them is a cross between Zelda and Mega Man bosses. 

Each has distinct attack patterns you’ll need to learn fast and a specific weak point to exploit when you can. The boss battles are as fast-paced as the rest of the game and keep you on your toes between dodging, magic-ing, and attacking, so the option to have Dash automatically enabled once you unlock it is a godsend. It’s tough but rewarding. 

You’ll probably find you need to grind a bit regardless of your difficulty setting, and that’s the only hitch in Origins’ otherwise fantastic pacing. Leveling up just one or two levels is enough to give you an edge in tougher fights, but it takes some time.

Origins is generous with experience points, and you can use SP earned through fighting to upgrade your character, but it still takes you out of the experience unnecessarily.

As mentioned, the Switch version of Ys Origins runs at 60fp with no drops, or at least none I noticed. That puts it on par with the PC and PS4 versions and fixes all the performance issues present in the Vita version, making the Switch version of Ys Origin the ideal way to play the game if you like your RPGs portable.

Still, the graphics are obviously dated. It’s to be expected from a game that’s over a decade old, but whether that’s a problem is down to personal taste. I have a soft spot for the style and don’t count it as a negative point.

Ys Origin Switch Review  The Bottom Line

  • Top-tier pacing and structure
  • Deep story that's accessible for newcomers and rich with lore for fans
  • Oh-so-satisfying combat
  • Those boss fights!
  • Excellent performance
  • Grinding brings the flow to a halt
  • That story depth comes at a cost of playing it three times

Ys Origin is a blast to play. Even with the grindy bits and replaying the game to see the real ending, it respects your time by always pushing you forward.

It cuts out most of the fat, so you're left with all the best bits — an absorbing story, snappy combat, and Falcom's characteristic banger of a soundtrack. This is just another great switch JRPG to add to the list. 

[Note: Dotemu provided the copy of Ys Origin used for this review.]

Robotics;Notes ELITE & DaSH Review: Hopes and Dreams Can Save the World Tue, 06 Oct 2020 13:00:01 -0400 George Yang

The latest entry in 5pb.’s Science Adventure series is finally in western territories, in the form of Robotics;Notes Double Pack. It contains the first game, Robotics;Notes ELITE, and its sequel, Robotics;Notes DaSH

To maximize your experience with Robotics;Notes, especially with DaSH, it's imperative that you play both previous localized entries in the series, Steins;Gate and Chaos;Child beforehand.

Robotics;Notes ELITE & DaSH Review: Hopes and Dreams Can Save the World

Robotics;Notes ELITE follows a group of young school kids in danger of having their robotics club disbanded. To prevent that, the club comes together to complete its giant robot.

The club starts off with just two members. Kaito Yashio, who is largely apathetic to the Robot Research Club’s goals and just wants to play video games all day, and Akiho Senomiya, the club president, who absolutely loves robots and wants to do everything she can to make sure the robot gets built.

Kaito is the main perspective here, and it’s certainly interesting to see the main character be so uninterested in the club. However, as the story progresses, you’ll see how his motivations change, especially as he gets entangled in a global conspiracy theory.

Gameplay minimalism

The format for Robotics;Notes sticks very traditionally to its visual novel roots, where you're mostly pressing the confirm button to go through massive amounts of dialogue. The gameplay elements are pretty light, especially compared to similar titles in the genre.

Kaito has a PhoneDroid, a smartphone that has augmented reality abilities. Through that, Kaito can access geotags, which are bits of data attached to certain objects or landmarks throughout the setting of Tanegashima. These primarily function as ways for players to look around and learn more about the game's world.

Additionally, Kaito can interact with Twipo, which is the universe’s social media platform. Through replying to certain posts, Kaito can unlock new routes in the game’s story that ultimately lead to the game’s final ending.

Kaito’s favorite game, Kill-Ballad, consists of quick-time events rather than any actual gameplay. During story events, Kaito will challenge other characters to a battle, and a series of QTEs will appear on-screen for the player to pass. 

Science Adventure Universe

Robotics;Notes ELITE is a slower burn than Steins;Gate and even Chaos;Child. The bits and pieces of the conspiracy theory plot start coming together while the main cast of characters works to finish its robot. The payoff is very much worth it, but that's also where the story’s biggest fault lies.

Whereas Steins;Gate starts getting tense a little past the halfway point in its story, the tension doesn’t really start snowballing in Robotics;Notes ELITE until the last two or three chapters. For some players, it might feel like a chore to get to those last few chapters compared to Steins;Gate

However, I really appreciate the much more grounded approach that Robotics;Notes takes in terms of its story, especially compared to Chaos;Child. As a result, when the world and conspiracy theory are explained in Robotics;Notes, it seems much more believable and doesn’t present such a jarring shift in lore that's felt in Chaos;Child's more fantastical elements.

The sequel is for the hardcore fans

Robotics;Notes DaSH takes place about six months after the first game and sees the return of Daru, one of the protagonists in Steins;Gate. This is undoubtedly a huge draw, as his inclusion explores how Robotics;Notes as a whole connects to the overall Science Adventure universe.

While it is a sequel, a large portion of DaSH feels like a fandisc. You can pursue different routes that focus on each main character from ELITE, and they actually provide a fair amount of character development. It’s a shame that they’re seemingly non-canon, judging by the calendar date of the events during these character episodes. 

They all take place around the same time period, so there’s no feasible way that every single episode can take place at once. As a result, the character episodes don’t really move the needle on the main plot itself. DaSH is as much of a slow burn as ELITE is since you can only access Daru’s storyline, which is the canon path in DaSH, after you complete all of the previous character episodes

Daru’s path is the highlight of DaSH, and the last few chapters are just as explosive as ELITE’s. Though it’s important to note that it borrows more from Chaos;Child’s lore than from Steins;Gate’s, which is kind of odd since he originated from the latter title.

Which is better, 3D Girls or 2D Girls?

As for presentation, both Robotics;Notes ELITE and DaSH utilize 3D anime models instead of the 2D cutouts that previous entries in the series used. They’re much more expressive and dynamic. Depending on the dialogue, several characters can appear on the screen at once, and the models will sometimes have their backs turned to you.

The way these 3D models are used creates a much more engaging experience, and I was surprised at how not-creepy they looked.

The soundtrack is fantastic as well. Takeshi Abo’s score is able to capture both the upbeat slice-of-life school anime feeling while also providing some tension during Robotic; Notes’ darker moments.

One persistent issue with each game is direction after you've completed a path by reaching a certain ending. Like many visual novels, there are triggers in both ELITE and DaSH that need to be activated to unlock paths to different endings.

In ELITE, it seems like different Twipo responses activate flags for branching paths in the narrative. In DaSH, it’s even more ambiguous, as it seems like you have to visit locations in a specific order to unlock the paths for the various characters. 

This makes playing without some sort of streamlined step-by-step walkthrough pretty frustrating, or else you’re just going to be endlessly guessing at what triggers what. Luckily, the game has been out in Japan for a while, so it's not difficult to find a translated guide. 

Robotics;Notes ELITE & DaSH Review — The Bottom Line

  • Strong plot and characters
  • Fantastic presentation in visuals and sound
  • Story takes a long time to pay off
  • Finding triggers for branching story paths is confusing

Fans of the Science Adventure series, and visual novels in general, will enjoy Robotics;Notes ELITE. While it doesn’t quite reach the incredibly soaring highs of Steins;Gate, it is more enjoyable than the underwhelming Chaos;Head.

Adding DaSH into the mix only increases the overall package here. Both plots are intriguing and the characters are likable. Anyone who is looking for a lighthearted adventure about hope and achieving their dreams will find exactly that in Robotics;Notes ELITE and DaSH.

[Note: Spike Chunsoft provided the copy of Robotics;Notes ELITE & DaSH used for this review.]

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time Review — Back In the Swing Tue, 06 Oct 2020 12:28:54 -0400 JosephYaden

It's almost unbelievable we get to play a true sequel to the original PlayStation Crash games thanks to the release of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. No disrespect to the games from the PlayStation 2 and beyond, but It's About Time gives fans a proper sequel that feels modern in many ways, picking up right after the events of 1998's Warped.

Developer Toys For Bob (the team that worked on the Spyro Reignited Trilogy) certainly did its homework to make an old formula feel new. But how exactly does Crash 4 do that? 

Crash Bandicoot: It's About Time Review  Back In the Swing

Crash 4's levels are masterfully designed, allowing you to run, jump, slide, spin, and slam down on enemies, all while gathering a ton of collectibles.

Thanks to Crash 4's modern touches, beautiful visuals, and smart level design, it's a platformer that feels exactly like I (and others like me) remember of the Crash games of yore. But because of those things, even those who never played the original games back in the day will get a lot out of this sequel. 

Right from the start, Crash 4 lets you choose between a Retro or Modern playstyle, with Retro employing the more traditional "lives" system and Modern employing a more contemporary approach, allowing you to infinitely respawn from the last checkpoint. 

Teetering the line between old and new, these options are a welcome addition because playing on Modern difficulty is absolutely the way to go. Crash 4 gets tremendously challenging later on, especially during boss encounters.

But leading up to those boss encounters, the stars of the show truly shine bright. Crash 4's levels are masterfully designed, allowing you to run, jump, slide, spin, and slam down on enemies, all while gathering a ton of collectibles. The levels all feature beautiful and varied themes, from tropical settings to futuristic approaches, giving each an immense sense of personality and breadth. 

There are hidden collectibles, alternate routes, and optional areas in these well-crafted areas, and the new rail sections allow you to grind much like you would in any of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games. 

These rail sections break up the levels and offer a welcome change of pace, along with a set of high-risk, high-reward collectibles that you can grab along the way if you choose. Or you can simply make a beeline for the end of the level.

That's the thing about It's About Time: Much of its tougher challenges (with some exceptions) are optional, allowing newcomers to blast through and giving completionists much more challenging and rewarding experiences at the time.

Speaking of completionists, Toys For Bob did a fantastic job making sure Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time has enough content to warrant its $60 price tag. The value of an individual video game is ultimately up to the player, and with the sheer number of games on the market, it can be hard to justify paying $60 for a platformer you can finish in around eight hours.

But there's so much more to do in It's About Time.

Each level features a time trial mode that forces you to play differently from how you might be used to. Along with that, there are six gems to find per level, hundreds of boxes to break, challenges to complete, and hidden gems to uncover. 

If you collect all six gems in a specific level, you're rewarded with fancy new skins for Crash and Coco, many of which offer comedic "spins" on the already humorous characters. The 360 Noscope skin, which depicts Crash in his gamer outfit, headset and all, is a particularly nice touch.

Apart from that are the unlockable Flashback Tape levels. These are optional levels you unlock by collecting a Flashback Tape within certain mainline levels. The tapes only appear if you reach them without dying, offering even more incentive to those looking to master the game. The Flashback Tape levels themselves are enjoyable and are presented with an old-timey filter over the top, requiring you to collect a series of boxes as you make your way through them. 

You can also take part in the Pass N. Play mode, where up to four players pass the controller with each death, featuring a score tally at the end. Plus, there's a traditional multiplayer mode called Bandicoot Battle that allows two to four players to race against one another to the finish line, or go head-to-head to achieve a high score. 

When you consider how much there is here outside the main levels, your eight-hour playthrough can quickly turn into 20 or 25 hours. 

...this is all wrapped up Crash 4's stellar soundtrack, which features banger after banger.

One of the new features in It's About Time is the ability to use different Quantum Masks throughout the game. These make periodic appearances through Crash's adventure and truly make you rethink the way you play. 

Each mask grants you various abilities and turns the game on its head. In total, there are four: Lani-Loli, which grants the ability to phase items in and out of existence; Akano, which turns you into a Dark Matter Tornado that that can glide and hover; Kupuna-Wa, which temporarily slows down time; and Ika-Ika, which is used for manipulating gravity.

Along with Crash, there are multiple characters to play as, such as Coco, Neo Cortex, Dingodile, and Tawna. All the characters feature unique abilities that keep things fresh along your journey, such as Tawna's grappling hook, which you can use to attack enemies or get from place to place. 

Lastly, this is all wrapped up Crash 4's stellar soundtrack, which features banger after banger. The songs are a mixture of what you remember from the originals. Complete with quirky xylophone sounds matching each level theme, the tunes culminate in a catchy, foot-tapping score. 

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time Review The Bottom Line


  • Lots of replayability
  • Beautiful visuals/sounds
  • True to originals, yet modernized
  • Excellent level design


  • Can get frustrating during later game challenges
  • Camera can cause issues with depth perception 

Despite everything Crash 4 does right, there are still a handful of issues that weigh it down. Its biggest problem is its perspective, which often causes you to misjudge where you're supposed to jump and how far. To mitigate this, the game features a small circle below your character that indicates where they'll land, but oftentimes, it isn't enough to keep you from missing a leap or dying.

Not being able to tell where a deadly obstacle is in relation to your character is an issue that has plagued the Crash series since the beginning, and while it is better here than in past entries, it's presence mars the overall experience. 

Considering Crash 4's increasing difficulty in later stages, and its reliance on hidden extra content, it's easy to see how the game could be geared toward more skilled players and those with experience with the series. Newcomers may not find as much immediate enjoyment in Crash 4 because of that, so mileage may vary. 

Ultimately, Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time had a lot riding on it. Being the sequel to a 22-year-old game likely presented Toys for Bob with some developmental challenges, but the development team nailed nearly everything about this sequel. 

The Crash series has seen its fair share of mediocre (or even bad) entries, but Crash 4 is a big step in the right direction, and the future of the series couldn't be more exciting. 

[Note: Activision provided the copy of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time used for this review.]

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition Review: Don't Call it a Comeback Tue, 29 Sep 2020 19:15:07 -0400 Jason D'Aprile

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition is an odd bird. It's a game with a huge nostalgic fanbase and a ton of behind the scenes baggage regarding aggressive legal battles between then-publisher Atari and developer Frontier Developments. Originally released in the ancient times of 2004, RC3 followed in the well-honed footsteps of its predecessors to create the ultimate PC theme park simulation. 

The original RollerCoaster Tycoon came out in the nearly Mesozoic era of 1999, and the sequels and expansion packs that followed mostly served to expand on a good thing. As it turns out, many things have happened since then in the world of virtual theme parks. A lot of those things actually by Frontier themselves, who have made several great theme park sims of all kinds since. 

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition Review: Don't Call it a Comeback

The problem with RCT3 is simply that it looks and feels like a 16-year-old game.

The main draw of this Complete Edition is nostalgia. For older PC players, some might notice this is essentially just the Platinum Edition (from 2006) with the Atari branding stripped away and a default 1080p resolution. For Switch players, of course, the situation is a little more confusing.

Atari already ported their mobile version, RollerCoaster Tycoon Touch (under the name RollerCoaster Tycoon Adventures), to the portable (to very mixed reception), because who doesn't like paying $50 for a port of a F2P phone game?

The problem with RCT3 is simply that it looks and feels like a 16-year-old game. The graphics are quaint, low-poly, and have a certain charm, but also look a little muddy and low detail for a game fixated on every little detail. That said, it's not an ugly game, and the character designs have a distinctive, almost 70s-era cartoon vibe to them.

The big problem is simply the interface feels like an old PC game. Even on the Switch, where the interface has been adapted to be largely based on radial dial menus, there's a steep learning curve to get the hang of park building. Where modern park building games have intelligently evolved to the almost seamless laying of things like fences, roads, tracks, and other features, RCT3's clunky sub-menu method of clicking on directional arrows and individual spots on the game world feels positively outdated.

This isn't just a rollercoaster design kit, although there is that too, but an entire theme park ecosystem creator.

Those gamers who put hours into the original will likely feel right at home, but anyone outside that group will have to spend a lot of time ramping up. The entire interface has a distinct early-Windows look that has long since been superseded by better games. 

If you do get over the hump, however, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition inarguably gives gamers a metric ton of content to play with and a wide range of ways to do it. The base game is huge, with tons of customization options, and the water and jungle park expansion packs nearly triple the content.

This isn't just a rollercoaster design kit, although there is that too, but an entire theme park ecosystem creator. The campaign mode teaches the basics and gives a wide range of goals and challenges for park building and management. The sandbox modes let you pick any setting and go crazy. Then, there are the standalone creation tools that let users make dream coasters, buildings, even people that they can import into their parks. 

RCT3 definitely feels a little more comfortable with a mouse and keyboard, but the Switch port, once learned, does an amicable job of getting players into the nitty-gritty of being a park overlord. It is a little annoying that there's no use of the Switch's touchscreen, but overall, it works.

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition — The Bottom Line

  • Tons of Content
  • Nostalgic blast for old fans
  • Not much like it on the Switch
  • Interface and graphics both feel incredibly dated
  • Steep learning curve for newcomers
  • No touchscreen support on Switch

RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 Complete Edition feels a lot like an historical artifact. There's nearly endless gameplay here for fans of park creation sims and the inclusion of not just coaster-focused amusement parks, but zoos, waterparks, and even dino-themed settings give it a real kitchen sink appeal.

The downside is that sim creation games have come a long way since 2004 and RCT3 feels very dated as a result. 

[Note: Frontier Developments provided the copy of RollerCoaster Tycoon 3: Complete Edition used for this review.]

Mafia: Definitive Edition Review: A Family Tradition Tue, 29 Sep 2020 17:21:52 -0400 Mark Delaney

It was nearly two decades ago when Mafia initially launched, and since then, it's inspired two sequels in 2010 and 2016, respectively. In each case, the games have stood as narratively exceptional but ludologically lackluster. 

Like Made Men who sit and smoke cigars around the Don, Mafia: Definitive Edition respects its long-standing traditions and doesn't step out on its franchise family.

In this visually stunning remake for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, fans of the series won't find a game that rises above the blunders of its predecessors. Still, they will share in a story from a team that seems to take its oath as storytellers seriously, holding it in as high a regard as the Omerta itself.

Mafia: Definitive Edition Review — A Family Tradition

All the era's bright lights and blemishes are on display, and the city is a joy to witness from opening to closing credits. 

MafiaDefinitive Edition is a built-from-the-ground-up remake of the 2002 cult classic. Those with long memories won't find much difference in the script, but it's chiefly worth experiencing for its writing all the same.

The game casts players as Tommy Angelo, a cabbie in Lost Heaven, the game's Chicago analog. Tommy gets caught up as the reluctant getaway driver for a pair of mobsters in the early going and soon finds the pull of this new way of life is too strong to resist.

Before you know it, players will be years-deep into Tommy's exploits as he works the city for its various high-risk, high-reward angles to serve Don Salieri. Like other Mafia games, the story in Mafia: Definitive Edition is nothing short of a saga. Being with Tommy for many years, beginning near the end of Prohibition, is a fascinating look not just into Tommy's life, but the allies, enemies, and most of all, city around him.

Lost Heaven is gloriously remade for 2020. Just as Mafia 2 and Mafia 3 faithfully capture post-WWII New York and civil-rights-era New Orleans with Empire Bay and New Bordeaux, respectively, this Chicago stand-in is richer with atmosphere than virtually all other period pieces in games. It stands tall alongside greats such as Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire.

Turn on the radio, and you'll hear addresses from the president, seemingly pulled from real-life historical archives. Feel the thrill of frantically evading the cops through a Hooverville. Walk the streets and catch newspaper barkers selling you headlines ripped from the game's amalgam of history and fiction.

All the era's bright lights and blemishes are on display, and the city is a joy to witness from opening to closing credits. 

Perhaps for that reason, it's strange Hangar 13 didn't put much of anything in the world. In this way, Mafia's open-world feels more like a sandbox of mostly just sand, with very few toys, but it's not unlike the series to do this. 

Mafia 2 took a similar approach, and while its emptiness feels starkly different than the cluttered maps of three dozen Ubisoftian open worlds since 2010, it was Mafia 3's own attempt to fall in line with modernity that maybe led Hangar 13 back to basics. That 2016 sequel left people feeling nauseous from repetitive side missions.

So, besides some well-hidden collectibles and the ever-present invite to soak in the atmosphere, the game's Free Ride mode, unlocked after the first chapter, doesn't offer much of anything for players. I didn't mind because the story is so exceptionally well done. It's all I cared about, and it led to me finished the roughly 15-hour story in two days.

Angelo's story is, like Lincoln Clay's or Vito Scaletta's before (and, technically, after) him, fascinating. Characters speak naturally in a way that I vividly recalled from the series' earlier entries. They, of course, look better than ever, with some nuanced facial animations that help deliver each scene's emotional weight. They're perfectly suited for the many gut punches, literal and figurative, of a mobster's life.

It's the authenticity of the dialog that had me most appreciative of the story as I swiftly moved through its 20 chapters. I was regularly in something close to awe at how well written the game is, letting character performances shine and leaving things unsaid for the player to understand, rather than have it spoon-fed.

Even as games have gotten so much better at telling stories over the past two generations, the writing in Mafia: Definitive Edition still feels like a remarkable outlier in an industry that tends to value the Rule of Cool over realism or nuance.

...the legacy issues of the franchise spoil some of the game's lasting appeal once again.

But in 1930s Lost Heaven, the cars will never be all that fast and flashy, and the weapons will never get so destructive that the Rule of Cool is even in the field guide. Hangar 13 knows this and plays to the strengths of the period's subtleties. That's not to say the missions are a bore. They're not. But like before, MafiaDefinitive Edition lets a scene play out slowly, giving players the sense that they aren't so much avatars in a virtual toybox as they are actors with a role to play.

Even in the open world, the game likes when you do some things in specific ways, like evading cops using one-off obstacles. You have a freedom to move about the city and sometimes even through a mission how you see fit, but ultimately, the game does seem to favor a Right Way to do things, which can feel jarring, albeit still effecting, in a big, open cityscape.

Gunplay feels a lot like Mafia 2 rather than Mafia 3. In the latter case, Lincoln Clay's history as a special operations soldier shined in his killer instinct and hard-charging, overpowering nature.

But Vito Scaletta, and now Tommy Angelo, don't have that same frame or ruthlessness. Thus, Tommy can feel a bit stiff at times, and the cover system doesn't always work as well as it should, especially on higher difficulties where Tommy may not get down or sprint to the next bit of cover as seamlessly as you'll want.

Similar to how early survival horror can actually benefit from some janky controls by leaving the player feeling powerless, I found some of the stiffness in gunplay felt strangely at home in the 1930s, where no one had ever seen a more effective firearm than the Thompson. Maybe that's me excusing the game's deficiencies, but I just never felt like it broke things too much, even if it's certainly noticeable. 

After the game was delayed and both Mafia 2 and Mafia 3 had issues with bugs, I was worried Mafia would suffer a similar fate, but in my experience, that's hardly the case.

An early section saw some of the road's textures disappear beneath me and a mid-game cutscene got stuck without audio or video. The only way I knew it was happening at all was because the subtitles continued to run. It's unfortunate in a game that rests its case on story first and foremost, but it happened once and never again, so I found it forgivable.

Mafia: Definitive Edition Review — The Bottom Line

  • An exceptionally well-told story
  • Masterful dialog and great facial animations sell every scene
  • Great voiceover work from the whole cast
  • Rich with atmosphere
  • Open world leaves something to be desired
  • A few minor glitches
  • Gunplay feels a bit stiff

Mafia: Definitive Edition tells a story much like the series has become known for, in more ways than one. In a literal sense, its actual plot, setting, and characters are some of the most gripping you can find in the medium, begging to be played in a hurry like a binge-worthy TV series. But the legacy issues of the franchise spoil some of the game's lasting appeal once again.

I don't want a Mafia world cluttered with hundreds of things to do like some open-world games offer, but Mafia: Definitive Edition has virtually nothing to do once the admittedly great story concludes.

There seems to be a happy medium still yet to be found for this series, but I definitely hope someone gets a chance to find it. If nothing else, I'm sure experiencing another story in this franchise will be an offer I can't refuse.

[Note: 2K Games provided the copy of Mafia: Definitive Edition used for this review.]

Kirby Fighters 2 Review: Baby's First Brawler Mon, 28 Sep 2020 18:53:21 -0400 Henry Stockdale

It’s strange to think that outside of Mario, Kirby features in so many Nintendo spinoffs. Between racing, pinball, and other one-off adventures, Kirby just keeps finding games and genres to pop up in.

Marking Kirby’s third appearance on Nintendo Switch, Kirby Fighters 2 was surprise-released last week, becoming the latest game to suddenly launch on the eShop. A sequel to Kirby Fighters on the Nintendo 3DS, KF2 presents itself as a Kirby-focused 2D brawler, inevitably opening itself to Super Smash Bros comparisons.

After spending the weekend with it, I can say there is certainly an enjoyable game here, though it's wrapped in a simplicity that’s better suited to younger audiences.  

Kirby Fighters 2 Review: Baby's First Brawler

Kirby Fighters 2 has a full story mode that’s split across different chapters, letting you play alone with an AI buddy or in 2-player local co op.

This time around, King Deedee and Meta Knight have teamed up to defeat Kirby, inviting him to the Buddy Fighting Tower, a lofty structure that seemingly extends into the heavens. Not understanding a thing in the letter sent by King Deedee and Meta Knight, Kirby figures out that something’s up with the invite, and soon makes his way to the tower with a friend in tow.

Enemies lie in wait on each floor of the tower, and you’ll have to beat them to proceed, with each floor eventually ending in a boss battle.

Outside of the main tower mode, there is a Single-Handed mode, which sees you competing in nine consecutive solo battles. There's also a Battle Mode, where you fight using copied abilities, all of which Kirby must gain. This acts as your local multiplayer on one console.

Since Kirby Fighters 2 is a party-focused game, there are also options for both four-player local play with other nearby consoles and online multiplayer, bringing some nice variety to the brawling outside of these other modes.

As you may expect, there are only a few fighters to choose from at the beginning. As you play, you unlock more of the roster, which tops out at 22. Most of your choices are Kirby variants that have absorbed certain abilities, including Sword Kirby, Wrestler Kirby, and Yo-Yo Kirby, though other characters are also present, such as Waddle Dee, Meta Knight, King Dedede, Gooey, and Magolor.

In combat, each character has an HP bar, of course, and you have a set amount of time to defeat your opponents in each match. Every character has a basic attack with directional variants, allowing you to charge it up, too.

It's all standard fighter stuff.

Rather than absorb enemies to gain their powers like Kirby does in Smash Bros, Kirby can gobble them up instead, spitting them out for further damage. Items also appear during matches, from health-restoring food to the Buddy Star Blaster, a two-part weapon that deals heavy damage when used by you and your ally.

A small bit of your health is replenished between levels, but it's never fully restored, so it's important to proceed through the tower carefully. Once all of those health refills are all dished out, you can choose one of three power-ups for your team, which offer perks like raising your maximum health or improving specific attacks. However, these reset upon starting a new chapter.

If you go down in a fight and your ally is still alive, your character’s ghost can be revived if your ally lands a hit on your foes.

Your performance in each match is graded, and you're given points based on several factors, including how much time is left, whether you were revived or not, and how much damage you took during the match. These points go toward a leveling system called Fighters Rank, which unlocks new story items, stages, and abilities as it increases.

Leaning into Kirby's signature colorful aesthetic, Fighters 2 is a minor celebration of the series' history. There are numerous throwbacks to previous entries, like the game's many retro-inspired stages. If your Switch has save data from Kirby Star Allies or Super Kirby Clash, you can even get exclusive hats for your fighters. 

As such, Kirby fans will find much to love here, but it doesn’t mask the fact that Fighters 2 just isn’t particularly interesting. While it shares Smash Bros’ basic 2D fighting premise, each character in Fighters 2 has a smaller move set than their SSB counterparts, making them feel rather basic. Combat is certainly functional but it’s not exciting, and after your 10th consecutive fight in Story mode, repetition soon sets in.

If you came into Fighters 2 looking for a similar experience to Super Smash Bros., you’ll find this quite limited by comparison.

Kirby Fighters 2 Review — The Bottom Line

  • Great introduction to fighting games for young audiences
  • Fun in Multiplayer
  • Colorful visuals
  • Combat is rather simplistic
  • Story mode is repetitive
  • Limited appeal

It’s clear that HAL Laboratory designed Kirby Fighters 2 to be accessible for younger players. In that regard, the game succeeds. As an entry-level fighting game, Kirby Fighters 2 works quite well, making for a good multiplayer experience that comes with several flaws that are hard to ignore.

With a repetitive story campaign and basic game mechanics, it mostly appeals to kids or diehard Kirby fans. 

[Note: Nintendo provided the copy of Kirby Fighters 2 used for this review.]

Port Royale 4 Review: Old-School Capitalism Fri, 25 Sep 2020 05:15:02 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

At first glance, you might think Port Royale 4 is a high-seas adventure game, especially if you've not followed the franchise. The beautiful Caribbean setting and sea full of swashbucklers definitely makes it look like a successor to something like Sid Meier's Pirates!

Look a little closer, however, and you'll know that's a false flag. 

Port Royale 4 is much more akin to factory and supply chain management games, just with an "Age of Pirates" skin plastered over the top. This is a cutthroat engine builder that encourages you to play as the worst type of capitalist.

t's perfect for the right type of gamer, but there are some quirks of the genre and other elements tacked on that could make a sizable chunk of gamers bounce right off.

Port Royale 4 Review: Old-School Capitalism

It's extremely nice to pause Port Royale 4, set up half a dozen new trade routes, assign different convoys to them, then unpause and watch everything go into motion.

At its core, Port Royale 4 is a game that's about controlling the economy through production and trade. Whether you're playing one of the game's structured campaigns or its sandbox mode, your goals are the same: accumulate gold and economically choke out your rivals.

There are multiple ways to achieve that outcome, but a huge chunk comes from moving goods around the Caribbean.

When you first begin, most of the emphasis is on trade. You start out with a few small ship convoys that can sail to different cities, buying and selling goods along the way. You can do this manually, sending ships to different ports and filling the cargo holds with the various items and goods you need.

The principle of supply and demand is in full effect here, as is a hierarchy of needs. Each city produces certain things, like cotton, fruit, or grain. Big money comes from transporting essential goods from a producer to another city that needs it.

Once basic needs like food and shelter are taken care of, citizens will begin searching for luxury goods. Nice furniture, rum, tobacco, luxury clothing: these items demand higher prices but will sit idly in your ships' holds if citizens of various cities can't afford to put food on the table.

As your fleet grows bigger, you'll need to set up automated trade routes. These are fairly intuitive, and you can toggle all sorts of switches to determine how much of what to buy as your ships go about their business. This is where the "factory management" comparisons come in.

It's extremely nice to pause Port Royale 4, set up half a dozen new trade routes, assign different convoys to them, then unpause and watch everything go into motion. Watching all your little ships sail around and your money reserves tick ever higher is reminiscent of watching model trains run: it's oddly satisfying and easy to get lost in.

A Barrel of Rum

Trade routes aren't the only way to control the Caribbean economy in Port Royale 4. You can also build your own production facilities in different cities, changing the supply and demand balance, running your foes out of business and double dipping into expensive or rare commodities.

Say you want to start controlling grain production in the area. You could appeal to your viceroy for multiple building permits, allowing you to build more housing and additional fields in multiple cities along trade routes. An influx of workers will come in, filling your fields and increasing the amount of grain being shipped to other cities.

That's not all. The influx of grain will have ripplling effects on the supply chain. If you were out in front of things, you perhaps built some breweries in cities later along the trade route. Now, you'll get money when the market buys your grain, which your ships will then carry down the route. You'll get money when those ships sell the grain to the breweries, who will use it to make beer.

If they are your breweries, you'll get money when the market buys that beer, which your ships will then cart further down the line, making you even more money when some up-and-coming city decides that Caribbean beer sounds like a good option.

Meanwhile, other nations and convoys are trying to do the same thing. The Caribbean economy is nicely balanced, and tilting things significantly in one direction will always cause blowbacks in another. Still, Port Royale 4 does a pretty good job of bringing out the ruthless merchant in you.

Choppy Seas

Ship combat in video games is notoriously tricky to get right, so it's nice that Kalypso tried something with it but... it just misses the mark.

If all Port Royale 4 had going for it was this economy simulation, it would be fine but lacking. 

The good news is that there are other elements to keep you busy: searching for treasure maps and partaking in other quests throughout the Caribbean, engaging in naval combat with your nation's enemies and, of course, hunting for pirates.

The bad news is that none of these elements are very fun.

Occasionally, while sailing about, a star will appear on your map that indicates a quest. Most of these quests are fairly simple: deliver a set number of goods to a certain town by a certain date, search a specific area for something, etc. The problem is that most of these are simple fetch missions that do nothing to challenge you. Instead, they force you to disrupt a trade route or keep a convoy on standby to go hunting.

No, thank you.

We talked about Port Royale 4's combat in our beta impressions, and it still just doesn't really gel with the rest of the game. Turn-based combat doesn't work for ships. They're supposed to be these unwieldy beasts, fighting against the powerful force of the ocean to even get in position to deal any damage.

With turn-based combat, whether you're battling pirates or other enemies of the crown, everything feels too neat and tidy. In a massive naval battle, things should feel chaotic and like they could turn on a change of the wind. In Port Royale 4, I move one ship, firing on an enemy. Then, they move one ship, doing the same. There are a few wrinkles to the formula, like captain's powers, but, without cover, terrain, and other variables to account for, it just feels boring.

Ship combat in video games is notoriously tricky to get right, so it's nice that Kalypso tried something with it but... it just misses the mark. After my first few naval battles, I found myself actively avoiding combat whenever possible. Luckily, you can automatically conclude most battles. On the other hand, that really limits much of the game to "watching your ships sail by."

Port Royale 4 Review  The Bottom Line

  • A good looking Caribbean adventure
  • Immersive setting and really dives in (there's even a sea shanty in the opening cinematic!)
  • Satisfying, assembly line-style gameplay
  • Combat is slow-paced and flawed
  • Not much interesting to do beyond central trading elements
  • Certain elements are easy to lose track of

There's a lot going on beneath deck in Port Royale 4, and much of it works very well. Setting up your perfect trade routes and watching all the moving pieces sail into action hits all those lizard brain elements that we love, and optimizing things when some new wrench hits the system is always a good time.

That said, these waters feel a little shallow. If combat or... something was more interesting, this game would feel like a slam dunk for almost anyone that's a fan of this genre. As is, it feels like a very niche title: solid, but not overly exciting.

[Note: Kalypso Media provided the copy of Port Royale 4 that was used for this review.]

Super Mario 3D All-Stars Review: Star-Studded Selections Thu, 24 Sep 2020 15:33:00 -0400 Ethan Anderson

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a nostalgic trip down memory lane for many. It's also a convenient way to experience three Nintendo classics for the very first time, which, for me, is the case when it comes to the first two games in the collection. I never owned a Nintendo 64, and Super Mario Sunshine never made its way onto my GameCube.

With that said, the 3D All-Stars collection is certainly a time machine in more ways than one. It's easy to see why so many players fell in love with these games years ago, even when experiencing them as a first-time player in 2020.

The collection's games do end up feeling dated in some areas thanks to the lack of major modern updates, but those flaws don't do much to diminish their original magic.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars Review: Star-Studded Selections

[If] you're experiencing this for the first time, playing through this old-school Super Mario classic will still fill you with nostalgia.

Super Mario 64 launched in 1996. As someone who was too young to even hold a controller back then, I expected SM64 to be a somewhat trying experience to start. Thankfully, that wasn't the case here — at least not for the majority of the game. If your situation is similar to mine, and you're experiencing this for the first time, playing through this old-school Super Mario classic will still fill you with nostalgia.

The main goal in Super Mario 64 is to, unsurprisingly, save Princess Peach from Bowser after he's taken control of Peach's castle. In other words, it's as standard as a Super Mario plot gets.

Ignoring the near nonexistent story, Mario's 3D debut still holds up as a platformer. It's full of memorable levels, creative puzzles, and secrets that are a joy to find.

Most of the game's levels take full advantage of the 3D space with some truly timeless platforming. Bob-omb Battlefield, Hazy Maze Cave, and Big Boo's Haunt are some of the standouts in that regard, with Big Boo's being fun from the start, since you actually find the level first.

Super Mario 64 really shows its age, though, specifically in its visuals and archaic camera controls. The graphics are about as updated as they can be without going into full remake territory, so while the jagged edges and blurry textures aren't exactly major issues, they are noticeable.

The camera controls, however, are rough. It always manages to get snagged on an invisible wall when you're trying to rotate it around, making certain segments of the game feel impossible to get through.

It doesn't help that it's inverted in some situations, while it's not in others. And there's no setting to change camera preferences at all, making an update or addition here a welcome one.  

While Super Mario 64 may feel a bit outdated as a result, its shortcomings are nowhere near as bothersome as those found in Super Mario Sunshine.

Somehow, Sunshine feels like it has more downsides than Super Mario 64, despite launching six years after that game in 2002. And you can thank FLUDD for most of it.

Here, Mario is framed for drawing graffiti all over Isle Delfino, and now he has to clean it up. It immediately feels like a plot point from Sonic Adventure 2 involving Sonic and Shadow.

This time around, you'll have to use the water-filled backpack, FLUDD, for pretty much everything, from attacking to platforming. It's a machine that blasts water to spray enemies, clean the environment, and improve Mario's mobility.

It's a creative idea that starts out interestingly enough. It has four different nozzles that shake up the gameplay in four very different ways. The Hover Nozzle is easily the most useful of the choices, as it allows players to find their own unique ways through many of the game's levels with some outside-the-box thinking.

Sadly, FLUDD overstays its welcome due to its occasionally clunky controls. The few levels without FLUDD are tougher, but they make Sunshine feel like a greatly enhanced version of the platforming you're used to from Super Mario 64

3D All-Stars does its best to fix FLUDD's mechanical awkwardness by providing a more simplified control scheme and adjusting the button layout. The "R" button allows for more precise, stationary aiming, and "ZR" allows Mario to spray water while on the move.

This all sounds great in concept, but in practice, FLUDD's novelty wears off around halfway through the game; the exact moment that it lost me was during the Eely-Mouth boss fight in Noki Bay. FLUDD's accuracy and controls are put to the test in a tricky underwater situation, and they fail miserably.

If you end up feeling like this about any of Sunshine's other stages, it might upset you to know that, unlike in Super Mario 64, you can't just skip the ones you're having trouble with. They must be done in order.

On the upside, 3D All-Stars upscales Sunshine's visuals by a noticeable amount. Isle Delfino's sunny locales all look colorful and vibrant on the Switch, though they don't look better than the numerous planets found in Super Mario Galaxy.

Galaxy checks every Super Mario box there is, from tight platforming to creative mechanics and a catchy soundtrack.

Super Mario Galaxy is still a great game, and without a doubt, the best one in this collection.

It really ups Bowser's ambition and execution from a plot perspective. He still performs the regular old Princess Peach abduction, but this time, he brings her all the way to outer-space. You'll be chasing after her with the help of Rosalina and the star-like Lumas.

Like Super Mario 64, this game does so many innovative things in all the right ways. Galaxy plays with gravity and perspective wonderfully, while adhering to the Super Mario school of top-notch platforming and puzzle-solving.

With that said, the camera can also be a nuisance here, working against you when smaller planets force annoying angle changes. But once again, it's forgivable because it rarely has a prolonged negative impact on the gameplay mechanics.

Speaking of the mechanics, they're solid for each of the control schemes, although the Joy-Cons do the best job of replicating that original feel of the Wii. It plays the same but doesn't look the same thanks to some slight visual upgrades.

Galaxy checks every Super Mario box there is, from tight platforming to creative mechanics and a catchy soundtrack. Above all, it introduced some sort of an actual checkpoint system. Mario is no longer ejected from a level after every lost life. Thank goodness.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars Review — The Bottom Line

  • Best way to play three classic Super Mario games
  • Visual upgrades for the whole collection
  • Galaxy is a standout, with the Joy-Cons replicating the Wiimote perfectly
  • The modern updates are basically all visual, with very few quality-of-life changes
  • Super Mario 64 is in need of a camera control upgrade
  • Sunshine's FLUDD controls occasionally lack precision and accuracy, even with the changes

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a satisfying gift for the series' 35th anniversary. The collection provides a worthwhile journey through Mario's 3D beginnings, even for newcomers like myself.

Much more effort could've been put into modernizing the camera controls in Super Mario 64 and FLUDD's spray mechanics in Super Mario Sunshine, but 3D All-Stars is still an overall enjoyable platformer package nonetheless.

[Note: Nintendo provided the copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars used for this review.]

Hades Review: Hell Was Never So Much Fun Thu, 24 Sep 2020 12:23:31 -0400 John Schutt

Hades is, for almost too many reasons to count, some of Supergiant Games’ best work. It carries all the hallmarks that make their games great: a strong character-focused narrative, excellent gameplay, and outstanding visual and audio design.

Then there are the thousand and one little details that set it apart, from small animations, secrets places, humorous touches, and much more.

The years of Early Access and community feedback have done wonders Hades, as well. Some of its more mundane or annoying features are long gone, replaced with more ways to feel powerful and have an amazing time. Better yet, the value for the money is far beyond anything Supergiant has put out before. My first clear took about 15 hours, but I sense at least 60 or 70 hours more before I’ve seen everything the game has to offer. 

Hades is all substance, and there’s no other game in the roguelite genre that tops it.

Hades Review: Hell Was Never So Much Fun

You will grow to love the characters of Hades because they all play an integral part in the gameplay in some fashion.

Every inch of the game you play tells some part of the story. The weapons, the abilities, the environments, the enemies — everything paints a tapestry that is Hades’ vast, procedurally generated Underworld. 

You play as Zagreus, the son of the titular God of the Dead, Hades, and your quest is simple: get out. Zagreus wants to be rid of his abusive father and discover the world outside the walls of his house.

To that end, he enlists the help of the Olympian gods as he fights his way to their home on Olympus. He has the support of everyone in the House of Hades, save for its head, Hades himself, whose motives remain as mysterious as he is curmudgeonly. 

It’s a fine enough goal for a game: go to a place, kill some dudes, escape. The player’s impetus is Zagreus’ impetus, and in the first few runs, you quickly bond with Zagreus. His quest becomes yours if only to overcome the challenges the Underworld puts before you. You want to reach Olympus as much as he does, though your reasoning may differ. 

Then the game pulls back the curtain. Character motivations become more opaque, and the truth blurs. Your allies show they know far more than they’ve ever told. Your enemies aren’t so clear cut.

What Zagreus believes is slowly chipped into nothing until the real goal comes into view, and what was once a pretty action game with excellent voice acting and music becomes something of a personal quest, where what you want and what you need diverge entirely.

You will grow to love the characters of Hades because they all play an integral part in the gameplay in some fashion. Then, when you return to the hub area, the House of Hades, what you learned in the Underworld comes home to roost. Everything Zagreus, and therefore you, do ripples through the game. 

An Action Game Like Few Others

These ripples even apply to the weapons and abilities you use to make your way toward the surface. There are six weapon types, and each of them has a unique playstyle. They’re all incredibly fun on their own, but Supergiant went the extra mile and ensured that, as you gain powers each run, you’ll find it hard to make the same build twice.

A shield run, for instance, could focus almost entirely on defense, evasion, or all-out attack, and each of those paths is equally viable. Then, on your next outing, you might choose the actual assault rifle and find that everything you thought you knew about how to play Hades goes out the window. The same is true for the sword, bow, spear, and fists. 

Build variety comes from more than just weapon upgrades. Every room you enter in Hades has a chance to offer a Boon from one of the 10 Greek gods, and these offer fantastical powers. Like the levels themselves, which ability you receive is random, and each time you have three to choose from. Creating a build in Hades, like any good roguelite, happens on the fly, as you make trade-offs and concessions toward a particular goal. 

Even early on, especially once you have just a few upgrades under your belt, Zagreus gets powerful fast. You’ll tear through the initial mobs that once gave you trouble. Then, when you think you know what to expect, Hades throws a curveball. The boss or elite enemy you were expecting is nowhere to be seen, and the one you face challenges your perfect build in ways you could never expect.

Things become a game of cat and mouse as you try to outsmart the game through a clever combination of divine Boons and new strategies. What you think will dominate will fail. What seems useless saves you in a pinch. 

That says nothing of the joy of the moment to moment gameplay, which is fast, chaotic, and gets the adrenaline pumping in the best way. You start with just enough mobility to get by, and learning how to maximize survivability is almost more fun than using the game’s powers themselves.

The core systems here — dash, attack, special attack, and dash attacks — seem simple enough on paper. Mastering them will see you win run after run, regardless of build.

A Treat for the Eyes and Ears

As great as the art direction is, the music is equally fantastic.

Hades is a beautiful game. Each environment is lovingly crafted with no expense spared toward giving every area a unique identity. The levels are all defined by a primary color that permeates its design. Tartarus, the opening level, is keyed to a deep, almost neon, green. Other levels are reds, teals, and purples. 

The levels themselves are all procedurally generated, so no two arenas appear twice. This randomness has not stopped the artists from taking great care with each environment. Tartarus, again, is all gothic architecture, ruined hallways, and foreboding edifices. The green color always is present in some sense, either as a light source or as the color of the stones of the floor. 

As great as the art direction is, the music is equally fantastic. Darren Korb’s soundtrack is a mix of acoustic instrumentation, driving basslines, and electronic melodies. Paired with vocals provided by Ashley Barrett, you will never walk a moment in Hades without having some serious ear candy. 

The music, unlike the levels, is not procedural. Instead, it shifts between ambient and combat music and looping as the situation calls for. Important NPCs have their own themes, and there are a few poignant moments throughout the game that go into tear-jerker territory because of how the music swells and dips based on the emotions onscreen.

The only thing that could make it all better is if the environments themselves changed in some way based on the music, but that’s probably asking too much, even of Supergiant.


No game is perfect, and Hades is no exception. It is exceptional, of course, enough to earn such a high mark, but there are parts of the game that get in the way of enjoyment from time to time. 

The first and most notable issue is the procedural generation itself. Entire runs can go down the drain because the Boons on offer don’t synergize properly, or the rolls are poor. You might run into an arena that’s too small for the enemies’ attacks, leaving you with no way to so much as wriggle. 

There’s sometimes a bit of visual clutter as well. Every enemy and character stands out from the rest, but if there are a lot of them onscreen at once, it’s easy to lose Zagreus in the shuffle. His health will disappear shortly after that. Add in some light bullet hell elements, and the clash of primary colors goes from distracting to downright opaque. 

In something of an unintentional nod to games like Destiny, quite a bit of Hades’ story and worldbuilding occur in a large and wordy set of lore books. They aren’t the focus of the game, of course, as the main narrative is all present without the codex. However, if you want the full story, you’ll be doing some reading. 

Hades Review — The Bottom Line

  • Top-quality story, gameplay, music, and art direction
  • Hours and hours of excitement and adrenaline
  • Plenty of humor and snark to keep you laughing
  • Procedural generation sometimes gets in the way
  • Some enemies can be more frustrating than fun to fight
  • The occasional bit of visual clutter

Hades is everything great about video games in a single package. It has a moving, personal narrative, exciting gameplay, deep systems, and amazing music and aesthetics. It was already a great game when it came out in Early Access, but it’s come so far since then and is easily one of the best games of 2020, if not in the last few years.

There are a few minor things that can be grating, but they do almost nothing to mar the experience in the grand scheme. 

Hades deserves your attention, your support, and more than a few hours of your time. If you like isometric action games, I guarantee you will have an absolute blast.

[Note: A PC copy of Hades was purchased on Steam by the reviewer.]

Serious Sam 4 Review — ahhhhhHHHHHHH! Thu, 24 Sep 2020 09:00:02 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

Serious Sam 4 has to do a lot of work to stand out in a tough shooter crowd. Games like Doom Eternal demonstrate that there is still a place for a gussied-up, old-school shooter in 2020, and that game stands as one of our favorites in recent memory. So can a game like Serious Sam, which seemingly started as a budget knock-off of Duke Nukem 3D, stand up to one of the titans of the FPS genre?

In a way, yes. 

Serious Sam 4 isn't dramatically more than you'd expect from a Serious Sam game, but it does what you'd expect extremely well. It puts you in fun scenarios with plenty of monsters to destroy and plenty of clever ways to destroy them. There isn't quite enough here to knock something like Doom Eternal off its perch, but if you're craving a different style of FPS, you should check Serious Sam 4 out.

Serious Sam 4 Review — ahhhhhHHHHHHHHHH!

It's big, dumb humor that's smart enough to not be grating and smart enough to not act like it's smart enough, which keeps it from getting annoying.

On paper, Serious Sam 4 sounds a lot like other first-person shooters, but it does have a few elements that really help set it apart from other games in the genre.

Protagonist Sam Stone seems an awful lot like Duke Nukem, but he can actually be pretty funny sometimes. The game itself has clever writing with an irreverent, sardonic streak that's reminiscent of games like Borderlands and television series like Archer. Hearing the team banter back and forth about the correct pun to make when launching a mini-nuke is much funnier than you'd think it would be. And Sam's newest recruit, a wet-behind-the-ears soldier named Kenny, is essentially Cyril Figgis.

It's big, dumb humor that's smart enough to not be grating and smart enough to not act like it's smart enough, which keeps it from getting annoying.

Funny writing aside, Serious Sam 4 is also a really solid shooter, as it continues with the formula that long ago helped it stand out from the crowd. Many first-person shooters of this ilk pack you into maze-like corridors, with enemies ambushing you from various alcoves and altitudes. That isn't really the case here.

Like previous games in the series, Serious Sam 4 delights in putting you into massive, open areas and dropping loads of enemies in with you. How you survive wave after wave is up to you.

Teach Me How to Shoot

This design works so well because of how SS4 teaches you without bumbling tutorials slowing things down. New enemies are almost always introduced in scenarios where they're easy to observe and understand. After dealing with a new foe, the next section will throw three or so of those enemies at you, maybe with a little cannon fodder to mix things up. Then, all bets are off.

Soon, you'll enter huge, arena-style spaces with a ton of weapons and armor sitting in the middle. This means it's time to get ready for a real fight, taking it to waves of foes that include the new enemies you just learned about. The first time this happens in the game, Sam even makes a crack about how "usually, a bunch of bad guys appear" when he comes across a setup like this.

The key to success is remembering how to deal with each type of enemy, and prioritizing which to take out first. That's easier said than done when there are hundreds of them sprinting and firing at you all at once, each with different attack patterns and behaviors. You also have to juggle your weapons and keep an eye on your ammo for each. Waste too much or quick-change incorrectly, and you'll probably be loading up your save.

Enemies hit hard in Serious Sam 4, and standing still will get you killed. Kiting is very important, and listening to the telltale sounds they make to assess what's closest to you is even more important. Finding a good choke point and mowing enemies down with some an AR or blowing them up with well placed C4 never gets old. Firefights often left me gassed but exhilarated, excited to see what would happen the next time around.

All of this is propelled by the music. Generally, the score is relegated to quiet background noise, but a few boss fights kick up some serious shredding. The wailing, solo-heavy metal is saved for select moments, but it's really effective when hits, lending power and punch to key encounters.

Nefarious Foes

Weapons feel great and are pretty standard shooter fare, but the different abilities you can unlock and secondary fire methods available for some guns let you put your stamp on things.

If you've ever followed the storyline of Serious Sam, it's certainly... a thing.

Earth has been conquered by an advanced alien army, which has set about conquering the planet and turning people into mind-controlled slaves. Protagonist Sam Stone, a gruff (but surprisingly smart) beefcake, is the leader of Earth's resistance force by way of being really good at killing things.

The alien forces are equal parts annoyed and impressed by Earth's resistance and, like any good cheesy sci-fi plot, decide that toying with our heroes is the best way to deal with them.

There's an awful lot of lore in Serious Sam 4, but none of it is overly compelling. This is a game where you shoot things because it's a shooter, and the things you're shooting are trying to kill you. The plot and lore dumps are not going to win any awards.

Luckily, the foes are varied and interesting. There are flying drones, scorpions with chain guns, hammer-wielding giants, kamikaze sprinters, galloping skeletons, and all manner of other hostiles to subdue.

Weapons feel great and are pretty standard shooter fare, but the different abilities you can unlock and secondary fire methods available for some guns let you put your stamp on things. For example, the grenade launcher can either pack a massive punch into one grenade or fire cluster bombs over a large area.

Let's Get Serious

Not everything is perfect in Serious Sam 4.

The biggest gripe I have is with the game's level design. The "arena" style combat works great, and cramming hundreds of enemies into them makes things harry. But otherwise, level design seems a bit haphazard. There's a lot of wasted space in corridor sections, with paths leading to nowhere and absolutely nothing.

Maybe such a design choice was an attempt to encourage exploration for secrets, but it actually has the opposite effect. I eventually stopped wandering down these side paths, as it seemed to generally be a waste of time.

One of the trickiest balancing acts in a first-person shooter is where the player should go without being overly obvious. Left 4 Dead is a great example of how to do things right: you always follow the light. Serious Sam 4 trips up a bit in that regard, as levels often leave you a bit turned around.

For example, it's tough to tell which doors you can open or where you should head next, even with objective markers. In one early level, the proper direction indicates you should move over an impassable wall. In that same level, there is lava everywhere, but there are certain parts you can walk over without penalty and other areas that will drain your health.

It's all a tad bit confusing. 

Perhaps these are elements that will get patched in future updates, but it's frustrating that you can't easily find the right direction once you're ready to move forward.

Serious Sam 4 Review  The Bottom Line

  • Weapons and movement feel smooth and balanced
  • Enemies are interesting and challenging
  • Script is funny and clever
  • Arena-style combat is exhilarating
  • Level layout can be confusing and there's lots of wasted space
  • Story and lore can be a bit overbearing, as it isn't that interesting

Serious Sam 4 is a strong, polished, old-school shooter. The massive, open-air firefights are a fairly unique element to first-person shooters, and panicked kiting of hundreds of enemies is the name of the game.

If you want something revolutionary, this probably isn't it. If you've already gotten your fill of Doom Eternal and want another of 2020's best shooters in your library, this is a great follow-up.

[Note: Devolver Digital provided the copy Serious Sam 4 used for this review.]

Disgaea 4 Complete+ PC Review: My Kingdom for a Sardine Fri, 18 Sep 2020 12:07:10 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Disgaea 4 Complete+ brought the vampire lord Valvatorez's Netherworld uprising to consoles in 2019 with a slew of modern upgrades. Now it’s available on Steam, Windows 10, and Game Pass for PC, bringing the same package stuffed with content to a broader audience. 

While there aren’t many differences between the console and PC versions — it’s more of the same Disgaea at the end of the day — Disgaea 4 Complete+ is one of the best entries in the series. Add the value of Game Pass to it, and you’ve got a must-have tactical RPG.

Disgaea 4 Complete+ PC Review: My Kingdom for a Sardine

Serious games abound, and spending time with the delusional Valvatorez on his way to take over the Netherworld is a refreshing change of pace.

Disgaea 4 starts in the Netherworld, like always. But this time, you’re in the lowest section of all: Hades. Part Nether prison with wardens watching the inmates' (mostly Prinnies) every move, part training school for newly acclimated Prinnies, this is where the protagonist Valvatorez finds himself. 

Valvatorez (voiced by Troy Baker) used to be a mighty tyrant, a vampire feared by all for his malice and cruelty. Now he teaches Prinnies how to say “dood” as chief Prinny Instructor, and he gave up blood in favor of sardines.

He’s happy about it, or at least he tells himself he is, prompting his pseudo-loyal servant Fenrich to take matters into his own werewolf hands.

Things quickly take a turn for the worse as the Netherworld’s Corrupternment Prinny-naps Valvatorez’s charges and sets the tamed vampire on a quest to fulfill his promise to grant them a snack of sardines while running for government at the same time. 

There’s more to the story than that, including some unexpectedly poignant commentary about how people treat each other. But it’s the gist of Disgaea 4 and sets the stage for what to expect as Valvatorez’s story unfolds. 

While the dramatic points from the opening video make an appearance, Disgaea 4 is more concerned with being lighthearted and increasingly zany, with one of the stronger casts in the series.

Serious games abound, and spending time with the delusional Valvatorez on his way to take over the Netherworld is a refreshing change of pace. It helps that Disgaea 4 does a better job than its numerical neighbors in terms of humor. There’s more of it here than in Disgaea 5, and it doesn’t try to be too satirical like Disgaea 3.

Most of your time is spent on the battlefield, though. If you’ve played any Disgaea game, you’ll know the basics of how this works and how fast you fall can down the rabbit hole.

If you’re ready to level up further, you can reincarnate your party members, rerolling for better skills while resetting their level to 1 to balance the challenge. 

Teams of up to 10 characters take the field and face enemies. The battlefield in Disgaea is more of a puzzle. Unit placement holds more significance than in most tactics games thanks to team attacks and damage combo bonuses, and foes take advantage of the same features without hesitation.

Geo panels add another level of strategy to the mix. These blocks affect segments of the battlefield matching their color — offering a defense bonus or extra experience, for example. Destroying them might lose the benefit for your team, but it boosts the bonus gauge and means better rewards at the end of a mission. 

It’s par for the course for Disgaea, but D4’s map design seems more challenging from the start, which pushes you to make better use of the game’s many supporting systems.

These all revolve around the Cam-Pain headquarters. Aside from the usual shops and such, there’s the Item World, a series of random stages suitable for level grinding and boosting equipment power. You can also spend mana points earned in battle to augment character abilities, learn new skills, or pressure the Senate into giving you what you want. 

If you’re ready to level up further, you can reincarnate your party members, rerolling for better skills while resetting their level to 1 to balance the challenge. 

Disgaea 4 adds even more to the usual formula by tweaking Disgaea 3’s classroom system. Valvatorez conquers new land areas on the map as the game progresses. You can choose which party members to manage each territory to create a network of positive effects in battle and divide them into “Evil Symbols” to access even more stat and Evility (ability) bonuses.

The last big difference between D4 and others in the series is the Pirate Editor. Once you’ve encountered pirates in the Item World, you can create your own pirate ship using parts earned through defeating pirates or found as Treasure. Then you can plunder the Item World for higher-level gear and Innocents (the things that live inside your items). The better your ship, the better quality gear you’ll find.

You can also invade other players’ games with your pirate ship, though online features aren’t live at the time of writing.

Even better is that Disgaea 4 Complete+ includes the additional plot scenarios that were once DLC-only.

That’s just one of the many improvements packed in under the “Complete+” part of the title. It boasts enhanced resolutions, tweaks that make the battle system easier to work with, and features from Disgaea 5 like the Cheat Shop, autosave, and more options for bribing senators.

Unlike Disgaea 5 Complete, the range of DLC included in this package is a bit smaller. Extra bonuses like item packs and HL rewards are still available but as paid DLC. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s also not 100% complete in that regard.

Disgaea 4 Complete+ is more for the fan who hasn’t played the series in a while or started with the complete version of the original.

There’s so much else to do outside the main story, you could easily spend dozens of hours not even touching the main campaign. Or you could completely ignore the other features, keep up with gear, grind a bit, and still enjoy the game. That flexibility is one of the things that makes Disgaea unique, and Disgaea 4 Complete+’s additions only make it better.

As for PC version differences, D4 Complete comes with a few extra whistles. There are a few graphics options, though it’s not the kind of game that needs them. You can adjust the resolution and rebind the keys if you aren’t playing with a controller, and keyboard or mouse controls work just as well as a traditional controller.

If you’ve recently played Disgaea 5, all this might not be enough to warrant a Disgaea 4 Complete+ playthrough. The extra content and quality of life changes are welcome. But at its core, D4 Complete is more Disgaea. The tweaks and improvements bring it up to par with D5, and even though there’s more variety in activities and more challenging maps, it’s easy to get burned out with the series.

Disgaea 4 Complete+ is more for the fan who hasn’t played the series in a while or started with the complete version of the original. It’s a big step forward from that one in gameplay variety.

That said, if you’re a Game Pass subscriber, D4 Complete+ is a no-brainer: at least 40 hours of top-notch strategy gaming at no extra cost.

Disgaea 4 Complete+ PC Review  The Bottom Line

  • Heaps of deep strategy gameplay
  • Strongest (and quirkiest) cast in the series
  • So many systems to get lost in
  • All the extras and improvements from previous Disgaea 4 releases
  • Ultimately more of the same Disgaea formula
  • Not 100% complete since some smaller add-ons still need to be purchased

Disgaea 4 Complete+ is one of the stronger entries in the series, with its outlandish cast and relevant, if loose, story. Plus, the Complete package includes so many extra positive tweaks, making Disgaea 4 the most up-to-date and accessible it's ever been.

It might be the same Disgaea at its core, but criticizing its "more of the same" approach is problematic when that approach works so well, to begin with, dood.

[Note: NIS America provided the copy of Disgaea 4 Complete+ for PC used for this review.]

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review — A Splendid Web of Mysteries Tue, 15 Sep 2020 11:36:52 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

13 Sentinels revels in throwing curveballs, making you question what you think you've learned about its story and characters as you hurtle towards the truth.

It's a smartly designed, multi-layered narrative that starts strong and maintains that vigor for the entirety of its roughly 30-hour plot. All this is wrapped in one of Vanillaware's most beautiful art styles and topped off with a compelling combat system and an excellent script.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game you shouldn't miss.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review — A Splendid Web of Mysteries

13 Sentinels and its themes play with your expectations.

In general, 13 Sentinels is part mystery story, part homage to all things classic sci-fi. A group of students in 1985 Japan takes control of giant fighting robots to defend their world against an invading force. 

The story unfolds across four different periods and different event timelines, and it's rarely told in chronological order. There's a lot to unpack and ponder with 13 Sentinels, much more than just robots v. Kaiju.

Suffice to say the story starts strong in a whirlwind of mystery and only keeps getting better, quickly morphing into a game you'll want to play again after finishing if just to see how everyone's stories piece together from a new perspective.

It's also a lot to keep up with. Fortunately, 13 Sentinels lends a hand with an event theatre, replayable scenes, and Mystery Files with updated notes on key terms and people you encounter. It's a boon when everything gets complicated.

Despite having 13 different protagonists and some supporting cast, each character feels fully realized. Some paths might not have the same sense of urgency as others, and it's fairly clear who the core cast is from how the prologue unfolds. But the way every character's story develops, then intersects with other key events and people, adds significance to even slower, less eventful episodes.

Those intersections are always rich and engaging in more ways than one. 13 Sentinels and its themes play with your expectations. It's a high school setting with teenage heroes, but their actions and relationships evolve beyond just blushing and hand-holding, thanks in no small part to its time travel element.

One of these relationships is a thoughtfully depicted one that goes beyond the usual binaries. Though saying too much more would be a spoiler, it's handled well and sets a higher bar for relationship representation in games moving forward.

How each story unfolds is one of 13 Sentinels' most compelling parts. 

Even with deep relationships and individual motivations, 13 Sentinels is an homage to sci-fi at its core. Don't let that be a discouragement if you're not a Kaiju and sci-fi buff, though.

It's true knowing something of 13 Sentinels' key inspirations helps in understanding specific plot details. I only know of maybe half the references, and while I'm sure I missed out on some, the core story is more than strong enough to stand on its own.

Even without this point of reference, the story never leaves you feeling like you're missing out or like it's leaning too much into established narratives and ideas.

13 Sentinels' unique structure plays a big part in how it all works together. As the name suggests, you play through the lives and memories of the 13 separate protagonists, but at different points in the same broad storyline. Their stories intertwine numerous times, though you don't always understand the significance when it happens. 

What seems like an inconsequential conversation in one character's story is part of a more significant issue connected to another character's mission. Or it's vital for unlocking the path forward, and you don't realize it yet.

For the most part, you're free to choose whose story to pursue. Some are locked behind battle requirements, and some won't come to light until you've reached a certain point in another character's tale.

How each story unfolds is one of 13 Sentinels' most compelling parts. 

After the prologue, every available character has a story map with key event scenes you've either unlocked or you're waiting to unlock. Each branching path has at least one requirement to meet before it unlocks — meeting a character, overhearing something, choosing a specific action. 

It's not always clear what the requirements are, so it's worth your while to talk to everyone, investigate, and ponder terms in your Thought Cloud, which is like your mental inventory in 13 Sentinels. Some terms you can "Consider" to learn, while you'll use others to spark new dialogue with characters and push the plot forward.

Gaining Thought Cloud terms often unlocks new branches for previous events, leading to more characters, more terms, and a better understanding of the story. 

While going back to revisit old events might sound like a drag, 13 Sentinels makes it breezy. You can instantly revisit critical points in each character's story, fast-forward through old dialogue if you need to, then trigger a new path when you're ready.

Traveling back in time, as it were, fits so well with 13 Sentinels' key themes that these repeats and skipping dialogue never ruin the sense of immersion the game works so hard to create.

Vanillaware's rich and beautiful world helps make replaying a pleasure instead of a burden.

A bit of practical design helps out here, too. Each chapter or event is relatively short. You can clear the initial set of prologue stories in under two hours, though that's not a dig. For one, every event always has something to say. You never walk away thinking, "that was nice filler, but… ?" 

The brevity keeps the pace brisk. No event outstays its welcome, you never feel bogged down by the text, and it makes getting into the next story segment that much more appealing because you know it won't take long to get to the heart of it.

The result is a deliciously addictive and satisfying experience throughout.

Vanillaware's rich and beautiful world helps make replaying a pleasure instead of a burden. Every environment is packed with detail and visual flair. Even seemingly mundane areas like changing rooms and the rubble of an old residential area drip with atmosphere.

And there's Vanillaware's signature style with food as well. Food plays a surprisingly varied role in 13 Sentinels — a lifeline, a relationship symbol, a catalyst for branching paths, and of course, sometimes just a tasty snack. Whatever the case, each dish gets rendered in delicious detail, accompanied by equally savory descriptions. 

It's no wonder Takatoshi Hijiyama would go to any lengths for his yakisoba pan, and I don't mind having to eat both soft serve and crepes to witness two of Iori Fuyusaka's branching paths early on.

The rest of 13 Sentinels' localization is just as delectable. As you'd expect from a game like this, there's a lot of text. Yet there's never an awkward moment or a stray, lingering phrase that sticks out. The quality, rhythm, and character set a high standard from the start and hit it every time after that.

It's an impressive feat for any narrative-driven game, but the localization team went above and beyond in the characterizations here. Even throwaway phrases or transitions get tweaked to give characters more nuance in a way that lets their personalities shine through even stronger. It might just be Atlus' strongest localization to date.

The Japanese voice acting is consistently strong throughout, which is good since every line in 13 Sentinels is voiced. The English voice-over isn't available until the game launches on September 22. However, Atlus sent a sampling of the English cast, and it's just as strong and full of character as the Japanese cast.

The same care went into the game's audio design. 13 Sentinels deserves being played with headphones on, not just because the understated soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to every event taking place on the screen, but because it's as audibly rich as it is visually rich.

The vocals get misty and distant when you enter the Thought Cloud. Kurabe walking on his tatami floor produces a lifelike crunching sound. Nearby conversations leak into yours and pull your attention away from what you were doing.

If anything, the only downside is that there isn't more.

Roughly the other half of 13 Sentinels is combat, a real-time strategy setup where you control teams of Sentinel pilots to fend off invading hordes. 

The first thing you'll notice about the combat is how visually different it is from the rest of the game. Fights play out over densely packed cityscapes depicted as small, gray building clusters mixed with empty segments for roads. Attacks take place on this zoomed-out map of the city with no detailed animations.

There's an excellent reason for that.

At a given point in each battle, especially after the prologue, you'll be surrounded by waves of hundreds upon hundreds of invaders. Specific skills, like setting up sentries or sending out anti-air flares, leave more units on the map.

While planning for the next wave, you must also manage your pilots' health, moving them out of harm's way so they can exit the Sentinel and hopefully not get attacked in the process.

It's busy and tense, and it doesn't overwhelm you because this less-detailed view makes switching between each pilot and choosing attacks fast and easy.

Like any good strategy game, 13 Sentinels gives you as much to think about before the fighting starts as it does on the field.

Each Sentinel specializes in a specific type of combat, so you always need to heed pre-mission briefs and prepare accordingly. Each also has access to a swath of upgrades you can purchase with chips enemies drop, plus you can upgrade the city's mainframe to access more powerful, widespread skills.

Your battle performance earns a letter rank when it's all over. Meeting bonus requirements and earning high ranks awards special Mystery Files and points used to unlock other Mystery Files. Battles get progressively more involved, but you can change the difficulty at any point if it all becomes too much and you just want to unlock all the lore.

One aspect of 13 Sentinels' combat that takes some getting used to is how the actual fending off of Kaiju hordes is separate from the main story. The combat scenario is a chain of events unfolding a few days later than the main storyline, so you're pretty much in the dark for most of it. 

It adds an extra bit of suspense to the mystery, but it does feel disjointed at first, too. Still, I can't think of a better way to implement it. 

If anything, the only downside is that there isn't more. Assembling a squad for each mission and learning the quirks of each Sentinel generation is fun and satisfying. But 13 Sentinels is very much a visual novel with adventure game elements. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review — The Bottom Line

  • Fantastic narrative
  • Thoughtfully crafted characters
  • Sumptuous art design
  • Excellent voice work and audio
  • Smart design that encourages taking each story path
  • Layered and strategic combat
  • Combat/story split takes some getting used to

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim spins a web of mystery around you, then chuckles smugly as you think you've found your way out only to realize you're in the middle of a maze. Each character's story and narrative intersections drive the pace forward at an almost compulsive pace, helped along by the game's smooth design.

This is one of the most visually and audibly impressive games out there. It's not one to be missed.

[Note: Sega/Atlus U.S.A. provided a digital copy of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim for the purpose of this review.]

BPM: Bullets Per Minute Review — Musical Doom Mon, 14 Sep 2020 15:25:15 -0400 Henry Stockdale

Results can vary when genres are mixed together, but in the case of BPM: Bullets Per Minute, that mixture walks its fine line beautifully. Developed by Awe Interactive, BPM is what happens when you mix Doom Eternal with Crypt of the Necrodancer, working as an FPS with both rhythm and roguelike elements.

(Bullet) dancing in sync to a heavy rock soundtrack, BPM: Bullets Per Minute is a fantastic experience that presents a significant challenge.

BPM: Bullets Per Minute Review — Musical Doom

To survive, you must keep moving.

BPM isn't a story-heavy experience, though you'll play as a Valkyrie sent to stop the Underworld's invasion of Asgard. You'll unlock other characters as you advance through the game's four procedurally generated dungeons, all of which are divided into small sub-sections with different layouts for each run.

Every section ends with a mini-boss fight, with your journey culminating in a final target. For those looking for added variety to BPM's more roguelike elements, the rhythm shooter also comes with a series of unlockable challenges, such as a retro mode that's a clear throwback to classic Doom.

BPM doesn't offer up any tutorials. Instead, it tosses you straight into the deep end, becoming a literal trial by fire. Whether it's reloading or shooting, every action (or bar movement) must be timed to the beat, with enemies following that same tempo. To survive, you must keep moving.

Whether it's a tiny bat hidden just behind a pillar or hefty spider charging right at you, each encounter feels like a lead-laden performance, seeing you weave rhythmically amongst and between enemies. Killing those enemies earns you points, and rattling off a few bad guys in quick succession builds up your score multiplier.

Once a room is cleared, your performance is judged, and a chest of rewards is offered, which can range from coins to new weaponry. Most areas feature small shrines, too, that are admittedly easy to miss during the intense action. But you won't want to miss them. Offering a coin at a shrine will provide you with a stat buff (which one comes down to said shrine), and they can improve attributes like speed, range, luck, damage, precision, and ability.

If you aren't careful, you'll die quite a bit, and that means restarting your entire dungeon run, which removes any earned upgrades. Easy and hard difficulties are available, but even easy mode provides a fair, though sometimes unforgiving, challenge. While losing your progress is a foundational element in roguelites and roguelikes, doing so in BPM does get frustrating from time to time.

Ultimately, though, things fall into place because what truly brings BPM to life is its core gameplay loop.

[BPM is] one title rhythm fans would do well to put on their playlist. 

Outside of VR experiences like Pistol Whip, you rarely see FPS games blend rhythm elements into their core design, but BPM does it well, and combat flows naturally. This feeling of fluidity is helped by an intense soundtrack, which goes from heavy electro-rock to metal, and Awe has done a fantastic job piecing the head-banging score together.

For those struggling with the game's rhythm aspects, there are thankfully a number of options that improve BPM's general accessibility. If you want a more significant challenge, you can make rhythm detection stricter; if you want a lesser challenge, rhythm detection can be dialed down. There's also an Auto Rhythm mode, which negates the need to line up your shots but disables your score multiplier.

Dependent on how your dungeons generate, numerous "help areas" may also appear. Random additions include banks for storing coins between deaths, libraries for picking up ultimate attack abilities, treasure rooms for grabbing rare (and useful) loot, blacksmiths for buying better weaponry, and general shops for acquiring health and defense items. The latter even employs a type of loyalty scheme, where the more you spend over time, the more items are on offer. 

Boss rooms tend to appear relatively quickly as you advance, so it pays to explore dungeons before diving into these and ensuring your character is at full strength.

BPM: Bullets Per Minute Review — The Bottom Line

  • Incredible soundtrack
  • Merges rhythm and action well
  • Genuinely satisfying combat
  • Challenge may be off-putting for some
  • Roguelite mechanics are all too familiar

Mixing FPS combat with the pulse of a rhythm game may not sound like a recipe for success, but BPM: Bullets Per Minute delivers on its approach with a beautiful soundtrack supporting it.

It's not a forgiving experience, and though it's difficult to master, BPM proves surprisingly easy to pick up and play. If you're prepared to die a lot, you'll find an incredible game within, and it's one title rhythm fans would do well to put on their playlist. 

[Note: Awe Interactive provided the copy of BPM: Bullets Per Minute used for this review.]

NBA 2K21 Review: Shot Clock Violation Wed, 09 Sep 2020 19:24:33 -0400 LloydCoombes

The NBA 2K franchise has been arguably the pinnacle of sports gaming for much of this console generation, but NBA 2K21 shows the franchise's age, as if it's desperate for a next-gen timeout to give it some energy.

Feeling like a $60 stopgap until the PS5 and Xbox Series X and Series S arrive, NBA 2K21 feels devoid of any momentum or drive. Its saving grace is that it remains built on the bones of what made the last few entries of the series so well-regarded, despite offering nothing of any real value in and of itself.

NBA 2K21 Review: Shot Clock Violation

The most significant strides have come, luckily, in the on-court action. It's rare that a franchise decides to shake up its control scheme so fundamentally, and while not everything works perfectly, there's definitely a big improvement when it comes to dribbling.

Unlike in previous titles where the right stick would double as both a dribbling and shot input, NBA 2K21 leans much more heavily on the former. This allows for much more free form locomotion, with the best of the NBA and WNBA able to size up opponents with a simple flick of the stick. At the same time, more elaborate moves reward those looking to sink time into learning how best to manipulate space and bamboozle defenders.

This also brings out the best in offensive play, with players now surging forward in transitional scenarios and reacting to defensive layouts and players dribble with impressive realism, making it feel less like a game of tag between telepathic defenses and predictable forwards.

If It Ain't Broke, Then Why Are You Fixing It?

Unfortunately, it's not all good news, with these new dribble stick options coming at the detriment of basketball's key pillars: shooting.

Previously, players could spend enough time to learn the rhythm of each player and their shooting aptitude within different coverage situations. Now, shots no longer "lock on" to the basket as they once did, meaning aiming and power need to be taken into account, all within the fraction of a second it takes for your player to jump and shoot.

A post-launch hotfix has made shooting more forgiving on lower difficulty levels, but when even cover star Damian Lillard is tweeting about the issue, it's clear something isn't quite right.

There's no denying the allure of more rewarding three-pointers, but all too often, that's outweighed by missing a shot from right under the basket. There's also a degree of learning to play the game again, but the whole thing feels like trying to rub your stomach while patting your head.

That's not all that disappoints this season, though.

Short of some improved facial renders (how did it take this long for 2K to nail Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?!), it's tough to tell this year's game apart from NBA 2K20 or even NBA 2K21. That's not to say either of those titles were ugly in any sense. Still, the fact that the likes of the National Anthem and many of the halftime shows have essentially been copied and pasted adds to the feeling that 2K21 is treading water until the more expensive next-gen version.

One area that has seen a makeover is the new 2K Beach, which forms part of the Neighbourhood mode that lets players get involved in quick pick-up games. It does nothing to change the overall purpose or gameplay loop of the mode, but it is a little nicer to look at than the blacktop courts we're used to seeing, and it adds a nice splash of color.

We don't know how 2K keeps doing it, but MyCareer remains the best example of single-player storylines in the genre.

This time around, the narrative remains a little less effecting than last year's arguably more culturally relevant effort. However, it still packs plenty of star power with the likes of Michael K. Williams and Djimon Hounsou joining the cast.

There's still not a great deal of player agency, particularly in the early stages, with some matches determined to be lost, but it offers a fun way to practice the new shooting mechanics and earn some more VC (more on that later).

That said, despite the addition of the WNBA last year, it's disappointing that we still can't create a female character, or even play a kind of MyCareer alternative as a current WNBA player.

Spend Some Time Or Spend Some Money

MyTeam remains the focal point for the 2K franchise, with constant suggestions to hop into the squad-building mode. Thankfully, 2K21 has dropped the tone-deaf casino aesthetic from last year, but it remains a money-sink for dedicated players to invest their hard-earned cash in.

The game's currency, VC, is still handed out in a slow trickle, meaning you'll continuously grind to earn packs for the most part.

The in-game economy remains a ridiculous choice between spending VC on packs to build out your squad or cosmetic and stat boosts for your created player. Sure, both can be earned through perseverance, but it's a tough pill to swallow for a $60 game lacking in new ideas.

It's the complete antithesis of leveling up your baller and taking them from relative rags to riches. The sooner the ties between the currency and character progression are severed, the better.

One positive addition to MyTeam is "The Ascension," a new chance-based mode where players select from a slate of face-down cards to add to their collection. Pick the right card, and you'll advance to the next tier, with a chance to earn a "grand prize" card.

While 2K promises a greater focus on seasonal content, we'd imagine Ascension will be a great place to earn big rewards further down the line. But for now, it's a fun chance to earn some currency, though its generosity remains the exception rather than the rule.

Players looking to jump into MyLeague or MyGM are sure to be disappointed in this year's edition. Both are the same as they were in 2K20. You can still build your franchise, but your trades, tactical options, and everything else remains the same.

The one addition is the ability to share certain scenarios for other players to try. Still, even these will rely on a community becoming increasingly frustrated with the modes' overall stagnation.

NBA 2K21 Review — The Bottom Line

  • MyCareer remains as strong as ever
  • Dribbling is much more fluid
  • Shooting still being worked on after launch
  • MyLeague and MyGM remain the same as 2K20
  • Most of what's here is identical to last year's game

NBA 2K21 is a mediocre ending to a predominantly positive console generation. A disappointing lack of new features, as well as a bizarre overhaul of the game's shooting mechanics, make it a tough sell for anyone still enjoying last year's title.

If you can hold out for the next-gen version, we'd advise doing so, but if you're desperate to jump into MyTeam or get the latest roster updates, this will tide you over until then.

[Note: 2K provided the copy of NBA 2K21 used for this review.]

Marvel's Avengers Review: Earth's Mightiest Heroes Fall Wed, 09 Sep 2020 14:01:34 -0400 Mark Delaney

As they're known to do when defending the world from the latest existential threats, the titular superheroes of Marvel's Avengers will regularly quip during combat.

Cliched phrases like "We've got company!" are mouthed often, and Tony Stark has enough one-liners up his metallic sleeves to last an extended MCU marathon. Sometimes, Black Widow offers a one-liner that's been stuck in my mind for days: "This should be fun!"

It's meant to reflect both her innate heroism and penchant for a bit of chaos, as if she can't wait to dive into the action ahead of her. But I never heard it that way.

In my head, it was more like "this should be fun." And I thought of it in regards to the game itself. Marvel's Avengers should be fun. Remarkably, it rarely ever is.

Marvel's Avengers Review: Earth's Mightiest Heroes Fall

Marvel's Avengers is a mess. The back-of-the-box allure of a four-player co-op game with an ever-expanding roster of heroes vanishes long before its 10-hour campaign comes to an end.

The game's overarching design is driven by conflicting goals where a more traditional superhero game and a long-tailed loot-brawler clash early and often, and they never actually mesh well by the end of the story or during Avengers' endgame.

It's apparent that the loot-chasing parts of Avengers were more of a mandate than an inspiration. Avengers certainly did not need to be Destiny with superheroes, and while I do think such a game can be made well, this isn't it.

In trying to be like DestinyAvengers comes off much more like Anthem. There's a ton of gear with nowhere to use it. It feels like the vast majority of would-be fans would much prefer it wasn't tied down with gear scores and number-crunching. And for the folks that do like that stuff, Avengers isn't good at delivering it anyway.

Gear bonuses are often inconsequential, only giving you slight advantages after several prerequisites are met. I feel for the average gamer who sees a new Avengers game and buys it not knowing they have just been assigned math homework. Thankfully, there's an "Equip Best Gear" button that should keep players out of that screen for too long if they're not interested in it.

Visually, the game is hampered by regular frame rate drops and a strange camera-shake setting enabled by default, even as the game looks and plays better when it's turned off. The menus are dominated by an ugly greyish color, while the interiors of levels are almost exclusively set in repetitive and drab science labs housed by the villain's robot army.

Mission variety in Avengers regularly annoys as missions come in three main types:

  1. Linear story missions, which flash signs of life in the otherwise bloated world
  2. Drop zones, which are brief and highly repetitive missions that have players arrive at a location and perform some sort of rote task, like defeating X enemies or controlling an area until a meter fills up
  3. Threat sectors, a final mission type that is somehow even worse than the other two

Across a low number of large hub levels, players will sprint to icons, defeat a few tragically boring robots, and collect some sort of gear, like a chest plate or gauntlets, with the hopes of incrementally improving their characters' gear scores toward an end goal that never actually manifests. 

These mile-wide missions are forever an inch deep, and it's remarkable to see how poorly the open space is used. Dropping players into one corner of the map only to put all of their objectives or points of interest hundreds of meters away begs the question: "Why was the space so vast to begin with?"

It demands every mission begins with running toward a marker in a land of nothingness. These missions are clearly inspired by the likes of Destiny or The Division, but unlike those games, Marvel's Avengers never manages to create a memorable moment in any level because none are efficiently paced.

The cast of heroes is the game's best attribute at its rocky launch, as Ms. Marvel joins a squad of familiars in Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hulk, and Captain America.

Ms. Marvel's early-campaign focus brings a unique look to the game's story after we've already seen these other heroes so much over the last decade, but her faithfully-recreated fangirling fails for similar reasons. As the stand-in for the player, Ms. Marvel's fascination with Earth's Mightiest Heroes doesn't translate.

In her world, The Avengers are still stunning. But in our world, we've seen them perform feats of heroism for over 10 years in the movies, and much longer for comic fans. The allure of the Avengers must come from playing as them, not just being in their vicinity, but playing as them is hardly more interesting.

At least the star-studded cast does well to bring the characters to life, even as some are familiar, like Nolan North playing Iron Man as Nathan Drake in armor. Troy Baker performing a more reserved, unsure Bruce Banner is the brightest spot on the billing, but there are no bad performances in the game.

The tallest task Crystal Dynamics and the bundle of supporting studios had for this game was always going to involve the combat, as each hero needs to play differently from the others, and superficially, Avengers gets that right.

Hulk's power and Black Widow's agility are as vastly different in appearance as they need to be, but the gear-chasing of the game still hampers this area by creating something close to parity among characters who are otherwise equally leveled.

In what world do the Incredible Hulk and Black Widow pack the same punch? Only in this one, as evidenced by the way the game's endless stream of nameless enemies can absorb equal blows from either hero should their stats be similar.

The game's HUD is the opposite of immersive, with so many meters, signals, QTEs, and icons to crowd your screen that it's genuinely difficult to appreciate the game's combat at times, particularly when you and your partners are cramped together and the game feels ready to explode your TV or monitor with its mess of colors and effects.

Punching robots repeatedly wouldn't be that great alone, but it's even worse when the game is so busy like this.

And those robots also represent one of the game's most glaring issues: a wildly lacking cast of villains. After an opening fight with Taskmaster that serves as a tutorial, virtually ever mission pits your heroes against a horde of robots.

While within this race of automated killers there is a great number of enemy types, the fact that players can spend dozens of hours in a Marvel game and almost never take on familiar supervillains from the comics stands in stark antithesis to the game's marketing, which promised a "celebration" of 80 years of Marvel.

Truthfully, the only way in which this game celebrates the brand's long history is through its cosmetics store, which right off the bat offers a massive range of new costumes for every hero in the game, each of them at insulting prices for a fully-priced game.

Some AAA games have taken their suggested transactional cues from Fortnite and Warzone but those games are free to start. Avengers is $60 minimum at launch, but packs so much paid content into its store right away that it feels like a slap in the face from the Hulk himself.

The endgame that follows the relatively brief campaign is where players are meant to live out their long-term metahuman fantasies, but Avengers doesn't give any reason to do that yet. You can keep leveling your gear and chase higher ranking missions, but they rarely evolve into anything interesting or new. Instead, more of the same robot punching is on display for as long as you're willing to keep it on your screen.

After the credits, I had 20+ missions available to play, but as I played them, I found they merely offered more of what I had just dragged my feet through. It feels like players are meant to prepare for this game's Taken King moment by leveling up now, but there's no guarantee this game's first big expansion will even salvage it. 

If boring missions, predatory cosmetics, and a lackluster story weren't enough to bury Avengers, its astounding lack of polish is the final nail in its coffin.

I honestly regret not taking notes, because in my time with Avengers, I saw more bugs than I can even remember. But the ones I do recall range from slightly annoying visual glitches, like characters missing hair in scenes to more problematic stuff like maps and UI simply disappearing when I needed them. There was even a fully game-breaking bug that halted my progress for days. 

In the lattermost case, a particular enemy spawn on the game's final mission would unavoidably crash my game every single time. This led to me not getting to the credits or seeing its post-game content for a few days during my review period with the game. Then one day, it miraculously began working again, so I was mercifully able to get to the endgame.

In a game that was pushed from April to September, it's clear Avengers needed even more dev time. It's in a sad state at launch, the worst I've seen of any major game release in a long time.

In a post-Arkham world, Marvel's Avengers might've had a tough time raising the bar, but at least the groundwork had been laid by the likes of Batman and Spider-Man. By chasing the potential of figurative whales in the game's cosmetics shop, Avengers ignores a pretty obvious blueprint in favor of something that suffers from bugs and feature-creep in equal measure.

It's a game that never feels cohesive and only occasionally even feels fun to play.

Marvel's Avengers Review — The Bottom Line

  • Heroes stand out from each other somewhat well in combat
  • Voice acting is very good across the board
  • Bugs everywhere, including game-breaking gltiches
  • Cosmetics shop is priced like a free-to-play game
  • Missions are formulaic, repetitive, and misused
  • Wildly lacking in familiar villains
  • Crowded HUD data leaves combat a mess
  • An endgame that serves no purpose
  • Feels like two disparate games in one, with neither shining as a result

I foresaw a rough start to this game, but I remained excited nonetheless. I believed, like with many similar games, we'd get a game worthy of the Avengers name. But the bright spots in Avengers are so few and far between that I don't know how the team could even save this game.

The worst part is that it brings me no joy to say any of this.

I wanted to like this game, as the basic premise  co-op Avengers  seemed destined for greatness. At least eventually, if not right away. Sadly, the end result is a rushed, broken, disassembled experience that never delivers on that once-thought unbeatable premise, leaving me feeling more despondent than Tony Stark after The Snap.

Maybe the heroes can save the day in the future, but right now, they look defeated.

[Note: Square Enix provided the copy of Marvel's Avengers used for the review.]

The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon DLC Review — Better Than Nature Wed, 09 Sep 2020 12:15:01 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

The first DLC for The Outer Worlds is a pretty impressive one. Peril on Gorgon emphasizes all the strengths of the original game (of which there were many) while also deftly avoiding most of the original game's pitfalls. It weaves a fun yarn and really allows the game's impressive writing to shine.

It's a great addition to the base game that probably adds about eight or nine hours of additional exploration and story. If you were already enamored with The Outer Worlds and want a good excuse to dive back in, or you were always interested but let it slip off your radar, Peril on Gorgon is a great way second adventure or gateway.

The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon DLC Review — Better Than Nature

It begins like any good noir — with murder.

As a quick refresher, The Outer Worlds is a single-player, first-person RPG with a snarky sense of humor. It's developed by Obsidian Entertainment, and it has a lot in common with their 2010 release, Fallout: New Vegas. It features large areas to explore (though not a true open world), plenty of gear and stat upgrades to grind, and an extremely fun script. 

Humor and style can often get off track, but The Outer Worlds almost always lands it. The "corporations taking over civilization" plot may not be the most original in the world, but it has no problem going all-in with its absurdity. 

Peril on Gorgon really leans into the compelling writing first seen in the base game, pulling you in with its wild detective story. It begins like any good noir — with murder.

While flying your ship, the Unreliable, a delivery service drops off a package. Inside is a severed arm clutching an audio log. There seems that there's trouble on Gorgon, an asteroid colonized by the Spacer's Choice corporation.

The adventure is a roller coaster ride from there, mining all those hard-boiled detective stories as you pull back layers upon layers of what happened on Gorgon.

A mysterious mansion full of robot butlers, a massive corporate office where disaster struck, and the origin of the marauders are just some of what you'll uncover as you explore.

Aim to Misbehave

Peril On Gorgon works really well because of how masterfully it fits into The Outer Worlds without feeling tacked on. The package containing the arm arrives on your ship after you've completed the "Radio Free Monarch" quest in the main game, which happens fairly early on.

It recommends your characters have reached at least Level 25 before tackling it, something that shouldn't be much of a problem if you've gotten that far and accomplished some of the side quests you've uncovered.

Once you've started the questline, you'll be able to explore the entirety of Gorgon, and it will also send you blasting back and forth between previously explored areas. The DLC quests have a little icon next to them in your journal, so you can keep track of what's new, but otherwise, you would just see it as part of the game.

What Peril on Gorgon doesn't add is much new outside of story and NPCs. Gorgon itself is a different place, but it doesn't feel particularly noteworthy compared to the other worlds you explore in the game. There are a few new items, enemies, and science weapons to find, but The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon is essentially just making the original game a bit bigger.

Honestly, that's perfectly fine. In a single-player RPG, having more is always welcome. Especially because the story in Peril on Gorgon is so darn fun.

Smoke and Shadows

If you loved pawing through terminals in The Outer Worlds, piecing together the backstory of corporate greed run rampant, there is so much to enjoy in Peril on Gorgon. There are tons of jokes tucked away all over this rock (which is said to be about as big as Monarch, the largest area in the original game) that you'll love to set off the beaten path to find it all.

All your companions get to shine in their own special ways, and everyone is excited that the story they're getting involved with is "just like a detective serial"!

Felix, Parvati, Vicar Max... they all love playing detective in their own special way. All the old characters are great, and the new ones also get a chance to make their mark.

Minnie Ambrose, the rich benefactor who originally put the severed arm on the case, is a particularly fun standout, and the severed arm's owner also gets to shine through with all the audio logs you find. It helps add to the flavor of "detective noir" with this gruff narration playing in the background as you explore.


The biggest issue with Peril on Gorgon is also one of the biggest issues with The Outer Worlds in general: it's nothing new. This is a game that draws from so many others, and Peril on Gorgon is not trying to reinvent that in any way.

You'll find some new equipment but, if you've progressed through the regular campaign, you'll probably already have better stuff. Fights still boil down the same way, and the "joke a minute" style of writing is still firmly in place.

Peril on Gorgon is DLC for people who loved The Outer Worlds when it came out and want more, or people who never played it and want a bigger game right from the start. It won't do a thing to change your mind about whether The Outer Worlds is up your alley.

That said, the story on Peril on Gorgon is one of my favorites that the game threw at me. Like any good detective story, you'll probably figure out the basics on your own. There are quite a few curveballs and details that you probably won't see coming, however.

The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon DLC Review  The Bottom Line

  • Great writing and interesting story
  • Audio logs help sell the film noir style of the adventure
  • Fun NPCs and mystery, plus your old favorites have some great reactions
  • Nothing new gameplay-wise

Peril on Gorgon is a great addition to The Outer Worlds, even if it doesn't particularly change it or make it better. It's just more, and more of a good thing is usually a pretty good bet.

It's the first of two planned DLC expansions for the game, with Murder on Eridanos scheduled to release sometime in 2021. Peril on Gorgon will run you $15, whereas the season pass (which contains both) costs $25.

For my money, I would recommend going with the season pass and maybe waiting until the second DLC releases to dive back in. The Outer Worlds is great but right as I was starting to get back into the swing of things, Peril on Gorgon's content was finished.

If you could group it together with Murder on Eridanos, that might help you get through a doldrum of releases should we get one in 2021.

[A copy of The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon was provided by Private Division for the purposes of this review.]

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 Review — A Modern McTwist Tue, 08 Sep 2020 11:46:49 -0400 Jonny Foster

If you’re at least a passing fan of skateboarding games, you’ll know that there hasn’t been a solid hit in years. 

EA’s Skate franchise has been on a long hiatus (that is, thankfully, due to end in the “not too distant” future), the recent contender Skater XL released without an engaging story or motive, and the most recent Tony Hawk entry barely warrants a mention. 

That long line of sketchy releases has, fortunately, come to an end with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 Review — A Modern McTwist

THPS 1+2, for those that don’t live with four wheels and an ear to the ground, is a modern remaster of the first two titles released under the legendary Tony Hawk’s brand. 

These cult classics achieved massive success in 1999 and 2000, kickflip-ing the entire genre of skateboarding games into motion. 

Like so many others, the Pro Skater games were a big part of my childhood, and I was glad to see the reins had been passed back to Vicarious Visions for these remasters. 

My faith in them was well-placed, as I’m glad to report that THPS 1+2 is a faithful and loving remaster of the classics. 

Whether it’s hearing Superman by Goldfinger blasting through the speakers, or skating around Tony’s warehouse or the Cali streets and schools, THPS 1+2 brings memories of the early 2000s flooding back. 

You’re still dashing around the same bite-sized levels brimming with objects to trick onto, off of, over, and everything in between, all while collecting S-K-A-T-E letters, hidden tapes, and all manner of collectibles in a tight 2-minute time limit.

The arcade thrill of taking your combo down to the wire, pushing it into overtime with one last risky manual combo, only to bail and lose it all or land it triumphantly and sweep the scoring objectives, is alive and kicking.

Win or lose, though, THPS 1+2 will have you diving back in for another 2-minute battle of the boards time and time again.  

It's safe to say that Vicarious Visions have done an excellent job of renovating the games that started it all. There are even options to enable each of the classic game's movesets or disable newer songs if you’re a purist that wants everything to feel as vintage as possible.

Of course, there are some necessary modern twists such as a silky smooth 60fps framerate, gorgeous revamps of old lifeless backdrops, and toggleable assists — deserving of a special mention for their service to accessibility — that are always welcome.

Though the accompanying soundtrack might not be entirely authentic — it sports some more modern records that largely fit the original theme, with a few... interesting selections — it still features many of the breakneck classics that you’d expect.

Dead Kennedys, Rage Against the Machine, and many more reprise their late 90s list of catchy earworms that accent your thrills and spills. 

At its essence, then, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 is the perfect remaster; it brings two classic games to current consoles with gameplay tweaks that are just subtle enough not to mess with your rose-tinted retrospection, but that tighten up an experience that would otherwise feel incredibly dated. 

Of course, there’s bound to be a few modernizations thrown in, and these are a mixed bag. 

But if rattling off round after round of high-octane boarding to finally top your high score or mop up a few remaining objectives to polish off a plethora of unlockables gets your heart pumping, then I suggest you stop reading and go pick it up. 

For those of you not content to skate off into the sunset just yet, lthere are two areas where THPS 1+2 left me feeling a little... underwhelmed.

First, the multiplayer is a nice touch, although it does feel like a bit of an afterthought, especially with local play suffering from a limited player count and reduced framerate. Meanwhile, the entire game has a layer of progression slathered across it that will be far more divisive.

Everything in THPS 1+2 is tied into leveling up your skaters to unlock new boards, apparel, and trinkets.  While this does provide a quick dopamine rush the first few times you unlock something new or complete an objective, it quickly becomes apparent that there are hundreds of achievements to unlock that provide very meager rewards. 

There’s a surprising lack of microtransactions at launch — which is, obviously, to the game’s credit — but I can’t shake the feeling that they might make a future appearance. 

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 Review — The Bottom Line

  • From mechanics to music, this is a remaster that just works
  • The same old courses look incredible with current-gen graphics and lighting
  • Same great 2-minute action that has always been there
  • 20 years later, the repetitive gameplay might not be enough to hook you for long
  • Achievements and unlockables feel forced and unrelenting

At the time of this review, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 is already awash in the glow of overwhelming praise, with an 88 Metacritic average and several perfect scores. 

While it certainly deserves enormous praise for revitalizing a legend —especially when compared to 2015’s dismal flop, THPS 5 and the poorly-received Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD— it is worth noting that games have come a long way since the arcade era of the early 2000s. 

I don’t really have the patience or desire to slam 30 plays of Roswell in a row anymore just to try and get the Sick Score. Perhaps I’m just getting cynical as I grow older, but arcade games were designed to hook your attention briefly and that’s all THPS 1 + 2 does for me. 

None of this should detract from the stellar job Vicarious Visions has done in bringing these cult classics to life on modern consoles, but I can’t help feeling like THPS 1+2 should have been a $20 download, which wouldn’t have needed the frills of several hundred achievements and a mountain of cosmetics to artificially extend its lifespan beyond a 5-hour nostalgia romp. 

[Note: Activision provided the copy of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 used for this review.]

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning Review — Action RPG Bliss Mon, 07 Sep 2020 11:15:01 -0400 David Jagneaux

The original Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a perfect storm of creative talent joining forces to make an excellent game that, for a variety of reasons, just didn't sell that well.

Maybe it's because it released in the middle of February, a weird time to launch a game. Maybe it's because it came out just a few months after The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and gamers were still entranced with Bethesda's RPG epic. Maybe the budget just got too big, too fast and the sales requirements were unrealistic. Or maybe it's a little bit of all those things.

The original release has an 81 on Metacritic, which is about as good as anyone can realistically hope for with a brand new IP from an unknown studio, yet it still "failed" commercially and collapsed the entire company. 

Now, more than eight years later, there's a chance for redemption.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning might have one of the worst titles ever for a remastered re-release, but thankfully, that doesn't reflect on its quality. THQ Nordic has taken what was already a rock-solid action RPG, improved the pacing and balance, and shined up the visuals just a tad to give us what I think is one of the purest, most streamlined, and downright fun-to-play RPGs of this entire generation.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning Review — Action RPG Bliss

In Kingdoms of Amalur, you take on the role of The Fateless One, a resurrected hero that's come back to life after an untimely demise. In this world, Fate rules all. Everyone has their entire lives planned out as it connects to everything else in the "Tapestry of Fate," which means free will is only possible insofar as day-to-day decisions, but everything from the major milestones of life to exactly when and how you die is pre-determined. 

Fateweavers are wise beings that have the ability to see someone's fate, including their death. However, the player's character is an anomaly: since they've been resurrected, they exist outside of Fate's plan.

This means that not only can you do or be whatever you want (a clever in-game explanation for the class and ability upgrade system) but you can also affect things around you in a way that severs the bonds to the Tapestry. This includes preventing someone from dying when they're supposed to.

Narratively, Amalur's got a lot going on. Even if you try to mainline the game and just focus almost entirely on the main quest, it will still take you around 30 hours to complete. But it'll likely be around 10 hours more than that for most people because staying away from all the game's side content is pretty tough.

If you tried to complete everything Amalur has to offer, plus the two side DLC stories that are included here for free, you're looking at well over 100 to 150 hours of content. Easy.

Not only is a lot of it actually interesting, but leveling up a bit more near the end is very useful.

There were some serious pacing issues in the original game. By the time you were midway through your adventure, you would have likely out-leveled everything. Entire regions were designed around certain level ranges and if you happened to spend a lot of time questing and leveling early on, you'd breeze through later zones. Loot didn't keep up with your level either and by the 10-hour mark, it was just boring.

THQ Nordic has fixed all that with the remaster.

Now, when you are exploring a zone, enemies are semi-scaled off of the player based on a level range. Eventually, you will become super powerful if you return to the starting region after 20 hours, you're gonna feel like a badass, of course  but as you enter new areas along the way, you'll find they won't be an absolute cakewalk anymore, even on the base Normal difficulty.

The same goes for loot: you'll generally and more consistently find things that are actually useful for your level and your playstyle.

Adjusting all of that is just about all they did with this remaster, other than upgrading the resolution a bit. But that's all the game needed to really shine. As it stands now, Kingdoms of Amalur is one of the best action RPGs you can play. 

Combat has always been one of its strong points, which isn't always the case in RPGs. In Amalur, you've got a primary weapon slot, secondary weapon slot, shield, and up to eight abilities at all times. I typically run with a greatsword as my primary, then chakras (disc blades that are also like boomerangs) as my secondary  or a bow if I needed real range. 

Everything is combo-based, so you'll be mashing attack buttons often. But chaining together your primary and secondary weapons, charging up attacks, dodge rolling, blocking, parrying, and using abilities to set up combos is all super fluid and exciting. By the three- or four-hour mark, things start to really click, despite the lack of a target lock-on camera like in Zelda or Dark Souls, something that's sorely missing. 

Each time you level up, you can increase a single skill line for things like Blacksmithing, Lockpicking, Persuasion, or another soft passive skill, and you also get to invest three ability points between the Might, Magic, or Finesse ability trees.

On top of all that, you can select a new "Destiny" at each level up based on the Destiny Cards you've unlocked. These act like your "Class," which can be altered each level up or by speaking with a Fateweaver. They provide targeted passive bonuses to amplify your chosen playstyle, such as increasing your physical attack damage or improving your stealth kills.

It's a good system with lots of depth and customization. Plus, you can refund everything for a small fee at any Fateweaver, so experimentation is encouraged. 

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning Review The Bottom Line

  • Small tweaks fixed the pacing and (lack of) difficulty curve of original
  • Engrossing story about defying Fate
  • Fantastic fast-paced combat
  • Tons of loot with lots of fun crafting mechanics
  • Massive game world teeming with quests and stories to uncover
  • Handful of minor bugs pop up every now and then
  • Lack of lock-on for combat is annoying at first

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning feels like a breath of fresh air. Just like the game's protagonist, it rises from the ashes, with a blank slate and zero expectations, to deliver a powerful story, addictive gameplay, and a shockingly stylish world that's pulsing with personality and is ripe for exploration.

Leveraging the narrative muscles of legendary author R. A. Salvatore, the creative mind of Todd McFarlane, and the design pedigree of Ken Rolston, it's a game that finally has room to shine over eight years after its initial release. All fans of RPGs, good stories, creative worlds, and fun combat owe it to themselves to give Kingdoms of Amalur a try.

It's the kind of world that I relish the ability to get lost in.

As I'm writing this, I'm eager to return to see what new stories I can uncover or what new ability I might unlock next. It's a captivating world that leaves you yearning for more in all the best ways.

If we're lucky, maybe this re-release will point towards the possibility of a sequel. The sheer depth of detail in the Amalur's world-building feels like wasted potential if it's just for a singular game. This needs to become the next great RPG franchise.

Not all games get a second chance and it has absolutely earned the right to be worthy of your attention.

[Note: THQ Nordic provided the copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning used for this review.]

Ary and the Secret of Seasons Review: Ary's Buggy Adventure Fri, 04 Sep 2020 12:18:23 -0400 Henry Stockdale

After several delays and a lot of waiting, Ary and the Secret of Seasons is finally here. Taking inspiration from classic games like The Legend of Zelda, Ary introduces fans of 3D action-adventure games to a brand new world that revolves around the four seasons and their related elements. 

Though Ary features some platforming gameplay, the game revolves around players learning to master those elements, mixing in a good bit of combat and puzzle-solving as well.

It certainly looked promising in its early stages and has many enjoyable moments in its current form, it's a game that could’ve used more time in development. 

Ary And The Secret of Seasons Review: Ary's Buggy Adventure

Ary's story revolves around the eponymous Aryelle, daughter of Yule City’s Winter Guardian, Gwenn. In the world of Valdi, regions are controlled by one of four Guardians of Seasons, who are tasked with defending the city from an ancient evil mage's magic. In doing so, they command the powers of winter, spring, summer, and fall. 

Several weeks before the story begins, Ary's brother, Flynn, disappears, leaving her grief-stricken father in no state to carry out his duties as guardian. Soon after, Yule City is attacked by mysterious red crystals, turning the seasons upside down. With no one left to take up her father's mantle, Ary sets out to unravel this new mystery herself.

Aside from her father's winter crystal, Ary will find other elemental crystals throughout her journey, and with her new-found abilities, Ary eventually bends seasons to her will.

As an adventure game, Ary and the Secret of Seasons features a number of puzzles. 

These can range from freezing gaps between bridges and growing vines through spring’s power or filling up voids with water using the fall crystal so she can swim from one side to another. You can activate and deactivate powers at a whim, making for creative puzzle-solving experiences.

However, the roads of Valdi are not safe, and during your travels, Ary will find a lot of Hyenas, raccoons, hogs, and even deadly fungi waiting to attack.

Overall, combat is quite basic and simplistic, providing a quick attack for sword strikes and a slingshot for ranged strikes. Defensive strategies are key to keeping Ary alive, however, and you have access to parries and dodges.

Ary doesn't have to participate in every fight, though, and it’s important to note this isn’t a game that uses an experience points system, so no grinding is required to get more powerful or upgrade attributes like attack damage or agility. Learning the ropes is relatively easy, and there's little consequence to dying.

Ary and the Secret of Seasons doesn't have an intense open-world like you may find with larger games, but there’s always something to do. Whether that’s collecting pages from the "banned" journal, finding collectable teapots, reading monuments to Valdi’s history, or just participating in some friendly chat with the locals, there’s a lot here to keep things going. Side quests are available in abundance, too, all of which provide rewards.

Numerous shopkeepers also spring up throughout the world, letting Ary buy new weapons, outfits, and more. Of course, you need to currency, which comes in the form of coins. These are earned by completing side quests or locating hidden treasure chests.

Since exploration is encouraged, it's good that Ary has an interesting cast of characters to keep life entertaining, Valdi never feels dull; there is a lot of fun here in uncovering its secrets. And while the game's 3D graphics are not the sharpest, it makes up for that with a colourful visual approach, showcasing the elements well, bringing a lot of life to Valdi.

Unfortunately, Ary’s biggest problem is that it's buggy, and during my playthrough for this review, I encountered numerous technical issues. In the Yule region, some NPC dialogue was completely blank. One side quest requires you to drop a winter sphere around a separate NPC, but it didn’t acknowledge I'd actually done it until reloading the game several times.

I found more bugs in the next region, too, Lammastide. One prevented me from talking to an NPC, which stopped me starting their side quest at all. A different NPC, Judy, also had issues, displaying their text in the wrong language until I completed another task.

Some prior issues had also occurred but these seem to have been fixed with the Day-One patch.

Ary And The Secret Of Seasons — The Bottom Line

  • Highly enjoyable platforming
  • Lovely visual approach
  • Wonderful cast of characters
  • Lot of bugs
  • Combat is rather basic

Ary and the Secret of Seasons proved highly enjoyable overall, bringing some solid Zelda-esque action to a beautiful yet chaotic world. But it’s hard to ignore the game's technical faults, even if the developers are working diligently to fix them.

While they don’t affect the main campaign, their impact proved enough to dampen the experience considerably. If you can’t wait to dive into a new platformer, there is a genuinely fun game here, so it comes recommended. Just consider it with a strong side of caution until more patches and updates drop.

[Note: Modus Games provided the copy of Ary and the Secret of Seasons used for this review.]

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions Review — Rise to the Top! Thu, 03 Sep 2020 16:36:56 -0400 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions has been on my radar since it was announced. The reveal trailer was slick and instantly called to mind memories of games like FIFA Street, NFL Blitz, and Super Mario Strikers. It's been years since a truly, truly great arcade sports title came out, so I was cautiously excited about what Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions could bring to the table, despite my general concerns with some of Bandai Namco's more recent anime titles.

Luckily, Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions doesn't just score, it scores big.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions Review — Rise to the Top!

Captain Tsubasa may not have the name recognition that other Bandai Namco-adapted anime series have, but that doesn't make it any less important. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the show has been massively influential both in Japan and worldwide, and is, at least in part, responsible for inspiring the professional soccer careers of superstars like James Rodriguez, Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi.

It was, and still is, a big deal, which means that there's a lot to live up to here.

The first thing you'll likely want to do upon starting up the game is to play through Episode Tsubasa, one of the game's two story modes. This mode operates as a tutorial (albeit an incomplete one) on the game's systems under the guise of the player leading Nankatsu MS to their third consecutive title.

By the end, you'll have learned how to dribble, pass, change tactics, tackle, and pull off special shots, passes, and saves. That said, there's a fair amount that the mode doesn't teach you, and it's a bit surprising that things like combo passes and shots aren't even mentioned in the mode, instead relegated to a separate tutorial menu.

That's my only gripe with Episode: Tsubasa, though. It's the perfect balance of exposition and action, and the Dynamic Action Demo system that plays flashy cutscenes as the player performs certain actions in certain situations makes each match feel appropriately over-the-top and heart-pounding. 

Team Play

Matches themselves feel fluid and responsive, even on the Nintendo Switch in handheld mode, and the way that the developers adapted the anime into a soccer title deserves a lot of praise.

The game controls a lot like Super Mario Strikers, in fact. You have a "spirit" meter that allows you to dash and tackle, as well as pull off dribble moves and special shots, blocks, and passes. There's also a "V-Zone" meter that charges over time and can be cashed in to give your team a significant boost.

Shots and passes can be charged to give them special effects, although charging them makes you susceptible to a tackle. 

Ballhandling itself deserves special mention as well, because possession showdowns are at the heart of this game. There are two different ways to challenge for possession, and two different ways to defend against them.

A dribble move will defend against a normal challenge, and a dash will defend against a slide or a special tackle. This means that there's a lot of split-second decision-making that goes into every single challenge, which in turn can lead to huge dividends either offensively or defensively, since consecutive evasions lead to stat boosts.

Because you never directly control the goalie (apart from causing them to dive when they're out of position, or activating a super save), the way that scoring works bears mentioning as well. As long as the goalie is facing down a shot in position and has a bit of spirit left in the meter, any shot will be blocked.

The key to scoring is either to draw the goalie out of position with an expert cross or to bombard them with powerful shots until all of their spirit is expended saving them. It's a different way of going about the actual scoring process, and it may not be for everyone, but it worked for me.  

Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on under the hood to support the flashy shots and saves in every match. Competitive play is intense and satisfying, and tactics are key.

A New Hero

The second of the game's two story modes allows you to create your own anime soccer avatar and rise through the ranks either as a defender, a midfielder, or a forward. That said, this mode is almost like three story modes in one, as you get to choose between three different soccer clubs in which to start your career. There's a lot of replayability here, especially for fans of the original series.

This mode is very, very deep as well. The goal is to max out your player's stats by performing well, while at the same time collecting friendship cards and leveling them up in order to learn moves and skills from your peers and rivals through cute cutscenes that have your created player interacting with legends from the franchise.

Once you finish, your custom character's stats will be locked, and they'll be available for use in a game mode where you can create your own custom dream team and compete online. 

That mode operates kind of like a watered-down FIFA Ultimate Team, but for an arcade title, the concept works well (and is thankfully free of microtransactions.) You'll unlock players as you progress through the game instead of unlocking them through card packs. And though, yes, there are randomized card packs in the game, those packs are full of friendship cards that are used to give your created player better moves.

To prevent teams from getting too overpowered, there's a max player "cost" per team, meaning you can't just stack your dream team with studs; there has to be a balance.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions Review — The Bottom Line

  • The Dramatic Action Demo system is a ton of fun
  • The game looks and plays in a wonderful, true-to-the-show way
  • The flash is backed up by the ability to delve deep into complex tactics and customization
  • Episode: Tsubasa doesn't teach you absolutely everything you need to know about the game
  • Long load times

Try as I might, I simply cannot find much to dislike about this game, other than the fact that I wish the tutorials weren't buried, and that the game really takes a long time to load at certain points.

For fans of the franchise, there's a lot to love. Unlockable scenes from the anime flood the collection menu, and it's stuffed with player biographies and music as well. For newcomers, the game represents an ideal starting place. You don't really need any context to love everything the game has to offer.

The simple, easy truth here is that if you're craving an arcade soccer game, you really should buy Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions. It plays like a spiritual successor to Super Mario Strikers: Charged, and that is about the best compliment I could give to a sports title. 

I can only hope that early Twitter hype for this game translates into demand not just for a sequel, but for more games like this to be made. Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions' love for soccer is infectious, and because of that, it's a game that will either have you wearing a big goofy grin as you pull off an expert cross-header-combo, or staring unblinkingly at the screen as you attempt to claw back the lead in an intense multiplayer match.

What more could you ask for?

[Note: Bandai Namco provided the copy of Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions used for this review.]

Nexomon: Extinction Review — A Tame Monster Thu, 03 Sep 2020 10:19:31 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

If someone told you about a monster-catching game in which you play as a young child exploring a big world while taking on challenges to become a stronger tamer, you’d probably think they were describing Pokemon.

Enter Nexomon: Extinction instead, a sequel to the original Nexomon game, although you'd be forgiven for thinking it's another Pokemon.

Like its predecessor, Nexomon: Extinction unfolds in a dynamic world with an interesting story to tell. It has the potential to be a unique monster taming game in its own right — which makes its attachment to Pokemon that much more baffling and unnecessary.

Nexomon: Extinction Review — A Tame Monster

In classic RPG fashion, Nexomon: Extinction starts with a flash-forward to a terrible event where the protagonist has somehow “betrayed” their colleagues and brought destruction to the world. As you start questioning what’s going on and why, everything snaps back to the present. 

The great traitor is just one among a handful of orphans picked every year for training with the Guild, and Guild tamers operate out of the nearby capital city, with the primary goal of protecting the capital from vicious Nexomon. Unlike in Pokemon, Nexomon’s critters would be perfectly happy destroying all traces of human civilization and has done so in the past.

Events take a bit of a detour before getting to the capital, though, with a loose tie into the first Nexomon game and plenty of foreshadowing about the plot and how it develops. Nexomon: Extinction’s story doesn’t shock and awe, and it’s mostly predictable. 

The flash-forward at the beginning and the events surrounding your first Nexomon add a nice element of tension. Even when you can guess what’s going to happen, it still unfolds in a satisfying way.

It also makes the world of Nexomon: Extinction interesting. The fight between humans and Nexomon leaves visible scars all over the landscape, and the Guild members and other high-ranking tamers scattered throughout the world serve as an ever-present reminder of how dangerous the world is.

Not that you need much of a reminder. Nexomon: Extinction and its war between humans and Nexomon get pretty dark at times, at least for a monster taming game.

All the lore and talk of humans on the brink of destruction actually serves a purpose the further you progress in the game. While the worldbuilding itself doesn’t get under your skin quite like Monster Crown does, Nexomon: Extinction puts its setting to good use, coming closer to the Digimon anime.

Anime or an older Saturday morning cartoon works as a good description for Nexomon: Extinction in general. It presents you with a vibrant world and events that, even though they aren’t strictly linear, do unfold in an episodic way.

It’s also full of wacky personalities, some who just exist to add flavor to the world and some who end up joining the story for more important roles. No one gets too much of the detailed treatment, but like a story arc in Pokemon, it’s just enough to keep you interested and to move the action forward. 

Most of the time, it's funny, too. Nexomon: Extinction wears its inspirations on its sleeves so it can poke fun at them. Your friend Coco exists pretty much just to explode the fourth wall, though some other NPCs do it too.

Comments about RPG story tropes, game-y things like showing items off to the world, even poking holes in its own story and characters at times — nothing is sacred in Nexomon: Extinction.

These jokes land well, for the most part, although they’re a bit too frequent early on. The non-fourth-wall-breaking dialogue also relies a bit much on negativity at times, though both issues become less prevalent later on.

In short, Nexomon: Extinction is a story based monster RPG that adds more RPG than most. It gets dicier with gameplay, though.

Nexomon: Extinction wears its gameplay inspirations just as openly as it does with story inspirations. If you’ve played Pokemon, you know what to expect for the most part.

Tamers have teams of up to six Nexomon at a time, wander about small, restricted paths, and battle each other. Nexomon span a number of different types that aren’t named after Pokemon types but may as well be. And as you’d expect, there’s a rock, paper, scissors system governing strengths and weaknesses. 

Battles play out in the usual way. Pick an attack, bam. Get attacked, ouch. 

A couple of features shake the formula up and keep it interesting. One of them is the Core system. You can buy or create Cores of different types to augment your Nexomon’s powers or boost the experience it receives.

Nexomon skills tend to have more status effects attached to them than Pokemon or Digimon skills, so there’s a slight extra element of strategy in each encounter.

Battles are still a bit too basic, more like miniature wars of attrition than anything requiring a lot of planning. Moves, even ones with power stats of 120 or more, don’t dish out that much damage, so even basic battles take four turns or more. Fortunately, they move fast enough where it’s not a huge problem.

Tamer opponents eagerly challenge you to rematches, which is good because you need all the experience you can get. The Guild and its mission give a good reason for why random tamers wander the world too, unlike Pokemon.

You know that Picnicker never stands a chance at taking on the Elite Four, but the Guild uses tamers of all skill levels for a variety of different tasks. Running into them makes sense.

And they play a bigger role apart from battle fodder. Part of your role as a Guild tamer is solving problems and handling requests from NPCs. The Guild assigns you most of the major ones, but there are a good many other smaller requests you can take on, things like trading Nexomon, obtaining items for something good in return, or a few little mini-game side quests leading to treasure.

What they’re doing and where changes from time to time. For example, one bridge early on is completely devoid of human activity. A short while later, it’s full of people chatting, playing jump rope, and just being. It’s a small, simple touch that makes Nexomon feel alive in a way more games should copy.

Speaking of copy, it’s impossible to talk about Nexomon without mentioning how it obviously copies Pokemon. Battle style, catching mechanics — minus a little button input segment Nexomon adds — types, even how Nexomon look and evolve all come straight from Pokemon.

It even pulls item names from Game Freak's creation. Potion and Super Potion might as well come straight out of Pokemon. Ether and Elixir are common enough items in RPGs, but Nexomon's function exactly the same as Pokemon's.

Then there's Revive, an item with plenty of alternative names to pick from without sounding like the same thing you'd buy at a PokeMart.

Sure, you're just as likely to see these items in other games. But when Nexomon: Extinction is so similar to Pokemon anyway, it makes the name choices stand out more, and not in a good way.

I’m not sure why it's like this either. Nexomon’s setting and style are strong enough to establish their own identity, but with holdovers like these and a lack of differentiation in some other key respects, it’s almost like Vewo wants people to see Nexomon as a budget knockoff. 

Positioning it as an old-school monster catcher doesn’t help. It’s not all that old-school outside of higher difficulty, but the higher difficulty feels artificial.

It’s challenging because your Nexomon need a ridiculously high number of experience points to level up, points the game restricts to give a sense of heightened difficulty. Even a level five ‘mon defeating a level eight Nexomon earns maybe a quarter of the points it needs to level up. 

Challenge is good, but it should be organic. Expect to grind more than you might want to.

Nexomon: Extinction Review — The Bottom Line

  • More RPG elements than most monster catchers
  • Good, if predictable, story
  • Fun characters and mostly fun writing
  • It's classic monster-catching gameplay, but not tied to Nintendo systems
  • Sense of challenge is artificial
  • Old school doesn't have to mean grindy
  • Too reliant on Pokémon to stand out on its own
  • Some of the jokes get stale fast, and the tone strays into negative a bit too often

Nexomon: Extinction has plenty to offer for just $19.99, even if a chunk of it is grinding. But for whatever reason, it's not willing to forge a new path and let go of its inspirations completely.

It doesn't make Nexomon: Extinction a bad game — by any means. It's just not as good as it could be.

[Note: PQube provided a digital copy of Nexomon: Extinction for the purpose of this review.]

Surgeon Simulator 2 Review: I Got a Fever In My Bones Wed, 02 Sep 2020 17:26:57 -0400 Daniel Hollis

I have an irrational fear of anything medical. A single ache in my body and I’m fast-tracking myself to the emergency room. Every time it’s nothing, and I’m sent on my way with what is more than likely placebos. 

With that in mind, the very idea of playing Surgeon Simulator 2 should chill me to my core; even watching a simple medical procedure in a movie is enough to have me diving behind the sofa.

Yet, despite my squeamish nature, I found myself hacking away at patients in Surgeon Simulator 2, laughing at the game's absurdity with each new cut of the knife.  

With co-op multiplayer and a new take on level design, Surgeon Simulator 2 is bigger, better, and more elaborate than the first installment. Its changes are more than skin deep, presenting completely new gameplay systems and dozens of new ways to engage in hilariously dark but cathartic antics. 

In a year where the medical world has turned into a veritable nightmare, Surgeon Simulator 2 lightens the mood for many that have spent the majority of the past few months sheltered away.

Surgeon Simulator 2 Review: I Got A Fever In My Bones

Surgeon Simulator 2's gameplay has greatly evolved from its predecessor. Gone are the restraints of performing operations in a single room. Instead, the game's entire environment is fully explorable, filled with physics-based challenges to overcome and operations to perform. 

Propelling that new open design is the inclusion of a narrative that moves players from one elaborate stage to the next. While Surgeon Simulator often felt like an episode of Scrubs on drugs, its sequel often feels like a game of Operation if devised by the team behind the Saw series. (Imagine a group of people locked in a room with no escape and forced to attempt surgery on an unconscious patient, then you're in the right ball park.)

Set across multiple stages, the Surgeon Simulator 2 campaign lets players cut and slice either solo or cooperatively. They can do so with up to three other players as they help a patient named Bob undergo multiple procedures.

These range from a heart transplant to literally swapping his head with a new one (which is dispensed from a machine like a can of Coke). If that sounds stupid, it’s because it is, and Surgeon Simulator 2 embraces that stupidity from its very first moments.

It’s not long before the plot detours and meanders down the path of dark comedy, very much in the vein of Portal. While it never reaches the dizzying heights of the games it’s inspired by, the story is well worth cutting through.

The journey to the game's ending is extended by its fully explorable environments, where players explore each escape-room-like level while figuring out the best ways by which to operate on Bob and move on to the next procedure.

Sometimes, operating utensils are hidden away, forcing you to search high and low for them before beginning an operation. Other times, an organ you need is locked behind a door, but that door is locked by a fuse, and that fuse is locked behind another door, forcing you to find an alternate path through and around. 

These challenges only grow in complexity as the narrative drives forward, infusing the fairly mundane procedures with vim and vigour because while performing procedures on Bob is fun early on, it’s not long before the repetition of each goal kicks in.

There’s only a handful of things Bob will need during each operation, and Surgeon Simulator will have you repeating the same procedures again and again and again.

Luckily, Surgeon Simulator 2's physics-based controls make the seemingly simple tasks a nightmare — in all the best ways.

Holding a saw with your pinkie finger as you hack off one of Bob’s limbs is a sight to behold, and even better to witness in co-op. Squirming your arm about to find the perfect angle is often hilarious, even if it does become a bit tedious after multiple operations.

Outside of the fairly short 3- to 4-hour campaign, Surgeon Simulator 2’s Creative Mode leverages user-created content to increase the game's replay value.

The sheer number of tools available is frankly staggering, and the imagination that's already been pumped into the mode will only expand over time. Even though some of the levels available are fairly barebones right now, there are levels such as mazes and even bowling alleys ready to dive into at launch. No doubt that as the months go on, the community will find interesting new ways to breathe new life into this mode.

That's because even building these levels is a joy, invoking the creative inspiration found in something like The Sims. Rooms are built through a handbook filled with items, and bringing friends along to coordinate ideas is a stroke of genius.

Surgeon Simulator 2 Review  The Final Score

  • Fun evolution of original concept
  • Co-op is a blast
  • Surprisingly engaging narrative
  • Operations can get repetitive
  • Short campaign
  • Cumbersome controls 

While some sequels fail to build upon the entries that came before them, turning into bloated, convoluted messes, Surgeon Simulator 2 reshapes the original idea into something entirely new. 

Not everything lands, the campaign is short, surgeries can get repetitive, and the physics-based controls can occasionally hamper the enjoyment. But it’s hard not to admire the creativity driving the evolution of this sequel.

For better or for worse, Surgeon Simulator 2 is something entirely different and a game that builds a solid foundation for a strong future.

[Note: Bossa Studios provided the copy of Surgeon Simulator 2 used for this review.]

Control AWE DLC Review: It's An Ocean After All Mon, 31 Aug 2020 16:30:33 -0400 Mark Delaney

In the first expansion for Remedy's 2019 award-winning New Weird shooter Control, players learned much more about the origins of The Oldest House. But with its second and final DLC, AWE, Remedy sought to do something much more ambitious.

If you've been following the Control storyline by now, you know it exists in a shared universe with Max PayneQuantum Break, and most importantly, Alan Wake. While the studio doesn't own the rights to the two foremost franchises, they've already teased major plans for tying its two IP, Control and Alan Wake, together in ways that haven't been done before in games.

To that end, AWE is a remarkable success, bridging some of the gaps between the two series, but not without creating several more mysteries along the way. The future of Remedy is brighter than ever thanks to this impressive, dark DLC.

Control AWE DLC Review: It's An Ocean After All

Jesse walking down a purple lighted corridor with recycling bins, table floating around her.

Though many think of it as the "Alan Wake Expansion," AWE actually stands for Altered World Event. The DLC focuses on three of these mind-bending events across its six hours with a satisfying emphasis on the events of Alan Wake, which themselves are categorized as an AWE within the Federal Bureau of Control. 

If any of that makes sense so concisely, you're likely among those that are already deep into the lore of Control, and thus you're precisely the kind of person that should consider this final expansion a must-play. 

While it's certainly still a Control game first and foremost, as an Alan Wake superfan, I was joyously stunned to see just how strong the connective threads run to Remedy's 2010 thriller. From the very first room you enter in the all-new Investigations wing of The Oldest House, nods, teases, and full-on answers about the lingering Alan Wake mysteries are strewn all over.

As Jesse Faden, it's your job to uncover a new threat, called The Third Thing, lurking in this previously closed-off wing. The monster design is extremely inspired, creating a creature that is one part wendigo and one part slenderman. In an almost reverse-Nemesis style, Jesse will spend the DLC chasing this creature out of the shadows in various sections of the Investigations wing, eventually trying to corner it for a final showdown.

Jesse, wearing a gray and white jumpsuit, floating toward levitating Hiss.

As this monster is enshrouded in both the Hiss of Control and the Dark Presence of Alan Wake, battles focus a lot more on light and dark, reminiscent of the 2010 game, and Remedy's proprietary Northlight engine really shows off through these lighting effects.

Control is more impressive than ever.

The singular slip-up of the DLC is its reuse of staging and enemy combat concepts when battling this monster. Tending to ask players run light to light with different obstacles along the way before hitting it with debilitating floodlights, it's funny to see that by bringing the Wake connections to the foreground, Control has suffered some of the same repetition problems as its predecessor.

But these ludological concerns ultimately don't bother me that much because the dose of story within AWE is, well, awe-inspiring. Every note, every scene, every revelation pulls players deeper into what the team is now (finally) publicly calling the Remedy Connected Universe.

If you've been clamoring for more answers regarding Alan Wake, this is the singular most important piece of content Remedy has put out since the game's original launch. More than the This House of Dreams ARG, more than the nods in Quantum Break, even more than the game's XBLA semi-sequel Alan Wake's American Nightmare.

AWE is the gaming moment fans have been waiting for.

Control AWE DLC Review — The Bottom Line

The silhouette of Jess Faden walking toward a light in a dark warehouse.

  • Vital, exciting story developments further connecting the RCU
  • Fun, almost nostalgic use of light versus dark gameplay
  • A stunning setup for what's to come
  • Boss battles rehash similar showdowns several times over

I've never seen any two games, once considered separate, coalesce so wonderfully as these two games do within this DLC. Yes, we knew from the base game that they shared a universe, but the admissions written into the story in AWE are world-changing for everyone: Alan, Jesse, and the world as a whole.

Few story expansions carry the narrative weight of AWE. These are not merely Easter eggs. This is everything. And it's glorious to watch it all unfold. 

Outside of story, you know what to expect. This expansion is more of what you loved of Control, and even people who haven't played Wake will get a kick out of the new wing to explore and new enemy types to defeat. There are also more side missions here than in the first expansion, The Foundation, and in fact, more than I anticipated.

Many of them offer a few more satisfying glimpses into the weird world of the FBC. It all comes alongside a free update that adds new abilities and tons of new accessibility options too, making the new Ultimate Edition worthy of its name.

AWE is built with Remedy's biggest fans in mind, and it's they who will most appreciate this final chapter (for now) of one of last year's greatest games. There's so much more to discuss but the details would be full of spoilers. To put it simply, fans of the studio simply have to play AWE

A decade ago, Remedy told us "it's not a lake, it's an ocean." Today, those tides are more apparent than ever.

[Note: Remedy provided the copy of Control: AWE used for the review.]

Iron Harvest Review: Diesel Destruction Mon, 31 Aug 2020 15:36:50 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

Iron Harvest should immediately catch your eye. At first glance, you might mistake it for any other historical skirmish RTS. Groups of infantry take cover, tossing grenades and laying down suppressing fire to rout their foes. However, things start to change when the big guns show up. It isn't tanks rolling over the horizon, but giant mechs lumbering across the land.

This is the "World of 1920+," a post-WWI alternate history that sees the world's remaining national superpowers creating massive diesel mechs in a steampunk arms race.

These mechs are a sight to behold. They aren't slick and graceful alien beasts. They are big, loud, and clunky. Many of them look like they're made from repurposed farm equipment, and they spit just as much black smoke into the air as they do ordinance onto the battlefield.

These mechs are the heart and soul of Iron Harvest; they help turn an otherwise solid but unremarkable game into much more of a spectacle. If you enjoy RTS games like Company of Heroes but want to go a little more fantastical with your approach, Iron Harvest is a perfect fit.

Iron Harvest Review: Diesel Destruction

A commander with a white beard standing in front of a four-legged black and yellow tank mech in a snowy forest.

Iron Harvest is more focused (right now, at least) on its single-player aspect. There are some multiplayer options and some indications those might get beefed up in the future, but the cinematic campaign is where you'll get the most bang for your buck at launch.

Each of the three major nations  Polania, Rusviet, and Saxony  have their own story to tell, with different heroes and environments to blast your way through. There are several different types of missions, with plenty of evolving stories and optional objectives.

Gameplay boils down to pretty expected fare, though. There are several control points scattered across the map, and the more you control, the quicker you generate resources. Base building is not overly complicated, and the three nations all follow nearly identical tech trees and early unit requirements. Iron Harvest is mostly concerned with tactics and combat, as opposed to winning through supreme economy management.

When it comes to infantry, you're encouraged to use cover and a variety of tactics as you work your way up the tech tree towards your bigger guns. Basic infantry is strong at setting up bottlenecks and laying down impressive amounts of low-level firepower. You can eventually build into stronger infantry units, like grenadiers and engineers, who use explosives, repair units, lay down traps, and specialize in a variety of other techniques.

You've also got a few hero units at your command. The first campaign as Polania sees you controlling a teenage sniper with a pet bear. Catching infantry out in the open with her is a fairly easy win.

Eventually, the mechs are going to come out and play. They start relatively small: sort of 1920s versions of exosuits. Even the most basic mechs are mighty, but Iron Harvest is a game that rewards you for planning your tactics.

A clever group of grenadiers can lay waste to superior firepower if you position them correctly and plan your techniques correctly. The economic swing of low-level units destroying much more expensive ones (and then stealing the resources from their charred out husks) is satisfying and a great way to turn the tide.

The most powerful mechs tend to throw the balance off a bit, but that's kind of to be expected. A massive, AT-AT-esque hulk wandering across the European countryside is going to make quick work of a bunch of dudes with single-shot rifles, no matter how you slice it. You've just got to make sure you're ready with your supermechs by the time the other side's come online.

Symphony of Destruction

A group of blue shirt Polania soldiers shooting across a field with green cylinder mechs behind them.

It helps that everything in Iron Harvest looks and sounds so good. Character models can get a bit dodgy when you zoom in too close, but their icons stand out when you are in your big picture view, and it isn't hard to figure out the relative strength of forces once you've played for a few hours.

The size and scale of things are nice: infantry units look like proper little bugs when the biggest mechs start rolling off the production line. And the mechs themselves look great. They're properly big and beefy, with wobbly legs and all sorts of nice touches that make them feel of the time, despite coming from such a strange steampunk world.

The graphics are solid, but the sound design is what helps the battles of Iron Harvest come to life. When a massive engagement starts, the constant chattering of guns, booming explosions, and shouts of soldiers as they move from position to position all help bring urgency to things.

Soon, that urgency comes to a head when the clanking mechs start stomping around, literally crushing buildings as they slowly make their way to the fight. Soon, their cannons are all you can hear, and a battlefield full of artillery craters is usually all that's left when the shooting starts.

Well made RTS games do a great job of making you feel satisfied after a particularly harrowing win. Even with superior firepower, victory is never assured in Iron Harvest. You still need to be tactical in your approach and keep an eye out for opportunities. After all, even victory can be costly, and the difference between keeping one of your most potent mechs just barely alive and losing it to the scrap heap can be significant in the outcome of a given scenario.

Big Shoes to Fill

A male Polania soldier in blue with a commander's hat leading another soldier away.

Not everything is perfect in Iron Harvest. The lore and personalities of the different factions are distinct, but there isn't much difference in the playstyle of faction. Maintaining balance when having factions that play differently from one another is a significant challenge. Still, it would be nice if it were more than just, "Well, Polania has a mech that's a bit different..."

Cover is fiddly, and it isn't very intuitive what will work and how well it will work. Part of this comes from experience. You'll start to identify things on sight a little better as you put the time in. Iron Harvest can be punishing if the tactics you think you're employing don't work.

Sending a group of infantry to take cover by a ridge, only to have them get torn apart by machine guns because they can't or won't take cover can set you back immensely, and can often call for a quick restart.

Finally, a few things that will probably be tweaked over time but still stand out as issues on launch come in the form of balance and polish.

For the most part, things are balanced during small scale skirmishes, but the way missions can change on the fly can sometimes call for a total wipe. Perhaps you built your force to handle a specific type of enemy, but suddenly, something you've never seen before swoops out and decimates you. Sometimes, the big gun just big guns you.

In short, it can be frustrating to restart due to some ridiculous onslaught of enemies after you've been tactical and creative in tackling the problem in front of you for so long.

Some polish issues could use some work, too: some of the voice acting and lines come across as cliched and stilted, but it isn't a massive issue.

The Bottom Line  Iron Harvest Review

A green cylinder mech carrying a large rifle with bayonet running through field as another mech explodes.

  • Draws you in with unique world and mech design
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Tactics matter; overwhelming odds can be taken down by thinking ahead
  • Satisfying
  • Some balance issues
  • Three factions don't have distinct playstyles
  • Certain mechanics don't seem to work consistently
  • Not many multiplayer options

If you're looking for a strong, single-player RTS with a unique world to explore, Iron Harvest is a perfect option. The world is well-realized, and the mechs offer a sense of style that sometimes get lost in historical strategy games. A train car on legs firing huge artillery shells is a little more memorable than a different-colored tank.

Some issues could stand to be ironed out, but nothing that is a significant detriment. The cover system and focus on a tactical approach make ever decision seem significant, and winning a battle in Iron Harvest is extremely rewarding.

If you crave spectacle in your strategy games, do yourself a favor and lead Polania to victory!

[Note: Deep Silver provided the copy of Iron Harvest used for this review.]

No Straight Roads Review: A Flawed But Likable Rock Opera Mon, 31 Aug 2020 14:23:05 -0400 Thomas Wilde

If I didn't already know that No Straight Roads was a passion project, I'd have suspected as much. Some games feel that way from the start, almost overstuffed with inspirations, homages, and shout-outs to everything that the developers love. Whatever else you can say about NSR, it's got a lot of heart, and that's always going to count for something.

It doesn't quite come all the way together, though. No Straight Roads has killer visuals, an amazing soundtrack, and a likable cast, but the parts of it that you play range from acceptable to counterintuitive. It's never exactly bad, but it's a lot more interested in being an audiovisual experience than anything else, with rough combat and a few bugs. NSR is well worth taking the trip, but it's A+ art and music wrapped around a C+ game.

No Straight Roads Review: A Flawed But Likable Rock Opera

No Straight Roads is set up to play out like a list of tracks on a concept album. You play as Mayday and Zuke, the last two rock musicians in Vinyl City (which, to go by Mayday's slang, is near-future cyberpunk Malaysia), as they set out to literally fight their way up the charts and overthrow the electronic dance artists who dominate the scene.

In Vinyl City, music is both its primary industry and its power source, but the corporation that runs the place, NSR, is visibly manipulating the population, unevenly distributing electricity between neighborhoods, and worst of all, boosting EDM at the expense of rock.

Mayday and Zuke's attempts to mount a revolution are about half wreaking terrible revenge on behalf of their music genre, and half an effort to overthrow NSR because it's unfair and obnoxious. To do so, they force their way into the top five performers' concerts and hijack them in a high-concept battle of the bands, mounting a sort of guerilla campaign of underground popularity.

This may be the first high-tech dystopia I've ever seen in any work across all of media where its leaders aren't comically evil; they just have bad taste in music, and they're petty assholes. Their idea of fighting back is to dig up Zuke's perma-stoned older brother and send him out to rap battle you, which is delivered in the same kind of cutscene that any other game would use to introduce a hired assassin. The stakes are pretty low here, is what I'm saying.

That's part of the game's charm. Vinyl City's got a real sense of place, although you don't see much of it, and the game's very good at making it feel like it's got some real history. It's got style to spare, and I'd be genuinely interested in seeing more from this weird universe.

The music is the focus, though, and it's arguably to the detriment of everything else. This is the only game I'm aware of where its designers made the soundtrack first, and then created the game's levels to match it. Enemies attack and obstacles move in rhythm with the music, and the more you can match that rhythm, the better you'll do.

When it works, NSR really works. It can take a second to figure out what the game is actually asking you to do in any given encounter, particularly when you reach one of the big, multi-stage boss fights. Each one has its gimmicks, some of which are wholly unique to that encounter, and which aren't often explained. It just trusts you to figure it out on the fly.

Once you unlock the double-jump and air dash, which takes a relatively short amount of time, things start to flow together. At its best, NSR is like a big, well-produced music video, with fights that feel more like dancing than anything else.

It's buggy, though, and many of its ideas seem half-baked. The combat system could use another coat of paint, as it seems to want to be a brawler in the spirit of Devil May Cry, but there's never really anything that you can just run up to and hit. Standard enemies will usually punch you out of even a fast combo string, and bosses are rarely vulnerable to actual melee hits.

You've got a bunch of consumables and skills that are meant to enhance your combo potential, and they're all effectively useless. It's a bunch of mechanics kind of spot-welded together from a bunch of other games, and it never quite feels like a cohesive whole.

I've also run into a lot of bugs and incidental strangeness on my trips through the city. In single-player mode, you control either Mayday or Zuke and can switch between them with the tap of a button, with the inactive character following behind you as an invincible buddy. However, that buddy can clip through the level geometry while you aren't looking, which can soft-lock the game if you switch at the wrong time. I had to redo an entire boss fight because I switched to Mayday to regain health, and she was inexplicably standing outside the arena, unable to get back in.

It's bizarre. I've played outright bad games, and No Straight Roads isn't that. It's a thoughtfully made, lovingly crafted experience with style, humor, and color to spare. It's just that all the parts of it that make it a video game are weirdly underthought. The city's beautiful, but you can't reach more than a fraction of it; the action looks great, but doesn't control well; the boss fights are massive and ambitious, but uneven, with a bunch of empty filler leading up to them.

No Straight Roads Review — The Bottom Line

  • A unique aesthetic 

  • Much of the music is great; the tracks that aren't, aren't supposed to be

  • Goofy, likable characters

  • Could've used another month or two for bug fixing

  • Mechanics aren't always obvious, particularly in boss fights

  • Messy, unsatisfying combat, which makes up most of the interactive portion of the game

Despite my criticisms, I want to be clear: No Straight Roads is well worth checking out. The music is great, the world feels lived-in for as silly as it is, and the character design and art are both top-notch. I feel like this could be a foundational experience for any artists or musicians who happen across it, the same way Jet Grind Radio was back in the 2000s.

The quality of the animation does not come across at all in static screens; you've gotta see this in motion to appreciate it. It's particularly cool that the game is so firmly Malaysian, with many characters using "Manglish" phrases. (Errata: I initially, erroneously, confused some of the dialect with "Singlish," which also uses "issit" a lot. My mistake.)

It's flawed, but in an interesting way, and that's valuable. This isn't some market-tested focus-grouped vanilla milkshake of a game that's aimed directly at the lowest common denominator or some indie project that blew up on the runway. Instead, No Straight Roads' chief problem is that it's so busy being an animated cyberpunk comedy/rock opera that it's not a particularly satisfying video game, and that's actually fascinating.

It's also difficult to score. Call it a 7 overall, but it really is a must-play.

[Note: Metronomik provided the copy of No Straight Roads used for this review.]

Crusader Kings 3 Review: A Crown for a King Mon, 31 Aug 2020 10:10:28 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

Here's a typical scenario in Crusader Kings 3.

I take over as a 65-year-old Count in the Holy Roman Empire named Christian. My only son, Wichmann, is only four, but he's already addicted to gambling. I decide that making my realm a little less boring is what Wichmann needs to kick his gambling habit and eventually take over as a good ruler. So, of course, I start building farms. 

Unimpressed, Wichmann wanders about the castle, where a young woman named Agnes begins bullying him. I tell him to stand up for himself. He does, pushing Agnes down the next time she picks a fight. She gets up and beats the hell out of him, which causes Wichmann to carry the "wounded" trait alongside his "covetous gambler" trait. He now carries a scar across his face as a constant reminder.

It's these background roleplaying bits that make Crusader Kings 3 so much fun. The point of the game, as in Crusader Kings 2, is to lead your dynasty to glory by building up your kingdom over several generations, conquering vast swaths of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

What sets it apart, though, are these bits of humanity. They create all sorts of roleplaying scenarios that only support an already excellent strategy game. It's a lot, but it's also really, really good. 

Who says we can't have quality and quantity? 

Crusader Kings 3 Review: A Crown for a King

If you're not familiar with the Crusader Kings series, it might at first strike you as a historical, 4X strategy game in the vein of Civilization. It has some similar concepts to the Sid Meier franchise, but Crusader Kings 3 is much more about the long con. Any longtime fan will know that rather than controlling an entire people through generations of war and technology, you focus on one dynasty through the ages.

In my game with Count Christian, I play until he dies. When he does, I take over as Wichmann, his heir. When Wichmann dies, I'll take over as his heir.

Each new character has different traits, hang-ups, stats, and more, and the ultimate goal is to scheme, conquer, and buy your dynasty into the history books. If that sounds a bit Game of Thrones to you, then you're right on the money. 

It all looks great, too. You can zoom all the way out of the enormous map in Crusader Kings 3 and apply a variety of filters to see all the kingdoms and the various alliances therein. You can also zoom incredibly far in, getting a sense of each little city in each small territory. Everyone brims with character, as the animated, 3D models have much more personality than the portraits of old.

Characters often show aspects of their personality in their models. A drunkard might have rosy cheeks, and I even encountered a nudist parading around the castle naked as a jaybird.

What's great about the RPG elements that weave through all of CK3 is that they can be a focus of gameplay or not. Sometimes, you'll just want to conquer territories and build up your realm. You don't have to pay attention to these additions if you don't want to. 

So Many Options

All of this glorious scheming and conquering is backed by tons of stuff to do. Crusader Kings 3 is great at reading any given situation and presenting you with little nudges in the right direction. If you have a small kingdom, it may suggest trying to drum up a claim on a neighboring area. Second in line for a particular title? Crusader Kings 3 may suggest a murder plot. You'll be next in line in no time!

It can be daunting at times, though; there are plenty of actions I've taken over and over but still have trouble locating in the menus. However, things are much more accessible in CK3 than they have been in past iterations. A big part of that is because many of the options that arrived with CK2's expansions are here from the get-go. 

It also helps that the game does a good job of teaching you its systems as much or as little as you like. You can hover over pretty much any message to open tips about it, then hover over those tips to open even more. You could spend hours just learning about how the different systems play off of one another, or you could rush in and seed some chaos.

Some of your actions are simple, such as organizing a feast or hiring a physician; a few simple clicks later, and you're watching the wheels turn. Some of your other actions are extremely complex and involve multiple schemes and plates spinning at once. Trying to start a new branch of Catholicism (and not get murdered because of it) takes a lot of effort. Setting yourself up to succeed a terrible liege requires a lot of wheeling and dealing.

Oh, and just when everything starts to come together, the Pope comes calling. Didn't you hear? We're going Crusading! Pack your bags and summon all your troops; it's time to march to the Middle East!

Ways to Play

All of these options help make Crusader Kings 3 a blast no matter how you decide to play. As long as you've got an heir lined up, anything goes, and it can be even more fun to kick the whole house of cards down than to actually build it up. It's a special kind of game that makes you literally pause to think about what to do in any given situation. 

There are lots of ways that Crusader Kings 3 works its roleplaying aspects into its strategy elements, as well. Though events are somewhat random, traits can be inherited through genetics or upbringing. Going against your traits also results in characters accumulating stress. If you are a cruel character, for example, you get stressed out by being nice to people.

There are a ton of systems in play at once, and the main thing that made it fun for me was seeing how those systems could change and evolve as my characters did. It welcomes full chaotic play, full strategic play, and anything in between.

The only gripes I have with CK3 are that it's a bit easy to bounce off of, and sometimes things become a little too random. I can handle missing an "85% chance to hit" shot in XCOM, but it can be frustrating to bite on an "85% chance of success" scheme in Crusader Kings 3, where failure can wreck your family for generations to come.

I know that's the way the world works, but it's the one aspect about CK3 that feels too gamified.

The Bottom Line  Crusader Kings 3 Review

  • Tons of ways to play
  • The most accessible Crusader Kings has ever been
  • Looks great
  • Roleplaying aspects are frequently hilarious and make you think
  • Easy to dive into the rules for specific aspects
  • Some systems are still a bit obtuse
  • Some elements can be a bit overpowered

If you've always been intrigued by the idea of Crusader Kings but bounced off of it, Crusader Kings 3 is the best way to get started. It looks and feels great, and it already has a ton of available content at launch. DLC will indeed run thick, but it doesn't feel like the base game is missing aspects out of the gate.

At the same time, CK3 is great for veterans. A lot of fan-favorite elements that were added to CK2 over a decade of DLC are already here, and most of the systems are close enough to the same family tree that you shouldn't have trouble taking kingdoms over.

Just watch out for those childhood traumas and what you do to "fix" them. They may just leave a mark on your face... and your heart.

[Note: Paradox Interactive provided the copy of Crusader Kings 3 used for this review.]

Windbound Review: Survival Meets Wind Waker Fri, 28 Aug 2020 09:00:02 -0400 Henry Stockdale

The number of genre mashups, which mix gameplay mechanics not usually associated with one another, has increased considerably in recent years. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. 

5 Lives Studios is the latest development team to attempt this with Windbound, adding survival and roguelike elements to a unique third-person adventure game. In some regards, it makes Windbound feel like a jack-of-all-trades but ultimately, it all coalesces into a pleasant experience.

Windbound Review: Survival Meets Wind Waker

You play as Kara in Windbound, a warrior separated from her clan and shipwrecked on the Forbidden Islands. Surrounded by a vast ocean, these are formerly home to the game's mysterious Shell Spirits.

Players are left to piece together the story as Windbound presents its narrative almost exclusively through environmental storytelling. Only occasionally do the Shell Spirits interject with vague statements that allude to the overall narrative. It's a structure that, when compared to other games, is quite refreshing in its subtlety. 

One thing that’s immediately apparent, even if the story isn't, is Windbound’s stunning presentation, showcasing a vibrant, colorful world and beautiful blue ocean to explore. It's all accompanied by a lovely piano-backed soundtrack.

Each island is procedurally generated, so no two playthroughs are ever the same. However, these islands come with common variations, like cherry blossom forests, deserts, or even poisonous swamps, which keeps things from getting stale. 

There are two difficulty options in Windbound – Survivalist and Storyteller. Survivalist is a more hardcore experience, incorporating a form of permadeath that resets the entire campaign if you die but lets you retain a limited number of items. Storyteller is, unsurprisingly, aimed at those focused on Windbound’s story, offering easier combat. It also keeps your full inventory upon death. Progress still resets if you die but only to the start of your current chapter. 

On land, Kara is initially armed with just her tribal knife, and you must source materials to craft new survival tools. Each material has varying durability — with grass being the weakest  but you’ll soon find higher quality items like bone or crude metal, offering more stability and increased attack damage to your weapons.

You can’t repair weapons but some can be built upon, like turning a stick spear into a bone spear. Ranged weapons can also be fashioned with accompanying ammo, such as slings and crossbows.

Besides Kara’s overall health, there’s also a stamina meter that decreases when she gets hungry, and while items like Kojiberries or Rustcaps can be foraged to replenish it, she needs to hunt animals for a more sustaining meal.

Here, stealth is key. Some enemies can be taken down with a simple knife stab, but larger ones require more refined weaponry and skills to take down. Whether that’s by sneaking up on them while they're sleeping or hiding at a distance as you launch a ranged attack, taking down large animals is undeniably satisfying and necessary. 

They can be lethal up close, however, so you need to employ defensive maneuvers such as dodge rolling, which keeps you on your toes.

Once animals are killed, you can investigate their bodies and, depending on the animal, gather raw meat or crafting materials. Like in other survival games, you can eat raw meat, but if you don’t fancy poisoning Kara, you can construct fires to cook it, which provides more health and stamina restoration.

Cooking works fine but feels rather basic in execution. Though food will spoil, it makes me wish there was more depth in the mechanic, like a Breath Of The Wild-style ability to mix food into new recipes.

For those looking to continue Kara’s story, your main objective in Windbound is getting home. Each chapter contains three towers, and to reach the towers and the Nautilus Keys inside, Kara needs a boat. As expected, using your gathered materials, you can go from a small grass canoe to a full-on wooden raft complete with a hull and mast for faster travels, should the wind be favorable.

Once all of the keys are collected, there is a separate island that acts as your end goal, requiring each key to power up bridges that led to the exit.

Kara is then transported to a place known as “The Crossing,” showcasing a series of murals that depict what happened to the Shell Spirits, and you’ll need to navigate a treacherous cavern that leads to the next area.

Crossings are possibly the weakest aspect of the game and while they make for interesting storytelling, the sailing action is very formulaic for each trip. You get a glimpse of the force that shipwrecked you, ride some intense waves, dodge obstacles, and that’s it.

Your chosen material affects a boat’s stats in a similar way to weapons. A wooden ship is sturdier but slower when compared to a bamboo ship, for example. Sea travel is fraught with Sea Nettles and dangerous Hookmouths, but there are options for protecting your ship along the way. If you want to employ a defensive strategy, hulls can be reinforced with armor but if offense is more your speed, hulls can also be equipped with spikes to deal damage.

In many ways, sailing is similar to how exploration works in Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. You use your newly acquired boat to navigate the seas, but while there are fantasy elements in Windbound, changing wind direction isn’t one of them. If you need to travel against the wind, your mast is useless and needs dismantling to continue rowing, which is frustrating. But it illustrates how this is a game of patience.

Windbound Review — The Bottom Line

  • High replay value
  • Successful combination of adventure and survival genres
  • Vivid, beautifully detailed world
  • Over a bit too quickly
  • Crafting lacks depth
  • Not always smooth sailing with the boats

Windbound is a game that requires a lot of patience and by combining survival and adventure gameplay into one, it successfully creates a unique identity.

There are a few shortcomings with sailing and crafting could use some additional depth, but 5 Lives Studios have brought us an entertaining adventure. if you can put these issues aside, this is an experience that comes recommended.

[Note: 5 Lives Studios provided the key of Windbound used for this review.]

Madden 21 Review: Gameplay Perfected, Modes Neglected Fri, 28 Aug 2020 00:15:01 -0400 LloydCoombes

With a new console generation on the horizon, EA's NFL series comes back around for a final drive before it touches down on the Xbox Series X and PS5. After a promising couple of entries, however, Madden 21 feels like a franchise that's spinning its wheels, rather steaming forward as an unstoppable freight train.

In many ways, Madden 21 is the peak of the franchise so far, but it lacks attention in areas that were already lacking, fumbling the off-the-field modes and content.

Madden 21 Review: Gameplay Perfected, Modes Neglected 

In terms of how it looks, Madden has never looked better, although it does feel as though we've reached the limits of current-gen hardware. Animations are impressive aside from the usual jostling at some strange angles, and short of a visual glitch that turns the screen almost entirely white until the ball goes out of play, the game is frequently a joy to look at.

Cracks begin to show in the game's reused assets, particularly the Super Bowl's presentation. The crown jewel of the football calendar looks almost entirely identical to the way it did in Madden 20, and that's a real shame for an event that many consider a showpiece.

Thankfully, this year's game plays exceptionally well, and that applies whether you're a relative novice or a pro. Madden 21 offers a variety of more accessible options, including (but not limited to) clearer on-screen prompts to recommend passes, leaning on the pass types that have been introduced in recent years. These tweaks, combined with improved catching, make riskier long-throw plays feel more viable.

Catching animations are much more fluid, meaning even a receiver that's jostling with a pair of defenders will have a chance of making the catch. It goes a long way to lending every play that "heart in mouth" moment you'd get watching on a Sunday.

Defenders get a little boost, too, as the game will now make you aware of a player that's snuck out of coverage so you can do your best to catch up. It's a handy way of shutting off running lanes, and at the very least can get your tackler closer to receivers for when they receive the ball.

As you'd imagine, you can also strip the entirety of these assists out for when you go head to head with a tougher opponent, and that's where X-Factors come in.

X Gon' Give It To You

Arguably more important this year than they were in Madden 20, X-Factors are abilities bestowed upon some of the best players in the game. They're tailored to positions, so you won't get a bizarre mix of buffs, but each helps that specific player fulfill a role. There are now more than 50 new abilities to learn and use to implement a killer strategy.

Whether the pass lands or not still comes down to skill, and that helps these X-Factors feel balanced  for the most part — as players that have an increased chance to force fumbles are likely to be highly sought-after. There are bonuses for runners to increase their agility, increased throw distance for QBs, and even one that highlights blitzing players for easier reads.

Adding these X-Factors into your team dynamic turns into a meta-game in itself, and knowing your opponent's X-Factors and countering them where possible becomes crucial to success - perhaps just as much as using your own.

Thankfully, the variety of abilities, combined with the Superstar abilities introduced last year, mean there's usually a counter to be found. It also adds more to franchise mode, knowing that you need to sign a certain type of player to counter a specific threat.

Sit This One Out

Speaking of franchise mode, we have bad news. Despite the hashtag "#FixMaddenFranchise," EA has essentially left the mode untouched. While X-Factors are in and tweaks have been made to ensure more realistic trades and contracts, the mode remains a shadow of what's offered by the likes of NBA 2K.

If you're buying the game for franchise mode, be prepared for an almost entirely identical game. Scouting, contracts, free agency, and even the mode's custom faces are the same.

In perhaps more surprising news, Madden Ultimate Team is also relatively unchanged. The mode is, inarguably, a huge cash cow for EA, but this year's set of additions are few and far between. There's a new onboarding process to get players caught up, but the main change is the new ability caps.

Players can now assign abilities and perks to players, with an overall "AP" cap set for offense, defense, and special teams. X-Factors are also part of your team's lineup, but these don't count towards the AP cap, making players with the perks we mentioned earlier all the more important in Ultimate Team.

In better news, Face of the Franchise is vastly improved, and the narrative-focused mode continues to go from strength to strength. Face of the Franchise now offers players the chance to start their career as a wide receiver or running back, as well as the glamour-puss role of a quarterback. Each features its own set of drills and progression through the Draft and Combine, and it feels like a much more flexible system than the previously restrictive story-based content.

The mode kicks off in high school with 10 colleges to play for, but you'll have two seasons to hone your skills. Not only does it contribute to the grassroots feel of the mode, but it also allows players two chances to earn the College Football Playoff Championship. The extra seasons also make the mode last longer, although we'd have liked to have seen it flow into the full franchise mode.

If you've not played in a few years, you'll be pleased to know that the game's dialogue has improved since The Longshot in Madden 18, and with the likes of Snoop Dogg along for the ride, it's fun while it lasts.

This Is My Yard

Perhaps the biggest mode-based addition to Madden 21 is "The Yard." This pits two teams of three against each other (single-player or online), playing on smaller fields and with an emphasis on trick plays and quick matches.

It's not quite NFL Street (RIP), but the mode remains great fun and a change of pace from the sim-based nature of the main modes. That said, it's lifespan will depend on whether you can find anyone to play it with in a few months time.

Players can also take their own avatar to The Yard, and this custom character is set up when loading into the game for the first time. Everything from exhibition matches to Ultimate Team and Face of the Franchise ties into a singular progression system, and you'll be leveling your creation to earn new customization items as well as stat boosts.

It's a nice carrot to chase, knowing you can level up through whichever mode you choose, and with seemingly hundreds of pieces of gear, it's worth doing.

Madden 21 Review — The Bottom Line

  • Great on-field gameplay
  • The Yard is a great change of pace
  • Accessible for newcomers
  • X-Factors give players extra personality
  • Franchise mode is disappointingly neglected again
  • MUT has also received less love than expected
  • Laggy menus

As good as Madden 21 feels to play, it’s impossible not to wonder what could have been had the field-side action been able to keep up. 

Die-hard Madden fans will be disappointed in a complete lack of attention given to Franchise mode and MUT, but the addition of The Yard and a much more rounded Face of the Franchise mode soften the blow somewhat.

[Note: EA provided the copy of Madden 21 used for this review.]

Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon? Infinite Combate Review Thu, 27 Aug 2020 14:17:37 -0400 Jason Coles

Since Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon? Infinite Combate is such a mouthful, let's refer to this visual novel/dungeon crawler by Infinite Combate for the rest of this review so as not to quintuple the word count. 

Good? Ok. 

Infinite Combate is based on the anime Danmachi (See? I've saved all of us 10 words already.). In the anime, you follow along with Bell Cranel, a low-level rookie adventurer, and the only member of the Hestia Familia. 

If you're not familiar with the anime Infinite Combate is based on, this is a world almost entirely driven by RPG logic. The gods have grown bored of their easy lives and have descended to the world to adopt mortals as their children, imbue them with power, and send them into dungeons for loot. 

It all makes sense. 

Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon? Infinite Combate Review

In Infinite Combate, you still follow along with Bell, but you also follow along with his crush, Ais Wallenstein  aka the Sword Princess  who is already an impressive adventurer. As a result, you get to see a little more of Ais than you do in the anime, which is a nice bit of clean fan service for, well, the fans. 

The game can be fairly comfortably split into two parts: a Visual Novel, which is where the game is strongest, and a dungeon-crawler, where the game sure is a game. 

Let's start with the good VN stuff. The first thing to note is that the voice acting is exceptional because of the original cast from the Japanese version of the show. It means that if you're used to watching the show subbed, you'll feel almost nostalgic playing through Infinite Combate. It also means there are plenty of moments that the young folks would describe as "totes emosh."

Oh So Pretty

The artwork is gorgeous, but there is a trade-off of sorts here. While everything looks great while not in motion, that's kind of all you get. There are some moments where character's mouths will move, but most of the time, there is no animation at all — other than the 2D models bobbing up or down as they speak.

It's almost unnerving, but you eventually get used to the disconcerting stillness as it matches oxymoronically with the excellent voice acting. 

What if I Used My Light Attack?

In the game's dungeon-crawling sections, you take control of a chibi version of your character and run around plain dungeons fighting things with a light attack, a heavy attack, a dodge, and eventually, a magic attack and some support skills too. You can also just avoid them by running to the exit depending on the mission. 

It's fine.

Honestly, there's so little to it that it's hard to even get that excited or upset by it. That, in and of itself, isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but I have a feeling that most players will be happy enough to just mash light attack until the thing they're hitting falls over. The enemies get a little more resilient as you go, and some have different attack patterns, but it's not all that hard to stunlock them, so you're never going to feel very engaged with it. 

The good news is that you don't actually need to delve into it that much. You level up as the story goes on, not because you've been fighting a lot of monsters. There's no EXP as such, so you don't need to grind unless you really want to upgrade a new piece of equipment. That means you can skip all but the most essential combat if you want to, and that's a nice touch. 

Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon? Infinite Combate Review — The Bottom Line

  • Excellent voice acting
  • Fun story
  • No need to grind
  • Minimal animation in cutscenes
  • Very basic combat

Overall, Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon? (sorry, Infinite Combate) is a fun little visual novel with some very, very, light RPG mechanics. It's not going to change anybody's life, but it does a good job of retelling the story of the anime.

For long-time fans, it's a nice chance to delve into the world of the gods once more. 

[Note: PQube provided the copy of Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon? Infinite Combate used for this review]

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered Review — Lonely Caravan Wed, 26 Aug 2020 14:42:53 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles set the series off on a new kind of adventure when it launched on the GameCube in 2003. Among other things, it prioritized dungeon-crawling over a big, overarching story and recognizable villains, and it introduced an item-based progression system in place of normal experience points.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered is ready to set out on another caravan journey 17 years after the first one ended, but this trusty wagon is showing its age and needs more than a new coat of paint to shine again.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered Review — Lonely Caravan

Crystal Chronicles Remastered is… a remaster, in case the name wasn’t a dead giveaway. That means the story structure and major beats remain the same as the original.

You create your character from one of four races and set out on a journey to collect drops of precious myrrh from special trees. This mystical substance stands between civilization from the deathly miasma that blankets the world and is set on its utter ruin. 

Each myrrh tree sits at the end of a dungeon, because, of course it does. The catch is they only produce one myrrh drop every couple of years, and you need three in your chalice to keep your village safe for another revolution around the sun.

Each year, you’ll have to travel to a different set of dungeons in different parts of the world made accessible by changes in the miasma stream’s elements. A world that changes every year, with new places uncovered and others cut off, makes Crystal Chronicles feel alive and dynamic.

At least, it would if the miasma stream’s key feature didn’t exist.

The miasma stream is a very game-y device that keeps you from getting ahead of yourself. It takes on different elements each year, and your chalice has to match that element so you can pass through it. 

Elemental "charging points" change in each dungeon each year too, and as you’d expect, the rotation coincides with what you need to access a new part of the map every year. You’ll be revisiting dungeons that don’t have myrrh just to change your chalice’s element, and yes, it’s a very outdated feature that should have been scrapped.

Each part of the map usually has one village-type area, one or two dungeons, and another area of interest to discover, though some won’t be important until later years. You’ll trundle (slowly) along in your caravan after selecting where you want to go and sometimes trigger an event scene with non-party members. 

Some of these introduce important plot points that become clearer the further you progress, while others are just short exchanges between caravans. 

This is also where most of the storytelling is. For a sumptuous world seemingly dripping with lore, Crystal Chronicles relies almost exclusively on these cutscenes to tell you anything about the world. Almost. Your character does write diary entries after each dungeon and major event with brief insights into what’s going on. 

These play a vital role in how the endgame plot unfolds. But their barebones nature and stilted delivery make it hard to feel invested in the idea of a grand, epic journey unfolding for your sheltered little villager.

One thing that helps offset this, but still feels underused, is the family system. Your character comes from a family of somethings — merchants, alchemists, blacksmiths, or one of five other options chosen at the beginning. 

You’ll get letters from them on occasion, and responding with certain items gets you occupation-specific bonuses later on. This only happens when you clear a dungeon, though, and there’s not much interaction with family otherwise.

You don’t have to fret about which race to pick from since you can immediately go back and create up to seven additional characters to play as if you want. It’s sort of a mixed blessing if you’re playing solo, though.

There’s not much camaraderie among the Tipa caravan members because party members don’t share items and the like. You’re essentially playing a separate journey for each character and playing catch-up with all the other ones.

Granted, there’s not too much catch-up to deal with thanks to FF:CC’s structure. Characters don’t gain experience or level up in combat. Instead, you find Artifacts in dungeons that augment abilities, things like boosting strength and magic or giving you an extra command slot for battle.

Speaking of, command slots are another awkward and outdated artifact from the past that drags CC Remastered down a bit. Unlike most ARPGs, your actions aren’t tied to specific buttons, and you can’t use items from a menu. Instead, you assign actions and items to a command slot, of which you get four to start out. 

Attack and Defend fill up two, and you can’t change them. Defend is rather annoying, and it’s a misnomer depending on your clan. It works more like an evade option for Yukes and Selkies, and having it tied to a separate action where you can’t attack without swapping through command slots makes it useless. Just attack and run away. 

If that sounds boring, welcome to solo mode in Crystal Chronicles Remastered. It’s what you’ll be doing most of your time without friends, and there’s a lurking feeling the combat is intentionally obtuse just to give a sense of challenge or complexity where there isn’t any.

Magic makes things more interesting. Enemies drop magic crystals of varying types, like Fire, Raise, and Clear. You’ll fix these into a command slot, but you can also combine different crystals to make new magic. Two Fires make Fira, for example, while Fire and Thunder turn into Gravity. The more slots you unlock, the more magic options open up.

But solo mode hamstrings this too. Casting magic takes time, and stronger magic takes longer. You’ll have to time your casting around enemy attacks. You'll also have to hope they don’t kill you before you can cast a spell or move away by the time the spell is finished. The magic system is made for multiplayer, where you can work with your friends to lure enemies to the right spot and keep the spellcaster safe.

In fact, Crystal Chronicles Remastered should just be a multiplayer game. Single-player mode is a lonely, unsatisfying experience that makes the game’s shortcomings stand out. Dungeons are mostly short and too simple, empty pathways bordered by beautiful, intriguing environments that have no bearing on the gameplay. 

Most puzzle solutions require you to stand on switches or put items on a pedestal, nothing more. Boss fights open with slick cinematics, but beefy HP bars and predictable attack patterns mean they test your patience more than your skill.

The new post-game bosses change that pattern, but you’ll want to tackle those with friends. Crystal Chronicles Remastered’s tougher challenges aren’t designed for single-player enjoyment.

The graphics overhaul isn’t earth-shattering and certainly isn't applied evenly. The character models look sharp, while everything else is flat and blurry. However, the soundtrack is excellent and easily one of the game’s high points.

Despite being a remaster of an almost two-decade-old game, Crystal Chronicles Remastered has some performance issues on the world map and transitioning into locations. Opening segments stutter for a few moments, almost like it starts before the loading finishes, and the menu suffers from lag when it first opens. 

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered Review — The Bottom Line

  • Fun with friends
  • Interesting, though unfulfilled, lore and settings
  • Unique take on combat and progression for the series
  • Tedious boss fights
  • That unique combat doesn't work well in solo mode
  • Gimmicky gating that wastes your time
  • Bland and simple dungeon design
  • Minor performance issues that shouldn't exist in a 17-year-old game on modern platforms

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered carries the original’s sins along for the journey. It’s very much a multiplayer-first game, and playing with friends offsets some of the combat’s tedium and the lackluster dungeon design.

More than anything, though, Crystal Chronicles Remastered seems like a missed opportunity for the series.

These are all the same significant shortcomings from the original, and choosing this as a remaster remains a bit of a puzzle. A new entry in the series building on the unfulfilled promises of the original would be much more welcome than revisiting this one. Some journeys just need to end.

[Note: Square Enix provided the copy of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered used for this review.]

Wasteland 3 Review: An Instant Classic Wed, 26 Aug 2020 10:34:11 -0400 Daniel Hollis

A few hours into Wasteland 3, I chose to end someone’s life. At the time, it was something that seemed obvious, and it was deemed necessary by the rest of my party. So, without hesitation, I pulled the trigger. Hours went by, and the event faded from my memory as more significant and more challenging choices presented themselves.

Then my past actions caught up with me. What seemed like a seemingly small risk-reward decision ended up have intense consequences.

This is both the beauty and curse of Wasteland 3, a game in which dire narrative decisions are perfectly echoed through the crumbling remains of civilization. No matter how grand the story gets or how brutal the combat becomes, smaller choices are the ones that stick with you.

They are what, for me, cements Wasteland 3 as one of the best games of the year.

Wasteland 3 Review: An Instant Classic

The story of Wasteland 3 starts wrapped in melancholy, as your team is ambushed on the ice and forced to fight for survival. After a lengthy tutorial mission, you’re brought to your base of operations — where the real adventure begins.

Wasteland 3's narrative takes many twists and turns as you recruit members, help factions, and ultimately try to survive in this hellhole of a world, all while your decisions direct everything.

Despite the seemingly depressing tone, Wasteland 3 is surprisingly funny and perfectly balances dark humor with the gritty animalistic world around it. Characters have larger-than-life personas, and choices define your character, molding them into something of a hard-ass, a sympathizer, or a happy medium. In the hands of a lesser developer, the story could have been a catastrophic mess, but inXile Entertainment has nailed the tone, straight down to the bone.

This deft design is perfectly echoed through the game's superb writing and voice acting. While Wasteland 3 seems more in touch with games such as X-Com on the surface, it’s more heavily influenced by classics such as Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, RPGs in which narrative moments are just as important and nail-biting as combat. Learning more about the characters, the world, and the quests you're tasked to undertake is an absolute joy, and every corner is host to an array of surprises, begging to be uncovered.

The narrative also extends outside of dialogue with superb world-building. Areas are drenched in atmosphere and offer stunning, yet sometimes disturbing vistas to behold. Bodies hang from walls, public executions are showcased in towns, and people are thrown off the sides of cliffs.

It’s often a visual treat, but it's let down in part by the game's character models. While expressive, each lacks the detail that makes the rest of the world feel alive, often looking plastic in comparison. While it’s not a significant issue, it does detract from what is otherwise a treat on the eyes.

Wasteland 3 also employs fantastic audio. The voice acting is top-notch, with some stellar performances throughout that carefully balanced the game's dark humor with the overarching world. Outside of that, the music is a particular highlight, often riffing off compositions from classic Westerns that relish in the idea of a new frontier.

It’s quite special.

Taking on this world, you’ll be joined by a squad of characters that you can personalize to your taste and playstyle. Upon starting a new playthrough, you can choose a preset duo or create your own characters. Each preset specializes in specific skills such as lock-picking, automatic guns, or even charisma while creating your character allows for a more personalized experience, tailored more to veterans of the series who know how they want to tackle Wasteland 3.

After an initial tutorial mission, you’ll be able to add more party members and have the ability to swap additional characters in and out of your party. It acts as a great means to balance skills around the core of your team. 

To increase your efficiency in combat, there is a leveling system that manages to be complex but also easy to use. Focused on skills and attributes, both categories help you create your perfect squadron. Attributes are more well rounded and offer more generic progression in areas such as strength, luck, and charisma, offering increased stats in each department.

Skills, on the other hand, are tailored to personalizing your character. Want to be a master thief? Then specialize in the lockpicking skill. More interested in becoming a silent assassin? Specialize in the wonderfully-named “sneaky shit.” Prefer to take a guns-blazing approach? Dump points into the automatic and big guns skills and become a force to be reckoned with.

There’s an amazing amount of variety available in both systems, and no two players' will experience Wasteland 3 in the same ways.

Perhaps one of Wasteland 3’s most significant new inclusions is co op, which allows two characters of varying skill sets to come together and tackle the game in unique ways. As a duo, players can choose to take on missions for multiple factions at once, reaping the rewards of both instead of one.

Both players can operate individually, talking to NPCs, accepting quests, and even working against their teammate by wreaking havoc for their quests. It’s a unique spin on the multiplayer experience, and hopefully, more games will embrace it in the future. 

Pushing you and your partner through this experience is a series of quests and objectives. Some are vital to progression, while others are simple side-quests that let you learn more about the world and level up your character. Each feels meticulously put together and filled with purpose.

Even quests that fall into the classic RPG traps of killing a certain number of enemies often hide wonderful surprises in their sub-narratives. Usually, you’ll be tasked with siding with specific factions for various rewards, and these moments are filled with rewards and moral dilemmas.

Of course, as any other deep and complex RPG would have, the combat is also an absolute highlight. Wasteland 3 is a thought-provoking game of chess in every encounter. Completing actions on your turn is done through action points (AP), the number of which decides how many maneuvers you can perform in a single turn. These can range from firing a weapon, performing a skill, or defending your character.

Having several options each turn means every choice counts and can often mean the difference between life and death. Cover is essential for survival, as is being stocked up on weapons, ammo, and healing items. Performing actions against the enemy drains the most AP, leaving you with only a few left to use for other ancillary actions, such as defending our counter-attacking.

Coordinating attacks, using environmental hazards such as explosive barrels, and finding the perfect character placement are all keys to victory. Elemental effects are also significant, and many unique weapons offer distinctive damage effects that should be used to lay waste to enemies.

On normal, fights can be brutal, yet they often offer a satisfying dance of bullets. Luckily, Wasteland 3 offers adjustable difficulty options and ensures the experience is tailored to your skill level, leaving no player behind.

Since Wasteland 3 is so good in so many areas, one combat misstep does sorely stick out. As with many other genre games, there are times where hit percentage is comically low, even if you're very close to an enemy. It invariably leads to moments of irritation that could have otherwise been avoided.

Wasteland 3 Review  The Bottom Line

  • Fantastic world-building and balance of tone
  • Intense, brutal combat
  • Choices pack meaningful repercussions 
  • Beautiful, yet disturbing world to explore
  • Reminiscent of classic RPGs such as Fallout
  • Falls into similar tactical turn-based tropes
  • Character models lack detail

Wasteland 3 is, without a doubt, one of the best games of the year. Despite its dark, gloomy atmosphere, it manages to shine through humor and characterization. The world-building is second to none, with a wide range of locales to visit, creating a sense of epic-scale and adventure. It’s a game where your choices have real consequences as you play judge, jury, and executioner.

Combat is both punishment and rewarding. It's easy to learn yet hard to master. Each wonderfully orchestrated battle is a tactical game of wits that becomes deeper and more complex as the narrative moves forward.

While the game often falls into some of the genres more vexing traps, such as percentage damage idiosyncrasies and lackluster character models, it’s hard to deny its engaging power. In a world where everyone is pining for the next Fallout, they need look no further: Wasteland 3 is here, and it’s an instant classic.

[Note: inXile Entertainment provided the copy of Wasteland 3 used for this review.]

Spiritfarer Review: Never to Be Forgotten Fri, 21 Aug 2020 17:11:02 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Thunder Lotus set itself one heck of a task with Spiritfarer. Create a game about dying that was also cozy. Make players fall in love with the game's characters, but don't break their hearts too much. Add in plenty of management tasks, without throwing off the balance or making it feel too game-y.

It was a lot, and the development team did it, plus a lot more besides.

Spiritfarer is a finely crafted piece of artistic commentary on death, grief, and what it means to let go, and it's far and away one of the best games to come out of 2020.

Spiritfarer Review: Never to Be Forgotten

Spiritfarer’s opening lays out what to expect from the rest of the game in more ways than one. Stella, the game's protagonist, arrives at the Everdoor with adorable cat companion Daffodil to take over as Spiritfarer from Charon. Stella’s overarching plot is hinted at the dialogue, especially a bit later when you meet your first two passengers, but I won’t spoil it here. 

Leaving that crucial piece of background information unspoken is one of the smartest plot devices I’ve come across. It means nearly everything you do during Stella’s journey is essentially enacting Spiritfarer’s major theme, which means that big oomph at the end hits suitably hard.

But you’ve got a while before getting to that point. Spiritfarer is a surprisingly lengthy game that should take you in the ballpark of 30 hours or so to complete. That might be surprising if you’re just getting on board after one of the game's earlier demos.

Those, especially the first one, made it seem like meeting and guiding spirits on their paths to the afterlife would be a fairly short experience. 

Spiritfarer settles into a broad gameplay loop shortly after cleaning up the boat and taking on your first passenger. Each passenger has a set of tasks you’ll complete, and these tie in with exploring Spiritfarer’s vast ocean full of unique islands and equally unique stories. 

While every task is different, they all relate to the same two things that combine into an eternal loop: expanding your boat’s capacity and gathering resources. The more resources you gather, the more help you can offer your passengers. The more help you offer your passengers, the more places open up for exploration and the learning of new skills. 

These two main task categories drive every aspect of Spiritfarer, but they also never grow stale since there’s so much you can choose to do between major tasks. 

This curious world between life and death is a vast one, and you’re never punished for straying too far from the beaten path. You’re also never quite able to stray very far from that path, with progression tied as it is to new unlockables earned through completing different spirits’ stories.

But there’s enough freedom of choice where it doesn't seem like Spiritfarer is pushing you on unrelentingly.

A new section of the map opens up every time you discover a new island, so you could just put everything else on hold and go exploring, which is a treat in Spiritfarer, thanks to the game’s beautiful art direction. Everything from rice swaying in the breeze to shooting stars arcing across the sky during an eclipse is just gorgeous.

The islands are designed practically, too. They’re not big enough to feel overwhelming, but even the small ones have at least a few vital resources to make re-visiting worthwhile. Checking an island out on the map gives you a handy overview of what you can gather there, so it’s easy to plan your repeat visits to get what you need.

Of course, you’ll want to re-visit most of them anyway, regardless of resource potential. A good many islands have areas and rewards you can’t reach until your Everlight absorbs new abilities. 

That’s where one of my only real complaints about Spiritfarer lies. Boat travel takes a long time. You won’t notice it much when you’re moving forward, since you’re rarely far away from something new to discover. But it’s more obvious when you have to backtrack to the shipyard for improvements or to another island for resources. 

Depending on where you are and what’s going on, you may have enough secondary tasks to fill the time, but if not, you’ll probably end up fishing for a while until the boat arrives. The option to sleep and pass time only pops up in the middle of the night, when the boat can’t travel, so there’s no taking a quick nap a la' Harvest Moon.

On the off chance you do get stuck, you won’t stay that way for long. Passengers remind you what they need if you haven’t provided it yet, while others offer handy hints leading you to the next major location or spirit in need.

The wild energy of catching lightning bolts is a particular highlight

In between gathering, mapping, and the like, there’s a lot you’ll be doing. Your boat gradually becomes a floating farm, a culinary wonder center, a garden, a mine, and a processing center all in one, with even more you'll be adding along with those.

Each of those titles is accompanied by its own buildings and tasks. Some tasks quickly become routine, like watering plants and cooking meals for your passengers. Others you’ll complete to get new resources used for new buildings, the placement and management of which is an engrossing sub-system of its own.

Many of these tasks often come up as mini-games of sorts, like guiding a saw blade down the logs you collect or timed button presses controlling the ship’s loom. None of these are exacting, which is good since they aren’t supposed to be. It’s a fast, simple, and fun way to get what you need.

My absolute favorite is a technically nonessential, almost zen-like one: playing songs passengers teach you to help boost your plants’ growth cycle while the plants themselves sway in time to the music. It’s just one of many simple, lovely touches scattered throughout Spiritfarer.

While most of these tasks relate somehow to at least one specific spirit’s needs or requests, you’ll also use the fruits of your labor to upgrade your ship, either to unlock new buildings, make it bigger, or equip it to handle certain hazards blocking your path.

Then there’s the passengers themselves, of course, though I’ll try not to spoil too many particulars here. You’ll eventually encounter a good many passengers, some who know Stella already, some who need help overcoming past traumas, and some who just take a shine to her bright and plucky nature. 

They’re all instantly likeable. Dialogue with each spirit is limited to specific sub-events or major tasks related to their arc, which is a huge step up from the first demo where spirits spoke randomly and shattered the emotional flow of big moments.

It might seem like there’s not enough time to really know each passenger, though Spiritfarer delivers a healthy chunk of their stories and personalities through subtext and other means. Sound bytes and animations — even eating animations, but especially the ones for hugs — offer just as much insight into their personalities as their stories do. 

You won’t get deep dives into every passenger’s backstory, but what you do learn is enough to guess at what might have happened. In fact, I appreciate the loose structure of each narrative arc for that. Vague hints at family troubles, past indiscretions, or just regrets of missing those left behind provide a great deal more emotional impact than full-on exposition dumps could. 

More importantly, it lets you bond with each passenger by seeing some of yourself, a friend, or a loved one in them. It’s something I admit I was skeptical about, and I came away impressed and moved.

That bond is special for gameplay reasons, as well. Spiritfarer is probably the least gamified sim and management game I’ve ever played. Yes, you’re ultimately doing these tasks to get new things and move forward. Above all that, you’re doing these things because you want your passengers to be happy, and your relationships with them are what elevates Spiritfarer from just running errands for your passengers.

The game's animations play a big role in making them endearing because Spiritfarer is unsurpassed when it comes to depicting pure joy and affection. Just hug Gwen or Atul, and you’ll see what I mean.

Aside from all that, they’re genuinely funny as well. The writing handles humor just as well as it does emotion, and despite the rather heavy nature of the themes, the overall tone is largely a happy one.

Spiritfarer is maybe better described as rose-hued melancholy or perhaps joy diffused with sadness, depending on how you look at it. From the very beginning, you know your journey with each passenger — all the chats, hugs, and understanding — is meant to culminate in saying goodbye one last time.

You might forget about it in the midst of doing your rounds and gathering resources, but it’s always in the background.

Eventually, the familiar presence is gone. There’s a slight jolt as you remember that part of your routine isn’t needed anymore. All that’s left are the material reminders of your time together — the buildings, the homes, the decorations — and what each spirit taught you, things that bubble up every time you use a skill or building associated with them.

It’s sad. Depending on your emotional state, especially if you’ve recently endured a loss, you’ll probably cry. I sure as hell did, even at the parts that aren’t overtly sad, and I may or may not be tearing up after writing the previous paragraph. 

But that’s also the point. Creative Director Nicholas Guérin told me earlier in the year Spiritfarer is supposed to bring us closer to accepting death and departure, cosseting it in happy, soft moments to cushion the blow. It hits that target so, so well, but it’s also a bit tough to deal with at times.

That’s by no means a complaint. Thunder Lotus deals with death, loss, grief, and everything else along with it in a delicate, smart, and sensitive way. The end result is Spiritfarer as experience. As much as, or more so than, Spiritfarer as game.

Spiritfarer Review — The Bottom Line

  • Moving, thoughtful story
  • Smart writing easily swapping between funny and emotional
  • Intelligent handling of heavy themes
  • Resplendent art and sound design
  • Thoroughly engaging gameplay loops
  • Traveling back and forth takes a bit too long
  • Minor typos sprinkled throughout the text

Spiritfarer might be emotionally challenging, but that's also what makes it worthwhile. As just a game, it works fine enough on its own. But everything else it's wrapped up in transforms Spiritfarer into something special.

Any conversation about games as art, or how individual games can push the medium forward, absolutely must include Spiritfarer from now on.

[Note: Thunder Lotus provided the copy of Spiritfarer used for this review.]

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time Review — I Know Kung-Fu Fri, 21 Aug 2020 11:00:01 -0400 Daniel Hollis

Full disclosure: I’ve never watched an episode of Samurai Jack in my life. Yet, despite all the odds, Battle Through Time enticed me with its wonderful animated art style. 

There’s always been an alluring nature to the licensed game genre. The majority of the time, most of the titles range from terrible to mediocre, but then there are gems that stick out from the rest, offering a glimmer of hope.

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is one of those games and while on the surface it appears to be a simple TV series tie-in, inside, it boasts a challenging and rewarding combat system that invokes feelings of classic games such as Devil May Cry.

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time Review  I Know Kung-Fu

While I’ve never stepped into the lore of Samurai Jack, Battle Through Time begins at the show's conclusion, with Jack facing his arch-nemesis Aku. Events unfold that result in Jack and Aku being thrust into an alternate timeline, with Jack battling his way home.

Earlier this year, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot managed to introduce me to the series that had long slipped under my radar. It effectively conveyed the plot and tone of the show in a way that was welcoming to newcomers such as myself. While Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time doesn’t manage to go as in-depth as Kakarot, the characters, personalities, and world make that moot from the outset.

Whether you’re a fan of the show or looking for a tightly-made action game, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time delivers on both fronts. Series veterans will no doubt relish in the Easter eggs peppered throughout the game, alongside the charming interactions it provides with various characters, while action fanatics will be absorbed by its combat.

Battle Through Time plays out similarly to games such as Devil May Cry and places a heavy emphasis on combat. Jack comes equipped with a sword and as the adventure unfolds, comes across various other weapons. Bamboo sticks, hammers, blades, shuriken, bows, guns, and more lay throughout the world.

Much like the games Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is influenced by, it can also be extremely challenging. Depending on what difficulty level you’re on, enemies can be relentless in their attacks, and one wrong move can knock you down. Items that restore health or provide damage boosts in tricky situations can also be acquired.

The difficulty culminates in boss battles that await at the end of each level. These require a mixture of quick reflexes and constant pressure on the foe. 

To overcome the game’s many challenges, Jack can equip four melee weapons and one ranged weapon at a time. These can easily be swapped on the fly with the D-pad, and they allow for experimentation throughout battles. The momentum flows easily and every hit lands with a satisfying punch.

There’s one huge drawback, however. Weapons have durability, meaning after a few fights, they’ll break. They can be repaired at shops found throughout each level, but sometimes, these are few and far between, forcing you to choose another weapon.

In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the mechanic works because it forces experimentation. In Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time, it often feels punishing to use weapons you’ve been awarded throughout your adventure. It’s a massive oversight and harms the overall combat experience in the long run.

To make Jack stronger in battle, he can upgrade his skills in three categories: physical, spiritual, and combat skills. Physical skills provide Jack with more health, ways to maneuver, and means by which to deal damage. Spiritual skills increase inventory size, experience gains, and item drops. Combat skills allow for further combos to be unlocked.

Each category boasts around 20 skills and each feels meaningful. However, across Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time’s nine levels, you’ll find that many of these skills will remain locked. Gaining experience feels too slow, and it’s clear that the game is intended for multiple playthroughs.

A single playthrough clocks in at around five to six hours, so it’s not particularly long, but those only looking for one run though will be locked out of many abilities.

Most of the time, experience is gained through battles, but it can also be obtained throughout the world as well. Outside of fighting, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time offers a few platforming sections. While not particularly hard, they do break up the pace and offer new means by which you can interact with the world. Here, experience can be found floating about or obtained through chests, which usually hide in tucked-away places or at the end of platforming gauntlets.

There are challenges as well, which carry across each level. These can range from killing a certain number of enemies to performing a certain number of moves or talking to specific characters numerous times. Each provides a gameplay incentive that the player may not otherwise experience.

It also helps players exploring the world, which invokes the animated style of the show. Graphically, levels are impressive, but they lack character and soul. Despite their beauty, the sections between combat encounters often feel empty, with arenas and pathways offering very little to interact with. Additionally, characters stand lifelessly about, waiting to be interacted with.

It’s a shame as Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time boasts an impressive 60fps and flashy combat. Each kick, punch, and whack provides so much satisfying feedback that it’s disappointing the moments in between lack any imagination, especially for a show known for its visceral art style.

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time — The Bottom Line

  • Fantastic use of the source material
  • Exhilarating and fluid combat
  • Tons of replayability
  • Weapon durability stalls momentum and feels punishing
  • Worlds often feel lifeless
  • Difficulty spikes

Fans of the show will undoubtedly fall in the love with Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time. They'll be swept up in a trip to the past and find a licensed title that riffs off the show’s strengths. 

Combat comes with a surprising amount of depth and the difficulty will no doubt please fans of the genre. While it can often feel punishing when using new weapons due to a poorly thought out durability system, when it works, it’s a great take on the genre.

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time has various flaws, but despite those blemishes, it’s a thoroughly engaging adventure through the show’s past, and an engaging action game for those looking to scratch that itch.

[Note: Adult Swim provided the copy of Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time used for this review.]

Remnant From the Ashes: Subject 2923 Review — A Cold Farewell Thu, 20 Aug 2020 10:00:01 -0400 John Schutt

Remnant: From the Ashes and it's latest DLC, Subject 2923, are way more fun than they have any right to be. The entertainment value they offer easily matches the asking price, but looking at them critically paints a different picture. 

When Remnant released in August of 2019, it was functional and fun in every way that mattered, but revolutionary and aspirational in no way at all. Neither it's shooting nor its boss fights or worldbuilding were particularly stellar. It was only as a complete package that the quality started to show.

Subject 2923 does nothing to change this fact about the game's separate parts. The new world is interesting, the new gear enjoyable to use, and the combat still reasonably satisfying. But looking at this DLC by itself, it fails to elevate the core game in any meaningful way, unlike Monster Hunter: Iceborne or Bloodborne: The Old Hunters. And in this middling consistency, Subject 2923 is a much lesser product than it could have been.

Remnant From the Ashes: Subject 2923 Review — A Cold Farewell

Subject 2923 boasts three new environments: the misty farmsteads outside of Ward Prime, Ward Prime itself, and the snowy forests of Reisum. Of these, you'll spend the majority of your time in Reisum, and it appears to be the only area that's procedurally generated.

As a world space, it's a nice change of pace from the harsh deserts, dreary ruins, and sticky swamps of both the base game and Swamps of Corsus, the first Remnant DLC. 

Outside a shift in scenery, levels remain a series of hallways festooned with hazards, loot caches, and the occasional enemy. There's little in the way of characterization about the ratfolk who live on Reisum or what their history is. It's clear they live something of a subsistence lifestyle, and their technology isn't as advanced as some other worlds. There are some references to their religion, as well, but not enough to glean anything significant.

In short, both level design and gameplay flow are unchanged. Everything boils down to following the path to an area exit or a boss fog before repeating until the game decides you're done.

Were Reisum the only locale in the DLC, there would be a problem. It's not: Ward Prime is an excellently constructed, interconnected puzzle box with the interdimensional shenanigans that elevated Remnant after release and surprised everyone. 

It's not the most complicated puzzle, granted, but Ward Prime is the kind of multilayered level we expect all Souls-likes to have. It would be nice if there were a way to expand the area procedurally, using multiverse theory to justify the constant shifting of its lowest levels, but that's not offered. 

Ward Prime also has some interesting worldbuilding, much more than Reisum or even some of the base game areas. There are hints to the larger backstory, some well-acted audio logs that foreshadow where the DLC's narrative will go, and plenty of other little details that show how developed Remnant's world is.

The farmstead area is neat, but nothing to write home about.

Plus, writing was never Remnant's strongest suit, and Subject 2923 shines a big spotlight on that fact. In the campaign's four-hour runtime, you activate an old reactor, meet a clear MacGuffin character, and chase her to her house. You learn a bit about her in cutscenes, and if you know anything about how trope-filled stories work, nothing will surprise you. Maybe the final boss will, but the Reisum and Ward Prime sections? Not really.

Shooty McSouls-like

It's possible to take on Subject 2923 without going through the main story, upgrading gear, or collecting the powerful weapon abilities. But it's not advisable. 

The DLC is an end-game experience with strong enemies and fast, mechanically demanding bosses. Early-game builds are technically usable, but unprepared players will face roadblock after roadblock. It is a Souls-like, after all. 

If tackled with some of the better end-game equipment, this adventure is perfectly manageable. Don't be too dependant on any particular weapon, however, as there's a point in the campaign when the game forces the use of a new item in the heat of battle.

Speaking of combat, each of the main story bosses are well designed and satisfying to overcome. Understanding of roll-timing, when to engage and when to run, and basic kiting is essential. The final boss is incredibly technical and worthy of its spot at the end of the Remnant saga. 

As with any well-constructed Souls-like, you can beat all the fights in Subject 2923 without taking a single point of damage, so long as you understand them completely. Each encounter takes weapon range into account as well, even those where the boss gets up close. 

It's a shame the movement and shooting mechanics aren't of a higher quality. They function, but the guns lack a certain punch, and the movement and traversal systems are clunky at the best of times. Bullets shoot straight and you'll be able to avoid attacks and get around the arenas; just don't expect to do so with any agility.

Even the new weapons feel oddly weightless. They look cool and they're powerful, but might as well be shooting paper pellets for all the feedback they provide. Sprinting and mantling can be finicky, and dodging takes a fraction of a second too long to cue up. Little details, but important ones.

Survival mode has received a host of updates, nerfing certain builds and buffing underused gear sets and accessories. Reisum makes its debut as a possible Survival locale along with bosses, new armor sets, and skins. The core conceit of the mode — it's rogue-lite elements — remains intact, and it's plenty of fun if you like Remnant's combat and traversal. 

If you're coming into Subject 2923 hoping for dozens of hours of new content, you'll probably be disappointed. As noted, the campaign takes about four to six hours to complete depending on your skill and the difficulty you choose.

The animations and mechanics are still a janky mess at times, there are no significant updates to the base game beyond balance changes, and unless you like grinding Survival or higher difficulties for materials and other equipment, replay value remains low. 

Remnant From the Ashes: Subject 2923 Review — The Bottom Line


  • Fun combat
  • Cool new areas
  • Exciting, challenging boss fights
  • Lack of new mechanics or designs
  • Functional but not exceptional systems
  • Short and doesn't add a ton to the core game

The Subject 2923 DLC is a worthy addition and endpoint to the Remnant: From the Ashes saga, but that doesn't make it a tour de force or the kind of expansion that's going to blow you away. It's good but never great, and where it fails, it's just kind of disappointing rather than frustrating. 

Which is a good way to sum up Remnant as a whole: a perfectly enjoyable way to now spend about 25 hours of your time. You might come back to it from time to time, too, and you'll always have a good time, but it will never have the staying power of any of FromSoftware's efforts.

If you haven't played Remnant before and you're looking for a new twist on Souls-likes that isn't dark fantasy, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Complete Edition. All of the above complaints don't change how fun the game is and the fact that there is no world where it should be so enjoyable.

And yet it is, warts and all.

[Note: Perfect World Entertainment provided the copy of Subject 2923 used for this review.]

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind Review — Hop It! Thu, 20 Aug 2020 04:00:01 -0400 Jonny Foster

Contrary to my self-proclaimed tea-drinking, crumpet-eating ways, I was a Brit that hadn’t seen a single episode of the award-winning British crime series, Peaky Blinders, when a copy of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind was dropped into my lap.

Despite its popularity and success, the show was never something that particularly grabbed my attention, and while Peaky Blinders: Mastermind was, unfortunately, unable to capture it for long, it did at least "peak" my interest in the show. 

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind Review — Hop It!

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind opens somewhat confusingly, jumping directly into a conversation between members of the Shelby family without establishing the setting, characters, or timeline. Without any context from the series, it’s unclear that this is actually a prequel to the show, detailing how Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy in the TV series) came to be the leader of the titular Birmingham gang. 

The core gameplay loop of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind puts you in simultaneous control of Shelby family members as they distract guards, beat up thugs, steal from rival gangs, and generally sow discord on the streets of Birmingham. 

To do this successfully, you need to grab the game’s timeline by the horns and wrestle it to your will, synchronizing actions together to slip through gaps in a patrol route or pull two levers at the same second to open an important door.

Actually, for 1920s Birmingham, there are a lot of lever-controlled doors...

While the idea of scrubbing through a timeline to sync up actions or tinker with a character’s path was the hook that drew me into Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, it’s regrettably a bit of a one-hit-wonder. 

Though the fairly basic movement puzzles definitely ramp up in their complexity as the game progresses, everything from fighting thugs to distracting guards to kicking down doors is achieved with a single press of a button — the same "action" button.

This leaves the gameplay feeling much more methodical than I feel it needed to be — simple mini-games for the various actions would have gone a long way towards providing some variance. Instead, every obstacle boils down to a “press 'A' here” prompt that isn’t satisfying or rewarding to complete.

Speaking of missed opportunities, the characters in Peaky Blinders: Mastermind are mere shells of their series adaptations. I’ve now watched a couple of episodes of Peaky Blinders on Netflix, and the difference between the two products is night and day.

Tommy's PTSD is featured in one level but with none of the backstory that we see in the show that makes it poignant, and Aunt Polly’s character is only a fraction of the bad-ass caretaker that she should be in Mastermind.

Without voice acting it is difficult to do these characters justice, but there just isn’t enough depth to the dialogue to make them relatable.

Two things Peaky Blinders: Mastermind does nail, however, are its visuals and score. 

The story beats have a simplified brush-stroke aesthetic that’s downright gorgeous, while the in-game environments, models, and animations are all pleasant to look at from your isometric perspective. 

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind also features an original score from Feverist, the band behind the iconic soundtrack of Peaky Blinders season one. It’s instantly familiar to fans of the series, while also being thematic and broody enough to feel appropriate to complete newcomers. 

Our short foray into the land of positives must come to an abrupt end, however, as I’ve yet to mention the game's controls. The keyboard controls for Peaky Blinders: Mastermind are an exhausting, infuriating mess. 

The game was clearly designed with controllers in mind — a point which it stresses when you boot up the title — so I can’t berate it too much, but suffice to say that I wouldn’t recommend you go anywhere near Mastermind without a controller. 

Once I switched to a controller, some aspects improved instantly, but the most aggravating problem — rewriting actions — sadly did not. 

For a game centered around a timeline feature and rewinding time to change or synchronize actions, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind has the horrendous habit of not letting you take control of a character when you want to. 

After multiple hours and hundreds of attempts, I’m still not entirely sure what the trigger is for actually being able to rewrite an action on the timeline, as the game seems to arbitrarily block you from taking control half of the time, no matter what button you press. 

This general jankiness with the controls really puts a huge damper on what is otherwise a short yet robust puzzler. When coupled with the lack of an interesting opening and poor character adaptation, though, this title gets harder and harder to recommend. 

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind Review — The Bottom Line

  • Interesting puzzling nature thanks to the timeline mechanic
  • Amazing aesthetic is true to the series
  • Flat adaptations of the characters
  • Frustrating controls
  • Lack of substance

With only 10 missions and a small smattering of collectibles, there really isn’t any replay value present in this short affair, which only reinforces the feeling that this title is severely lacking depth.

You can replay missions to try and improve your times, and the windows to achieve a Gold ranking on each are often as thin as the razors in Tommy’s cap, but I had no urge to return once the credits rolled. 

It’s a real shame that Mastermind fails to capitalize on the evocative theme and characters of the Peaky Blinders canon. Even as someone who hasn’t finished the first of its five seasons, I can already tell what a missed opportunity Mastermind is.

[Note: Curve Digital provided the copy of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind used for this review.]

Battletoads Review: A Blast From The Past Wed, 19 Aug 2020 20:00:02 -0400 Daniel Hollis

Everyone remembers the infamous Turbo Tunnel level in the original Battletoads. Known for being notoriously hard, it swallowed quarters in droves during the heyday of arcades. The level took patience, perseverance, and a little luck to accomplish, but once you beat it, you were washed in a feeling like no other.

It was a testament to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inspired game that many fell in love with. The game's cartoony visuals, loud-mouthed heroes, and classic beat ‘em up gameplay were indicative of the style that saturated the genre at the time. Over the past 26 years, fans have still clambered for another iteration — and the day they have been waiting for has arrived.

A lot has changed over those years and Battletoads knows it. Instead of feeling like a relic from a bygone era, the new installment feels very much like a love letter to the past few decades of gaming and an elaborate animated adventure that’s well worth your time.

Battletoads Review: A Blast From the Past

Marked as a reboot, Battletoads 2020 has players control Rash, Pimple, and Zitz across multiple stages. Acknowledging a substantial amount of time has passed since the last entry, the trio is stuck in a rut as times have changed. However, a series of strange events propels them forward into a new adventure that grows more elaborate by the second.

The plot that runs between each of the stages is loosely connected and filled with multiple gags and puns to drive the game's humor home. Most of the time, unfortunately, the jokes fall flat, but certain gems remain buried in the proverbial rough.

It’s hard to pinpoint which genre Battletoads falls into. Though some levels fall into specific conventions, others mesh styles, making Battletoads a genre-hopping adventure that's relentless in introducing new ideas.

For any gameplay element that doesn’t work for you, multiple proceeding stages likely will. Battletoads successfully balances being a platformer, a racer, a puzzle game, and so much more, all in one coherent package.

Between its narrative threads and gameplay elements, it often feels as though Battletoads is throwing everything at the player just to see what sticks. For most games, this would be off-putting, ruining the flow of the adventure. However, the developers at Dlala Studios have successfully ensured each segment is as polished and nuanced as it deserves to be.

Everything controls with the care and detail of a full retail experience. The beat ‘em up sections provide wonderful feedback with every kick, punch, and swing, and all three characters have different moves to keep the combat fresh. Swapping between each one on the fly can keep your combo going and the animated art style creates for some truly visceral encounters.

Boss battles are a particular highlight and embrace an old-school mentality. Delivering the pain requires a balance of platforming, dodging, and attacking. Each battle feels like the pinnacle of one or a set of combat mechanics, and accomplishing these challenging gauntlets feels rewarding. 

Elsewhere, players will find platforming levels, which do away with combat and instead offer puzzles as progression blocks. None are particularly challenging, but they break up the pace enough to bring something new to the table. 

Breaking down each gameplay variant would spoil a lot of the fun, and one of Battletoad’s greatest strengths is the way it manages to constantly surprise the player. 

While the Battletoad's campaign is breezy, it ultimately feels too short for its own good. Collectibles are littered throughout certain levels to extend the runtime, with additional ones obtainable through stage-specific challenges. These range from gaining an "A" rank in a combat encounter or completing a level within a certain time frame. However, none are enough to warrant another playthrough unless you’re a completionist.

Two other friends can accompany you on your adventure through couch co op. No online play is supported (yet), which feels like a huge oversight, especially for a game that will be readily available to many through Xbox Game Pass at launch. Local co-op has its charms, but again, the constant genre-changing nature may work for some players and not for others, so finding the perfect partner is key.

All of the game’s features are delivered through an aesthetic that truly embraces the animated style the series is known for. While many have criticized the art style, having the controller in your hands and playing the game is completely different. Each frame is meticulously crafted with such detail that it often feels as though you’re scrambling through the frames of a comic book. 

It often invokes the feeling of playing through an episode of Rick & Morty or any other Adult Swim property. Backgrounds are given character and the varied number of character animations brings some wonderful personality to each Battletoad. Simply put, it’s a visual treat.

Battletoads Review — The Bottom Line

  • Beautiful hand-drawn art-style
  • Each genre is given time and care
  • Full of surprises and a wonderful blast to the past
  • Too short
  • Lack of online co-op
  • Humour often falls flat

Battletoads surprised me with how furiously fun it is. Gaming has changed drastically throughout the years, but the adventure often feels like a nostalgic trip through forgotten genres. With first-person shooters, RPGs, and battle royales dominating the gaming landscape, Battletoads feels like a breath of fresh air, despite riffing on classic gaming tropes.

The urgency at which it propels you through its runtime is both a blessing and a curse, as it’s hard to put down but ultimately a short affair. The humor fails to land most of the time and is clearly held back by its desire to cater to a wider audience.

Despite its missteps, Battletoads is a fantastically fun thrill ride with plenty of twists and turns. While its genre-hopping nature might not be for everyone, those who are gripped by it are in for a tubular ride. 

[Note: Rare provided the copy of Battletoads used for this review.]

Mortal Shell Review: Stepping Out of the Shadows Mon, 17 Aug 2020 11:01:04 -0400 John Schutt

Streamlined, slick, soundly designed, Mortal Shell is an enjoyable take on the Souls-like genre, even if it is a bit short. It’s by no means perfect, nor does it have the volume of content or systems found in the larger-budget entries, but I found myself absorbed by the mysteries it leaves unanswered and some of the worlds on offer.

Both its greatest strengths and weaknesses come from its reliance on the template laid down by FromSoftware. Some of the ways Mortal Shell iterates on that formula are to its detriment as well. Many of its characters lack any kind of robust backstory, it’s various environments act only as arenas, and some of the enemy mechanics are more frustrating than they are elegant.

That said, the combat, shell system, and boss fights make up for some of Mortal Shell’s weaker elements. There are no extremes here: the “bad” doesn’t come close to dealbreaker-status, and the good is plenty enjoyable without shattering expectations. It’s a game made with love that has some rough edges, but it will scratch every Souls-like itch you have.

Mortal Shell Review: Stepping Out of the Shadows

Mortal Shell’s shell system, a kind of static, class-based mechanic, is an ingenious way to avoid balancing a complex RPG while still offering a satisfactory progression experience with enough depth to last dozens of hours.

There are no “stats” in the traditional sense. Each of the five shells has set health, defense, and stamina values that, even in NG+, can’t be altered. Instead, you upgrade each shell with a set number of upgrades that grant passive and active abilities keyed to the theme of the shell itself.

Tiel, the Acolyte, the game's thief-looking shell, has a large stamina bar, but low defense, and their skills are built around speed, poison, and damage mitigation. The heavily armored cleric, on the other hand, has an enormous health bar but minimal stamina. Its upgrades focus on tanking hits and dealing massive damage.

With each of the four shells geared toward a particular playstyle, and all four of the equipable weapons eating your stamina for dinner, every action takes additional forethought. Strategy is paramount, no matter how you want to tackle the game.

Resource management also plays a vital role in how you progress, as upgrade materials are more limited than in other similar games, and farming them before the end-game is almost impossible. You’ll want to decide which weapon you want to play early and stick with it.

Leveling your shell is expensive, as well. There are two experience types in Mortal Shell — Tar and Glimpses — and you’ll need a lot of both to unlock even a few of the "cheaper" abilities. Enemies don’t drop much of either, bosses included. You’ll be reliant on consumable items for them. By game’s end, you’ll probably have enough to fully upgrade a single shell and most of one weapon.

This design philosophy of Mortal Shell favors mastery and specialization over an all or nothing approach. In a game like Dark Souls, by mid-game, you can use almost anything with some degree of efficacy, though favoring a single stat over others usually leads to better damage, for example. In Mortal Shell, unless you want to handicap yourself severely, you must specialize and “git gud” with a single kit.

It’s a satisfying way to play because when you reach the final boss, you know how to approach every attack and deal with every mechanic. There will be no enemy in the game you cannot handily defeat with enough patience and proper use of your shell’s abilities. The reward structure here isn’t so much the weapons or the experience, but it is instead the knowledge that nothing truly threatens you.

That sense of mastery extends to the boss fights, as like some of the better mainline Dark Souls bosses, once you know how they work, you can bully them into submission again and again. Even in NG+, where everything hits harder and has more HP, it won’t take you long to completely dominate whichever boss you encounter.

There are plenty of enemies in Mortal Shell that I don’t like for their attack patterns or no-frame startups, but all of the bosses in the game made me feel powerful for defeating them.

Understand The Lesser

One of the defining features of any of the Souls games is the mystery and majesty of its world. The lore and story of Lordran are almost as important as the quality of Dark Souls' bosses and the enjoyment of the game's combat. It’s easy to find yourself drowning in FromSoftware’s universes, buried beneath a mountain of ancient secrets and forbidden knowledge.

Mortal Shell's world lacks much of that depth and mystery. The game is more than happy to tell you exactly what’s going on, what that strange thing in the distance means, and what you should think about certain situations.

The game's environmental storytelling is also less than stellar. A single location in Lordran tells the story of its inhabitants, its history, and enlarges the world in some key way. None of the areas in Mortal Shell do so with the same aplomb. The various levels serve only to explore new visual designs and to change how each encounter runs.

Not that area aesthetics aren’t appealing, because they are, but I would have preferred there to be more interconnection between the various locales to show that the world is more than a collection of levels.

The level design is also based almost entirely around hallways and single routes of progress. There are no shortcuts, no areas to double back to, and enemy density is inconsistent.

The various areas could play home to new enemy designs, but variety is an issue as well. Most boil down to “thing with sword/mace,” and even when you do get something more interesting, it seems to come out of nowhere and only tangentially fits the environment.

It’s a shame, too. I loved almost all of the boss fights in Mortal Shell, and while their arenas played some roll in the story, where they came from always eluded me. There was only one real exception to this rule, and it was probably my favorite fight out of all of them. Surrounded by ice and having a name based around the game’s dark religious themes, I understood, to some degree, who he was and what he represented.

The same could not be said for some of the other important characters you meet. One of them seems to serve a single gameplay purpose, the other is a quest endpoint, and a third is a bonfire stand-in whose only other job is delivering way too much exposition.

Who they are or what they want in the world is either left completely vague or is entirely predictable, and in none of their cases do I feel any emotional attachment to them. By the end of Dark Souls, I am both angry with and hold pity for the shell of man Gwyn has become. Mortal Shell’s final boss, on the other hand? Well, you can discover for yourself.

Mortal Shell Review — The Bottom Line

  • Strong combat and enjoyable boss fights
  • Elegant, streamlined progression system
  • A mysterious world that begs for expansion
  • Flat, uninteresting narrative
  • Middling level design
  • Lacking enemy variety and uninspired designs

Where it’s map design, enemy variety, and narrative falter, Mortal Shell makes up for it with satisfying combat and streamlined progression systems. It also offers plenty of character in its boss fights and enough visual style and solid aesthetic choices to build a believable, if somewhat rote, world.

There is some missed potential, but the game has a lot of heart, and if it sees any additional content in the future, there’s a solid foundation to build on. A few more shells, a couple of new areas and bosses, and some adjustment to the level design to add shortcuts and interconnectedness, and Mortal Shell would become something exceptional.

As it is, this is an impressive first outing by an otherwise untested team. Though it’s on the smaller side and unfortunately leans into some of its rougher edges, there’s nothing here that acts as a deal-breaker.

Souls veterans will find a tasty snack lasting about 15-20 hours, and newcomers will be challenged in ways they’re not ready for. To me, that’s all a solid Souls-like can hope to offer: a game that takes time to learn, but once mastered, provides both power fantasy and the pure elation of victory over a dying world.

[Note: A copy of Mortal Shell was provided by Cold Symmetry for the purposes of this review.]

Hellbound Review: Bloody Homage to Doom Fri, 07 Aug 2020 15:25:17 -0400 David Jagneaux

The header image for Hellbound on its Steam store page describes it as a "90s FPS, 30 years later," and I couldn't possibly think of a more apt summary.

For better or worse, playing Hellbound feels like you found an old Game Design Document for a hellish, bloody shooter conceived at the height of 90s shooter fever and gave it to a 2020 development studio.

Hell is invading with demons. You're a big, strong, one-liner tough guy with massive guns, a cool temper, and a gravelly voice. There's some cursing, some blood, and lots of bullets to go around. That's it, that's the formula, and it mostly nails what it's going for.

You can finish the entirety of Hellbound in just around three hours on normal difficulty, including all the times you'll die. It's pretty short — even by retro standards. I livestreamed the entire thing in one go  you can watch it here or above if you'd like.

One of the major draws for Hellbound then, just like the old-school shooters that inspired it, is the satisfaction of finishing levels on hard difficulties and sprinting through them quickly. At the end of each, you'll be graded on how many enemies you kill, how many items you find, and how many secrets you uncover, in addition to your completion time.

Not only that, but the game literally warns you in the intro splash screen that it's designed to be difficult, just like the 90s, and states that not everyone will like it for that reason.

You'd have to be a bit of a sadist to dive into the high difficulties head first here, but I fully expect some people to enjoy that particular type of self-punishment. I'd say Hellbound is certainly hard but not as brutal as the blood-soaked games of yore. A generous system that allows you to save at literally any moment goes a long way towards making it more palatable, as do the stylish and polished visuals.

That being said, the publisher is well aware of the type of game this is, certainly factoring in the short length, and has priced Hellbound accordingly (it's only $15 at full-price and has a launch discount right now), so don't expect to get a dozen or more hours out of this campaign unless you replay it several times on higher difficulties. 

Weapon variety is a bit of a sore spot. Even if I only end up using the shotgun for 90% of the game, as was the case here, I still like knowing I have a bunch of other cool weapons to pick in a pinch. In Hellbound, you've got your bare hands, a big two-handed melee club, a basic semi-auto rifle, a triple shotgun, a minigun, and a rocket launcher. That's it. 

Each weapon in Hellbound has an alternate function, like the semi-auto rifle and minigun let you aim down sights with a right-click, whereas the triple shotgun shoots out three shots instead of one, and the rocket launcher becomes a grenade launcher. That helps with the variety, but it still seems a little paltry. Given the short length and small level count, it wasn't surprising, though.

More impactful to the generally repetitive feeling is the fact that there are just four enemies in the entire game, other than the boss. You've got the basic grunts, who all mix up and use any one of your various weapons, a larger version of those guys that always has rockets, a tall enemy that throws fireballs just like the Imp from Doom, and four-legged crawlers that charge and leap at you to deal massive amounts of damage. They're also faster than you even if you sprint, which can cause some real chaos.

Map variety on the other hand is quite nice. Levels are just large enough to encourage exploration but never devolve into aimless labyrinths, ensuring you've always got a way forward laid before you.

It all looks like you're in Hell no matter what, which is appropriate, but there is still a good deal of visual variety. I particularly liked the outdoor environments with enormous, red glowing moons in the distant sky and swirling vortexes of energy that all felt truly captivating.

The world-building is pretty generic, though, as literally every line of dialogue and loading screen description, as well as the overall aesthetic, could've been ripped directly from a Doom game and you'd have never known the difference. It almost feels like Hellbound is just a really sophisticated Doom spin-off mod.

Speaking of, Hellbound feels made for mod support. Give intrepid players the ability to add in new weapons, new enemies, new levels, or at least new survival maps, and this game could go on to have a truly dedicated fanbase. There is a ton of potential.

After you finish the main campaign's seven maps (that's six larger levels and a final boss fight), there's a wave-based survival mode that's heavily focused on how long you can stay alive while reaching a high score. It's addictive and the overall frenetic gameplay is honestly a bit more suited to this game mode than the campaign itself given how satisfying it is to strafe and sprint backwards while shooting. You'll need to have top-notch kiting skills to last longer than just a few minutes on any of the survival maps.

Hellbound is a well-paced shooter that doesn't hang you up with obtuse puzzles or awkward platforming very often. The jump button is really only used as a means-to-an-end, and you shouldn't need to worry about too many death pits here. Movement is extremely fast, slick, and smooth, so it always feels really great to tear through the game's environments.

There is one section near the end of a late level that involves scouring a multi-tiered structure to locate switches where an elevator bugged out on me once, and I also had one crash to desktop, but other than that, it was pretty flawless from a performance perspective on high settings.

Hellbound Review — The Bottom Line

  • Fast, snappy controls
  • Aesthetic, structure, and premise feel ripped directly from a 90s-era Game Design Document
  • Extremely bloody gameplay
  • Very satisfying shotgun
  • Absolutely rocking soundtrack
  • Very short campaign (just around three hours)
  • Lack of enemy variety
  • A small handful of weapons
  • Just one boss fight at the very end

Hellbound is the kind of game that you'll know you'll want to play or not just by reading the summary or glancing at screenshots. If you're a fan of 90s-era retro FPS games like Doom and Quake, then there is an extremely high chance you'll appreciate this particular brand of punishing, yet rewarding, demon slaughter.

There are plenty of ways Hellbound could have expanded beyond the framework it borrows from to color outside the lines a bit, but even as a play-it-safe tribute to 90s shooter royalty, it still manages to serve up a cold, hard dish of bloody brutality gritty enough to make Doom Guy blush.

[Note: A copy of Hellbound was provided by Nimble Giant Entertainment for the purpose of this review.]

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review — It's Cool Beans Fri, 07 Aug 2020 15:14:52 -0400 Daniel Hollis

You know the formula for a game is working when death isn’t frustrating but inherently funny. When your character is clambering over 59 other players for survival and fails to make the cut, it’s frustrating but also comical.

Unlike other battle royales on the market, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout doesn’t drop you into a desolate map filled with explosive weapons meant to obliterate your enemies. Instead, it embraces Takeshi-Castle-style challenges to determine who makes it to the next round.

The somewhat silly nature of Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is an enticing invitation and one that has already captured thousands of players around the world.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review: It's Cool Beans

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout pits 60 players against each other in a series of physics-based gauntlets. The challenges range from solo races to a finish line to an assortment of team-based activities, such as quirky games of football. There’s always one goal in mind, though: be the last one standing.

As a contestant, you’ll control a blubbering jellybean with the willpower of someone who’s consumed their body weight in alcohol. There are only a few moves at your disposal: jumping, grabbing, and diving. Each is used to gain an advantage over other players across three to five rounds in an attempt to reach the final challenge and secure a crown for your ultimate triumph. 

Using over-the-top physics, you can imagine Fall Guys makes this is harder than expected. As each match begins, players clamber over each other in a desperate attempt to get to the head of the pack. It’s chaotic, intense, and hilarious, all in equal measure. 

Match sets start with a solo race, tasking players with simply making it from the beginning to the end, with the level ending once a certain number of players have made it over the finish line; the rest are disqualified.

However, it's not as simple as making it from one end to the other. 

Many obstacles will block your path, attempting to separate the sea of players surging toward the end. Pendulums swing with pummelling force, platforms rotate in shifting directions, and see-saws seesaw from one extreme to the other. You’ll stare death in the face when a gigantic banana flies toward you at Mach speed.

It’s a fluffy, scruffy battle that never ceases to keep you on the edge of your seat.

When you’re not in these solo rounds, you’ll be pitted against each other in randomly-chosen teams. The aim is to eliminate a wider number of players quickly. Unfortunately, it's these moments that ruin the pacing of Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout.

These rounds can last upwards of a few minutes, though they manage to feel like a lifetime. More problematic is that none of them are particularly fun. With the exception of the game’s take on soccer, which feels like a wibbly wobbly version of Rocket League, these simple team-based tasks, such as collecting the most eggs, hoarding the most balls, or playing a team game of tag, feel unfair.

It no longer matters how well you've done so far in the game's individual challenges. Here, a poorly composed team can mean quick elimination. Having to rely on other players feels counter-intuitive to what the rest of the Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is trying to achieve — and it can be controller-smashingly tedious.

At launch, the game has 25 different levels and the team has promised to deliver more over the coming months. After a few matches, rounds tend to repeat fairly quickly and it’s unclear what direction Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout will take over the coming months. I have no doubt that the game will evolve over time, but hopefully, it's a positive evolution that ensures a better balance between its solo and team rounds.

To keep players invested outside of challenges, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout has a progression system that employs its own version of a battle pass. Players can unlock different skins, outfits, and emotes using coins and crowns, the latter of which are earned by winning games or achieving certain levels in the battle pass.

As of now, daily outfits are affordable after a few matches, ensuring that players don't have to grind to receive new cosmetic items. It’s refreshing that Fall Guys doesn't feel like it's leaving players behind or locking certain items behind a paywall. 

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review  The Bottom Line

  • Addictive in all the right ways
  • Hilarious family entertainment
  • A breath of fresh air for the battle royale genre
  • Progression feels accessible without being blocked by microtransactions
  • Team games ruin the pacing and feel unfair
  • Server issues

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout works because it maintains that “one more game” mentality and encourages players to overcome its challenges. It’s cute, bubbly attitude is easy to fall in love with, and even when the game is eye-wateringly frustrating or kicked party members have to be completely re-invited, it still manages to all be in the name of fun.

Despite unbalanced team-match dynamics and pesky server issues (which the developers are ironing out) sometimes interfering with the fun, the simple approach of Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout makes these negatives seem meaningless in the long run. 

This is not only the game we want in 2020 — but it's the game we need. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is a comfort blanket that provides some warm, friendly fun with friends.

[Note: The PlayStation Plus version of Fall Guys was used for this review.]

Skater XL Review: Shove It Mon, 03 Aug 2020 19:19:38 -0400 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

Skater XL has been out in Steam Early Access for a while now, but it recently made the leap to consoles. Promising a complete skating experience, it's one of the only legitimate and functioning (looking at you, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater) entries in the genre in a decade.

Does the game's full release live up to its promise and breathe new life into the skating genre? 


Skater XL Review: Shove It

Skater XL's pitch is that unlike THPS, for example, there are no tricks actually programmed into the game. This means that instead of holding a button to do a kickflip, the board and your skater both have discrete physics that allows you to string together tricks on your own.

The way it works in practice is simple and fairly elegant: each analog stick is mapped to one of your skater's feet and based on where they're positioned and how (and when) you flick them, you'll be able to pull off different tricks.

It feels true-to-life in a way that even Skate's control scheme didn't; it actually lets you understand the timing of the flicks and movements necessary to pulling off a kickflip or bigspin.

And to the game's credit, this system mostly works! The custom controls make landing a trick and stringing several together really, really satisfying in a way that no other game has. The game doesn't snap you to any rails or ramps, so lining up and nailing a kickflip-to-5-0 grind-to-manual combo feels like much more of an accomplishment.

The only issue I have with the control scheme is that since the analog sticks are mapped to controlling your feet, actually moving your character left and right is controlled by the triggers. If you slip up and try to control your left-to-right movement with the analog sticks, you'll perform an awkward ollie or flip trick instead.

The game would have been better served by allowing you to turn with the control stick's left-right axis and prep tricks with the up-down axis, letting you control your feet in a more natural way.

Since they didn't do that, the controls take a lot of getting used to, and even after I acclimated to them, it's very, very hard to expertly follow a line the same way I can in other skating games. 

Sloppy Landings

Unfortunately, the physics engine struggles to keep up with the unique control scheme. You'll get stuck on rails. You'll send your skater flying across the map off their board for seemingly no reason. You'll clip through ramps or launch off of them at inexplicable angles. 

The devs over at Easy Day have said that some of these issues were fixed in a Day-One patch, but in my experience, there were still plenty of mechanical issues that got in the way of me actually enjoying the game.

But one of the biggest issues with Skater XL is that for all intents and purposes, it isn't really a game.

The devs have openly admitted that the focus of Skater XL is to capture the freeform nature of street skating, without restriction or objective. It's meant to mimic the feel of actual skating and skate culture. There's no story mode; instead, there's just a list of suggested trick and combo challenges organized by type and difficulty that the game encourages you to progress through as you explore each map.

And even though loading screens are a huge issue when loading into a map or editing your character, the game's session tools back this up. You can seamlessly travel across a map without loading screens before jumping back to the start of your run, and record it all with the game's robust replay function. Skater XL makes it really easy to break each map up into sessionable spots, ripe for mastering in as many ways as you may want to.

It isn't trying to be Skate or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and that's all well and good. Creating a sandbox skate sim is a worthy goal, even if some may prefer a more story-based approach.

The game could have shined if it put a spotlight on how the sandbox approach can create community and inspire competition and collaboration in a way that other games may struggle to, but the really unfortunate thing is that Skater XL has mostly failed here, as well.

Community Service

It boggles the mind that for all its emphasis on actual skate culture and community, the final $40 version of Skater XL has launched without any kind of multiplayer component. Maps feel empty and dead, no matter how bright and vibrant they may be. It feels like some apocalyptic event happened, and you're the only one left.

This might be forgivable if the game had other community elements. There's an active modding community on PC creating custom parks, but if you're playing on console, you're out of luck. You'll get a (very small) handful of maps, many of which don't give you much room, with no create-a-park feature.

Though the idea behind Skater XL is sound, it doesn't give you the tools to make displaying your creative skating satisfying.

The game's trick engine needs a few screws tightened, but it's a good one, and the focus on personal creativity as opposed to following a set storyline is appreciated. But you can't hop into a map with a buddy and grind the same line together, seeing who can put together the most impressive combo. You can't create an impossible park to share with your friends in an effort to film hilarious, physics-breaking clips.

What's here is just not enough.

Skater XL Review — The Bottom Line

  • The trick system allows for some of the most satisfying skating in the genre
  • Doesn't deliver on its sandbox promise
  • No multiplayer at launch
  • Very few maps 
  • No create-a-park
  • Interminable loading times

Skater XL is a sandbox, yes, but it's a sandbox without toys. Or other people to play with. And that's not really a sandbox at all — it's a desert.

If I wanted to make a fool out of myself skating awkwardly and injuring myself in hilarious ways in a barren, depressing landscape devoid of people, I'd just grab my own board and head outside.

[Note: A copy of Skater Xl was provided by Easy Day Studios for the purpose of this review.]

Onward Review: Sharpshooting Goes Portable Fri, 31 Jul 2020 18:56:19 -0400 Henry Stockdale

Virtual reality is home to some excellent shooters and if you’re an FPS fan, chances are that you’ve already heard of Onward. Initially developed by a one-man team, this tactical military-sim game from Downpour Interactive first launched in early access on Steam almost four years ago. We’re still waiting on a full PC release but as development continues, we now see it making the jump to Oculus Quest.

With it, Downpour has released a technically impressive port, though this version makes a few compromises.

If you’re after a more casual or arcade-like shooter, I’ll say now that Onward is not the game for you. This is an experience striving for realism; coupled with limited ammo supplies, there are no convenient crosshairs or mini-maps.

You’ll play as one of two factions, the militaristic MARSOC, which feels NATO-inspired, and an insurgent group called Volk. Each has its own armory of weapons, and success comes down to coordination with your teammates.

In terms of gameplay, not much has changed between the PC version of Onward and the Oculus Quest version. However, one major advantage of moving from PC to Quest is that movement is a lot less restricted and weapon handling is more realistic; you're no longer tethered by the wires of the Rift, Vive, or Index.

Downpour has also made a few map tweaks to assist online crossplay with PC players, but for the most part, all maps, game modes, and weapons are here.

So what’s the trade-off in this version? Well, Onward has taken a massive visual hit in order for Downpour to get it running on Quest. It looks rough. Distant objects are difficult to distinguish and the blocky design for the Quest detracts from environmental realism. It does the job, but if you’ve got a PC headset available too, you should weigh up whether you value portability or presentation.

Once you’ve loaded the game, though, the tutorial provides a great explanation for the game's weapons and other tools before placing you into a quick AI match in the Afghanistan level. You can choose from four roles here, such as Rifleman, Specialist, Support, and Marksman. Each role has its own weapon loadouts and different levels of ammunition, all accounting for damage, rate of fire, and recoil.

If you’re easily startled in VR, this tutorial is a good test of whether you’ll enjoy Onward on Quest. 

When traveling alone through enemy territory on PC, anxiety soon sets in. It’s quiet up close, but you can hear gunshots in the distance, with the game building suspense with good sound design.

When an enemy shoots you, tunnel vision kicks in and does little to help ease the tension that's been building. That doesn’t get better in the main game and often, I found myself hesitant to leave cover, getting pinned while trying to get my bearings. The intensity of the experience is completely intact on Quest, backed up by a smooth framerate.

While there’s no mini-map or HUD available, Onward provides you with a tablet, which you grab from over your shoulder; it essentially acts as your area map. You can’t hold this while shooting, so it’s advised you don't become too reliant on it.

Communication is automatic when teammates are close but to speak from a distance, you must activate the Walkie Talkie on your shoulder, as the inventory system involves grabbing items across your body. Realistic? Yes, but it feels a little too tightly packed together.

For players after PvP modes, you’ve got three options in Onward, and this is where the real fun begins. Uplink mode tasks Volk with eliminating MARSOC’s entire team, trying to stop them from sending a code via the Uplink device, awarding points depending on who succeeds in their mission.

Assault is similar but sees you trying to hold an area during your own uplink. VIP mode sees one player designated as a VIP on MARSOC’s team and Volk has to eliminate them.

Evac mode involves fighting countless enemy waves, defending yourself to reach an extraction helicopter, and Hunt mode charges you with clearing the map from enemy bots. There are also solo modes, like the shooting range, to keep you busy, which are also available co-operatively; in these, you'll fight a sometimes tricky set of AI enemies. However, Solo is rather dull alone, but Onward is meant for multiplayer and co-op play really makes it here, building on that immersion with squadmates.

Onward Review — The Bottom Line

  • Strong technical performance for a Quest game
  • Wireless gameplay works well
  • Main features from PC release are all intact
  • Graphics look like mud
  • Still an early access title after four years

There are a couple of questions you should ask yourself before picking Onward up on Quest. Can you accept the visual compromise between Quest and PC? Are you prepared for a more realistic shooter without the usual assists found in other shooters? Do you have enough physical space to not run into things mid-game?

If the answer to all of that is yes, then Onward comes recommended. While the graphics are an unfortunate casualty in here, Downpour Interactive have done some otherwise excellent work ensuring the Quest version runs smoothly, all while maintaining the same intense gameplay found on PC. 

Onward won’t be for everyone but for fans of tactical shooters, it scratches the itch.

[Note: A copy of Onward on Oculus Quest was provided by Downpour Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Fairy Tail Review: Not Enough Magic Fri, 31 Jul 2020 14:25:29 -0400 Ethan Anderson

Fairy Tail is an anime/manga series that gained popularity thanks to its light humor, heartfelt moments, magical world, and above all, loveable characters. It's not breaking into many Top 10 lists, but it's entertaining enough for what it tries to be — a typical shonen-genre story that's just fun to read or watch.

The Fairy Tail RPG, on the other hand, doesn't have the same magic as the show or the manga. It was delayed once before launch, yet it still feels as though it needed a bit more time to reach its full potential.

The right ideas are certainly there as a foundation, but the game is much better in concept than it is in execution. A few familiar faces and places aren't enough to keep this game's spells from missing the mark.

Fairy Tail Review: Not Enough Magic

As advertised, this Fairy Tail outing drops players right in the middle of the plot. To be more specific, the game starts at the end of the Tenrou Island arc. That means it begins around episode 122 of the anime and chapter 253 of the manga.

The opening scene has players use the primary mages from the Fairy Tail guild as they confront the leader of Grimoire Heart, Hades. You take control of Natsu, Lucy, Erza, Gray, and Wendy for this little tutorial fight.

If that sounded even the slightest bit confusing, then prepare to be extremely overwhelmed by everything if you're not at least that far into the series before starting this game. You'll also need to get used to hearing the Japanese voices while reading subtitles if you're used to hearing the English dub. It's the only option here.

There's an in-game encyclopedia for terms, characters, and missed plot points, but it's a lot to take in as you start a new journey. For example, it begins with eight arcs you should read about, as well as 21 character bios and 19 important terms.

All of the encyclopedia entries are supposed to be helpful. But in actuality, you may just end up even more lost after reading them if you're a newcomer. Some entries use terms you'll have to learn about in other entries, creating a cycle of confusion.

New names and concepts are continuously used as the game's plot darts from one major conflict to the next with little bits of narration from Lucy to bridge the unseen gaps in between. It can be hard to keep up with, and I say this as someone who finished the Fairy Tail manga back when it ended in 2017.

I can only imagine the struggle of newer fans or curious first-timers.

Fairy Tail truly begins shortly after that Hades battle, with the start of the X791 arc. A significant time skip occurs, and the Fairy Tail guild isn't the household name it used to be. You'll be charged with upgrading various aspects of the guild while completing quests to regain Fairy Tail's popularity and rank among the other guilds in the world.

This is one of those ideas that seems better in concept. The gameplay system in Fairy Tail has you constantly ranking up in a guild leaderboard. In doing so, you're supposed to feel as though the guild is getting more recognition, but it never feels that way because the world is empty and soulless, which might be one of the worst offenses for a Fairy Tail game.

There are maybe a total of eight different NPC models for the townsfolk in the game, and not everyone in the Fairy Tail guild has a character model. Some will just start talking out of nowhere, despite not being on screen. Because of this, the guild is full of random NPCs that look alike to make the building feel more full. It's a bit sad to look at.

To surround yourself with these adoring townspeople, you'll need to take on a number of uninspired, not-so-optional side quests in bland, maze-like locations. This might be a consequence of playing on the Switch, but those bland areas are also on the ugly side, graphically.

There's definitely some side content that fans of the series will enjoy for the charming character interactions alone. Seeing Erza trying to act on stage again is one of those perfect moments, but the majority of them feel like unnecessary padding.

These side quests also feel mandatory from a gameplay perspective because certain main story missions are locked behind a specified guild rank. They're also needed to grind for levels, upgrading characters, and building bonds between companions, which allows you to chain their moves together.

Grinding isn't the issue here, though. The main problem with Fairy Tail's side quests is that they all feel more or less the same. You go to a location, defeat some monsters or bandits, then return for your reward. That's it.

What makes matters worse is that you can only accept one task from the guild's quest board at a time. It's a tedious gameplay loop that boils down to finishing a simple kill quest just to return, then set out on another similar quest.

The amazing fast travel system ends up saving these quest loops from being unbearable. You can fast travel anywhere on the world map at any point in time. There are even multiple fast travel points within small locales, so you never really have to even physically run anywhere for very long. The game also provides the options to skip battle animations, and/or use an auto-battle feature.

The battle system in Fairy Tail isn't exactly one that fans were expecting. At first glance, the series' over-the-top action seems more suited for a 3D arena fighter like so many other anime-based games.

However, I'm happy to say that Fairy Tail works well enough with turn-based RPG combat. There are currently 16 playable characters, each with unique move types, strengths, and weaknesses. In most battles, you can use up to five mages at once to take down enemies on a grid-style board. Your mages can be swapped out and changed in the guild unless your team is set automatically for plot reasons.

Creating my own dream team full of powerhouses, healers, support characters, and tanks was a ton of fun. The game rewards players for both experimentation and stability. Using every character or sticking with the same team for long periods of time both have benefits.

Experimenting leads to everyone being strong enough during mandatory plot-related switches, and sticking with the same team allows bonds to grow between characters, unlocking new chain attack bonuses.

I found myself trying out multiple different characters because, honestly, the majority of spells look good, even though too many effects on screen at once can make the framerate dip. It's still a pleasure to see iconic moves from the series used as attacks in-game. Though, ultimately, you'll most likely end up turning those animations off to get through missions quicker.

Fairy Tail Review — The Bottom Line


  • Characters are still lovable and faithful to the source material
  • Rewarding, customizable party system
  • Combat is solid and entertaining


  • Story skips significant moments, making it harder to follow
  • Extremely repetitive mission structure
  • World feels bland and empty

Fairy Tail has many shortcomings as the series' first console outing. It's a chore to get through after a while, thanks to all of the near-identical quests that blend together by the end. 

Thankfully, the combat is enjoyable, and the characters are done right. Happy and Natsu still show up at Lucy's house uninvited, and Juvia still loves Gray so much that she owns a cardboard cut out of him.

It's those little moments that'll make Fairy Tail fans smile, despite the game's faults. And for that reason, I can only recommend this one to those who already enjoy the series.

[Note: A copy of Fairy Tail was provided by Koei Tecmo for the purpose of this review.]

Genki Switch Dock Review: Everything to All Users Fri, 31 Jul 2020 09:00:01 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

I really feel for the Human Things team. When they planned the Genki Covert Switch Dock’s release, there was absolutely no way to know 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic would make testing the Covert Dock in its ideal habitat basically impossible.

Fortunately, the Genki Covert Dock has a lot more to offer than just hooking your Switch up at a big party. It's an excellent choice if you're away from home a lot, though it's slightly less excellent for everyone else. 

Genki Switch Dock Review: Everything to All Users

The Genki Covert Switch Dock is exactly what you’d expect from the name. It’s a portable Nintendo Switch dock, designed for use in areas where having the bulky brick of an original dock just isn’t feasible. Third-party Switch docks have left a rather bad impression on many with their unpleasant habit of bricking — read shorting out and frying — the Switch console.

So Human Things carried out extensive research into the Switch’s architecture to ensure the Covert Dock wouldn’t do the same, and they tried to mirror Nintendo’s dock as much as possible. That’s one big feature setting the Genki Switch Dock apart from other charging or streaming hubs that try and do the same thing.

After some trepidation on my part, despite knowing what went into making the Covert Dock work, I plugged everything in and was pleased (and relieved) to see the Switch home screen pop up on my TV like normal. There’s no lag, no extra delay in the visuals switching over. It’s practically identical to Nintendo’s own dock.

Except for the size, of course. The Covert Dock is about the size of an AC adapter, hence being portable and “covert.” You could easily chuck it in a bag and take it with you anywhere. It’s technically small enough to fit easily in a pocket, but you’ll still need something to carry all the accouterments required to hook it up. 

The Covert Dock comes with a cord to hook the Switch up to the dock plug, but you’ll need your own HDMI cable. You probably have one of those already if you bought a new Switch. The standard Switch HDMI cable is pretty short, though, so if you want to get the most out of the Covert Dock’s portability, a longer HDMI is definitely recommended.

That’s where the Covert Dock stumbles a bit. Yes, it’s definitely far more portable than the first-party Switch dock, and you can plug it in nearly anywhere so long as the HDMI cable reaches. But the Switch console has no protection this way, and an exposed console plus two long trip-up-able cords seems like it could easily turn into a problem.

I reached out to Human Things to see if they had any recommendations for safer use, but haven't heard back at the time of writing.

The closer your Switch is to an outlet and that outlet to the screen you’re using, the less chance there is some kind of accident will happen. But then… why not just use a regular dock in that case? Thanks to the awkward setup required for hooking your Switch to a screen, I’m not sure there’ll ever be an answer to the cord issue for any dock, portable or first-party. 

Still, it’s hard to fault the Genki Switch Dock for Nintendo’s design choices. There’s no denying it takes up less space toting around the Covert Dock and a couple of cables than trying to carry the regular dock, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Plus, unlike with the official Switch charger, the Genki Dock comes with several different outlet adapters, making it a better charging choice if you’ll be away from home for a while.

Both the Switch outlet and the HDMI outlet feel sturdier than the slightly flimsy piece in the first-party Switch dock too, and it makes alternative setups like hooking your Switch to a PC monitor much easier — even if the idea is to make the Switch more portable.

One point Human Things promised that the Genki Switch Dock doesn’t quite live up to is the heat. The Covert Dock is supposed to generate less heat than Nintendo’s dock, which is especially good if, like me, you’re using a launch-year Switch.

Those units tend to heat up way too much when charging and when docked. So it was surprising to find the heat situation seemed identical with the Genki Switch Dock as it is with the Nintendo one. In fact, the Switch unit got a bit hotter during some tests because I put the console in its case to keep it free from scuffs and bumps.

It’s somewhat disappointing, but the main point is there’s no danger of overheating.

There’s a lot more to the Genki Switch Dock than just an easy-to-carry dock, though. The second port on the dock/plug is a USB port you can use to plug in any device using a USB cord — tablet, DualShock (or any USB) controller, smartphone, or whatever. It’s incredibly versatile, though how many times you’ll need to charge a device while playing your Switch on a screen is perhaps a bit less clear.

Using it to cast a PowerPoint presentation or charge your gadgets is totally fine, but I don’t necessarily see the need to have all these in one item. It’s maybe better to think of the Genki Switch Dock as a Genki Portable Entertainment Device (or something like that). It’s great for a number of different uses that often have very little to do with each other. 

Again, this is all what Human Things had planned from the very beginning. It’s flexible and works for anyone who needs to plug in on the go. But an alternative, Switch-only version for a less expensive price would be nice to see at some point.

Genki Switch Dock Review — The Bottom Line

  • It's a portable Switch dock that won't kill your system!
  • 1:1 quality with Nintendo's own dock
  • Compact and easy to use
  • Handy charging station for multiple devices
  • Doesn't actually reduce heat as promised
  • Pricey if you just need it for the Switch

It's tough giving a proper Genki Switch Dock review. On the one hand, it does mostly everything it's supposed to. On the other, if you only need a portable or extra Switch dock without the extra features, you're paying for extra features you won't use just because it's the only third-party item that won't kill your system.

If you're on the go a lot, the Genki Switch Dock's excellent utility means that probably won't be an issue though.

[Note: A Genki Covert Switch Dock was provided by Human Things for the purpose of this review.]

Crysis Remastered Review: We've Got a Crisis on Our Hands Thu, 30 Jul 2020 15:34:22 -0400 JosephYaden

The immediate thought of actually playing Crysis on a Nintendo Switch is almost laughable. After all, the Switch isn't known for being a powerhouse of a console. But here we are, playing Crysis Remastered on the handheld hybrid. 

As the name suggests, Crysis Remastered is an enhanced version of the 2007 first-person shooter, but oddly enough, it's only available on Nintendo Switch right now. It'll be headed to PS4, Xbox One, and PC later this year, due to a delay following fan feedback, so all we have to look at is a watered-down version on Switch right now.

It's an odd thing, because Crysis is known for its stunning visuals, and with a remaster, you'd expect its beauty to be pushed even further. The Switch simply can't handle what you're probably expecting from a game that boasts such realistic graphics. This remaster leaves the gameplay, story, and themes intact, making other major alterations to allow it to "run" on Switch.

Crysis Remastered Review: We've Got a Crisis on Our Hands

In Crysis Remastered, you play as Nomad, a character who wields a powerful nano-suit, capable of turning you invisible, quickly healing you, and making you feel almost like Iron Man. This gives it a bit of an edge from a gameplay perspective  or at least it did in 2007.

Nomad is a member of Raptor Team, a group of special forces elites who are tasked with investigating a distress call on the fictional Lingshan Islands. 

The islands are home to huge open spaces you can explore, mirroring something like Far Cry. It's not quite open-world, but the massive levels give you plenty of room to tackle your objectives in a few different ways. 

This, combined with the abilities of the nano-suit, make for a somewhat varied gameplay experience. The issue is that this gameplay style doesn't necessarily hold up by today's standards. 

It's also worth mentioning that first-person shooters don't necessarily feel at home on Switch, so if you're going to play this, we highly recommend that you use a Pro Controller while docked or in tabletop mode.

But how does it look from a graphical perspective? After all, the original Crysis is known for pushing boundaries in the way video games are presented.

Crysis Remastered hovers at around 720p on Switch, depending on what's happening on-screen. Though, at times, it went as low as 540p in either handheld or docked mode. The reason it changes so much is due to its dynamic resolution, which favors a smooth frame rate over crystal clear image quality. Fortunately, it keeps a mostly consistent 30 frames per second, with semi-frequent dips during intense battles. 

Ports and remasters of AAA games on Switch tend to look fuzzy, but the difference here is that Crysis has always been known for visual fidelity. To this day, PCs still struggle to run the original at max settings, so it seems counter-intuitive to play an objectively uglier version on a console that isn't designed for games like these.

Crysis really starts to show its age when sitting through long load times, crashes, and general sluggishness, especially when arriving at a checkpoint.

When looking at other graphically intensive Switch ports games like The Witcher 3, Doom, LA Noire, and others  Crysis Remastered falters due to its outdated gameplay mechanics. Sure, the open sections give you the illusion of freedom, but that isn't enough to carry it along, especially when those sections look so rough.

What's fascinating is that Crysis Remastered on Switch struggles to keep up with the 2007 PC version, even running on medium settings. As you might expect, resolution and frame rate have taken a hit, but a noticeable amount of textures have also been removed for the Switch to keep up. 

You'll notice this when looking at the ground or when swimming underwater, as well as with other environmental assets. 

It's hard to play a game that doesn't offer any sense of progression or incentive to return to it. Despite featuring vast landscapes to explore, there isn't really a reason to. You might as well push straight to the objective as if it were a tight, linear experience. 

Let's compare it to something like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — a game that came out the same year — which also lacked any sense of progression. The reason Modern Warfare worked so well, despite being linear, is because it embraced linearity and focused on it. Each moment was jam-packed with action, and it felt like it was designed for you to experience those moments in a certain way every time. It was cinematic, and most encounters felt important.

Crysis, on the other hand, is designed to make you feel like it's open-ended, but in reality, you're still simply trying to get from point A to point B. And the journey between the two points is usually a slog. This is a criticism of not just the Switch remaster, but the base game itself, which is made even worse by how it looks and feels in this remaster. 

Modern Warfare Remastered  a revamped version of Call of Duty 4  came out in 2016 and it runs at a solid 60fps, features improved visuals and textures, and is presented in 1080p. Crysis on Switch doesn't meet any of those modern standards. Even this year's SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, a remake of the 2003 original, looks better, which we've grown to expect from remakes/remasters. Point is, Crysis Remastered doesn't hold a candle to modern remasters. 

The AI is frustrating to deal with, too. Enemies can somehow spot you from what feels like hundreds of yards away while you're hiding in dense brush, making it difficult to tackle things stealthily. They have pinpoint accuracy and can take you out in seconds, which feels unfair, even against your nano-suit. 

Because of that, the solution often involves turning invisible to get past a large portion of enemy encounters, which is likely not the way it was intended to be played. 

Maybe we've been spoiled by modern games, but that's the thing: games are competing for our time, and when there are shooters out there that look and play better than Crysis Remastered on Switch, it's hard to recommend this one. 

However, there is some merit to the Switch version of Crysis, especially in the way it handles lighting. This is demonstrated by darker areas that are shielded from the sun, like small buildings with no lights or tin roofs.

When you stand under a tin roof, the shadows are pronounced, which is more than we can say for the 2011 console ports that featured the same amount of lighting no matter where you were positioned. These shadows depict depth and realism, giving you a greater sense of immersion. 

You can also use the Switch's gyro aiming, and we highly recommend it. This more closely resembles the mouse and keyboard feeling of the original PC version and helps with your accuracy.

It works way better than trying to use the sticks in handheld mode, which don't allow for the accuracy you need to take out enemies. But you'll struggle to even see enemies that appear in the distance due to a high degree of pop-in, anyway. 

Crysis Remastered Review — The Bottom Line

  • Gyro aiming works well
  • Realistic lighting
  • Mostly consistent frame rate
  • Semi-frequent crashes
  • Blurry, unappealing visuals
  • Outdated gameplay mechanics
  • Stuttering and sluggishness, especially when the game is saving
  • Long load times
  • Frustrating AI

It's baffling that Crysis Remastered exists on Switch — and not in a good way. Why take one of the games that set the benchmark for graphics in video games, present it as a remaster, and release it on a system that does a disservice to it in nearly every way?

Sure, being able to take it on the go sweetens the deal ever-so-slightly, but that's hardly worth it when it looks and plays like an absolute mess. Even the best-looking version of Crysis still doesn't hold up as well today, simply due to its outdated gameplay mechanics.

At least we have the PS4, Xbox One, and PC remasters to look forward to at some point. Even if you can't wait, playing the 2007 version on PC is a better choice currently. 

[Note: A copy of Crysis Remastered was provided by Crytek for the purpose of this review.]

Hellpoint Review: A Soulslike By Any Other Name Wed, 29 Jul 2020 15:22:32 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

It's your eighth time tackling this boss, but you think you've got it figured out. You've memorized its attack patterns, you've learned how its strategy changes, and you've uncovered its weaknesses, bring with you the necessary items to bring about its end. 

You walk through an opaque wall to enter its arena, pick up the resources you dropped the last time it killed you, and start the dance again. This time, it'll be different.

If this sounds a bit familiar to you, you aren't alone. Hellpoint is a solid soulslike, featuring a creepy, enticing setting and a few cool wrinkles you might not expect. Its biggest "issue" is that it's a little too much like Dark Souls, and it just isn't as good as that standard. It isn't Dark Souls 4

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Hellpoint is a silver-tongued devil indeed. That said, if you can't get enough of the "tough-as-nails ARPG" genre, Hellpoint is a slam dunk.

Hellpoint Review: A Soulslike By Any Other Name

In Hellpoint, you play as a character called a spawn, 3D-printed to investigate a massive space station called Irid Novo. The ship has been overrun by monsters, sprinkled with a few mysterious NPCs who speak almost entirely in riddles.

You work your way through, under the guidance of the mysterious presence, fighting enemies and trying to unravel what happened to the Irid Novo. Early on, you'll pick up hints of Event Horizon and some nasty Lovecraftian-like lore, which only gets stronger as you move through the station.

To progress, you must scavenge weapons and equipment from the foes you defeat and the resources you collect. You also have a bit of a home base with some upgrading stations, allowing you to use rare crafting resources to turn that steel pipe into something really special.

You move between breaches, which refill your health and give you fast travel options. You collect axioms, which you use as currency and experience. And if you are killed by an enemy, you drop all the axioms you're carrying. Of course, you can pick them up if you make it back, though if you die again, they're gone for good.

NPCs speak in infuriatingly opaque language and have a tendency to giggle at you. You walk through shimmering walls to enter boss arenas. Glowing messages are left on the walls (green for game-generated messages — like the ones that teach you controls — orange for player-generated messages). You can duel other players.

Like I said: It's Dark Souls meets Event Horizon.

Combat is an interesting beast in Hellpoint: it isn't quite as slow and deliberate as combat in the Dark Souls series, but your movements aren't quite as fluid and agile as they are in Bloodborne. You still have those same, deliberate attack animations, but the overall speed of combat takes a bit of getting used to with each of the game's weapons.

Once you get things down, though, combat feels good.

There are several different options for how to fight: you can be a big, chunky boi, with full heavy armor and a massive melee weapon. You can grab some ranged weaponry and pick things off from afar. Or you can grab a little dagger and some light armor to flit between foes, dealing death by a thousand cuts.

You'll encounter a wide spectrum of enemies, but taking any of them lightly or being unaware of your surroundings will almost certainly lead to a major loss of health — or deathHellpoint keeps you on your toes and rewards you for focus.

The biggest difference in the game's controls come in the form of a jump button. Unlike deliberate attacks and dodges, jumping feels extremely cartoonish here. You spring off the ground with ease, making it incredibly easy to miscalculate your leap and plummet into a bottomless pit. 

As I discussed in our preview of Hellpoint, I'm still not a big fan of this element of the game. Jumping feels way too floaty and imprecise I can bang my head against a boss all day long and not get too frustrated, but watching my spawn float over the edge of a narrow platform and lose a massive amount of progress is always infuriating.

The servers aren't extremely populated right now, but I dread the day I have to battle a hopping invader.

Such Sights

That isn't to say it's an exact clone. There are some cool aspects to Hellpoint that differentiate it.

One of the most interesting lies in the real-time elements that affect when certain events occur. The Irid Novo is orbiting a black hole, and a little meter shows you where it currently is in its orbit.

During certain phases of the ship's orbit, enemies get tougher (and drop better loot), and certain secrets and game elements only emerge at certain times. On one hand, this aspect can be frustrating if you're waiting for a specific event. On the other hand, it can certainly keep things fresh, making for unique runs.

Since time moves by slowly in-game, you might encounter something unique without even realizing it's unique — until you try to replicate it. It's a mechanic that will surely lead to a lot of trial and error if you don't want to look things up online, though it isn't a total game-changer.

Most of the things I encountered on my review playthrough were relatively inconsequential, and the bizarre shaking that occurs when you enter a certain orbit always threw me off. Regardless, it's a cool little hitch in a game that, otherwise, feels very familiar.


Hellpoint Review  The Bottom Line

  • Satisfying combat that allows many approaches
  • Interesting setting and compelling story
  • The right type of difficult
  • Interesting real-time events
  • Way too much like other bigger-budget games
  • Imprecise jumping mechanic
  • Environments are tough to distinguish

Hellpoint is a bit more than a loving homage to Dark Souls, offering up just enough small, unique changes to keep it from being a total clone.

If you want a new challenge, want to explore a mysterious new setting in a familiar gameplay style, and play some infuriating couch co-op (or socially distanced online gaming) with a friend, this is a solid pick-up in a suddenly crowded genre.

[Note: A copy of Hellpoint was provided by tinyBuildGAMES for the purposes of this review.]

Othercide Review: Grimdark Tactics Wed, 29 Jul 2020 10:45:51 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

Othercide is an incredibly stylish game. It leans heavily into its dark, gothic roots, implementing a slick graphics style and a lore-heavy storyline. On top of all that, it boasts a pretty impressive turn-based tactical system, rewarding well-executed plans and punishing ill-conceived schemes.

It makes a run at the kings of the genre like XCOM, but a few problematic design choices and a bit of a "style-over-substance" feel keep it from taking the throne. That said, there is certainly a place for Othercide at the table, and its unique qualities could open doors if the franchise continues moving forward with sequels or offshoots.

Othercide Review: Grimdark Tactics

It can't be overstated how much Othercide swings for the fences with its presentation.

Instead of soldiers (or some other tired trope), you control a team of women called "daughters." Each has a dancer's flair fighting style, and each features names such as Joy, Temperance, or Mercy. Daughters are brought into the world with Vitae (a type of currency), emerging from a pool of fluid as a giant heart named "Mother" beats in the background.

Everything is black and white and shades of grey, except for splashes of red for blood or clothing accents.

You battle ghastly creatures across a variety of decimated, ruined cityscapes, and as you progress further into the game, you'll start to unlock hints about what has happened to the world and what your ultimate goal is. You'll also unlock new traits, abilities and fighting styles for your army of daughters, giving you a leg up as you encounter bigger and nastier foes.

On the surface, Othercide plays like other turn-based tactics games, such as XCOM or Battletech. There are a few key differences that keep things interesting, however.

For one, there is a lot more melee combat in Othercide. Of the three starting classes available to each daughter, two of them are entirely focused on melee. You'll unlock more classes as you make your way through the game, but a majority of combat is in close-quarters. 

It's a significant wrinkle to the typical formula because you'll have to constantly think about the damage your daughters take — in each encounter and throughout your campaign. The only way to heal a daughter between missions is by sacrificing another daughter of the same level. And ranged characters won't change that because diversifying your forces is important to winning missions. 

Another wrinkle in the game's strategic layer comes by way of your class-based triggered abilities, which you can use at the end of your turn to set up "if-this, then-that" options.

For example, some abilities trigger attacks if an enemy ends their turn in melee range, while others may trigger bonus attacks if another daughter deals damage to an enemy. These can trigger multiple times per turn, so you'll want to set them up in advance to get multiple activations in a single turn. 

However, since these abilities also cost a percentage of your precious HP, there's a ton of risk and reward involved with combat. Sacrificing daughters to heal others is an extremely tough choice to make, and it will have you overthinking every move you make during a mission to avoid taking any unnecessary hits.

A Thousand Cuts

When you hit the end of the line in Othercide, you will get the chance to restart your playthrough and use currency to unlock certain bonuses. These might grant bonus hit points or strength to your daughters, or resurrect a daughter from a previous run at the start of your current one. These bonuses are necessary when you start hitting the later missions, and they also take the sting out of dying as you figure out foes and Othercide's systems.

And die you will.

Othercide is unapologetically difficult (mission difficulty starts at "Hard," moving to levels like "Challenging" and "Impossible") and new enemies will often shred you with abilities that you won't see coming. A large, lumbering foe might leap across the battlefield with surprising agility, and the first boss you meet has some nasty abilities that can seem insurmountable if you come in with the wrong team of daughters.

This difficulty also introduces some of the roguelike elements of Othercide. As your daughters achieve certain outcomes in battle, they'll gain access to memories. Every ability can have a memory attached to it, providing bonuses to damage and critical hit percentage, for example. If a daughter is killed, all of her memories go with her, so gameplay again falls into a high-risk, high-reward see-saw.

You can also "win" a mission but ultimately have a negative outcome, essentially dooming your team. If you lose multiple strong characters on a mission you still successfully complete, you might have reached the end of your run. There is no save-scumming allowed in Othercide: everything is automatically on Ironman Mode.

Here, remembrances play a role. As you make your way through a run, you'll accumulate shards, which can be spent on powerful bonuses for the start of your next run. You might be able to boost all of your daughters' HP or gain a resurrection token so you can start the next run by bringing back a particularly powerful daughter. The remembrance system encourages you to get as far as you can in a particular run so you can start your next one even stronger.

Style Over Substance

There is a lot to like in Othercide, but there are a few places the game stumbles: style and worldbuilding. 

Othercide's graphics look great in stills and screenshots, and the world itself is interesting to look at, but the monochromatic palette makes it tough to survey a battlefield at a glance. Everything kind of blends together, and it's tough to tell which character is which when trying to plan a strategy.

This bleeds over into other aspects, too, where certain components of Othercide aren't introduced in a way that you learn about them before using them. Because of how some classes, abilities, items, and currencies are depicted in the game, you won't always know what they do ahead of time.

Finally, the menu system is obtuse at best, and it can be hard to find what new unlocks are at your disposal and where they are. Do you equip memories in the birthing pod? What about remembrances? Do I sacrifice this bright soul so I can resurrect my soulslinger? There is a lot of intuitive stuff here that could make someone bounce off if they aren't ready to dive into this gothic world.

Othercide Review — The Bottom Line

  • All-in tone and style
  • Difficult tactical combat with lots of decisions
  • Slick graphics that draw you in
  • Rewards for learning systems and planning ahead
  • Menu system could use some work
  • Difficult to the point of being unfair on occasion
  • Can be tough to assess tactics at a glance

If you want a tough take on turn-based tactics, Othercide is a great pick-up. If you've tried the genre before and bounced off because of the gameplay, it isn't going to change your mind.

That said, Othercide offers up some unique and tough decisions (mostly in the progression aspect of things), and a slick presentation keeps you dialed in. It might not become your new all-time favorite, but Othercide is a strong addition to the genre.

[A copy of Othercide was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Paper Mario: The Origami King Review — On a Tear Tue, 28 Jul 2020 16:20:46 -0400 RobotsFightingDinosaurs

RPG purists have wanted a new Paper Mario game in the style of either Super Mario RPG or Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for almost two decades. They've dreamed of one complete with leveling up, advanced magic-or-skill-based combat, side quests, and an epic, sweeping storyline.

And although Super Paper Mario, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and Paper Mario: Color Splash were all unfairly maligned for deviating from the formula, the desire for something more traditional is understandable. 

Paper Mario: The Origami King is not the game that fans of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door were waiting for. However, thanks to some incredible writing and worldbuilding, it is the best game in the series behind that vaunted title.

Paper Mario: The Origami King Review — On a Tear

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. No, this game doesn't reward you with experience after battling, the weapons you use in battle break after a few uses, and there is no MP meter for special skills or magic. For some fans, this might be an automatic disqualifier. If that's true, very little of what I say next will persuade you to give this game a shot.

Indeed, The Origami King does start off fairly slowly. The game is a light-hearted romp for the first 10 or so hours, full of classic Nintendo charm and some of the best writing you'll ever see in a game, though it's missing key elements to tie the player to the world. 

It doesn't help that the battle system wears out its welcome pretty early on, in no small part due to there being very little gameplay justification for actually battling. Your only rewards are coins and confetti, which can be used to patch up the ruined world.

In short, battles play out on a series of concentric rings, which you'll have to slide and turn, with the ultimate goal of lining up enemies either in a column of four or in a 2x2 square. If you are a big fan of puzzle games, there is something very satisfying about lining all the enemies up so you can end every battle in one turn, even if it does start to get a bit samey after a while.

Above the Fold

All that adds up to an enjoyable-but-flawed game that's worth a buy if you're a fan of newer Paper Mario titles, but not one of the best entries in the series to date. 

Yes, the game's story takes a long time to find real emotional gravitas, and its battle system is, generously, not going to be for everyone. But once the game hits, it hits hard. Emotional beats will tie you to the game world, and really make you care about the characters within it, something that other recent games in the series have struggled to do effectively. 

And though the combat system doesn't back that up, the rest of the gameplay does. As you proceed through the game, you'll spend a ton of time fixing destroyed pieces of the environment and rescuing hundreds upon hundreds of its Toad residents. Each time you rescue a Toad, you're rewarded with a few lines of (usually hilarious) dialogue, and if you're lucky, an item or a few coins. This process repeats hundreds of times, and each time it does, you care a little bit more about the world you're saving until you're fully invested.

In addition, your battle companions are all impeccably written, from a plucky little Bob-Omb to Bowser's advisor Kamek. But the highlight of the writing comes in the form of Mario's primary companion, Olivia. She's one of the most charming characters Nintendo has ever created, bar none. 

This game also gets credit for being the first Paper Mario game in a very long time to have the courage not to shy away from the legitimately sad moments that make story-based games memorable and complete.

Yes, the overall story about Olivia's brother Olly, the despotic Origami King, trying to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and make everybody into mindless origami soldiers is a bit dark on its own. Still, the game also takes the time to delve into much more heart-wrenching moments. 

Pen and Paper Games

That's not to say that the game is coasting by on its story alone. After the second boss battle, the gameplay instantly becomes incredibly varied, littered with the kinds of puzzles that early games in the series were known for. You'll be rotating pillars to deactivate security systems, you'll be fitting jewels into eye-shaped-holes, and you'll be sliding across ice floors, bouncing against boulders.

The combat gets better too, or at least, the boss battles do. In these battles, you must slide and turn rings to create a path for Mario to follow, terminating in either a space that allows Mario to use one of his normal attacks or on a magic circle allowing Mario to use a special technique or summon an elemental beast.

Each one of these boss battles unfolds in phases, with game-altering quirks that force you to twist your brain and find the best way to proceed, maximizing the damage you do and minimizing the damage you take. These quirks come by often enough that, at least for me, the boss battles always stayed exciting even when regular combat did not.

All this, however, is secondary to the way the game's world changes. After exploring the largely self-contained maps of Overlook and Autumn Mountain, you'll be thrust into bustling theme parks, vast deserts, idyllic floating resorts above the clouds, and (my personal favorite) an extended tribute to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Each of these locations features a ton of collectibles to find, sidequests to embark upon, hidden hearts to find to raise your HP and strength, and Toads to rescue. 

Paper Mario: The Origami King Review — The Bottom Line


  • Legitimately epic, sweeping story that is reminiscent of earlier games in the series
  • Unique and satisfying boss battles
  • Some of the best, funniest writing ever seen in a video game
  • Olivia
  • Battling standard enemies gets old pretty quick

We're left, then, with a question, one that has multiple valid answers: What do you play an RPG for? Perhaps you play for the story, the world, and the collectibles. Perhaps, you play to gear up and min-max your characters, using complex strategies and advanced skills. 

If you fit into the first group, then Paper Mario: The Origami King is an instant must-buy. If you fall into the second, it's a harder sell, but we'd still recommend you give it a shot.

The game won't allow you to build a Final Fantasy-esque combat strategy of buffs, debuffs, status effects, and special skills. But in cutting all of that out, Paper Mario: The Origami King's battle system, at least as it applies to boss battles, may still scratch that itch. And hey, even if it doesn't, there's more than enough here to make up for it.

It may have a few surface flaws, but emotionally, Paper Mario: The Origami King makes a huge impact, and that's all any of us can hope for. 

Ghost of Tsushima Review: A Blade in the Shadows Tue, 28 Jul 2020 14:39:19 -0400 John Schutt

Ghost of Tsushima is a beautifully realized, if stylized, version of 13th century Japan, and it many of its fantastic environments make you feel and act like a samurai badass. Rather than go for the all-encompassing scope of a true open-world epic, this game narrows its focus on only what it feels matters. 

ThoughTsushima somewhat falters in the character story it tries to tell, aiming for familiar tropes and predictable plotlines, and the writing consistently falls below the standards of the best sandbox games, its world itself, combat, and moment to moment flow it above those shortcomings.

Note: This review contains mild story spoilers. 

Ghost of Tsushima Review: A Blade in the Shadows

This version of the island of Tsushima might not be a one-to-one recreation of its real-world inspiration, but it doesn’t need to be. The designers at Sucker Punch instead focused on cinematic quality, where natural colors and environments paint a particular picture and tell a certain story. 

In that, they succeeded.

Just moving about the landscape in Ghost of Tsushima is a treat, from the excellent use of color to the way the wind plays with the grasses and trees. While I think there are prettier sunsets in more fantastical games, the ones here are no doubt some of the warmest and most comforting I’ve seen.

Every location in the game uses a limited palette of colors but does so with purpose and conviction. You don’t have to spend much time in the Golden Temple, for instance, to know why it earned the name. 

Amazing Audio/Visual Design

Tsushima's sound is on point as well. Drawing and sheathing your sword, slicing through enemies, crunching dried leaves beneath your feet — it’s all here. Music is also well-used. While a little dramatic at times, soaring crescendos and subdued tones prove that the designers favored subtlety over ostentatiousness whenever possible.

The wind, one of the game’s primary themes and a crucial navigational mechanic, is the real winner here. It’s subtle when it needs to be, whistling only enough to add atmosphere and weight to a dramatic scene or wafting softly when taking down the energy during a serene one. And there’s nothing that makes a samurai/ninja hybrid look more badass than a cape flowing in the wind as he stands over his defeated and demoralized enemies.

In short, the audio and visual design on display in Tsushima is top-notch. There are several minor graphical issues to contend with, unfortunately, including hit-or-miss cloth and water simulation or funky facial construction and animation. Thankfully, these complaints are offset by the sense of wonder experienced between set pieces. No matter what just happened in combat or the story, you can and should return to exploring the island for the sake of it.

There are a lot of little touches that add to the cinematic flair, too. Riding through a field of flowers sees Jin Sakai, the game's main character, reach down to feel the petals on his skin. Slow walking through the same flowers will see him open his palms to the sky for the same reason. 

Taken together, the aesthetic, sound, and world-design create an experience that looks as close as we’ve ever come to playing a modern, albeit somewhat Westernized, samurai film. 

Visceral Combat, Muted Writing

Ghost of Tsushima does not have the depth of systems found in a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3, nor does it offer the freedom of play found in Breath of the Wild. Its closest analog might be Horizon: Zero Dawn, in the sense that the gameplay of the two centers on just a few primary mechanics, which they sharpen to a razor’s edge. 

To that end, the other star of Ghost of Tsushima is undoubtedly its combat. It’s visceral, satisfying to execute, weighty when it needs to be, and always fast. It’s divided mechanically between two disparate styles: Samurai and Ghost. Or, put in different terms, action and stealth. 

That’s how it seems at first, at least. In truth, the real joy of fighting in Ghost of Tsushima is how seamlessly you can transition between Samurai and Ghost styles.

The stealth mechanics themselves are standardized, but many of the skills you gain to that end have more active components to them. For example, you can certainly take out a guard with a few well-timed kunai, but you can also start a head-on assault with a flurry of them for a completely different effect.

Your sword abilities are more active, but that doesn’t stop them from coming in handy if that one guard just happens to see you at the wrong time. Taking fights head-on has plenty of charm, too, as the interplay between offense and defense is incredibly enjoyable, even in groups.

You can and will become a whirling dancer of death if you take the time to unlock and master the various combat mechanics and skills. By the game’s end, most enemies are child’s play, and the only ones to give you a challenge might be the various duel fights scattered throughout the story.

Sadly, there’s not a ton of enemy variety here to test your skills against. It boils down to about five different versions of “guy with bow/sword/spear.” There are a few hostile animals, but not enough to speak about.

There aren’t any non-human bosses either, though, as mentioned, the duels you fight against them are some of the most satisfying encounters, as it’s just your skill against theirs. You can certainly learn the tells to their attacks, bait specific patterns, and exploit the AI quirks you find, but from a narrative perspective, they are some of the strongest moments on offer.

A Story in Need of Better Writing

It’s too bad the story itself is predictable, trope-filled, and somewhat dull. Based only on what you know of the game from its marketing, you can safely assume most of the plot without too much trouble. 

The story goes to great lengths to show how the “way of the samurai” and the “way of what is necessary” diverge, and how that conflict shapes Jin and his relationship to the wider world.

A series of flashbacks early in the story underscores how the young samurai had been raised. Honor was paramount, and everyone was to be treated with the respect they deserve. You face your enemies and look them in the eyes, even as you slay them. Fear and trickery were unacceptable.

The Mongols changed all that. Jin sees a foe that cannot be defeated using conventional means, and so adapts the only style of warfare he sees is effective: silence and subterfuge. 

As he slaughters his way through the Mongol horde, he loses more and more of himself to this dishonorable style of fighting, and by reading that, you should know where most of the interpersonal conflict occurs. If you know anything about storytelling, you should also be able to pull out when it’s going to happen, what the different parties will say, and what the outcome will be.

If a character in a story is defined by their ability to change, I’m sad to report only Jin does so in any significant capacity. Granted, we spend a great deal more time with him than anyone else, murdering our way across Tsushima. Still, almost no other character looks at the situations they find themselves in and reevaluates their worldview. 

Flashes of Potential

The only character other than Jin who reflects on their actions in any measurable way is Masako Adachi, but for the majority of your time with her, she is of one mind, focused purely on revenge. It’s only at the end of her questline that she looks back on what she’s done and what she will do and tries to take stock. 

Certainly, the main villain is about as stock as they come. Though he has some of the traits of the historical Mongols when it comes to tactics, he is too arrogant and sure of his victory long before it’s been won.

He’s also somewhat prone to monologuing when the practical option would be so much more effective. He doesn’t quite come off as mustache-twirling, as he’s a little too pragmatic for that, but some of the things he does remind me more of a comic book villain than anything else.

For all the faults in its storytelling and characters, there’s still a lot to like about Ghost of Tsushima. There are lots of little details that bring the world to life, and its sidequests are some of the best storytelling moments in the game. 

Fashion is a big seller, too, as you can outfit Jin in any number of different armors, masks, and hats to make him look as cool as you like. There are different sheathes for your katana, colors for your clothes, and obnoxious hats to make yourself look silly while you cut down three enemies in as many strokes. 

While it might not make sense logically, the ability to change clothes mid-fight is beneficial, as the various armors come with useful skills unique to them. Changing from a Ghost-focused armor to a samurai focused one will save your life in the later fights, but there’s nothing stopping you from wearing only what you think looks cool.

There are plenty of other collectibles out in the world, as well. From Mongol artifacts that come with lore entries, to flags that you turn in for new horse saddles, and much more. A lot has been said about the various haiku the game helps you write, and while they’re all mostly trash as both poems and haiku, they’re functional trash. They pluck the heartstrings and use some pretty language, which is all I want or expect out of my video game poetry. 

Ghost of Tsushima Review — The Bottom Line


  • Amazing world and beautiful environments
  • Visceral, satisfying combat
  • Excellent sound design and music
  • The writing is often average at best
  • Animation and graphics sometimes need work

Ghost of Tsushima does a lot of things right. Its got fun combat, a wonderfully designed world, and top-notch sound design. Neither the story nor the characters moved me in any real way, even though I could tell both were trying.

The game isn’t the technical or mechanical achievement of this year or even the last five, but neither was it trying to be. This here is a fun game to sink 20 or 30 hours into and come out satisfied. And that’s a worthy goal for any video game, even one with higher aspirations.

[Note: The reviewer purchased the copy of Ghost of Tsushima used in this review.]

Maid of Sker Review: Can't Hit All the Notes Tue, 28 Jul 2020 12:55:56 -0400 Mark Delaney

As I approached the Sker Hotel, feelings of foreboding anxiety left me in wonder as to what laid beyond its gates. 

Based on a local Welsh ghost story, the hotel's gothic stylings and the game's atmospheric music combined to present a final warning. Crossing the threshold would be like crossing the Rubicon, and neither the protagonist, Thomas Evans, nor I knew what horrors we'd find within those walls.

It's exactly how I want to feel when beginning a new horror game. It's just too bad the horrors I found went beyond some decent scares, extending to some frustrating mechanics.

Maid of Sker Review: Can't Hit All the Notes

Horror fans will be familiar with the setup of Maid of Sker, even if, like me, they aren't familiar with the folklore that acts as its foundation. As Thomas Evans, players arrive in Wales and set off to the Sker Hotel where Thomas' love, Elisabeth Williams, has been locked away in the attic by her tyrannical family. They demand she takes the mantle of the hotel's vocalist from her deceased mother.

If "woman doesn't want to sing" sounds like a strange premise for a horror story, I suppose it is, but Maid of Sker leans heavily on a tale much older than itself and does so admirably. The story is the game's greatest attribute, especially if you're unfamiliar with it.

What is familiar, though, is a lot else. The setting opens up quite a bit right away, but with plenty of locked doors, broken crests, and puzzles to solve, the first-person horror on display here can feel a bit like Resident Evil. Sadly, it lacks both the variety and polish of that game in its enemy encounters.

All enemies in Maid of Sker are blind, so the game focuses on sound to an exciting degree. The directional audio works wonders on a headset, and it's really the only way to play Maid of Sker. While some games strongly recommend playing with such a setup, it's never seemed more important than it does here, as several puzzles are built around players listening for answers and other cues. 

Maid of Sker uses a great mechanic where players can hold their breath to remain quiet as enemies pass. This is smartly built upon with dusty areas that induce coughing fits and alert Quiet Ones, as they're called. Holding your breath for too long eventually makes you exhale loudly, giving your sneaking exploration a bit of a puzzle feel.

The downside to this is that it never becomes clear, when dealing with enemies patrolling the halls of the spooky hotel, just how far away you need to be to be safe. You'll be forced to crouch through most of the game or else tip off enemies, but the mechanic is hit or miss.

Sometimes I could get right up behind them, and other times it seemed like they'd hear me from far off. Sometimes I could even walk or sprint without them hearing, and once you know where to go, you can usually sprint through to the next loading screen, and no one will catch you beforehand.

The exception to this rule is one particular enemy who seems to know where you are as soon as you arrive on his floor of the hotel. Even though he's blind like the other enemies, his thunderous footsteps boom like Mr. X or Nemesis, instilling immediate anxiety that I loved to feel — at first.

Quickly, though, faulty AI made him the most annoying part of the game. The way he's ever-aware of your presence changes the game from a stealthy defenseless horror to a mad dash through narrow hallways. Often, this would break down as he gave chase only for me to get stuck moving through areas where other lower-tier enemies patrolled. There's just no space to move past them, and this alone caused several unfair restarts.

I beat the game never having figured out whether this particular enemy was just extremely aggressive, or if I'd broken the game somehow. Every time I entered his floor, I heard the "enemy alert" chime, even if he was rooms away. Whether by design or by bug, it always felt like the latter.

He's also a factor through the game's final act, leaving a sour taste after some of the game's earlier highlights, such as its moody set dressing and engrossing story. 

Maid of Sker tends to be at its best when it tells players very little about where to go next. However, it's sometimes necessary to do so, and the game fumbles its setup with poor map implementation.

Without a legend and using very small icons, it's difficult to read the map screen and find pertinent information. This led to my first playthrough taking eight or so hours when I expect the game is designed to be beaten in half that.

The game boasts that its script comes in part from one of the writers of the all-time great horror, SOMA, so it's no wonder why the game shines in that department, but there were times where mechanical failures had me ready to Google how the folktale goes. Ultimately, I was happy to see it land well, no matter which ending you choose, of which there seems to be two, but perhaps more.

It's in the game's quiet where it shines brightest. Searching the halls silently as enemies breathe on the other side of the door is fun, even as it could've been better with stronger AI. Even better is when you're approaching a door, and it opens just before you get there as a Quiet One enters your room, forcing you to retreat in a desperate crouch for an untouched closet or corner. 

I simply adore a classic haunted house story, and Maid of Sker scratches that itch, albeit unevenly, more than most games. It gets an A for effort, even as it hardly passes in terms of execution.

Maid of Sker Review — The Bottom Line

  • An intriguing haunted house folktale
  • Great sound design utilized both in scares and puzzles
  • Faulty enemy AI leads to encounters being too easy, inconsistent, or, in one case, too aggressive
  • Map is poorly implemented, causing common frustration

Even though I don't think Maid of Sker is fantastic, I'm glad to have played it. Ever since I first played Amnesia, I've been chasing that setting and mood, which so few horror games try to capture. Maid of Sker, despite nagging issues with enemy encounters and navigation, is still a decent horror game that captures the mood of its central folktale very well.

It's a story worth experiencing for sure, so if you think playing a flawed game is better than reading the story on Reddit, Maid of Sker will serve you well for a stormy evening.

[Note: A copy of Maid of Sker was provided by Wales Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Destroy All Humans! Remake Review: Blinded By Nostalgia Mon, 27 Jul 2020 18:30:55 -0400 Daniel Hollis

When the original Destroy All Humans! released, I was 12 years old and felt like a god wielding cathartic, destructive power. Every button press wreaked unimaginable chaos and truly made me feel like a representative of another world with one mission: Destroy. All. Humans.

Since then, games have come a long way and developed into massive, action-packed spectacles, each of which manages to be more impressive than the last. Despite how each franchise attempts to one-up the other in terms of set-pieces, there’s always been a simple joy weaving through the premise of Destroy All Humans!

However, with the remake now releasing, nostalgia only fuels that joy for so long. Once the nostalgia evaporates, Destroy All Humans! feels stuck in 2002, hampered by archaic missions, dated level design, and uninspired stealth mechanics.

Destroy All Humans! Remake Review: Blinded By Nostalgia

The plot of Destroy All Humans! Remake is simple and, of course, familiar. You play as a Furon alien named Krypto, who is tasked by his higher-ups to invade Earth and harvest Furon DNA from humans so the Furon species can replicate.

The story doesn’t take itself too seriously and many of its jokes revolve around the game's Cold War setting. A message at the beginning of Destroy All Humans! Remake states that all elements of the story have remained intact. Despite that, it’s not quite as funny as it once was, though the humor will no doubt resonate with some more than others. 

And so, a trail of destruction begins as you extract brains, destroy cities, and abduct humans. Anything that you would associate with the generic alien genre is here but pitched in a self-aware way that's not too self-indulgent even if it is hit or miss. 

New skills and abilities come thick and fast, offering multiple ways by which to plan your decimation of humans in each sandbox level. The remake mixes things up, so you might receive various weapons at different points.

The anal probe that was available from the beginning in the original doesn’t appear until a quarter of the way through the game now. It’s a nice subversion of expectations and manages to give you new toys to play with later on.

When you’re not on the ground causing mayhem, you can take to the skies in your flying saucer. Here you’ll have a bunch of new tools at your disposal, such as a fiery laser beam or a sonic boom attack. Easy to maneuver in a variety of scenarios, the UFO controls wonderfully and makes for some of the best moments in Destroy All Humans! Remake.

The saucer, Krypto's tools, and Krypto himself can be upgraded at the mothership. To purchase new abilities, you’ll need to find DNA, which can be sourced by completing missions and challenges or finding collectible probes around the map.

For the remake, the collectibles have been shifted around, giving returning players incentive to explore each environment again in new ways. Challenges have also been reworked to replace the original's with more inventive mission objectives, such as exploding cows and completing high-octane races.

While these are best early on, later challenges often feel fairly unbalanced, even with upgraded equipment. In some instances, a little bit of luck is needed to achieve maximum results.

Exploring each environment outside of challenges and collectibles often feels redundant. Across the six sandbox environments, you’ll discover that each area provides the illusion of being open-ended, but invisible barriers halt your progress and demand you return to the main areas or be destroyed. The levels are fairly small in design and feel reminiscent of a bygone era, especially once the main goals are completed.

Primary missions can only be accepted by returning to the mothership, creating another tedious back and forth process. While die-hard fans will undoubtedly be happy to know little has been done to modernize missions, newcomers and regular fans will most likely become frustrated within a few short missions. For everything the remake changes, it would have been nice to see a more dynamic world that intersected the two design philosophies. 

A good chunk of the missions in Destroy All Humans! Remake revolve around stealth, the game's weakest aspect. Whereas other characteristics of the game empower players, these do the opposite, adding in insta-fail states that only increase the frustration. The AI, too, is fairly uninspired and will often either not notice you at all or be suspect of your actions from a great distance. It’s a tedious and dated slog to get through.


Other missions involve escort and defense objectives, both of which outstay their welcome. These missions can be long and punishing, and for a game that encourages you to use the world as your sandbox, it feels like you're consistently prevented from doing so.

The remake adds Area 42 to the mix, a new lost mission that is undoubtedly the best, most creative one in the game. It’s the only mission that turns stealth into an inventive tool, though it’s a shame that its overall monotony further adds salt to the wound, falling into the same traps as those that come before and after it. 

From a visual standpoint, Destroy All Humans! Remake is vibrant and elevates itself from the original. Human models are downright terrifying, however. Each looks like a waxwork that’s spent too much time in the sun before being frozen in carbonite. No wonder Krypto wants to destroy them all; they’re the stuff of nightmares.

Destruction physics look particularly nice, with colorful explosions accompanying every destroyed building and satisfying pop of a human head. Though the expressive nature of disintegrated and probed humans is satisfying and addictive, the gameplay begins to turn stale once you've extracted your one-hundredth brain or electrocuted your one-thousandth enemy.

Destroy All Humans! Remake Review  The Bottom Line

  • Enjoyable environment destruction
  • Challenges can be addictive
  • Constant sense of progression


  • Dated and uninspired mission design
  • Limited level design
  • Cumbersome mission selection
  • Terrible stealth sections

It's hard to determine who Destroy All Humans! Remake is for. If you adore the original, have played it since its release, or are simply looking for a reason to dive back in, then there’s probably much to enjoy here. Anyone else will have a hard time finding the game's charm underneath its dated mechanics and design.

Destroy All Humans! Remake ultimately fails to improve its gameplay. It’s a confusing contrast when certain elements have changed and others have remained. Despite that, there’s still some fun to be had with the game's primary gimmick: ending the life of each and every human on earth. 

[Note: A copy of Destroy All Humans! Remake was provided by THQ Nordic for the purpose of this review.]

Carrion Review: Bloody Brilliant Wed, 22 Jul 2020 22:44:58 -0400 Daniel Hollis

There’s something childlike about Carrion. Not that the game is catered to children. On the contrary, I couldn’t place it further away from my three-year-old son. It’s instead based upon the idea of an amorphous creature who has escaped and is learning to adapt. 

Starting from infancy, the horror platformer teaches you to live in brand new ways. It’s kind of beautiful, even amongst the gallons of blood that are spilled across the screen.

Carrion Review: Bloody Brilliant

Carrion is the latest indie title published by the notoriously self-aware Devolver Digital. It's developed by lovers of the horror genre, Phobia Game Studio. The premise is simple: You control of a blob-like creature that has escaped from a lab and is hellbent on causing as much chaos as it can. Imagine King Kong if directed by Quentin Tarantino, and you’re on the right path.

The game wastes no time covering the screen in gore as within mere seconds, you’ll be tasked with breaking free and using your deranged tentacles to devour everything in your path.

If there’s one way to describe Carrion, it’s "crunchy". As you escape the facility and make your way through the world, numerous obstacles will try to halt your progress. Vents will need to be smashed, wood charged through, and multiple soldiers (shivering in fear as they try to take you down) eviscerated.

You'll smash, punch, and chimp your way through Carrion, and every kill is accompanied with a very satisfying bite from the creature's mouth. It’s bizarre and utterly lovely.

Everything plays out like a David Cronenberg movie — dialed up to 11. There's enough grotesque body horror to give The Fly a run for its money.  

The world of Carrion doesn't merely exist to soak your screen in buckets of blood  there’s a fair few Metroidvania influences involved as well. Puzzles are often one of the main roadblocks you’ll encounter, and they can range from sliding your tentacle through a tight gap to reach a lever or growing larger so you can smash through tougher obstacles altogether.

Carrion doesn’t possess the same amount of depth as other Metroidvanias and doesn’t oversaturate the world with collectibles, but there's enough influence in its DNA to keep you going back to previous areas. 

One of the main drawbacks of navigation, though, is the lack of a map. The lab's corridors and sub-areas merge together in one massive labyrinth that takes time to learn. A button press hints at nearby save points and can be upgraded to highlight other objects, however, the navigation can at times still be a burden.

To help this, you’ll be granted the ability to shift between two sizes using water, each of which determines the abilities at your disposal. The smaller version of your monster is more nimble and can easily shift through smaller spaces, while the larger creature can become a wrecking ball of destruction.

The shift in sizes can also help in combat encounters and combined with a taunt ability, you can utilize the map's crawl spaces to become a deadly assassin.

New abilities are dished out at a brisk space and finding secret areas can enhance your monster even further. Some abilities often work in surprising ways, though revealing any of the later game inclusions here would detract from the fun of discovering just how the creature works and evolves.

Carrion is punctuated by brief moments where you control a human character and learn the origins of the creature, delving into darker and darker territory. While these moments are often quite short, they provide tantalizing teases of story and are surprisingly engaging in a narrative sense.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said from a gameplay standpoint.

Each section plays out like an adventure game, tasking you with finding items to proceed, but the controls are simply too slow sluggish. Playing as a human often feels like a sluggish affair and a sharp break on the fluid movements of the creature. For a game that prides itself on momentum, it’s a jarring switch that would have been better suited as a slate of cutscenes.

Carrion Review  The Bottom Line

  • Beautifully grotesque in all the right ways
  • Constant sense of progression through new abilities
  • Wonderful feeling of fluidity and momentum with the creature
  • Story is surprisingly engaging
  • Navigation can kill the pacing with areas looking fairly familiar
  • Human sections are a slog

While Carrion won't win any awards, it plays out much like a late Friday night feature, full of gruesome horror and satisfying effects. More importantly, it doesn't outstay its welcome.

Becoming an overwhelming force of destruction never ceases to be fun and the constant evolution of the creature provides players an increasing amount of tools to play with. Playing Carrion can often feel parental, as if you're nurturing a child through the early years of their life  except this child is a deadly, wanton killing machine.

Rocket Arena Review: A Hero for Every Age Mon, 20 Jul 2020 12:14:55 -0400 Mark Delaney

It's been a good year for descendants of Overwatch. The hero shooter continues to evolve in interesting ways, branching off in unpredictable directions as each new contender tries to carve out its own niche.

The latest slice of that genre pie is Rocket Arena, an EA Original with a similarly colorful art style, but little else in common with Blizzard's behemoth.

Ultimately, that distance only benefits Rocket Arena, which manages to quite proudly stand on its own as an effervescent and explosive hero shooter families can comfortably play together.

Rocket Arena Review: A Hero for Every Age

Every player in every round of this 3v3 third-person hero shooter is equipped with rockets. That may sound game-breaking right off the bat, but this distinction is ultimately more of a cosmetic choice. Each of the game's 10 colorful launch characters utilizes these rockets in different ways. Plink fires his burst style for minor damage per round but with a high DPS for the most accurate rocketeers, and Amphora charges her rocket shots to hit opponents like a crashing wave.

These ubiquitous rockets are thus more like different classes of more conventional weapons, just with more explosive effect when they hit.

This Oprah-esque approach to gifting every competitor with rockets reveals the game's Looney Tunes-like commitment to explosions, which quickly gives Rocket Arena its own unique aesthetic. In terms of sights and sounds, it perfectly captures the family-friendlier approach it's going for. Matched by the vibrant cartoonish style  admittedly, a popular trend right now  and it's not long before the new IP stands out from a growing field of contenders in the genre.

Maps are built to accommodate the smaller teams. They can often feel quite crowded horizontally, but Rocket Arena isn't built solely for the X-axis. Every hero can triple-jump, and the addition of staying afloat with rocket-jumping means you can go a minute or more without touching the ground if you're really skilled. As most rounds play out in under seven minutes, that's an incredibly large chunk of a match to hop and float around, but it's exactly how Rocket Arena wants to be played, and it's better for it.

Accuracy is then a high-maintenance aspect of the game. At times, it can feel pretty hard to hit your shots as everyone is flailing about, jumping off walls, gliding over the map, and hitting jump and boost ramps for added flair, but aided by each character's other abilities, the combat is able to be mastered after some hours with each character.

Their unique abilities are ultimately what set the roster of heroes apart from one another. While no two heroes look very much alike, they all fit a basic mold of "human with Rachet and Clank-like weapons." Sure, only one is a little kid, and another is an old man, and the roster is split half and half between men and women, but visually speaking, these characters don't often have any signature aspects that tell their stories.

Voice lines and cosmetics do a lot of the leg work in this genre, and in that regard, Rocket Arena is lacking compared to others. Some of them, like the adventurer Boone or the pirate Blastbeard, immediately exude their essence when you first see them. Still, others, like the sea-queen Amphora, the magical Mysteen, or the ice princess Kayi, don't really have any signature looks about them.

Still, none of them are unappealing either. The audiovisual experience as a whole remains a lovely aspect of the game round after round, and once you get to using them, the characters stand apart much better. Even as Amphora's characterization isn't obvious at first glance, once you start hurling water mines and grabbing enemies with her Hydro Form, it's clear she is meant to be an Aphrodite analog.

Music has a sort of 1990s style to it, like something you'd hear in a Sega Saturn game. It's strangely nostalgic for a new IP, but it seems to be the intent of the composer as it further solidifies the game's all-ages approach to the hero shooter.

In Rocket Arena, there's no blood, no swearing, no mention of kills or even the more modern stand-in, "eliminations." Instead, should your hero's health get dangerously low, you enter into a sort of last stand mode. You can either survive while waiting for the slow regen to take effect or, if you get hit once more, find yourself "megablasted" out of the arena's invisible bubble. But there's no respawn or anything resembling character death.

You fly away, your opponent earns a score, and you're carried back into the action. It's a somewhat subtle difference, but alongside the cheerful music and cartoonish style, Rocket Arena promises an undeniable charm that will keep it installed on my Xbox long after I've written this review.

It still has other issues, though. Most notably, the game's meta is a bit up in the air right now. With five modes to play (including one PvE mode that serves a bit like a practice mode for the real thing), early adopters are feeling out who their mains may become. For me, it's the aforementioned Plink and Amphora that I like best, but I'm worried some heroes' movesets are a bit unbalanced depending on which mode you're playing.

Blastbeard's Shockwave is a devastating AoE attack that makes him the MVP of any round of Mega Rocket, the game's domination-like turf war mode. Rocketball is like rugby and is the game's best mode, turning Rocket Arena into something much more literally an esport, but Kayi's grappling hook gives her a pretty big edge.

Even as some hero's moves are inaccessible while carrying the ball toward a goal, there seems to be a pretty poor imbalance at play. For example, an out of bounds ball resets in the center, meaning once a team gets ahead, they can intentionally play keep-away by sending the ball back to start and run out the clock.

All five game modes, which also include a kill-the-carrier mode called Treasure Hunt and a team deathmatch mode called Knockout, require a lot of teamwork. Because it's only 3v3, Rocket Arena shares in common one ride-or-die quality with the similarly titled Rocket League; one player can really drag down a team effort. The difference between 3v2 and 4v5 is vast, which means matchmaking has to smartly form teams to ensure the balance is the best it can be. Right now, Rocket Arena needs work in this area. 

Thankfully, with ranked and unranked play as well as private lobbies, the line between the game's serious contenders and the more casual participants should widen over time. With the first season of new content beginning next week and a Blast Pass along for the ride, Rocket Arena has the potential to become some people's favorite competitive multiplayer game, but only after it irons out some of these wrinkles. They're to be expected from a new IP and a smaller team, so they're more forgivable today.

Cosmetics can be bought for real money or earned entirely in-game at a pace I find to be pretty fair. I've already unlocked several alternate skins for more than half the roster without spending a cent. This is one way in which Rocket Arena improves on some other games like it. In Fortnite, for example, plenty of cosmetics are real-money-only buys.

It's yet again a family-friendlier way of doing business with its community, and Final Strike Games deserves credit for implementing this system more fairly than the current status quo dictates it needs to. There are also lots of unlocks to be had for free, earned just by leveling characters from 1-100. This doesn't just add depth, it does so openly and honestly.

Rocket Arena Review  The Bottom Line

  • A truly family-friendly hero shooter
  • Frenetic gameplay with fun heroes to learn
  • Audiovisuals are lovely and lighthearted
  • Transparent and fair in-game store
  • Matchmaking imbalances
  • Characters don't stick out so much visually
  • Game mode imbalances

Heading into Rocket Arena, my biggest question was whether it could stand out from an increasingly crowded field of similar games. On the other side of my review, I'm confident it can.

There are undoubtedly some nerfs and buffs in store for some of the heroes, and matchmaking as a whole needs to deliver more balanced play — or else the community will regularly suffer blowouts. Still, I've never seen a hero shooter so ready for players of all ages. That's an attribute in itself that stands out, and with the explosive energy of each round's colorful chaos, Rocket Arena is a blast.

[Note: A copy of Rockey Arena was provided by EA for the purpose of this review.]

Void Terrarium Review: The Little 'Bot that Could Thu, 16 Jul 2020 17:47:54 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Void Terrarium has some tough shoes to fill. It’s a mystery-dungeon-style game that isn't exactly part of the Mystery Dungeon series. As we’ve discussed before, mystery dungeon is an often derivative style relying on the charm of the franchises it blends with more than anything else.

Void Terrarium is the exact opposite. It’s a standalone game with no existing attachments that rises head and shoulders above the competition thanks to some clever design and plenty of sub-systems that keep every dungeon crawl feeling like an adventure.

Void Terrarium Review: The Little 'Bot that Could

Void Terrarium casts you as an initially nameless robot who’s re-activated by chance when a mouse gets involved with its circuits. You’re just as clueless as the completely adorable, dog-like robot trundling along through a short tutorial dungeon. Eventually, you happen upon a busted vase and a computer screen. That computer screen, Factory AI. is your sole companion in Void Terrarium, and it tells you some of its story, the backdrop for why you’re doing what you're doing.

Like most games in its style, Void Terrarium is relatively light on story compared to gameplay. But what you do get is pretty endearing thanks to how it unfolds. Outside the broader picture, your story is gradually finding a way to make a life for Toriko, a girl you come across, possible, and, hopefully, better.

That overriding goal adds meaning to the countless dungeon crawls you’ll send Robbie (the 'bot) on. While some sub-goals are more urgent and engaging than others — creating a contamination serum versus building a bed frame — everything you do is still directly tied to that primary purpose. 

The end goal and the numerous sub-systems surrounding it keep these treks from feeling like slogs and make Void Terrarium one of the few mystery-dungeon style games that doesn’t get old very, very quickly.

Of course, there are the usual things like Robbie’s energy (EN), which is sort of like the hunger meter from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, only much more important. But after your first few treks, there’s something else as well: the Pet Nanny, or Penny, as FactoryAI calls it. Penny is Robbie’s Tamagotchi Pet, and that’s meant literally. 

It shows chibi-Toriki’s condition, hunger meter, how many piles of Toriko droppings she’s left lying around, and later, other things like the weather conditions (which affects enemy stats) and Toriko’s contamination rate. Pet Nanny ends up dictating most of what you do, like caring for a real pet. If the terrarium is too dirty, Toriko suffers.

If her hunger meter depletes, well, there’s no mystery what happens there. And if the contamination rate is too high, she enters a state of toxicity. Aside from keeping her alive as part of the game, you just naturally want to take care of Toriko anyway because she's a human who's alone and in need. 

There’s a bit of humorous irony in a human-less future where robots play caretaker for a pet human, though it is just a touch awkward at first. However, it also works exceptionally well for framing your choices.

You’ll get primary goals, like building the terrarium and getting materials to furnish it. Completing these means going into one or more of the many abandoned underground areas to find specific materials on a certain level or held by a certain enemy creature. Fortunately, there’s a hint option on the area select screen that tells you what floor or enemy to look for, which makes these main quests so much smoother. 

While you’re doing all this, though, you need to keep an eye on the Pet Nanny. If Toriko is hungry and the vault with your food supplies is running low, you should prioritize finding biological materials you can feed to her. If the terrarium fills up with poo, which it does the longer you’re away, you’ll either need to end the trek early to go clean or spend Energy to clean it remotely.

Finding food for Toriko is good, but if the contamination rate is too high, you’ll need to either find something else or hope you find a Decontamination Kit to make it safe. These are just some of the choices you’ll have to make on the fly.

When you get back, you’ll need to craft the required item from what you found and from more general materials. You get a handy first-time bonus for crafting things. These range from giving Toriko a boost to augmenting Robbie’s abilities in some form, such as improving HP or expanding inventory. This is also one of just a few ways you’ll improve Robbie’s functions (more on that in a bit), so it’s worth crafting everything on the list.

Aside from key items you find for crafting, you need a set number of other materials in four different categories. The leftover items you pick up during a dungeon crawl get recycled and added to each category depending on what the item was. The underground’s AI system detects broken-down items and puts them through the blender, as it were. The upgrades Robbie earns through leveling up in the dungeons are temporary. Once Robbie breaks down (loses all its health), you’re back to square one. 

It’s sort of like losing everything in Shiren the Wanderer, but without actually chipping away at your sanity. “Losing” in Void Terrarium isn’t really losing. You “complete” your expedition and always have something to show for it, whether that’s more materials to put towards future crafting, food, or the critical item you needed to move forward. It’s an encouraging and addictive cycle with plenty of incentive to try again.

Part of that incentive also stems from the randomness that rules Void Terrarium.

Robbie earns new passive and (sometimes) active skills upon leveling up, but these are random. Once in awhile, you’ll get lucky and turn Robbie into a powerhouse tank with regular increases to attack and defense. Other times, you’ll get new skills to help out in combat. And sometimes, you’ll get a lackluster set with upgrades that don’t really fit together, like trap-finding and strength boosts based on inventory levels.

Items are random as well. Some visits give you plenty of necessary tools like batteries to restore EN and tool kits to refill health. Some are loaded with items you can recycle for more materials. Others just seem barren in general, so it turns into a test to see how far down you can make it.

It’s initially frustrating, until you get in a groove of regular visits to each dungeon. That’s when Void Terrarium’s practice of always rewarding you in some way, like with new materials, shines through the most. It can turn into a grind, especially since it takes too long to stock up each material category, but even dungeons where you draw the short straw don’t feel like a waste.

Not that the randomness doesn’t still work against Void Terrarium on occasion. When enemies start using their skills more often in later dungeons, you keenly feel the lack of equippable mods and permanent upgrades that offer Robbie protection against status elements.

There are times when a room’s exit happens to be in a monster room as well, which basically means you won’t be making it out alive. And some dungeon trips do end up frustrating because if you could have improved Robbie’s defense a bit more, then you know you could have made it further and finished your task. 

But Void Terrarium offers a few helpful surprises to counterbalance these issues. Not too far into the game, FactoryAI upgrades Robbie with part slots, which, by proxy, give you the chance to increase the draw rates of certain skill types.

So you get the best of both worlds: a tough mystery dungeon-style game (because make no mistake — even with the right upgrades, Void Terrarium is still challenging) and one that’s accessible to all skill levels by rewarding every effort instead of punishing you. 

But if all the dungeon crawling gets too much and you want a break, you can decorate Toriko’s terrarium. There’s a nifty placement system that uses four layers of background and foreground to give you more room for items, and it affects how each item looks. It’s disappointing Toriko doesn’t actually use these items — even with a bed, she still sleeps on the ground — but I still spent a lot of time tinkering with it to make the terrarium as cozy and pleasant as possible.

There's not much to note about the actual dungeon design, though sterile dungeons are more a problem with the genre than Void Terrarium in particular. The soundtrack is something I actually stopped noticing after a while, but that's a boon even if it sounds like a backhanded compliment. It's so fitting for each area, it ends up just blending in and creating the atmosphere more than the actual dungeon design.

Void Terrarium Review: The Bottom Line

  • Addictive and rewarding gameplay loop
  • Plenty of systems demanding your attention and keeping things fresh
  • Engaging story to tie all those systems together
  • Unique approach to progression using randomness
  • Protec Toriko
  • That unique approach sometimes gets a bit frustrating
  • A bit grind-y at times

Void Terrarium is special for how it balances challenge and accessibility to create its own unique identity, a balancing act many other games struggle with. If you're new to the genre, it's a great place to start.

If you're familiar with it, there's plenty of challenge to keep you hooked even outside the story. The randomness and grind might be off-putting for some, but if you're willing to overlook that, Void Terrarium stands as one of the best mystery dungeon games out there.

[Note: A digital copy of Void Terrarium was provided by NIS America for the purpose of this review.]

Orcs Must Die 3 Review: Creatively Culling in the Cloud Tue, 14 Jul 2020 13:00:25 -0400 Mark Delaney

It's been three games, but these orcs are still destined for slaughter. Launching first exclusively on Google Stadia, Orcs Must Die 3 (OMD3) returns much of the over-the-shoulder tower defense fans will recall from earlier games in the series.

This time, it's said that Stadia offers players new ways to see the war unfold, like impressively dense battles only possible in the cloud. 

We have no other platforms to compare the performance to today. Still, it's true that the hordes look magnificent and intimidating on Stadia, which only makes taking them out that much more rewarding.

Orcs Must Die 3 Review: Creatively Culling in the Cloud

A human army stands on a castle rampart overlooking orcs below.

For the uninitiated, as I once was, Orcs Must Die 3 is a third-person action-tower defense game. While my first impression of OMD3 (and thus the series) was to compare it to Fortnite's lesser-played Save The World mode, I watched some gameplay of the previous games and realized it's the other way around. Orcs Must Die was already doing the sort of action-tower defense seen in Save The World years ago.

The story of Orcs Must Die 3 skips ahead two decades to a time when the last game's hero is now dead, and the villain has been reformed as a mentor for two young heroes. Suffice it to say that beyond some tween leanings in characterization, which regularly color the characters' quips, the story is properly backburnered as little more than lore for longtime fans. You can easily hop into this third entry with no prior knowledge of the series and pick up the narrative pieces you may want to understand.

Each level plays out in a castle-like environment. An overhead map shows you where the entry points are and eventually where the enemies are attacking from, while the UI reveals how many waves you must survive.

Players choose their loadout from a handful of projectile weapons like a crossbow and a freezing spell as well as dozens of traps and are asked to keep enemies out of the Rift, a portal that would presumably send orcs to the human world. Truly, the context here is quite irrelevant, but that's okay. It fits the setup. 

Orcs Must Die 3 has a mobile game-like addictiveness to it, which pairs pretty nicely with Stadia as you can play it mobile on proper wifi. I spent most of my review time playing it on a phone, and the whole experience was clearly built to translate across the Stadia landscape.

A blue spell is used to attack hordes of purple orcs.

It seems the guiding principle of OMD3 was not a measure of how to drastically change the formula laid before it, but how to make everything seem bigger and better. In turn, the cast of villains and the ways to thwart them are both extremely deep.

I counted 50 total traps and weapons available to players, and I'm still unlocking some of those. They get wildly creative too, from early unlocks like spiked floors and overheard tenderizers to late-game unlocks that can upend the game's economy, allowing your traps to become much more effective.

Each of these items has its own skill tree that takes lots of item uses before completing, meaning one playthrough of the game simply won't be enough to use them all.

Endless mode sits alongside the campaign's 18 chapters as further means of toying with the eponymous orcs, and it's in either mode where the central draw of OMD3 truly shines.

Experimentation is key, and the game hardly nudges you toward any particular items, only sometimes reminding you of a new tool you've unlocked (which can be inferred may do wonders on your current map). You'll unlock certain traps as you progress, but you can also skip the line and unlock some things when you feel like it, customizing your loadout with the traps you rely on the most.

Early on, I found great success just littering the floors with spikes, but it doesn't take long before more towering orcs can survive several such blows and pierce frontline defenses. Often we hear "trial and error" when someone is complaining of a game's mechanics, but in OMD3, it's a fantastic selling point.

Failures are interesting because you can often see where your best-laid plans went awry. That teases a swift return. Several times, I played much longer than I planned because I was determined to fix my mistakes and see a level through to the end of the last wave.

A large orc towers over Kelsey amidst smaller hordes of orcs and spring traps in a castle courtyard.

The downside to the openness of each level is that some feel like difficulty spikes. Rather than a smooth upward curve found in some other genre games, OMD3 hit me a few times with levels that seemed much harder than they should have been, and which took many more tries to overcome. They'd still end before frustration set in, but I did sometimes find myself at wit's end regarding how to slow the surge of orcs into the Rift.

If your creativity isn't enough to overcome some of the game's immense challenges, it's playable totally in co-op too. There's not much for me to say about this feature other than it totally fits in this game  and really, isn't almost everything better in co-op?

While the levels drive creativity, the setting leaves a lot to be desired. Layouts vary with each map, but the surrounding assets feel reused regularly. Mostly the same castle walls and far-off fantasy landscapes color each level, leaving OMD3 feeling visually repetitive. Since the story hardly matters, I feel like there was an opportunity to diversify the backdrops more than Robot Entertainment did.

If it's any consolation, you'll often be so frantically dashing around each level to ensure your defenses are holding up that you won't have time for sightseeing. This is never more apparent than with War Scenarios. In these sections, players relive the adventures of past heroes as they fend off some absurdly large hordes of green ghoulies.

I was told the number of orcs on one screen can reach as much as 450, and though it'd be virtually impossible to count them, I believe it from having seen it in action. These levels feature some of the most intricate pathways and by far the coolest weapons even among dozens of great candidates.

Some weapons are exclusive to these War Scenarios, which break up the campaign every few levels, giving players tools like mountable catapults that rain fire on the orcs or giant trap floors, which can flip them cleanly off the castle like a spatula. These levels are like the boss battles of the campaign, and as a result, they are the most elaborate spectacles of all.

Orcs Must Die 3 Review — The Bottom Line

Fighting large orcs and flame golems on a castle dock.

  • War scenarios deliver stunning hordes and awesome weapons
  • Creativity reigns supreme with seemingly endless routes to victory
  • Fun even in failure as you work out better strategies
  • Lighthearted style and colors
  • Set dressing of levels is very repetitive
  • Some difficulty spikes can throw off the rewarding flow of progress

In all, Orcs Must Die 3 returns a lot of the humor and level design players may remember from earlier games, but it's all presented on a grander scale. With dozens of worthwhile traps to choose from, there are countless ways to win, and with War Scenarios, winning will have never felt better in the game  or perhaps the series.

Some gripes with set dressing and difficulty spikes aside, Orcs Must Die is an easy recommendation for fans of the series and genre alike. 

[Note: A copy of Orcs Must Die 3 was provided by Robot Entertainment for the purpose of this review.]

Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town Review — Good Ol' Reliable Wed, 08 Jul 2020 16:29:52 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town might be new on Nintendo Switch, but the foundation for the game has been around the block more than once by now — Harvest Moon 64 and Back to Nature created the base, while the original Friends of Mineral Town on the Game Boy Advance further refined the formula.

With the genre growing quite a bit since we first met the likes of Mayor Thomas and Popuri, is it still worth meeting the same folks and plowing the same ground again? Absolutely. The game and formula are timeless for a reason.

Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town Review — Good Ol' Reliable

If you’ve never played Friends of Mineral Town, you probably still know the basic idea behind it. Dear old grandad’s left us behind and left you his run-down farm in the boonies. Maybe that sounds like a less than ideal inheritance, but it’s where you spent some of your happiest hours as a child, and going back was always your dream.

Now your dream has come true! And it’s time to wake up and get to work because Mayor Thomas wasn’t joking when he called the farm run down.

The premise has probably been overused since it first appeared in Harvest Moon 64, yet that’s not really a problem. Friends of Mineral Town Switch sits on the border between remake and remaster, so it’s not really setting out to overhaul the game’s foundations.

The most obvious change is letting you woo eligible folk of either gender, regardless of your own. Gone is the pearl clutching of Harvest Moon Cute, where the game insisted that woman your female farmer lived with was just your “best friend.”

She is the manager.

Apart from being a long overdue change to the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons formula, it means you get to see more character events. Heart events formerly locked behind gender are free to view as you pursue relationships of any kind, though they obviously become more romance-oriented as those friendships develop.

Friends of Mineral Town Switch introduces two new marriage candidates to shake up your love life: Jennifer the nature woman and Brandon the eccentric artist. Each fits into Mineral Town seamlessly, to the point where it’d be strange going back to an earlier version and not finding Brandon at the carpenter’s house or seeing Jennifer’s tent pitched at the bottom of Mother Hill.

Even better, it’s pretty easy to get to know them both. Unlike others in town, Jennifer and Brandon count basic things among their liked and loved items, things like flowers and eggs. So you don’t have to jump through hoops or break the bank just to get a friendship started with the newcomers.

Outside the hunt for marriage partners, Friends of Mineral Town has an engaging and eclectic cast of townsfolk to befriend as well. And they’re even better than Friends of Mineral Town veterans might remember thanks to Xseed breathing new life into their writing and your responses.

It’s not a huge departure from the original, but everyone speaks a lot more naturally in the Friends of Mineral Town remake. And of course, there’s the usual extra Xseed pizazz added in.

Whether you’ll find the townsfolk worth engaging with is entirely an individual matter of course, but to me, they and their stories definitely still hold up after all these years. No, you won’t find poignant, timely stories like soldiers dealing with PTSD like you do in Stardew Valley, but everyone’s got a story to tell.

Manna and Duke are stuck in a strained marriage, strained thanks to his constant drinking. Cliff has plenty of issues. Gray’s grandfather the blacksmith constantly berates him and seems incapable of showing affection (except to you when you give him presents). And Lillia suffers from an unspecified illness which her husband is away trying to cure.

I appreciate the small tragedies in games like A Wonderful Life and Stardew Valley, but I also recognize the strength of a mostly warmhearted story with a tinge of real-life sadness added in. That’s what you get with Friends of Mineral Town. As you grow closer with your chosen friends, or everyone if you can spare the time, you’ll see new events expanding on their relationships and antics that aren’t revolved entirely around you. 

You’ll learn their patterns and habits, and as you form your own, it gradually feels like you’re fitting into a close-knit, welcoming community — albeit where the residents still only have a few things to say every season outside their events.

More events definitely would have been welcome, and I think it’s past time for farm-sim games to move beyond the one-liners and too-few interactions. But there’s still no denying FoMT’s charm, no matter how well you know these characters.

Friends of Mineral Town pulls this off with the farmwork side of the game as well, which is really the game’s most impressive feat. I was hesitant in the first few, very familiar hours. Mineral Town is small, and your list of tasks is pretty limited compared to more recent games like Stardew Valley. That actually becomes a boon as you start establishing your own rhythm though. 

Time moves fast, and you rarely have a chance to do everything you’d like in a day. So you end up planning out small goals to focus on instead. First is obviously handling crops, then animals, then improving your tools to make farming easier. Then it’s working toward your house expansion so you can actually cook your raw crops, and so on. 

The more prosperous your farm becomes, with much help from the eager Nature Sprites, the more items you get access to, which means more ways to improve friendships with more people.

The number of systems in Friends of Mineral Town isn’t quite as impressive as Rune Factory 4 Special  — which is hardly a surprise given the length of time between both games — but it all meshes together into a compelling package just the same.

That said, you do feel the need for more to do at times, even with a handful of new animals and cows that make coffee milk (Don’t ask how. Just do). If you get the Nature Sprites on your side, they reduce burden of your farm chores significantly, and you’ll likely find yourself at a loose end as the afternoon wears along.

That’s really a gripe with the genre more than Friends of Mineral Town, since the same thing regularly happens in modern games like SDV as well. But at the end of the day, you just… end the day. There’s always something to work towards tomorrow.

Whether you’re jumping in for a few minutes to finish a task or sinking a few hours in while you work through a whole season, there’s something to be said for the strength of a simple framework executed well and the appeal of working towards small goals.

Finally, it’s definitely worth mentioning Friends of Mineral Town Switch’s graphical enhancements. Everyone gets snazzy new portrait art, someone stole Gray’s hat, and the rest of the environments sit comfortable near the Link’s Awakening remake toy-box diorama style, skewing a bit more towards the soft and fluffy.

The soundtrack received a slight overhaul too, making it fuller and more interesting all around. 

A few of the sound effects come across as a bit lacking, and a scant handful of the soundtrack changes are overbearing, like the summer event day music. However the good outweighs the bad in this area, easily.

Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town Review — The Bottom Line

  • Compelling gameplay systems that keep you wanting to do more
  • Strikes a great balance between these systems
  • Interesting and sympathetic supporting cast
  • Big improvements to relationship system
  • Improved translation and localization
  • Lovely graphics style
  • It's Friends of Mineral Town, but on Switch
  • It's Friends of Mineral Town, but on Switch. It's not reinventing the wheel, even where there's some room for improvement.

If Rune Factory is about fitting as many systems as possible together, Doraemon: Story of Seasons emphasizes character, and Stardew Valley is about beating Jojamart by being a one-farmer variation of the same thing, then Friends of Mineral Town is about balance. It’s about balancing your time, your relationships, and your chores while working for a brighter tomorrow.

Yes, that’s what Friends of Mineral Town was always about, but time hasn’t dented its appeal any. At the end of the day, even if there’s definitely room for more, that’s enough for me.

[Note: A copy of Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town was provided by XSEED for the purpose of this review.]

The Last of Us 2 Review: Emotional Scars Mon, 29 Jun 2020 13:44:32 -0400 Ethan Anderson

True to their marketing efforts, Naughty Dog has delivered a game focused on a tale of revenge above all else. At least, from the frame that it's what drives the characters for the majority of the plot. However, The Last of Us 2 turns into something far more complex and relatable by the end. It turns into a story about bonds.

We witness just how far characters are willing to go for the bonds they cherish so deeply, and we learn it's not always easy to forgive and forget. In fact, it can feel impossible sometimes.

The Last of Us 2 tackles that sentiment head-on. The journey to the end of its narrative is no doubt impactful in many areas, but some missteps along the way prevent those bright spots from connecting to each other as smoothly as they should.

Note: This is a non-spoiler review for The Last of Us 2.

The Last of Us 2 Review: Emotional Scars

The Last of Us 2 picks up about five years after The Last of Us. Joel and Ellie are now living in the thriving community of Jackson, Wyoming, along with Tommy and Maria.

The game's intro, set in a peaceful, thriving settlement, is full of wholesome moments that you wish could last forever. Joel visiting Ellie to share a dad joke and playing a Pearl Jam song for her are moments I didn't know I wanted to see, but immediately fell in love with. 

These interactions between the two are the ones that players will undoubtedly connect with the most, especially those who have played the first game. This is a sequel that contains plenty of wonderful interactions sprinkled throughout its 25- to 30-hour length, some as flashbacks showing life just after The Last of Us concludes. But as we all know, peace doesn't last in the post-apocalypse. That's just the way it goes.

Ellie's relationship with Joel is what drives her on her journey. It's the most fully-realized connection in The Last of Us 2, with many other characters tending to fall a bit flat by comparison.

It's hard to get emotionally attached to characters whose backstories are presented through journal entries or random bits of dialog. This is doubly true for Dina and Jesse, both of whom have known Ellie for years and whose backstories we don't get to see much of at all. 

A large chunk of The Last of Us 2 takes place over the course of three days in Seattle, Washington, during which Ellie goes to great lengths to achieve her main goal. Her mind is set on killing her enemies in the name of revenge, but at what cost?

The Last of Us 2 demands that you analyze your actions as both main and secondary characters die in visceral ways. There are repercussions for your actions, and they don’t simply happen in a gameplay sequence just to be forgotten about later. They're integral to the overall story. 

As expected, Ellie's actions sometimes end up harming her both physically and mentally. It's in those moments that the game truly shines. Seeing Ellie's internal and external struggles, and how they affect those around her, makes you contemplate whether or not this tale of revenge is worth it at all. 

In many ways, the theme of The Last of Us 2 is more than just "revenge is bad." The main characters are flawed people facing real problems by honoring their loved ones in the only ways that they know how. The game handles the concept in heartbreaking ways, continuously putting you into morally ambiguous situations where right and wrong collide. 

Because of the game's stunning framing and beautiful presentation, these moments of grey are gripping and hard to forget, made more commanding by the performances of Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Shannon Woodward, Stephen Chang, and Jeffrey Pierce.

In a brave move, The Last of Us 2 eventually shifts away from Ellie's tale of vengeance, providing another perspective on the game's narrative. While this decision creates an interesting new layer for the game's events, its implementation is questionable because of its placement within the overarching narrative.

The plot's momentum grinds to a halt a few times throughout The Last of Us 2, and the perspective switch is one such place. Though the shift is mostly enjoyable and contains some of the best gameplay moments in TLoU2, its poor timing and lengthy nature undermine its impact, disrupting the overall pacing and structure of the game.

Though you'll still find the post-apocalyptic standard shotguns, bows, handguns, and rifles  weapons you'd expect to use as you clear areas of either infected or other humans  The Last of Us 2 improves upon the gameplay found in the original.

Both humans and infected have better tactics this time around. Infected Stalkers regularly try to silently corner you, while attack dogs aid humans by sniffing out your position. Sometimes you're forced to move from cover to cover quickly to avoid getting caught, making combat more dynamic.

The well-designed environments facilitate this new style of gameplay. Lots of waist-high cover still exists, but it feels far less random because of how Seattle's environments are set up.

The Last of Us 2's Seattle is constantly rainy and sinking, with overgrown plant life and rubble around every corner. Avoiding enemy sightlines by slipping through cracks in walls, swimming through water, and crawling through tall grass never gets old. Using the terrain to quietly outsmart enemies is genuinely satisfying in almost every encounter.

Going loud means you'll often waste much-needed supplies that are hard to get back. It also means that confrontations are a lot more gruesome. The game's mix of realistic violence and high-quality graphics is not for the faint of heart. Screams literally echo through the game's meandering levels as limbs fly from bodies.

Stealth, on the other hand, allows you to figure out the best approaches for various situations — it feels good not being seen or heard at all. It also cuts down on the scavenging the game urges you to do at almost every turn.

Though scavenging makes sense within the world and the setting, searching for supplies outside of combat still feels like a chore because of how open and vast some of the locations are in The Last of Us 2.

It's not just one closed-off street you'll explore, but entire city blocks. Not only do these huge zones affect the pacing of the game, but the fear of missing out on new guns and useful upgrades will have you going building to building picking up supplies for far too long, most notably in the earlier sections of the game.

Issues with scavenging are made more prominent by generally uninteresting character upgrades, with skill trees full of Listening Mode improvements, health increases, and various crafting bonuses.

They're useful skills depending on your playstyle, but they're not practical enough to make scavenging feel worthwhile or rewarding. I can't help but feel there could have been a better way to implement skill trees outside of collecting random, hidden pills and pill bottles, especially since it's impossible to max out every skill tree in one playthrough. 

The Last of Us 2 Review — The Bottom Line

  • Beautiful character moments and arcs
  • Outstanding performances
  • Beyond impressive presentation
  • Great environments provide plenty of options in combat
  • Some new characters feel flat and uninteresting
  • Pacing issues grind the plot to a crawl at times
  • Tedious scavenging for mostly unexciting skill trees and upgrades

The Last of Us 2 does so many things right, from its engaging story beats to its eye-catching level design. But at the same time, there are more than a few things that Naughty Dog could've, and possibly should've, handled differently. 

The character interactions and moments of individual growth shown throughout the narrative are some of my favorites in recent memory. The bonds on display are so believably strong that, when they're severed, getting revenge is understandably the only option left.

That's what makes it so moving to see characters struggling to progress past devastating moments in order to ultimately find internal peace. It's just unfortunate that some poor implementation of intriguing ideas and slow pacing are often wedged between those spectacular moments.

[Note: The reviewer purchased the copy of The Last of Us 2 used in this review.]

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia Review — Of Monsters and Muddles Thu, 25 Jun 2020 03:15:01 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Happinet intends Brigandine: Legend of Runersia as a revival of the PS1-era tactics title Brigandine: Legend of Forsena. The latter had a few problems that held it back, so it seems like a worthy endeavor on the surface. 

While there aren't many other tactics games that do what Brigandine does, this version is held back by some frustrating production and balance problems. In the attempt to address Legend of Forsena’s biggest issues, Happinet sort of glossed over other important problems that still very much need fixing.

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia Review — Of Monsters and Muddles

In Runersia, you're the leader of one of six nations. In typical fashion, you try to conquer the other five for one reason or another. No matter the nation you choose, you’re joined by a handful of allies, and you’ll gradually unlock extra story scenes either as the story itself progresses or you uncover lost Records that explain how the world works.

It’s mostly high-fantasy dressing for Runersia's gameplay, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

The gorgeous 2D artwork accompanying each scene goes a long way to making the game feel unique, on top of each nation's own particular motivations and problems. Still, more scenes breaking up bouts of invasion would have been a very good thing.

Brigandine’s gameplay is basically Risk tactics. You have five years to unite Runersia, and these years are split into seasons. Each season is essentially a turn, and it’s divided into two phases — or three if you’re a stickler for categories. Organization and Attack are the two main phases, with Invasion sliding in as the back half of Attack, should you actually choose to attack anyone (more on that in a bit).

The Organization phase is the Risk element of Brigandine, and it’s definitely what makes it stand out among other tactics games. Initially, you have a number of bases to work from and defend, but you don’t have nearly enough Rune Knights to defend them all. It’s not a matter of just putting one Knight on each base either, since that’s just asking for trouble.

Consequently, part of your task is shuffling your forces around to cover potential enemy invasion points, push forward with your own invasion, or, if you’re like me, madly scramble to recover bases you lost because you didn’t balance the other two factors well enough.

Because your enemies are fairly dormant at first, it’s easy in the first five seasons or so to stretch your resources too thin — creating outposts against multiple enemies or trying to handle too many invasions at once. Planning at least one or two seasons ahead is essential from the get-go.

You’ll recruit more Rune Knights as the game unfolds either through quests or scripted events (the requirements for triggering in-game events are pretty much inscrutable, though).

Rune Knights are strong on their own, but you’ll need to summon monsters to create a squadron around them if you actually want to win battles. After leveling them up and, for Rune Knights, achieving a level of Proficiency with a job, you can reclass to learn new skills, too, so there’s a nice trade-off involved in training your troops.

But the Knights and monsters are where things get a bit sticky.

Each base has a pre-set pool of monsters you can summon from. That said, it seems random which base can spawn which monster. I could get a centaur from just one of 15 bases, and the same was true for goblin warriors. Dragons, wolves, and golems are a dime a dozen.

No problem, you might say. Except you need a Rune Knight on the base to attach the monster, which means taking them from wherever else they might have been stationed; and that’s one season. Then you’ll spend the next season moving them back where you need them. The Mana system adds a bit to this issue.

Normally, it’s a boon. Each monster has a Mana cost, and each Rune Knight has a Mana limit that grows as they level up. Basically, you can’t summon 100 dragons and stick them on one Knight; you have to design your squads carefully.

It necessitates planning ahead, but it also seems like an artificial and unnecessary layer of planning — more of an annoyance than an actual feature. That goes double when you consider terrain advantages. There are several kinds of terrain, each offering bonuses or penalties depending on your unit type. At first, depending on which nation you start with, you won’t really need to deal with terrain, but that changes as you push your invasions further. 

The execution is a bit heavy-handed. For instance, I get the Shinobi are forest dwellers, but their maps are absolutely full of forests. That puts every unit except flyers and plants at a disadvantage. Normally, I’d think this was a nice twist that really makes use of the monster system and some of its finer details as you optimize for combat. But it just ends up feeling tedious.

On the bright side, if you don’t stop to plan new monster squads, you’ll build your formations around the map’s other spots of terrain with your existing teams, though it does mean dealing with garbage hit rates.

Whether you’re constantly building new teams or just adding new critters in general, you’ll need to level these monsters up. If you lose a monster in battle, it’s gone for good. That’s an incentive to not suck at battle, obviously, but a loss or 10 is bound to happen eventually. New monsters come in at Level 1 and are mostly useless in battle unless you pull a Final Fantasy 2 and use them as damage sponges just to rack up experience.

Enter quests to fix this problem.

You can undertake quests at a base and send Rune Knights and squads on various quests that carry names (but no descriptions), as well as a likelihood of success or failure (with nothing indicating why it might go one way or the other). You’ll get items and experience points based on how successful each quest is — something out of your control — or you can send a squad off to training camp for some additional experience. 

The experience is handy for getting new monsters and some Rune Knights to at least Level 5, but it also doesn’t scale. A bonus of 200 experience points starts seeming paltry after that level. In turn, different levels of training would have made a big difference, and it could easily have been offset by taking, for example, two seasons to complete instead of just one. It's less of an issue as you progress, but it makes getting started a bit of a pain.

So all this is what you have to consider for your Organization phase, except quests, which fall under Attack. It’s a lot to deal with at first, and Brigandine’s lengthy tutorials don’t always hit every point you need to know. Expect to still be learning how the game works several hours in. 

The Invasion phase is, unsurprisingly, where battles unfold, and you can engage in as many invasions during the Attack phase as you feel you can handle. Battles play out on big-ish sized maps. Regardless of how many Rune Knights you have piled onto one base, you can only take three into battle. 

There’s an odd quirk at play here too. You’re encouraged to shore up your vulnerable bases so your Command Points — a number indicating the likelihood you’ll withstand or pull off an invasion — match or exceed a nearby opponent’s.  It's ultimately a bit pointless since you can’t actually use all these Knights in battle. 

It seems this might be a holdover from higher difficulties. On normal, enemy nations only invade empty bases or, as happened once, bases where every Knight is off on a quest. I haven’t tried hard yet, but I’m guessing enemies are more aggressive there.

Anyhow, once battle starts, you have 12 turns to either capture the enemy stronghold by placing a unit there for one full turn, defeating all enemy commanders, or forcing them to surrender. Or so the game tells you. I tried the capture option and it didn’t actually work.

The 12-turn limit is a carryover from the original Brigandine, and it brings the same problems with it. Because you don’t have time to plan out strategies for dividing the enemy’s army or approaching a town/palace from all sides, combat typically devolves into all six squadrons meeting somewhere in the middle and bashing each other until someone’s dead enough.

That’s not to say strategy isn’t involved. You’ll need to pay close attention to unit placement thanks to Brigandine’s unique hexagon system where you can’t pass through hexagons adjacent to a unit. This is something you can use to your advantage to block enemies from more vulnerable troops or to trigger a “chain” where you surround enemies and raise your critical hit rate.

It’s a neat idea that isn’t really necessary in most cases. Typically, the quagmire of Knights and monsters duking it out just makes the placement gimmick an obstacle more than anything. 

Even still, because most units’ special skills can’t be used after movement, creating some kind of formation and adapting it to enemy movements is something you’ll be doing a lot. Maybe that’s a good thing, since it’s how you’d expect a battle to play out. This isn’t Fire Emblem, where super-powered student assassins single-handedly infiltrate fortresses, so I’m a bit torn between the obvious limitations and the fact that they do sort of fit the situation.

But that doesn’t explain the game's balance problem. Levels don’t always determine battle strength. For example, a Level 1 Ghoul should absolutely not be able to survive three hits from a Level 10 Dragon or several spell blasts from a powerful enchanter. 

The biggest issue here is that it’s the same exact problem Legend of Forsena dealt with and was criticized for. Happinet responded to criticisms of animations being too long, and that’s greatly appreciated. But lack of map variety, slapdash use of terrain, weird balancing, and limiting the game’s own strengths with the in-battle turn limit ultimately drag it down and make for a weird disconnect between the planning involved with the Organization phase and the brawls battles usually turn into. 

There are a couple of badgering production values to point out as well. First is the audio. The sound effects for monsters and characters are… odd. One species makes a sound akin to a cartoon sound-byte of stepping in poo. The Dancer-class Rune Knight makes a sound similar to sleigh bells when she moves. I don’t know why, but it’s at odds with the high fantasy feel Brigandine’s aiming for and just feels cheap.

The localization needs some work too. It seems there’s probably two editors on the project or maybe an editor and a machine, because you’ll go from good fantasy writing to lines that don’t fit the context or completely break character, sometimes in the same set of dialogue.

Brigandine: Legend of Runersia Review — The Bottom Line

  • Tons of depth
  • Good high-fantasy story, even if there's not enough of it
  • Give and take gameplay, where every action comes at a cost
  • That satisfaction when your plans bear fruit
  • Some frustratingly unnecessary layers of planning
  • Retains many of the same problems of the original
  • Needs more polish
  • Some aspects, like quests and events, need more attention
  • Disconnect between the Organization phase's planning and the mosh pit fights Invasions invariably turn into

In the end, scoring Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia is tough. I love its depth, concepts, and style. And the laundry list of complaints is more noticeable when you're not actually playing it.

Still, there are definite issues that need addressing, especially those gameplay problems lingering from the '90s. Hopefully, we'll see another new Brigandine willing to take bigger steps to fix these issues.

[Note: A copy of Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia was provided by Happinet for the purpose of this review]

West of Dead Review: Pain and Agony in the Afterlife Mon, 22 Jun 2020 17:17:37 -0400 Jason D'Aprile

West of Dead is big on death, especially the player’s. For some, that will be a positive attribute. Those being the Dark Souls-loving contingent that doesn’t mind repetition and slow advancement through a brutally unforgiving landscape. The procedurally generated, roguelike levels that await every new run mean that players can never get too comfortable with West of Dead, even if it always starts in the saloon.

This strange purgatory our ghostly gunslinger finds himself doomed to travel is full of lost souls and the damned. Few you’ll meet are friendly. Most are waiting to plug you full of holes, blow you to bits with TNT, or chew you up. The Old West never came across as friendly, but the dead version of it is downright sinister.

West of Dead Review: Brutality and the Newly Resurrected Gunman

Voiced by the pitch-perfect gravelly-toned Ron Perlman, our gunslinging protagonist, William Mason, is a stoic fellow. He’s a mystery man, just passing through. Through what is another enigma entirely, but it’s not hard for a man who lived by the gun to figure out. Someone or something wants him alive (in the relative sense) to play with, like a mouse in a very deadly maze.

Combat in West of Dead is an almost methodical cover-based affair. Enter a room with bad things, roll to the nearest cover, and target any enemy in sight. Zombies and more await. Some are armed with rifles, others just shamble forward to snack on you, and plenty more throw explosives your way. There are enemies, like a grotesque, engorged butcher who can kill you with one blow and annoying dog things that will follow you, and even bosses with devastating ends if you're not careful. 

Oh, and that cover? It’s destructible, so when things get heated, you’ll need to move from cover to cover to survive.

Dodging is vital. A perfect dodge can save you from hot-leaded death, as you roll from cover to cover. Actual combat is handled in a familiar “twin-stick” manner. The left stick moves our gun-fighting friend, while the right aims. Shoulder buttons fire his guns and use his special weapons. 

The game tends to set you up with a basic rifle and pistol to start. Hold the rifle button down and you’ll aim more precisely, delivering a death-packed wallop to your target. West of Dead is big on murderous variety, so there are a lot of other guns and secondary weapons to acquire as you progress.

Shotguns, better rifles and pistols, flare guns, ice guns, TNT, throwing knives, axes, there’s a lot of selection here, but most of it is entirely random. The same gun can also come in higher levels for more effective killing, but you can only carry two firearms at a time.

There are two secondary weapon slots that recharge after use, one health potion that can be used once during a level, and a space for a magic item that can increase your chances of survival. There are even upgrade stations where you can level up one of three abilities and a wandering salesman who offers new gear for cold iron.

Every enemy killed gives you more sin, which sounds bad, but is actually good. Between levels, you can trade-in your sin to a very enterprising witch for new weapons, items, and abilities.

Enemies tend to broadcast their attacks, giving you a split-second to respond. They’re dogged in their pursuit, but none too smart. Some can follow you into the hallways but have a hell of time navigating things like walls and other obstacles. Monsters just walking mindlessly against a wall became a frequent sight.

Light is also a factor. Dim lamps hang in darkness and if you can light them, they’ll not just brighten the room and reveal hidden enemies, but stun any enemies within range.

There’s a lot of great stuff here. The gorgeous look, so reminiscent of a Mike Mignola comic, is instantly appealing. The Ghost Rider-like design of the lead, the rough Old West look of his enemies, even the dark halls and endless rooms all look like a comic book come to life. The score is terrific, moody and evocative, and Ron Perlman’s voice to narrate the whole thing is just icing on the cake.

Even the story, so desperate not to reveal itself, is fascinating, which is part of the problem. For a game clearly invested in its narrative, it makes it so damn hard to see most of it because of all the death.

Dying in West of Dead is of the perma-death variety. The only thing that carries forward from one run to the next is the witch’s sin-based inventory. So, if you were halfway through upgrading a new health potion flask, those points will still be there. 

Everything else, though? Gone. Given how easily death comes, especially for the first several hours, this system gets old really fast. There are a lot of little annoyances that make it more frustrating, like the way it gives you the same tutorial messages when you pick up the same starter guns for the umpteenth time. 

If you’re just a little too in a hurry, it’s easy to get stuck on walls or accidentally slide over cover or somehow be just a hair-width away from being against cover and not noticing until it’s too late.

While most of the weapons have a very satisfying kick to them, the shotguns are sadly disappointing. Their range is so limited, they’re only useful point-blank, which despite what video games insist on saying, is simply not realistic (or helpful).

The camera, uncontrollable by the player, and the way the game makes walls disappear and reappear can make it a nightmare to find an opening—especially if you’re doing a tactical retreat. Sometimes, you just can’t see where the doorway is. 

Since the game randomly creates a new map every time you restart, there are weird inconsistencies between layouts. Sometimes, the maps work in your favor with a smaller footprint, with easy-to-find upgrade stations and much better weapons to discover. Other times, you’re forced to trudge through room after room of bad things, your health getting whittled down, to find anything of use.

West of Dead Review—The Bottom Line 

  • Beautifully macabre, comic book-style art and a great soundtrack
  • Stylish, intelligent combat
  • Good for those in search of an uncompromising challenge
  • Perma-death with little progression saves is incredible frustrating
  • Enemy AI has remarkably sketchy pathfinding and little in the way of strategic behavior
  • Camera issues

As mentioned at the start, some players will dig this slow progression, watching their skills improve a bit each time. Others will hate the frustration of sudden death, loss of their load-out and upgrades, and the general overt repetition of it all.

West of Dead isn’t good at compromise. There are no options to soften it up so you aren’t stuck wandering through the same few rooms shooting the same enemies over and over and over. 

There’s a great game in here somewhere, complemented by a fascinating world, but roguelike and narrative-heavy seldom go well together. West of Dead might reward players who put the hours in, despite the achingly slow progress, restarts, and frustration, but the severe unforgiving nature and difficulty level of the game will likely be off-putting for many of us.

A mixed bag of a game, there’s plenty to like here wrapped around a repetitive and needlessly brutal shell. West of Dead is a game that makes players work to enjoy it. Yet when it all comes together, the gameplay works like a beautiful choreography of death.

[Note: A copy of West of Dead was provided by Raw Fury for the purpose of this review.]

SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated Review: Shallow F.U.N. Mon, 22 Jun 2020 17:16:02 -0400 JosephYaden

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's the driving force behind many beloved franchises, especially in video games. The hype surrounding the return of a game or series you loved as a kid is unlike anything else. Though, a lot of times, our memories of these games can make them seem more enjoyable than they actually are. 

That brings us to SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, a remake of 2003's SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, as developed by Purple Lamp Studios and published by THQ NordicRehydrated keeps the gameplay, story, and themes of the original intact, but it improves the presentation for modern consoles.

Rehydrated doesn't deviate too far from the original, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on what you're looking for. Those wanting the same experience as the 2003 game but with a modern touch will likely enjoy Rehydrated. However, don't expect a total overhaul. In many ways, this isn't a bad thing, but Rehydrated still feels like a game from 17 years ago. 

SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated Review: Shallow F.U.N.

Developing a remake is probably quite difficult. Some fans might want an experience that feels exactly like they remember, while others might want something new and iterative. At the same time, many older games are severely outdated and in need of a contemporary touch-up. Unfortunately for SpongeBob fans, Rehydrated feels outdated, despite looking like a modern release. 

In Rehydrated, you play as SpongeBob and his gang of friends, intending to stop Plankton's army of robots from stealing the coveted Krabby Patty secret formula. It's a story that's been done before, but you probably aren't expecting a deeply emotional narrative from a SpongeBob game.

The gameplay revolves around collecting "Shiny Things" (which are basically coins from Mario), platforming, and taking out enemies with basic attacks. The game uses the classic 3D-platformer formula, and it has multiple stages to explore linearly. Most of Rehydrated's stages allow you to swap between SpongeBob and other characters, who each have their own abilities, some of which are required to advance through the game. 

The levels vary in theme and location, offering a breadth of things to do, like solving minor puzzles and partaking in combat challenges to progress. However, after six hours or so, the levels start to feel the same when it comes to gameplay, even if your goals from stage to stage are presented differently. 

That's Rehydrated's biggest problem: It feels trapped in 2003 in nearly every regard. Video games have evolved so much in the past 17 years, even when it comes to 3D platformers. So running around, collecting items, and using basic attacks to take out robots is cute — and maybe even fun at first  but it quickly gets old as the game goes on.

That isn't to say there's absolutely no change of pace or no fun to be had in Rehydrated. In fact, each stage has unique features that attempt to keep things fresh. One of the earliest stages, Jellyfish Fields, introduces you to Patrick, who plays differently than SpongeBob, along with a boss battle against a giant jellyfish. Another section, Downtown Bikini Bottom, adds Sandy as a playable character, who takes part in some fun platforming across the town's rooftops. 

Aside from its lackluster gameplay, Rehydrated's most significant issue is its bugs, especially the ones that halt your progression.

The most common problem I encountered in my time with Rehydrated was a black screen that could only be circumvented by quitting out to the main menu. This would only happen after getting to the very end of a checkpoint, usually after striking an enemy. It was as if the game was having trouble loading the next part.

Either way, having to restart an entire section because of a bug is unacceptable. And this happened around eight times throughout my playthrough for review. Let's hope Purple Lamp Studios rolls out a patch for this before the game launches. 

The other problem is Rehydrated's egregious load times. On average, it would take 25 seconds to respawn at the beginning of a checkpoint. That may not sound like a big deal, but since the game has long stretches without checkpoints, dying gets old fast.

It wouldn't be so bad if the game handled "death" differently. In some games, when you miss a jump, you're immediately put back where you fell, and the game deducts a small amount of health. Rehydrated sends you all the way back to the checkpoint. Implementing a different checkpoint system would help the game's pacing tremendously. 

Rehydrated also features a multiplayer mode, which sends you and a friend through a gauntlet of enemies as you try to defeat the evil robotic Squidward. Much like the main game, it's a shallow experience that you'll probably only enjoy for all of 10 minutes. If you're desperate for multiplayer, whether it be online or locally, there are far better options featured in other games. 

But Rehydrated isn't all bad. It does a lot of things right. It's easy to pick up and play. You don't need any backstory, and you don't have to keep track of complicated progression systems. It's a game that's easy to run through without having to think too hard. While many contemporary games often require a lot of your time and attention, Rehydrated can be a nice change of pace, letting you just kick back and play. 

It's also extremely funny, even if you aren't a huge SpongeBob fan. One of my favorite things is to sit through SpongeBob's idle animations, one of which features a callback to tHe MeMe ThAt LoOkS lIkE tHiS. You know the one. 

The visuals are also absolutely gorgeous, even running on an inferior platform like the Nintendo Switch. On other systems, 4K resolution is supported. Whichever version you play, Rehydrated looks and sounds just like the television show. The music, audio effects, and voice acting are all top-notch. 

Rehydrated also includes new content not featured in the previous release, like Patrick's dream level, which features one of the game's funniest jokes (we won't spoil it), and an additional phase to the SpongeBob SteelPants boss battle. 

SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated Review: The Bottom Line

  • Looks and sounds like a game made for modern consoles
  • Just as funny and full of personality as it was in 2003
  • Easy to pick up and play
  • Doesn't necessarily play like a game made for modern consoles
  • Extremely long load times
  • Technical issues

If you loved the original game, then Rehydrated might be right up your alley. It's a better game in almost every regard. But if you're looking for a fundamentally different experience that revolutionizes the way 3D platformers are done, you might be disappointed.

Rehydrated isn't bad, by any stretch. In fact, there's a lot it does right. Just know that even if you were a fan of this game when it came out in 2003, it might not hold up for you 17 years later.  

[Note: A copy of SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom — Rehydrated was provided by THQ Nordic for the purpose of this review.]

Pokemon Sword and Shield Isle of Armor Review: Whipped Dream on Top Thu, 18 Jun 2020 17:20:54 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

The Isle of Armor is the first-ever DLC for a Pokemon game, and it adds a significant new location to Sword and Shield, more Pokemon from previous games, and lots of extra stuff to do.

But is The Isle of Armor DLC worth it? That’s probably something you’ll ultimately need to decide for yourself, but I’d say yes — absolutely. The Isle of Armor is cracking good DLC for Pokemon, especially since there’s even more to come in the Expansion Pass with The Crown Tundra later this year.

Pokemon Sword and Shield Isle of Armor Review: Whipped Dream on Top

Getting started in The Isle of Armor is easy (check out our guide to see for yourself), and you can access it at basically any point in the game. That’s pretty handy overall, but what The Pokemon Company and early previews don’t tell you is that you’re sort of out of luck if you access the Isle of Armor before becoming Champion.

It doesn’t scale levels after all, so pre-Champion, you see everything ranging from Level 10 through Level 20 or so — even if your party is way above that. Post-Champion, you’ll see wild ‘mon and other trainers coming at you with Level 60 teams and up.

So my first adventure on the island was a bit of a disappointment then, compounded by the Fields of Hope being one of the most boring areas on the island. Well, at least at first.

You’ll be greeted by armies of Bunneary and Jigglypuff, with a few other Pokemon aside from that. It’s admittedly not the best introduction to something that’s supposed to be exotic and new.

But you’ll get glimpses of something better — islands out at sea, a massive Wailord hanging out in the ocean, lots and lots of Max Raids waiting in the distance, and the Master Dojo itself, just up ahead.

Sure it's a fair fight.

You can go in and start The Isle of Armor’s plot at once, or you can ignore it and go exploring, which is, naturally, what I did. And I’m glad I did. The rest of the Isle of Armor is pretty excellent, and it’s a whole lot bigger and more varied than you’d think. 

Better yet, the whole island is like the Wild Area in that you can fully rotate the camera, which is a much bigger touch than it might sound like. There are also Dens nearly everywhere.

Unlike the Wild Area, these Dens seem to be active more often as well. Where I’ll enter the Wild Area on a given day and see maybe four active Dens across the whole expanse, there’s sometimes that many in just one segment of the Isle of Armor.

The Pokemon variety is good throughout as well. Just when I’d think I was bored with the same three Pokemon showing up in an area, something new popped up — or there’d be a final evolved form of a Pokemon you normally can’t get without trading or special items. That’s when playing before beating the Champion comes in handy, so you can actually raise these fully evolved Pokemon from a low level.

Just uh... ignore the innuendo kids.

Having said that, I don’t know what to do with all these new ‘mon. There’s no room for them on my primary team, but using them in a new playthrough would be nice. The logical thing to do would be to buy a Pokemon Home subscription and funnel them back and forth as I please. Maybe that was Game Freak and The Pokemon Company’s nefarious goal all along, but seeing all these classic Pokemon as DLC is surprisingly lovely.

It keeps the main game from feeling overwhelming with so many monsters to catch, and it makes seeing them in a new location feel fresh and somewhat exciting again. That’s quite a feat when we’ve seen these same critters again and again for decades now.

In short, it’s precisely what DLC should be — an extra treat on top of the main course.

That works pretty well for describing the rest of The Isle of Armor as well. The story is short and revolves around training at the Master Dojo and raising Kubfu. There’s a post-game story too, also about raising Kubfu, but it’s really all a cover for battling and a handful of new features.

The Isle of Armor’s theme is “growth,” and that’s pretty apparent in playing. You’ll battle a lot. One of the features unlocked at the end is a kind of Battle Factory substitute, and you can grow your skills through managing new team combinations.

The Battle Factory substitute is called Restricted Training, where you choose a type of Pokemon to fight with while building a team around it from your roster. You usually battle against a stronger type, and it offers a decent challenge.

Outside of that, there are still some additional features to take advantage of. The Cram-o-Matic is an excellent excuse to offload crud you don’t want and get a rare item in return. There’s actually a recipe book if you want, though experimenting is a fun way to obtain some rarer Technical Records.

You can upgrade the Dojo’s Rotom machine too and turn it into a mini-Pokemon Center of sorts. You can challenge the Dojo Master to some battles. Or you can find more Max Mushrooms to turn “select” Pokemon into Gigantamax forms of themselves. 

One area The Isle of Armor improves on over the base Sword and Shield game is with its characters. They’re much more interesting on the island, and the stories around them are just quirky fun. The writing helps with that too. It’s a lot smoother and more varied than Pokemon usually is, with your island rival being a particular treat.

This kind of structure and focus on more episodic scenarios in a Pokemon adventure are what I'd like to see more of in the future. It's not shackled to the usual limitations of the Gym journey, so The Isle of Armor is free to create a goofball slice-of-life adventure set in a Pokemon world that still retains classic Pokemon elements.

Pokemon The Isle of Armor Review — The Bottom Line

  • Expansive new island to explore
  • Lots of Pokemon to catch
  • Makes it exciting to see these decades-old Pokemon again
  • Fun localization and quirky characters
  • Not all that much new content
  • Level scaling is bruh.gif

And that’s it, though it's important to remember this is just DLC and not a full game.

The Isle of Armor is very much just one part of the Expansion Pass, and I suspect The Crown Tundra will be the beefier addition. That means that by itself, The Isle or Armor would be a bit difficult to recommend for the price compared to the Fire Emblem: Three Houses expansion pass or Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s pass.

As one half of an even more expanded adventure, though, The Isle of Armor is a well-rounded and satisfying topping to the main games — assuming you like catching new Pokemon, battling, and exploring. And if you don’t, then you’re probably playing the wrong game anyway.

[Note: The reviewer purchased their own copy of The Isle of Armor used in this review.]

The Darius Cozmic Collections Review: Retro Love from Beyond Thu, 18 Jun 2020 15:19:15 -0400 Jason D'Aprile

Technically, this is a review of two different collections: the Darius Cozmic Collection Console and the Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade. They’re actually quite different takes on the same series of side-scrolling arcade shooters that show off the strengths and weaknesses of a surprising array of hardware at the time.

These collections give fans of old-school shmups a chance to experience a classic series in a fantastic variety of different flavors.

Taito’s Darius was always a bit more obscure than more popular shooters like Gradius, Raiden, and R-type. This is partially thanks to the specialized three-screen hardware the original Darius arcade cabinets used. Where most games were a single CRT and could have their mainboard swapped out if needed for a myriad of other games, Darius was expensive and much harder to find.

Like pretty much all shmups of the time, Darius was all about shooting bad things and not dying, and not dying, as usual for the genre, was diabolically hard. The series had a few key elements that set it apart, aside from the vibrant three-screen, widescreen hardware.

The marine-themed enemies were immediately distinctive. Mechanical sharks, starfish, assorted fish mixed with other more traditional tank and gun emplacements. Bosses included giant robotic angler fish, a sperm whale, swordfish, piranha, octopus, and many more.

The player’s ship included a basic forward blaster, bombs, both of which could be upgraded through power-ups. The blue power-up gave the ship a shield. The overall weapons system wasn't as diverse as Gradius or R-Type but evolved in minor ways through the different versions.

The Darius Cozmic Collections review: Through a Sea of Stars

What kept players coming back was the game's branching map. Twenty-eight connected levels enabled players to pick their own path through the game. Since the level before opened up a choice of two levels to advance to, it added an unheard-of sense of replay value.

When most games were straightforward linear romps meant to amass quarters with punishing difficulty levels and pixel-perfect timing and control, this branching level map was a big deal. So, it’s easy to understand why players were eager to have the game at home, despite obvious hardware limitations.

Every console version of Darius was a mix of the arcade versions that kept the themes and general mechanics, with redone levels and graphics catering to the unique properties of the individual platform. The console collection features nine ports (released between 1990 and 1993), including the same game from different regions.

Darius 2 (or SAGAIA in the West) was specific to Sega hardware — even the EU-only 8-bit Sega Master System version is included in this collection. On the Nintendo side were Darius Twin and Darius Force (Super Nova in the U.S.), each with a SNES and Super Famicom variant.

nally, Darius Alpha and Plus were really obscure versions of the original arcade game ported to the NEC PC Engine (the TurboGrafx-16 in the U.S.). One was never actually released, and the other was nearly impossible to find according to the collection’s historical facts.

Considering just how good these versions are today, it’s a shame they never saw wide release. While downgraded in size and scope, these ports are actually the closest to the arcade version and the most impressive as a result.

It’s just unfortunate the collection doesn’t include Super Darius, which was released more widely on CD for the PC Engine’s CD-ROM add-on. It was the closest to a true direct port of the arcade game, using the actual coin-op soundtrack with all 26 bosses (Determined fans can at least experience it as part of the incredibly beefy collection included on the TurboGrafx-16 Mini console).

The arcade collection contains seven titles — three main games with several variants of the first and second (much how Capcom created multiple variations of Street Fighter 2). Darius 2 is downgraded to just two-screens and includes two SAGAIA variants. Darius Gaiden is the final game in the series. It was a one-screen cabinet and added a superbomb option seen in so many other popular shooters.

Each game in the arcade collection keeps the same aspect ratio as its original version. The graphics are still gorgeous, and the controls still precise. You can continue as much as you’d like, making them easier to manage than the console versions. This collection also lets modern gamers hear the full arcade soundtrack. In the crowded overloaded atmosphere of an 80s arcade, it was easy to overlook the superb scores found here.

Both of these collections are relying heavily on the power of nostalgia to be a significant selling point. The main menu includes a digital manual and brief history for each game, and you can save your game at any time during play. There’s no rewind or specific new cheats or options to customize the experience, though.

The Darius Cozmic Collections Review — The Bottom Line


  • Beefy in scope
  • Chronicle the history of the series very well
  • Superb bosses, branching levels, and plenty of variation between different console versions
  • Still pretty damned impressive and well worth playing for anyone who enjoys classic shmups
  • Ability to pause and save at any time is a welcome addition 
  • Pricey
  • Not a lot of extras to pad the packages out
  • Console collection lacks Super Darius, which was the best home version of the arcade original of that era

The classic shooter has held on as a genre since Taito’s original Space Invaders, and these games are definitely worthwhile for gamers who still love the challenge and rhythm of a good bullet ballet. The major sticking point is simply the price. The console collection, at release, is a full-on $60, while the arcade collection is $45. Either way, if you just get one, the Arcade pack is the quintessential Darius experience.

Simply put, the original arcade sources were noticeably better in every way in comparison to the console ports (and would remain so until DARIUSBURST Chronicle Saviours on the PS4/Vita). The console versions have their own appeal and are fine shooters, but don’t compare with the size, scope, and presentation of the source material.

[Note: A copy of the Darius Cozmic Collection was provided by Taito for the purpose of this review.]

Summer in Mara Review: Summertime Sadness Mon, 15 Jun 2020 15:13:46 -0400 Mark Delaney

Launching a farm sim on Nintendo Switch in 2020 must be a daunting task. It's tough to follow the indomitable act that is Animal Crossing, but if you're going to try, it helps to do something your way. That's the promise of Summer in Mara.

It's a cutesy farm sim on the surface, but it does things decidedly different than its best-selling counterpart, such as focusing on a scripted story.

What makes the game unique is what could eventually make it worth playing, even for the most committed islanders of Animal Crossing. But in its current form, Summer in Mara doesn't justify the vacation time for several reasons.

Summer in Mara Review: Summertime Sadness

Summer in Mara may be categorized as a farming sim, but it's not as intensive as some others in the genre. You'll spend much more time running around on quests for other villagers than you will tilling soil and planting crops. Those are a part of Mara, but after the tutorial, they fade into the background. 

As Koa, players learn the staples of the genre. Things like crafting recipes, planting seeds, and mining ore are all on the to-do list, and though completing these tasks is straightforward, the UI is often clunky and unintuitive, leading to frequently faulty button presses. This takes some getting used to and may likely slow you down for a while, even when making something simple, like the early recipe for orange juice. 

Once Koa and the player have these mechanics down, the world opens up beyond her small starting island. Soon you'll meet many more fantasy characters, most of them appearing as alien-sea-creature hybrids who lend the game a sense of welcome unfamiliarity.

Sadly, these characters hardly elicit any feelings beyond the reaction to their outward design. It's strange too that characters never move from their spots. Everyone but Koa stands in place, waiting for you to talk to them. It's eerie, perpetuated by an overall lack of sound design that leaves Mara feeling ghostly.

The game squanders what could've been an atmospheric quality, instead making me feel alone, despite the characters otherwise trying to seem so friendly.

Some dialog simply doesn't compute, either. The lack of voice acting doesn't bother me, but the game's dialogue often seems off. Early on, your grandmother instructs you how their world is one of symbiosis. If Koa is to take from the land, she must give back. Cut down a tree, plant a new one. 

Now, that math doesn't really make the world a better place. It more so just fills a hole you've dug yourself, but I was on board with the eco-friendly attempt anyway. But within the next hour of the tutorial, I was instructed to defy that message regularly.

Before you can get off the beginning island, you'll need to chop down many trees, planting crops only to keep yourself fed. The game also never says anything about the fishing you do.

Of course, virtually all farm sims decline to inspect the inherent problems with fishing (like over-fishing, or simply stabbing animals in the face), but Summer in Mara told me it would be different, that it was going to care about that. But then it just... doesn't.

Even if I forgave it for the mixed messaging and lifeless world, the issues don't end there. One of Summer in Mara's best attributes appears right away. With full-motion Ghibli-like cutscenes, the world of Mara is hopeful and gorgeous, but when the cutscenes end, the world doesn't look nearly as lovely. As can often be the case with Switch games, some of what's missing in visual fidelity hides in portable mode, but even there, a haze leaves blemishes on its colorful world.

Questing is regularly annoying because there is no guide arrow. Many times, a quest directs you to visit a place you've never heard of or meet characters it doesn't lead you toward. This results in some frantic exploration until you find the small marker above the right person, or approach the proper landmark to finally find the interact option you need.

There's also a light survival system that feels almost randomly implemented. If Koa does not eat, she passes out and wakes up in her home with some stamina back — but not much. However, it's quite easy to stay fed, so there's really no reason for this mechanic at all. It just becomes a lifebar you must engage with every few minutes or her place in the world is briefly reset.

The more linear focus on story is a welcome side-step from the genre's typically loose structure, but Summer in Mara never capitalizes on any of it for these reasons. It's regularly a chore to advance the plot.

Sadly, even if it did deliver a story more enjoyably, it's hampered by bugs too. In my time with the game, I got stuck on geometry often, UI options failed to disappear, requiring me to restart the game. Though I thankfully avoided the same fate, I heard from another journalist that they had to get the studio to reset their entire saved game data.

This was because the game failed to let the player improvise how they tackled the quest log. Having done things in a slightly different order, they hit a game-breaking bug, and the game doesn't allow you to create a new save, apparently. That's the sort of thing that would be inexcusable with an otherwise great game, but Summer in Mara is far from great.

Summer in Mara Review — The Bottom Line

  • Ghibli-like cutscenes are beautiful
  • Music is soft and befitting of the island life
  • Bugs are quite common
  • Story is full of mixed messaging
  • Locales are lifeless due to a lack of sound design and NPCs that hardly move an inch
  • UI is clunky
  • Survival elements feel out of place

Some patchwork could resolve several of Summer in Mara's issues. Not just the bugs, but things like poor UI design could be addressed, too, making Summer in Mara a better, but still flawed game. I hope it receives that attention. Beyond the Studio Ghibli-style cutscenes and some peaceful music fitting of the genre, there are no redeeming qualities today.

This genre is the security blanket of video games. Fans return to it for their soothing progress bars, friendly neighbors, and accessible mechanics. It shouldn't be that a game like this causes frustration first and foremost, but that's how I spent my summer in Mara.

[Note: A copy of Summer in Mara was provided by Chibig for the purpose of this review.]

Desperados 3 Review: A High-Tension Hootenanny Fri, 12 Jun 2020 11:05:28 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

It's been many a moon since we saw a Desperados game. The second game in the real-time tactics series released in 2006, with the Helldorado spinoff coming out the next year. It's been all quiet on the western front until now.

This time, Mimimi Games is at the helm of Desperados 3, a great tactical title that carries on the legacy of the genre that included other greats like Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines.

Desperados 3 isn't perfect; it's still haunted by some of the same issues it had in its early build. However, it's a lovely little puzzle box that rewards creative thinking, eliciting more than a few "a-ha!" moments along the way, especially in particularly devious situations.

Desperados 3 Review: A High-Tension Hootenanny

If you've ever played a squad-based real-time tactics game, like other Desperados games, Commandos, or Mimimi's Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, you'll feel right at home in Desperados 3.

If you haven't, the gameplay style might need a little explaining. Each mission puts you in control of up to five characters. Each of those characters has special abilities at their disposal, and each mission consists of a series of objectives.

You must then utilize the characters at your disposal to achieve those goals, and there are usually dozens of enemies in your way. After analyzing patrol paths and learning the tendencies of nearby guards, you'll start picking off baddies one by one, opening up new paths while working your way through level toward the objectives.

When you first start out, things aren't terribly difficult; for example, luring an enemy into the jaws of a giant bear trap is pretty easy to figure out. As you start ramping up to greater difficulties in later missions, however, you'll have to combine several different abilities at once, each with a specific timing and a unique cooldown to make it through unscathed. It's tricky but oh-so-satisfying once you make it through a section that has been giving you fits.

Tactics and abilities start very simply. Protagonist John Cooper can flip a coin to draw an enemy's attention, and he has a couple of loud pistols that get instant kills but attract a big crowd. Later on, characters gain more complex abilities, and you can even press a specific key to queue up separate abilities from every character all at once.

One button press will unleash a symphony of destruction that requires distinct timing, and it's possible to mess up that timing on more than a few times in a playthrough. When it works, though, it's a sight to behold.

The Wild Bunch

Desperados 3 is a reasonably standard cowboy story, and its characters are relatively archetypal. There's a fun-loving giant, the brooding assassin, the rough-around-the-edges country gal, and so on. Rather than being put off by characters that have been done time and again, it's helpful for the tactical nature of the game.

There are limits and restrictions beyond just each characters' special abilities, but they won't surprise you. You'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect based on a particular character archetype.

Even though the characters themselves are pretty stereotypical, it is fun to watch how they banter and play-fight during missions. There's near-constant back and forth between them, and there's enough of it that it won't get too stale. It's a system that lends quite a bit of personality to the game that I wasn't expecting, and it helps make you care more about them than you might otherwise.

The game also gives you a surprising amount of choice beyond just, "How can I kill that enemy this time?" Desperados 3 allows you to play with little bits of the story, such as an early mission that has two characters competing for a bottle of whiskey by seeing who can take out the most enemies.

Though it doesn't change much in the grand scheme of things, it does let the player have more control over the story, and it also gives you a reason to play through Desperadoes 3 multiple times.

Fistful of Dollars

When you first scan through a new mission, it may seem nearly impossible. As you progress, you may think you have things figured out before noticing something you hadn't before, which then throws a wrench into your entire plan, forcing you to start from square one.

Perhaps nothing is more video gaming than a game encouraging you to save scum, but that's precisely what Desperados 3 does. Most missions reward you for limiting your use of or refraining entirely from quicksaving, but the very first mission informs you that "failing and trying again" is part of the game. Desperadoes 3 even warns you if you play for longer than a minute without a quick save.

This might turn some people off. However, it contributes to the feeling of triumph when finally get past a difficult section. This genre is also the king of making you realize that your approach is failing because it's the entirely wrong approach; sometimes shutting the game down, stepping away and coming back with a fresh set of eyes is the key to success.

Once Upon a Time

There is a lot to like about Desperados 3, but not everything is perfect out West. It isn't quite as noticeable as it was in the earlier build that we played, but the game just ain't that pretty. You can tell what's going on and who everyone is but, if you zoom in on the action, you'll see some terrible clipping and undetailed model work throughout.

It isn't a huge deal  you won't see most of the little hiccups in the game's standard view  — but it's a bummer seeing the butts of Cooper's guns clipping through his coat in every cutscene.

Desperados 3 is also an extremely finicky game, and it's prone to make all but the most patient players tilt on occasion. Sometimes, after killing an enemy and trying to grab their body to hide in a bush, my character would walk in circles around them until spotted by the patrolling guard.

If you haven't quicksaved, these little misses can be extremely frustrating, as Desperados 3 is a game that doesn't afford screwups when putting your plans into action.

By and large, this entire genre is built on patience. If you demand immediate results or "mastery" of a game means never dying, then you're probably looking in the wrong place. That dog won't hunt here.

Desperados 3 Review — The Bottom Line

  • Extremely satisfying puzzle box missions
  • Lots of ways to approach and succeed
  • Players can shape elements of the story
  • Good callbacks to original games
  • Can be overly frustrating
  • Graphics need some polishing

Neither Desperados 3 nor the real-time tactics genre are for everyone. Both can be frustrating and overly "video game-y." However, if this is your style of game, it's executed really well here. At the same time, the stereotypical cowboy setting is a lot of fun to play around in, even if it can be a bit overly familiar.

It's a welcome return for the series. Mimimi Games has proven once again that they know the genre, as both Desperados 3 and Shadow Tactics demonstrate. Lock and load your (quicksave) trigger finger  — somebody's poisoned the water hole!

[Note: A copy of Desperados 3 was provided by THQ Nordic for the purpose of this review.]

The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor Review — Moored In Nostalgia Wed, 10 Jun 2020 15:25:14 -0400 Gabriel Moss

"Hey you, you're finally awake!"

These are the first words you hear as the carriage driver harkens your arrival into the frozen wastelands of Western Skyrim.

Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor begins with a callback to the classic opening line that marks the start of the titular Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. However, while the 2011 open-world RPG takes place in the same province, a fragment of which also serves as the setting of Greymoor, there's just a bit more to this new Elder Scrolls Online chapter than fan service alone.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor Review — Moored In Nostalgia

It's easy to joke about how Todd Howard has gone and sold us Skyrim all over again, but Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor really isn't that. Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor centers its approximately 30 hours of content on a vastly fleshed-out version of the snowy wastes of Western Skyrim, which are meticulously designed, albeit graphically limited behind the old Hero engine tech.

However, this sprawling, snow-coated marshland faithfully depicts the iconic towns of Solitude and Morthal, both of which Skyrim fans will instantly recognize. Additionally, Blackreach is back and more realized than ever before, comprising four different biomes with their own look and personality. It's really great looking, which is why it sucks that it's one of the laggiest, most jittery zones I've seen in the entire game thus far, even though I'm rocking a 2080 Super and a Ryzen 3900x on 32GBs of 3600MHz RAM.

Other, more computer-friendly Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim locations are also faithfully recreated here, especially Solitude, the city built on top of a large rock that overlooks a harbor below. It looks gorgeous, and it holds up as one of the most interesting fantasy city designs I've seen in a game to date.

While the original Skyrim centered around dragons, Greymoor competently tells a brand new story about rogue Vampires, dangerous Harrowstorms, the evil Icereach Coven, and the mysterious new Gray Host brooding underneath the ominous Greymoor Keep.

It is fair to clarify again that Greymoor tells this story competently, giving you a fine enough reason to trek across the overland zones of Western Skyrim and a vastly overhauled version of the Blackreach Caverns.

The main story is packed with superfluous writing and generic or sometimes outright awkward acting, but a few of the side quests do prove to be interesting on their own merit — such as one quest that has you stealthily track a Vampire through a mine without getting caught by the ordinary miners who are just going about their day.

Aside from two massive zones and a brand new treasure-hunting system, the largest and most far-reaching addition in Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor, at least for me, is the overhauled Vampire skill line.

Having spent a year and a half playing as a Vampire in "vanilla" ESO before eventually getting the disease purged from my character's system via some priestly ritual, the changes between pre-Greymoor and post-Greymoor Vampires stand out as a major positive.

Previously, Vampires had only a small handful of useful skills and far too many debuffs to justify playing in most cases. To create a useful character as a Vampire, you practically needed to be a Magicka-wielder with a very specific character build. You also needed to deal with setbacks like a 75% weakness to fire damage, among others, if you really wanted to juice the most out of those limited special abilities.

This is no longer the case. The new Vampire skill line contains five very useful and unique active abilities, such as the super-handy Mist Form. This toggle-able skill allows you to turn into a cloud of red mist that negates all incoming damage for as long as you keep it toggled, and it feels awesome to use it in the heat of combat before an enemy unleashes a big spell or attack.

It's great that you can now choose when and how to become more monstrous as a Vampire by feeding on hapless NPCs, a move that can instantly kill with more style than any of those Dark Brotherhood goons. But it's still kind of a bummer that you can't easily make yourself less monstrous on command without seeking out special potions that do the trick for you. Even though you do lose Vampire "tiers" every few hours, this wait can be a hassle if you need to speak to an NPC merchant or banker who won't serve you because your overt Vampire-ness is a little too overwhelming for comfort.

It's great then that you have plenty of new options to pass the time with, given that the new Antiquities system adds new layers of depth to the already exploration-heavy gameplay style that Elder Scrolls Online does so well with.

As you move through the world, you can find "leads", which point you to special treasures buried all over. To turn these leads into actual treasure, you have to play the fun new Scrying and Excavation minigames. Scrying is like playing a heavily-modified game of Candy Crush, whereas Excavation is similar to Minesweeper.

These are satisfying little distractions that can point to some seriously interesting and unique loot, and both add new layers of depth to an already worthwhile exploration system.

Harrowstorms are a new public event that, while promising to shake things up with a bombastic visual that paints the entire sky red (Oblivion-style), they end up falling flat pretty quick.

They're significantly more challenging to beat than your run-of-the-mill Dolmens from the base game zones, but they don't offer all that much in the way of useful loot. Seeing as how it's still so easy to die while attempting one, even with what feels like an army of players fighting alongside you, Harrowstorms can feel arbitrarily punishing and are ultimately worth skipping entirely.

Finally, it's disappointing that Elder Scrolls Online continues to release expansion packs that don't fundamentally shake up the way zone structure works. Like its predecessors, Greymoor runs down the same checklist of delves, public dungeons, crafting stations, and so on. While it does introduce a new 12-person Trial, this is still functionally similar to other Trials in earlier expansion zones. This all leads to Greymoor having an unshakeable "cookie-cutter" feel to it.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor Review — The Bottom Line

  • Faithful recreation of Skyrim locales such as Solitude and Blackreach
  • Cool new Antiquities system
  • Useful Vampire skill overhaul
  • Harrowstorms light up the sky and look really cool
  • The Hero engine is seriously starting to feel old
  • Inconsistent and often boring or awkward storytelling
  • Nothing fundamentally different in zone structure
  • Harrowstorms promise to be more interesting and rewarding than they are in practice

Despite retreading an old and nostalgic part of the world, Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor does its best to steer clear of simply putting up a fan service-y rehash. As such, it offers up a new story, though not necessarily a more interesting one than what was given to us in the likes of Clockwork City or Summerset.

However, while it adds some great new improvements to gameplay in its overhauled Vampire skill line and new Antiquities system, it's still just another ESO expansion.

[Note: A copy of Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor was provided by  ZeniMax Media Inc for the purpose of this review.]

Disintegration Review: Genre Cyborgs from the Future Wed, 10 Jun 2020 11:31:20 -0400 Mark Delaney

In the years that followed Halo — the era which ensured Sony and Nintendo would have to contend with a new player on the field  various companies tried to find their "Halo Killer," that elusive new shooter that would outshine Bungie's sparkling new IP.

Many tried, most failed. Some, like a sci-fi shooter under Activision that was later folded into Call of Duty 4, never even saw the light of day. These days, the shooter space is so healthy no one is really seeking to kill Halo. They just live in peace alongside it.

We've seen several routes taken to this happy ending, in the form of battle royales, hero shooters, and other new spins on the genre. Led by the co-creator of Halo himself, Disintegration proves there's still room to innovate.

Disintegration Review in Progress: Genre Cyborgs from the Future

Disintegration is the debut game from V1 Interactive, the 30-person indie unit led by Marcus Lehto, who once helped birth one of the shooter genre's biggest franchises of all-time. Disintegration doesn't seem to have such lofty expectations, and that's probably for the best, as its hybrid blending of first-person shooter and real-time strategy mechanics isn't as inviting as the point-and-shoot project players are used to, but then that's what makes it so interesting.

Disintegration takes place in a future where humans have almost uniformly moved into mechanical bodies through a process called integration. Unlike some sci-fi stories where our consciousness is uploaded via some computer program, integration demands users literally move their brains into a metal compartment, jokingly called a "brain-can." 

Doing this solves human problems like disease and aging, but not everyone is along for the ride. Disintegration starts fast, where our hero, Romer Shoal, defies the leader of the anti-humanist robots that seek to wipe out the last Naturals (non-integrated humans) and their sympathizers. 

What follows is a sci-fi action story which, while enjoyable in a Marvel movie sort of way, never really touches on the fascinating backdrop it's set to. Disintegration is desperate for a tie-in comic at the very least, and though that wouldn't make the game directly any better, it would be more satisfying to someone like me. I was eager to see these concepts explored but instead, I was left to a ragtag group of robo-heroes who crack jokes and save the world like the Avengers.

It's not that they're unlikeable. Romer and his allies are physically and mentally diverse, and the game at least does a great job of reminding me that these are humans still, just more metallic in appearance these days. Often, I found myself going off-script and asking questions the game had no interest answering  things like the how-to behind integration  but also the philosophical questions like, "Do we remain intact as individuals if merely our brains are salvaged?"

These questions feel like the kind that got the world-builders at V1 Interactive excited, but they never become the focus of the game.

At least where the story falters, the gameplay shines. As Disintegration feels like it will live or die on its multiplayer merits, I wasn't sure if it was safe to expect a fully-fledged single-player campaign, but after eight hours of tactical shooting gameplay, it definitely delivers.

Disintegration is presented 10 meters above the ground in a "gravcycle," a flying, weaponized mech which seems to have once been used for sport, but it has now become the literal and figurative vehicle of the resistance. As Romer Shoal, players can engage in first-person shooting and real-time squad commands simultaneously. 

Cover is enjoyably destructible and enemies are varied enough that the game gets rewardingly tough often, and on higher difficulties, it feels like a true chess match. Even on easy, you'll need to know when to play like a shooter and when to approach Disintegration like the overseer you always are in your gravcycle. In all cases, it's most satisfying to be both anyway.

This hovering POV leaves enemies and allies looking ant-like at times, which is a style that won't excite players just here to shoot stuff, but anyone who enjoys both genres of this crossbreed is going to love Disintegration. A tactical approach is always needed and anyone who spams their squad abilities and hovers around like a drone operated by a five-year-old is going to hit the fail screen often.

In turn, it's exciting when you roll into a warzone with your unit and lead them to victory, not just by pointing where to go, but by taking on enemies yourself too. Managing cooldowns and knowing how to keep your allies out of the worst possible situations, or instead allowing them to shine with tactical efficiency, only gets more rewarding as enemies and situations get more challenging.

With 12 levels and dozens of challenges to chase throughout, the campaign has a great sense of variety. It often pushes you into particular gameplay styles by suiting you with different gravcycles. All the while, it moves through a variety of aesthetics, like forests, cities, and snowy mountains. At each stop, the juxtaposition of super-advanced human-robot hybrids and the starkly empty world humans once inhabited is hard to miss. 

The campaign's variety in gameplay style, squad loadouts, and setting are all meant to serve as introductions to the online multiplayer suite. In that, there are three game modes to play, and all of them will be somewhat familiar to fans of almost any PvP mode.

Collector is like Kill Confirmed, where deathmatch points only count if you pick up the enemies' brain-cans. Zone Control is Domination, where two teams fight over three regions across the map. Retrieval is the game's best mode, and it's the most unique. With shades of Capture the Flag meets Search and Destroy, players control their units and fend off enemy gravcycles and troops to deliver cores and outlast the opposition.

Each mode is fun, even as the maps feel somewhat lacking in variety at launch. However, Retrieval best highlights the unique playstyle of Disintegration. While the other two modes can devolve into typical shooters with an unskilled lobby, in Retrieval, RTS elements are forced upon players in a good way, demanding everyone use their troop units smartly or get beaten in a hurry. This is the game mode I first played at PAX, and it's no wonder why. It's the exemplar of Disintegration's promise. 

In most rounds, I saw too many players just looking to shoot at other gravcycles. That's not just a bad idea given the long time-to-kill; it's a boring strategy. Disintegration isn't an FPS, at least not solely, so whether you have teammates who know how to play the other modes or you're playing Retrieval, this hybrid strategy shooter is most enjoyable when you're pulling from both genres as intended. When that's not happening, it is only fun so long as you're on the team that knows what it's doing.

Teams can be comprised of several different squads, making each one like a hero in Overwatch. They have unique stats and cosmetics to unlock that let you customize teams of Sweet Tooth-like clowns, 1980's club-goers, and samurai robots among others. It's over the top in a way that even the Marvel-esque story doesn't approach, and it's better for it.

Again, your fun can depend on how well your team balances these playable squads, as just like in a hero shooter, you want to hide your team's weaknesses and maximize its strengths. If everyone runs in guns-blazing, it's likely you'll suffer swift defeat. At launch, too many aren't getting the message.

Disintegration Review — The Bottom Line

  • Core multiplayer tenets are promising
  • Campaign is visually diverse and fun in a Marvel-movie way
  • Hero elements in multiplayer make for rewarding playstyle nuances
  • Story never grapples with its interesting backdrop
  • Extremely reliant on an attuned multiplayer community

More than most games, Disintegration will live and die according to its community's ability to learn the ropes. It's not that either genre the game blends is a conundrum on its own, but the blending of the two may make fans of either favor one side over the other. This is especially disastrous for shooter fans that don't incorporate the game's RTS elements.

Thus, it's a weird task to score a game based on the behaviors of its community, but I feel it's unavoidable. The story is fun but never dives beneath the surface of its fascinating sci-fi concepts. The multiplayer is what you should want to buy Disintegration for, and I'm hoping its playerbase can filter out the people looking for a new Halo. This isn't Halo, and it's better for it. Disintegration has some errors in its code, but this is a robot with its values properly aligned.

[Note: A copy of Disintegration was provided by Private Division for the purpose of this review in progress.]

Shantae and the Seven Sirens Review: Half-Genie Magic Mon, 08 Jun 2020 11:27:06 -0400 Jason D'Aprile

Everyone’s favorite half-genie is back with a new adventure that keeps what fans loved about the last game and adds a few new magic tricks of its own.

Shantae’s back, and she's wiggling up more action in WayForward’s latest side-scrolling adventure, Shantae and the Seven Sirens. This time, the adorable half-genie is trapped on a tropical resort island after nefarious unknown forces kidnap a group of her half-genie friends.

It’s as good an excuse as any to get back to Shantae’s colorful and whimsical adventures, with enough changes since her last outing, Half-Genie Hero, to feel fresh.

As ever, Shantae uses both her hair and dance magic to dispatch enemies and solve puzzles. Half-Genie Hero uses a world map that offered a variety of specifically-themed worlds, each with their Metroidvania-style sub-maps, and Seven Sirens takes a more straightforward approach. There’s one central location here — the island — with one large map divided into specific areas.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens Review: Half-Genie Magic

In practice, the map is not a huge change from the previous game, but it does make it more convenient to get around. One immediately noticeable change from the rest of the series is the fully animated, musical opening. The game also has short animated intros for each of the Siren bosses, and it’s a nice touch. Beyond that, Seven Sirens doesn’t look noticeably different than Half-Genie Hero.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing (the graphics are still excellent), but some stylistic changes in the overall look would’ve helped give the sequel a more distinctive personality.

Seven Sirens adds a new element to Shantae’s usual animal-transformation magic. Called "fusion magic," she can acquire special powers from each half-genie she rescues. As with most games of this style, those powers are essentially gate keys to reach new, previously inaccessible areas. The first such power Shantae acquires, for instance, makes invisible objects and secrets appear. This includes platforms that let her climb to new heights.

Another power heals both Shantae and things around here, like dying plants. A third produces a surge of electricity that can power dead machinery (and hurt any enemies on screen). She even gains the ability to cause earthquakes that can move blocks and other objects.

To perform any of these feats, Shantae first starts her basic dance, followed by a quick tap on the appropriate button. Since a big part of all of Shantae’s adventures is finding all the hidden treasures, using every power on any given room can often result in several secrets revealing themselves.

In addition to her new fusion magic, Shantae also gets new, streamlined transformation powers. Where previously, she had to use her dance magic to transform, now Shantae can change form with the press of a button — even when moving. Her newt dash allows her to cling to walls rapidly, but it also lets her extend her jumping distance and damages any enemy in the way. Pressing down in water instantly invokes her sea frog form and also leads to some amusing retro-styled challenges.

Finally, Shantae can upgrade her hair whip and acquire different attacks by purchasing them at shops. Homing rockets, fireballs, bouncing balls of death, and spinning blades (along with a protective shield) can be switched on the fly and upgraded to even greater effect. So, while you’ll probably still spend most of your time whipping bad guys with Shantae’s hair, there’s still a surprisingly eclectic array of choice in Seven Sirens.

The island itself is quite large, with several different towns and a variety of different environments. Since the theme is tropical, there’s a heavy emphasis on beaches, tropical forests, caves, and the ocean. Shantae doesn't just stick to the surface of the island, though; she also goes deep below the water to discover who took her friends and uncover the secrets of an ancient, very steampunk lost city.

Seven Sirens also feels a lot more straightforward than Half-Genie Hero, which at times leaves players with few clues of where to go next. Seven Sirens is breezier and more forgiving than expected, right up to the final area. At that point, the difficulty level spikes thanks to a brutal sequence where Shantae must defeat room after room of spawning monsters with a painfully tight time limit. 

The load times for the Switch version are also noticeably long (and frequent), and, owing to its hardware, it also lacks the 4K graphics of more powerful platforms.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens review — The Bottom Line 

  • Large, secret-filled map
  • More streamlined magic system is fun and creative
  • Bright, colorful graphics
  • Excellent and fun platforming action
  • Most of the game feels a tad easy — until it isn’t
  • Noticeable loading times

There’s not much more to complain about here. Shantae and the Seven Sirens brings back a favorite side-scrolling character in fine form. It’s a bright, colorful, cheerfully silly adventure with hours of exploratory, hair whipping, jumping fun.

Shantae has been weaving her magic for nearly 20 years and still feels distinctive amidst the sea of other platformers. Her latest romp might not feel quite as fresh as Half-Genie Hero, but it’s still a worthwhile, highly entertaining adventure.

[Note: A copy of Shantae and the Seven Sirens was provided by WayForward for the purpose of this review.]

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition Review: The Monado's True Power Fri, 05 Jun 2020 15:19:49 -0400 Joshua Broadwell

Shortly after Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition was announced, I wrote an article where I snarked, “But is it necessary if it doesn’t do anything new?”. Now I can answer myself and say: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary.

Despite Xenoblade Chronicles being a decade old, the Definitive Edition — warts and all — proves it’s still one of the top RPGs around and a must-have for the Nintendo Switch.

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition Review: The Monado's True Power

We won’t go into too many story details in case you’ve never experienced Xenoblade Chronicles before, but here’s the gist. The world of Xenoblade Chronicles deals in binaries. You’ve got the organic Bionis and the mechanical Mechonis. Both are gods of literally astronomical proportions, and both were locked in combat eons ago until something made them stop. Now, people and machines live on their respective deities because they’re so big, even their kneecaps have gravity fields. 

And they fight with each other — a lot. The Mechon have a rather unpleasant tendency of eating Homs (what the people of Bionis are called), and naturally, the Homs don’t like that. Homs are good; Mechon are bad. It’s all a fight for survival — or so you’re led to believe.

Xenoblade Chronicles gets started a year after the last big bust-up, where it seemed like peace was won thanks to the Homs hero Dunban and the mysterious Monado sword. 

Of course, that’s not really the case, because it’s an RPG and a Xeno game at that. Someone’s home has to be brutally invaded, and when that happens, Shulk of Smash Bros. fame sets off with his friend Reyn on a journey of vengeance. 

What makes Xenoblade Chronicles’ version of the usual JRPG vengeance story unique is how it unfolds. As the story progresses and you learn more about the world and its different types of people, the binaries slowly unravel until you end with something much bigger and more intricate than you expected. The pacing and sense of urgency to continue forward are heaps better than Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as well.

Sure, you have some fairly predictable moments and there’s the usual hamfisted stuff about fate and so on. But it’s surprising how well the plot still holds up, even if you know all the ins and outs already like I did — and despite the characters having basically zero depth.

It’s very much a story-driven experience, but the pacing and focus on exploration mean the lack of real character development never becomes much of an issue. It helps too that in the 10 years since the original Xenoblade Chronicles released, there have perhaps been a handful of games (if even) that tried combining high fantasy with sci-fi and actually pulled it off. 

Characters might not develop much, but there’s no denying one of the biggest and best changes in Definitive Edition is the improved character models. Models in the original Xenoblade Chronicles, and especially the New 3DS port, were basically monsters, monsters trapped with one, maybe two permanent expressions and reactions. 

The characters of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition are so much better realized and more expressive than the original. Little things like furrowed brows or changes in mouth shape go surprisingly far in adding tension or emotion to cutscenes, though characters still have their awkward walks — especially Melia, aka the duck-walk lady.

It’s a bit baffling why those weren’t smoothed out, but oh, well.

It’s equally disappointing the visuals other than character models are so blurry too. That shouldn’t be the case this far into the Switch’s life cycle, and while it’s hardly game breaking, it is annoying.

Speaking of exploring, you’ll be doing a lot of that. Fortunately, Xenoblade Chronicles is a joy to explore, blurry distances and all. A big part of that is down to the unique settings, ranging from winding caves to huge open fields on the Bionis’ thigh, deadly swamps, lush jungles — and that’s not even all. Xenoblade Chronicles’ maps feel bigger than its numbered sequel’s as well. However, that could just be a benefit of more open design and how you have a sense of progressing through these areas, instead of hopping around to new biomes every few hours.

That naturally raises the question of whether there’s anything to make exploring worthwhile, and the answer is a bit mixed there.

There’s no Witcher-style rewards like finding some obscure, meaningful side quest or stumbling on a much-needed item hoard. But apart from seeing the sights, you’ll run across items necessary either for fattening your wallet the next time you meet a merchant, bartering with locals, or using to craft gems that help you out in combat (more on that in a bit). 

A lot of these items and off-the-beaten-path locations play a role in Xenoblade Chronicles’ quests as well. That’s probably the game’s weakest point too, though it’d be a mistake to expect a remaster to change a fundamental part of the game’s structure. There’s an almost overwhelming number of side quests you can tackle if you choose to. And they’re almost all completely mundane: gathering items, fighting monsters, talking to character X, and the usual filler stuff. 

Where this would be a pretty big ding for another game, it’s surprisingly not a big drawback for Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, especially if you go into it knowing what to expect. For starters, you’re completely in control over what quests you want to complete.

Don’t feel like gathering five hard-to-find items for meager rewards? That’s fine. There’s plenty of quests to complete without going too far out of your way, and even if they’re pretty far south of spectacular, completing some is still worthwhile for the extra experience, unique gear, and gems.

Better yet, Definitive Edition’s improvements to the map and quest system make completing quests painless. Gone is that godawful, damnable orange arrow from the original, swinging around like a demented and possessed compass. In its place is a better map, one that’s easier to decipher, has clearer quest markers, and uses an actual indicator showing you the best path to reach your goal. It’s hard to overstate how amazing this improvement is and how much more enjoyable the game is because of it.

Having said that, the next Xenoblade Chronicles game absolutely needs to fix the series' quest and NPC systems. Affinity charts and dynamic quest lines that change based on when you complete them or in what order are fine, but they lack significance without any meaning attached to them and the characters they revolve around.

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition’s improvements go further than that too. The menus are completely overhauled, thankfully. Changing equipment is a breeze, although I can’t help but wish we had an option to equip gear as soon as it’s purchased.

Colors are brighter and clearer, text is easier to read, and there’s even a fashion option that lets you set how your character looks independent of what gear they’ve equipped. It’s a minor but much-appreciated touch that lets you decide what gear you think looks best or just go crazy and mix completely unrelated looks together.

Another big overhaul is the Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition soundtrack. The original wasn’t bad by any means, but the Definitive Edition version is so good. The remastered soundtrack is almost always superior, being fuller and more complex. Even tracks that sound weird out of context, like “Engage The Enemy” with its new opera inclusion, just plain work in the game itself.

Combat stays exactly the same though, but that's okay. If you’ve mastered Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat, you may find combat here a bit simple at first. But there’s actually more going on than you might think.

XC2’s combat ends up focusing on building huge combos as often as possible, and you can offset the time it takes to build Arts up by swapping between Blades. Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition makes you strategize a bit more, both with what Arts you equip on each character and how you use them

Each Art has a cooldown time. So if you spam them all at once during substantial battles, you’re not going to win very easily. Instead, you want to plan out how you use them, rely on buffs and debuffs, and pay more attention to positioning in battle so your Arts have better effect.

That also means it’s a good idea to switch your party up more often, since each character has unique attributes that could make the difference between winning and getting sent back to the last landmark. You'll want to keep on top of your gear too. Weapons and equipment often have slots that house stat-enhancing gems you can forge from all the ether crystals enemies drop or you mine from the environment.

Some fights need an evasion tank like Dunban, while others make you focus on supplementing your healers with support arts and using Chain Attacks to dish out damage and support the party. It’s just complex enough without being overwhelming or letting you just slide through, and yes, the constant call-outs during battle remain intact for better or worse.

Definitive Edition adds expert and casual modes if you need a harder or easier challenge as well, which is excellent for accessibility or if you just want to switch things up.

So in short, there’s a number of quality of life improvements with much better visuals and a superior soundtrack. It’s still the same game, but it’s also a generally excellent game to begin with. These enhancements make it even better.

Which brings us to the one absolutely new inclusion, Future Connected. It’s an epilogue set one year after the game’s main story concludes, but it’s not as meaty plot-wise as Torna: The Golden Country.

It’s also something of a mixed bag. The Bionis’ Shoulder is, as usual, just begging to be explored, but you feel the lack of meaningful rewards a bit more keenly here — especially if you just spent nearly 80-100 hours with the main game doing the same thing.

You’ll probably either love or hate the Nopon Rangers as well. While I’m not sure it works the best as a quest and battle gimmick, they do act as a nice way to break the tension, along with the many Quiet Time (read: new heart-to-heart) moments you’ll come across.

On the bright side, you’ve got a tweaked battle system to come to grips with thanks to that thing at the end of the main story. Hopefully, you learned how to play as Melia during the main game, because she’s pretty important in Future Connected. And she’s also the main plot focus, which is good considering her story has the biggest dangling threads of all at the end of Xenoblade Chronicles

Is it resolved in Future Connected? Not… really. But apart from this apparently serving as a lead-in to future Xenoblade Chronicles games (hence the name), it’s a testament to the world and themes Monolith created for the original game. The chance to see another episode unfold in this world and find out what happens as a consequence of the big victory is compelling in itself, and it’s definitely worth experiencing.

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition Review — The Bottom Line

  • Still excellent story and world
  • Thoughtful combat
  • Much-needed quality of life improvements
  • Stellar soundtrack
  • The visuals don't burn your eyes anymore
  • Future Connected offers some good post-game plot development
  • Not everything gets a visual upgrade
  • Quests still meh
  • Future Connected is also a mixed bag outside of plot

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is among the Switch's top RPGs, and that's saying something. Even though the glow ups aren't evenly distributed, and the quest system is still lacking, the setting, unique combat, and overall package remain as strong now — stronger even — than they were 10 years ago.

[Note: Nintendo of America provided a digital copy of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition for the purpose of this review.]

The Outer Worlds Switch Review: Spacer's Choice Thu, 04 Jun 2020 12:25:08 -0400 Mark Delaney

In the dystopian landscape of The Outer Worlds, the galaxy has been colonized by corporations that underpay workers in hazardous conditions and sell their otherworldly goods and services at marked-up prices to the starved populous.

Among the least reputable of these morally bankrupt companies is Spacer's Choice, famous for its blatantly inferior craftsmanship. In the real landscape of video game platforms, the Switch version of The Outer Worlds is the Spacer's Choice version of the game. It's immediately recognizable as the lesser version.

But if it's your only way to play the RPG, or if you want to make it portable, some technical deficiencies don't derail one of 2019's best games from being one of 2020's most exciting Switch ports.

The Outer Worlds Switch Review: Spacer's Choice

The Outer Worlds is a first-person RPG from Obsidian Entertainment, which immediately excites a certain number of people. It's new to Switch as of this week and brings a somewhat revised version of itself to the platform, but let's start with what's the same.

The Outer Worlds has an abundance to say, and it uses biting satire to tell a lot of it. Every poster is a takedown of an economy based on corporate greed, and most characters are either the players or being played. Despite that line in the sand, The Outer Worlds' greatest feat is how it builds real characters into its plot at every opportunity. 

There are NPCs with whom you cannot interact, but the number of characters who are quest givers with fleshed-out stories and opinions is remarkable. TOW was once billed as a Fallout Lite experience, but in few ways does it feel lacking compared to something like New Vegas, which the team at Obsidian made during the last generation.

In fact, it's often an improvement on the team's fan-favorite RPG. The Outer Worlds is brimming with reasons to stay in its world. Even your silent protagonist has a bevy of personalities to choose from, including a unique idiot mode where you can respond like a fool if your intelligence is low enough.

It's a constant joy to find new people to meet, learn their stories, and aid them in their quests. While some missions do use tropes of the genre, the major story beats are nuanced and praiseworthy. More than once, I put the controller down to weigh the pros and cons of a decision I was about to make.

You'd think a world where people are either the exploiters or the exploited would fall victim to a binary hero and villain system. Still, the story of The Outer Worlds unfurls with the understanding that life is rarely so black and white, even in a world where a mysterious plague wiping out a settlement is just malnourishment.

Among the many characters you meet are a half-dozen companion characters. In that way, The Outer Worlds moves closer to a Mass Effect system — it allows you to bring characters aboard your ship and take up to two of them with you on missions. You can mix and match pairings, stick with favorites, or even go solo, and the game smoothly adapts to your decisions in ways both big and small. These companions each feel unique and worth getting to know, and you do so by completing their loyalty missions (sounds familiar, yes?).

It's this wrinkle that keeps The Outer Worlds from being just another New Vegas, even as so much else, from skill trees to its sense of humor, feels much like Obsidian's previous mega-hit.

The story was also said to be briefer than games like it, but my first playthrough still took me 40 hours, and I didn't see everything there was to see. I don't mean simple collectibles, either. I missed entire questlines too.

TOW is not a bite-sized RPG, though, with the smart use of hub worlds, it doesn't feel bloated either. It's great to arrive on a planet, do everything you can there, meet tons of interesting characters, loot and shoot, and then depart for the next locale.

Some backtracking is involved, but the quest log is designed so intuitively that you won't have to do any extra work to streamline your progress. It breaks missions down in a variety of categories so you know what's major and minor and where everything can be completed. It's satisfying, and it makes the game markedly better.

Exploration is lacking a greater sense of discovery. While locations are varied and characters are interesting, it's rarer to stumble upon a story in The Outer Worlds that's understated. It feels as though every interesting thread you can pull comes with cutscenes or long dialog options. In a game like this, though, the stuff that sticks with you is often what's pieced together through seemingly unrelated text or audio logs.

I do not doubt that The Outer Worlds will receive sequels for years to come, and I should hope the next game improves this facet. 

Combat will feel familiar for Fallout veterans, meaning it's serviceable but not great. On Switch, The Outer Worlds seems to have been given a new aim assist feature that I did not find present upon revisiting my Xbox version. It's good that it's available for Switch too, as the smaller screen in handheld mode and poor control sticks make shooters less fun on the platform. Luckily, The Outer Worlds smartly compensates for these baked-in problems.

That's not the only thing different on Switch, but it's the last good thing that's unique to this version of the game. It's apparent early and often that this game would've had trouble on the platform if it weren't for several concessions. Chiefly, these consist of consistently inferior textures, lighting, and colors, as well as longer load times.

Stacking up my Xbox One S playthrough with my Switch playthrough, the latter's visuals are blatantly worse and, at times, even designed differently. Skyboxes are less colorful, and architecture is less intricate. Some trees and other environment pieces are absent, and locale transitions that take 25-30 seconds to load on Xbox regularly take more than 40 seconds on Switch.

Lighting effects sometimes appear to be painted across the distance in real-time, and textures pop in but never look great — even when you're right up next to them.

Here are some screenshots for comparison. 

Xbox One S


Xbox One S


Xbox One S


All of this is to say it's clear that The Outer Worlds on Switch was too ambitious in its original state, so the game was visually watered-down to get it to work on the system. 

Ironically, after infusing its latest RPG with much more color than the drab Fallout New VegasThe Outer Worlds on Switch ends up looking quite dreary itself, which isn't out of place in such a dystopia. Still, since the world is always presented with tongue firmly in cheek, the colors make more sense for the world and are thus disappointingly absent on Switch.

For what it's worth, though, I saw no slowdowns or frame rate drops, so if the visuals take a hit in favor of stability, I think that's a reasonable tradeoff.

The Outer Worlds Switch Review — The Bottom Line

  • Dynamic characters at every turn
  • Quests and choices that deliver awesome, memorable moments
  • Witty, satirical writing
  • Aim assist is added to aid Switch version
  • Smart quest log UI that all RPGs should follow
  • Clear visual downgrades on Switch
  • Longer load times on Switch
  • Lacking player-driven stories 

Some of The Outer Worlds' best and worst qualities on Switch are symptoms directly related to the platform. Making a major RPG portable is as cool here as it was with The Witcher 3, though the technical and visual downgrades are more apparent here than they are there.

Still, with extremely well-written characters, great quests that keep you busy for 40+ hours, and some smart adjustments for this platform specifically, The Outer Worlds remains a can't-miss experience. If you can play it elsewhere, you should, but if Switch is all you have or all you want, the pictures aren't as pretty, but everything else still shines.

The Outer Worlds is still one of the most binge-worthy RPGs of the generation.

[Note: A copy of The Outer Worlds on Nintendo Switch was provided by Private Division for the purpose of this review.] 

Those Who Remain Review: Ghost Flusters Wed, 03 Jun 2020 15:14:30 -0400 Mark Delaney

If you're like me, Halloween isn't just a day — it's an entire month. To get into the spirit of the season, my wife and I like to watch a horror movie just about every day of October.

Naturally, the quality is all over the place with such a dedicated approach. There are some films we remember forever and watch again the next year, while there are others we forget as soon as the credits roll. There are others still that, while they don't stay with us for long, do a good job filling in the schedule for any particular evening.

Those Who Remain is like the latter kind of horror movie. Its indie budget is apparent at every turn, and it makes some poor design decisions along the way. Still, thanks to some decent scares and a narrative that defies expectations, it serves well as a middling horror story wedged between some better and worse counterparts.

Those Who Remain Review: Ghost Flusters

Those Who Remain wears its influences on its sleeve — early and often. As a first-person, defenseless horror game with plenty of scripted scares, it's evident the team at Camel 101 played Layers of Fear somewhere along the way.

Sequences regularly lead players down a winding corridor, hit them with a dead end, and then morph the world behind them so they turn to witness a new and unsettling landscape. 

It's a camera trick that Bloober Team perfected, but I've not bored of it yet. Camel 101 employs it well too, so I don't mind the similarities. As a passerby in the eerie town of Dormont, players in Those Who Remain are put into a situation not unlike that of the lost souls of Silent Hill

As I entered the desolate town, I immediately likened the game's story to Konami's classic franchise. Only the fog of Silent Hill is replaced by everlasting darkness in Dormont. In the darkest corners sit shadowy figures, always watching, never moving unless you step out of the light. They're unnerving at first, but soon become little more than a puzzle mechanic. If you can see them, you know your path is not safe. Thus, your job is usually to find a light source to make them flee.

The more imposing threats are the several different monsters that give chase. Those Who Remain is a defenseless adventure-horror where puzzles and hide-and-seek rule the gameplay suite. The chases can be nerve-wracking, but usually only once. If you're caught, you'll notice that once you're spotted, there's seemingly no way to escape, and thus no reason to run away.

This unfortunate wrinkle turns the hide-and-seek element into nothing but a puzzle sequence of its own. It may have some spooky sound design to go along with it, but the auto-fail state of being spotted even briefly washes away a lot of the horror. Players need the possibility of escape to feel the threat. Without it, the chases don't work.

Having said that, there's still one recurring chasing enemy that reliably filled me with dread whenever I heard her coming. 

As for those puzzles, they're often a highlight of every level. They're of a familiar sort, where players backtrack through a small area while opening doors, finding items to create new paths to then find a key to open another door. You know the type.

Still, the puzzles are intuitive and use the otherworldly universe to essentially turn every locale into two different places. Yeah, it's like Silent Hill in that way too, but where its inspiration used a rusted-out hell, Those Who Remain traps players in a watery, drowning haze.

Though puzzles are good and scares are inconsistent, other aspects of Those Who Remain are regularly bad. The lighting is much too dark, causing me to turn my gamma settings up more than recommended, which lent a smokiness to the game I never wanted. Human character models are few and far between, which is a good sign that Camel 101 can work within its limitations, but when other people do appear, they look pretty bad. 

They sound worse too. The voice acting in Those Who Remain ranges from hardly passable, like that of the protagonist, to wildly ineffective, like that of a criminal you meet about a third of the way through the three- to four-hour story. I appreciate when an indie game can rise above a shallow budget and make do with what it's got. Those Who Remain is the result of that in some cases, but the story deserved to be structured around fewer speaking roles.

However, the best part about Those Who Remain is its story. In the first 30 minutes, I thought I had it figured out and grew frustrated as the narrative seemed to find itself so clever. But it turns out, it was.

With some player-driven choices allowing you to inject your morality into the mix, the story can end in one of three ways, and none of them unfold the way I expected early on. It was quite refreshing to see the story catch me off-guard like this. Whereas the game can often seem like an amalgam of other horror games' ideas, its story manages to reject the obvious conclusion in favor of something unexpected.

Those Who Remain Review — The Bottom Line

  • A twisty story led by player moral choices
  • A few good scares
  • Poor voice acting
  • Lighting is crucial but doesn't deliver
  • Chase sequences suffer from design flaws

As credits rolled in Those Who Remain, I felt I had enjoyed enough of it not to feel like I wasted my evening, unlike I have with so many October movie marathons. It's not a horror game I'll think of first when people come to me asking for recommendations, but for the biggest horror fans who keep up with the genre, one could do worse than the occult ghost story told in Those Who Remain.

[Note: A copy of Those Who Remain was provided by Camel 101 for the purpose of this review.]

Liberated Review: Black and White Stealth, Comic Book Style Mon, 01 Jun 2020 09:15:02 -0400 LloydCoombes

Cyberpunk, that nebulous way of describing humanity’s entwinement and dark fascination with technology, is all the rage these days. Liberated, a new indie sneaking its way onto the Switch and Steam, offers a unique take on the genre – it’s just a shame that its voice is lost in the dark.

Liberated puts players in the black cap of Barry Edwards, a man living a double life. By day he’s a (mostly) law-abiding citizen and IT professional, but by night, he’s decrypting data, hacking into domains that he shouldn’t be, and stashing stacks of currency in his apartment.

Liberated Review: Black and White Stealth, Comic Book Style

If this all sounds familiar, there’s no getting around it – the game undoubtedly takes heavy inspiration from the Wachowski’s first Matrix movie’s Neo when setting up Edwards, while eventually taking cues from the likes of V for Vendetta.

In the very near-future world of Liberated, citizens are monitored and awarded Credits through a seemingly impregnable algorithm. Something as simple as jaywalking can see the heavy-handed police knocking on the door, and the clamor for credits has driven the masses to constant fear and censorship, while others have been pushed into rebellion.

It’s Urban Dystopia 101, and it feels like that in trying to channel so many influences at once, it loses its own voice in the crowd, aside from some timely reminders that democracy and autocracy are just fractions away from each other.

Killing In The Frame Of

Where Liberated sets itself apart from the rank and file is in its presentation. Framed as a comic book series, it filters its sci-fi trappings via Frank Miller’s Sin City, all black and white and dripping with noir style. It feels like a continuation of earlier iOS and Android darling Framed, only with less color and more gameplay.

Each frame is wonderfully drawn, and subtitles are impressively legible even on the Switch. Dialogue options can see players skip over entire panels, while action sequences play out within the confines of the page, too.

For the most part, Liberated is a 2D stealth title. Barry can hide in shadows and initiate stealth kills; he can also wield a firearm capable of flashy but brutal headshots. We say "for the most part," because Liberated also offers frantic running sections and hacking minigames that range from simple puzzles to even simpler button mashing.

In between these sequences, quick-time events dictate much of the bigger set pieces. Car chases and action sequences devolve into timed button presses, and while it helps the story move at a decent pace, it feels a little too prevalent for our liking.

The actual stealth fundamentals start at a basic level, but they are masterfully ramped up over the course of the campaign. It’s not long until Barry is taking cover behind moving vehicles, or bobbing and weaving to avoid detection from drones, or swimming through underwater sections.

Liberated’s commitment to its aesthetic is absolute, with each of its chapters referred to as issues. Each comes with its own gorgeous cover art, and can be replayed to return to parts of the story you may have missed.

Ink Blot

That’s not to say there aren’t blemishes on its pages. The game’s use of black, white, and shades of grey means that the hallways and openings that Barry can take cover in are tougher to discern than you might think, leaving you standing in the open as an enemy turns around. There’s also occasional slowdown when flipping to the next in-game page.

There’s also a degree of ludonarrative dissonance in Barry’s actions. Early in the game, he has to race home in an effort to arrive before the police, with the boys in blue looking to accost him for, among other minor infractions, a lack of a valid train ticket. In his efforts to get there quickly, he has no qualms with choking out a guard. It feels a little ham-fisted in the early stages, albeit as essentially a tutorial.

For comic book fans looking to enjoy Liberated as a piece of literature, the game offers a story-only mode that strips away gameplay sequences. You’d have to be a true purist to play it in this fashion, especially given how much of the game’s interactive elements (outside of its core stealth action) feel as basic as pressing a button to select a dialogue option.

Liberated Review — The Bottom Line

  • Unique visual identity
  • Fun 2D stealth
  • Multiple paths
  • Full of cyberpunk and tech-noir genre tropes
  • Leans a little heavily on QTEs

Liberated leans a little too heavily on genre tropes for its story to feel anything other than derivative, but it more than makes up for it with a striking visual style that touches every aspect of gameplay.

Its reliance on quick-time events aside, it’s a fun, stealthy page-turner that’ll feel like nirvana for Alan Moore and Frank Miller fans. If you enjoyed the likes of Limbo or Inside, you’ll find a lot to love with Liberated.

[Note: A copy of Liberated was provided by Walkabout Games for the purpose of this review.]

Minecraft Dungeons Review: A Diabolical Battle of Blocks Wed, 27 May 2020 13:42:20 -0400 Jason D'Aprile

You know what Minecraft is. You’ve probably played it, because, well, it seems like everyone has at some point. So, after spending $2 billion on buying the whole IP, it’s no surprise that Microsoft is trying to expand the game into a franchise. Minecraft Dungeons is the first foray into totally new territory. It’s an instantly recognizable dungeon crawl that features as much Diablo as it does Minecraft.

In fact, it maybe mixes more of the classic dungeon crawler than it does its own namesake. Minecraft Dungeons is a straight-up hack and slasher, through and through. It looks like Minecraft, but certainly doesn’t play like it. For parental units, this game is probably going to be a gift from the gaming gods. It’s the fun of much more violent and bleak dungeon crawlers with a flair for the fun and absurd. 

The blocky character designs make the villains look mostly absurdly funny. There are various types of armed Illigers, spiders, witches, zombies, skeletons, ghosts, golems, and other mostly familiar monsters, along with farm animals that you can either ignore or just hack up too. Across over a dozen levels, you’ll trudge through swamps, deserts, towns, deep underground lairs, castles, and more.

Of course, the big appeal is four-player cooperative multiplay both on and offline. Microsoft is adamant there will also be cross-play added in the near future, but it’s not there just yet.

Minecraft Dungeons Review: A Diabolical Battle of Blocks

Admittedly, it took me a while to warm up to Dungeons. There are elements of it that, despite the overall fun of the game, still seem like lost opportunities. 

First is the character creation. You pick a skin from a fairly robust assortment, but there are no classes, no specialties, and no differences between them beyond looks. Any customization is done based on the armor, weapons, and items you equip, which makes it easy to miss the perks and personalities of Diablo’s very specific classes and characters. Here, characters are blank slates, mannequins to dress up and fight with.

Adding to this issue is the random nature of item collecting. Whether you get new items from treasure chests or the blacksmith and artifact-shilling shopkeeper, there’s no control over what they have for sale. You literally pay them gems for a random item. Sometimes, this lands you a truly magnificent weapon, like a spear that creates poison clouds or a mace that calls down lightning. Most of the time, especially later in the game, you’ll just get repeat items to salvage immediately.

Items can be upgraded with enchantment points that do a variety of things that range from adding more damage or protection to increasing the time certain effects last. There’s a huge amount of objects to discover and try out, and each item has a level that can be increased. So, there’s a constant loop to upgrade even favored weapons to better iterations.

It’s frustrating, however, to discover the wonder of the game’s sledgehammer, then not be able to simply upgrade its level yourself or find a better one on purpose. Thankfully, when you salvage an unwanted item, you get back any enchantment points you put into it.

Just the same, this is one major part of the game where more of the source material would have been welcome. It may have Minecraft in the title, but there’s no mining or crafting in Dungeons. There’s no destructible scenery beyond specific urns or the occasional mission-imperative items (like a particularly amusing bit where you literally kill all the big baddy’s cooks and destroy his buffet tables). 

Much like Diablo, there are also no camera controls. The right stick lets you dodge, but it does not move the camera. Unlike Diablo, however, the visual nature of Minecraft, frequently makes it hard to distinguish elevations, since textures frequently look so similar. Other foibles include no ability to save in-mission and, horrifyingly, no actual pause, which should be a criminal offense. 

While the overall level design is quite excellent and varied, the maps too frequently have a horde of dead ends, nooks, crannies, and side passages begging the completionists among us to explore them. While these diversions from the main objective are usually filled with more monsters and, therefore more fun bashing mobs, there’s a lack of actual treasure hidden around that becomes noticeable the more you play.

Probably the biggest peeve beyond the lack of a pause for those playing with younger kids or just more casual gamers is the complete inability to share equipment. Chests spew out items that only one specific character can pick up, even if they have no need for it. Not being able to share in a Minecraft game feels counter to the whole point of Minecraft. You also have a limited number of shared lives during a mission, which seems like a step back.

Yet for all that, Minecraft Dungeons is still a riot, whether playing alone, with kids, or just your buds. Some of the levels are huge, and exploring every corner of their maps can take an hour. Others are shorter and more direct, but the game never feels boring, and the action never dumbed down. Later in the game, the levels can get hectically crowded and nearly overwhelming due to the number of mobs it throws at you. 

It’s true that experienced players can certainly get through Dungeons in a day, but that takes away from the level of secrets the game holds. Just following the straight mission objective path means missing potential portals to secret levels, of which several have already been discovered and more are waiting to be. Plus, there are at least two DLC map packs on the way.

Then, there’s the camp. Camp is where players go between missions and seems like nothing more than a picturesque place to sort items, buy random things, and look at the world map. As the game progresses, however, the camp map begins to unlock more and more areas, and exploring it becomes an ongoing objective all on its own. 

Minecraft Dungeons Review — The Bottom Line

  • Great hacking and slashing, dungeon-crawling gameplay for everybody
  • Four-player support on and off-line
  • Large diverse levels and tons of items to discover
  • Affordably priced
  • Bland characters
  • No pause, in-mission saves, or item sharing
  • No camera controls
  • Not enough hidden treasures in maps

Minecraft Dungeons certainly has its fair share of flaws and even outright bugs, but the more time spent with it, the more enjoyable it becomes. It’s hard to deny that it should have had more of its namesake’s crafting and building gameplay, but overall, this is an entertaining action game for all ages.

That it’s surprisingly cheap (the base version is $20, and $30 gets you future DLC and special items) is also a huge bonus.

[Note: A copy of Minecraft Dungeons was provided by Microsoft for the purpose of this review.]

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review: Disorganized Crime Wed, 27 May 2020 12:31:00 -0400 Mark Delaney

In 2010, Mafia 2 bucked the growing trend of bloated open worlds and gave players a refined, more streamlined sandbox. In 2020's Definitive Edition remaster, that makes Mafia 2 stick out even more, but that's not my problem with it. Playing an open-world game not littered with map icons is actually refreshing, but Mafia 2 struggles in other areas that I can't justify.

Namely, if this really is the version by which we will define the crime drama, it will go down as something problematic for reasons old and new. Luckily, the best parts of Mafia 2 in 2010 remain great a decade later. Thus I'm left with mixed emotions after having played through the Definitive Edition.

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review: Disorganized Crime

Despite taking place in the fictional New York City analog of Empire Bay, Mafia 2 smartly begins in Italy, where anti-hero Vito Scaletta is fighting in World War II. The game uses military combat as a tutorial for the third-person cover-based shooting players will partake in across the game's 12-hour campaign. Still, in 2020, shooting is one of the least enjoyable parts of Mafia 2.

I can't recall how the mechanic felt upon its original release, but today, Mafia 2's gunplay is inaccurate and sometimes even unwieldy. In a way, I came to appreciate it a bit, as guns back then weren't the hyper-accurate instruments of murder they are today, and the game's physics are still morbidly delightful in the way enemies flop and drop when you've killed them. 

Overall, though, shooting is just not a highlight of the game given how it can sometimes let you down. It does this most annoyingly when in cover. Popping out to shoot can make the reticule land somewhere unpredictable, and sometimes, you'll get killed behind cover anyway, which is honestly probably realistic. But it feels rule-breaking in the language of video games.

Fortunately, unless you spend your off-mission time shooting up the city like it's GTA, you'll likely spend less time using guns in a game called Mafia 2 than you'd expect. Many of the missions ignore combat entirely — or for long stretches of time  and when they do involve violence, things are often settled with fistfights.

That attribute hints at one of Mafia 2's best features: its restraint. Though it takes place decades before the seminal television series, Mafia 2 imitates the Sopranos in how comfortably it lets scenes draw out. Things are left unsaid and meant to be inferred by the player, and the cast of organized criminals speak in their own lingo much of the time. The writers expect you to keep up just like the HBO series' writers always did, and the authenticity is exciting to watch unfold.

Vito is a complex main character, and I came away from this playthrough of the game with more thoughts on him than I did a decade ago. He's written ahead of his time. He's neither an agent of chaos nor a back-against-the-wall vigilante. He's a skull-cracking villain, but like Tony Soprano, you feel bad for liking him anyway.

Paired with his more lavish, kitschy best friend Joe Barbaro, Vito is a fascinating leading man who shines in every scene. I found myself role-playing him more than I do in most characters in most games. I would walk, not run, when the moment didn't call for sprinting. I wouldn't hijack a car in broad daylight, instead electing to head someplace on foot or break into a car tucked out of sight.

That's helped along by how the world of Mafia 2 reacts with a devoted realism. Cops will fine you for speeding, you need to fill up on gas when running low, and cars feel heavy and slow to accelerate. These commitments to the time and place acted as invites to fit in, and I enjoyed the game more when I did.

As Vito, I wasn't some unhinged psychopath. I was a Made Man looking to live a life of luxury.

Empire Bay is a miles-long stand-in for Vito too. It's understated and elegant, mysterious, but never cliche. In 2010, Mafia 2 was one of the absolute best period pieces ever put to the medium, up there with the painstakingly recreated LA Noire. In 2020, Mafia 2 remains an impressively detailed world to explore.

There's an undeniable authenticity in Empire Bay's atmosphere, and everything from the classic cars and the formal attire to the sexist radio ads helps transport players to its bygone era. In hindsight, I don't know if leaving out most of the open-world bloat was a conscious choice or a time constraint, but it makes me appreciate the open space even more.

Empire Bay wouldn't feel as fascinating if it was covered in blips on the mini-map. Instead, Mafia 2 lets players sell stolen cars, rob stores, or carry on with the main missions. This approach was already dated in 2010, but now I'm a bit nostalgic for a big world that doesn't take 50 hours to complete.

If only its visuals aged so well. Mafia 2 in its remastered state does not justify the moniker of "Definitive Edition." For one, the touch-ups it's received seem minimal. In cutscenes, the main characters can look pretty good, but this is a game that still suffers from some laughably low-res secondary characters.

Some of Vito's in-cutscene victims even look rather polygonal at times. Games have gotten better at hiding this over the years, but Mafia 2 wasn't cleaned up in a way that hides this legacy issue.

While textures have been given enhancements, the game's lighting still looks decidedly last-gen. It seems worst in the game's opening wintry sections, but even as the sun comes out later, Mafia 2 lacks the appearance of a late-gen remaster. I can forgive a mediocre remaster of a game I adore, but what's less forgivable are the game's bugs, including new ones brought on by the remaster itself, it seems.

Lighting issues and frame rate drops can recur regularly, including one alien invasion-like glitch that lit up the night sky with a purple glow and slowed my game to a halt. NPCs like pedestrians will sometimes behave strangely too, like characters that will leap over fences — and then over again — for no apparent reason.  

The point of a remaster should be to reintroduce the game to new players and allow established fans to revisit a favorite with some improvements. But other than the story, the only element I appreciated from Mafia 2: Definitive Edition is the chance to have another go with the achievement list.

It should be mentioned that the game also includes several story-based DLC chapters which put other characters into the playable role. While the chance to play as Joe is a fun one, his mission structure is more arcadey than the realistic mainline missions and doesn't merit the playtime. 

Mafia 2 is a complete, well-told story that only suffers from all the filling in of blanks the DLC tries to do. Less is more in this case, so the DLC is skippable here.

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review — The Bottom Line

  • An authentic, engrossing world
  • Confident storytelling with compelling characters
  • Gunplay has aged poorly
  • Bugs old and new present throughout

Mafia 2: Definitive Edition has problems. They're hard to ignore and sometimes unjustifiable, like brand new bugs introduced from the remastering or gunplay that doesn't hold up in 2020.

Despite those issues, I definitely enjoyed my time with the game. I'm still thinking about its story days later, even though I played it during its original launch too. What's left unsaid leaves the script confident, and that's a quality we need more of in games writing.

For fans who have played it before, you can safely skip a return trip to Empire Bay while we wait for the enticing remake of the original game coming in August. If you're new to the series, this is absolutely worth experiencing for its setting and story, but a lot of what surrounds the best parts of Mafia 2 make this remaster an offer you can refuse. 

[Note: A copy of Mafia 2: Definitive Edition was provided by 2K Games for the purpose of this review.]

Blood Rage: Digital Edition Review — Valhalla and Glory Await Wed, 27 May 2020 12:00:01 -0400 Jordan Baranowski

In the age of social distancing, tabletop gamers have to find creative ways to partake in their favorite hobby. That's why it's so nice to see digital releases of some of the best tabletop games around. Blood Rage: Digital Edition is the latest, and the source material is a big timer. Blood Rage is a highly-rated Kickstarter darling from designer Eric Lang and publishing company Cool Mini Or Not (CMON).

It's a Viking-themed strategy game with plenty of different mechanics, including drafting, area control, and hand management. The actual tabletop game's big draw is its eye-catching miniatures of Vikings, gods, and monsters. The big question here, though, is: does Blood Rage: Digital Edition replicate the feel of the tabletop version?

Grab your drinking horn and let's dive in. For Odin!

Blood Rage: Digital Edition Review — Valhalla and Glory Await

Let's start with the basics of how Blood Rage: Digital Edition goes down, as it's essentially a direct, digitized version of the tabletop game with some fancy visual effects.

A game of Blood Rage takes place over three rounds, called ages, and there are multiple steps to each. At the start of each age, two to five players draft their hands. The cards you take fall into a few different categories:

  • Combat tricks and strength boosts
  • Upgrades for your units or overall clan
  • Quests that grant you bonus points or powerful, recruitable monsters

The drafting phase will help you formulate your strategy moving forward.

Once every player has a hand of cards, the age begins. Each player can take as many actions as they have "rage," but you only take one action at a time before passing to the next player.

You can increase your rage as the game moves forward, granting you a major advantage in later ages as you'll be able to perform several actions in a row while other players run out (it's an amazing detail that your Viking army is only allowed to act as long as they are pissed off). Once you're out of rage, you have to wait until the next age to act.

Your actions might involve summoning units, playing cards, pillaging spaces on the board (which could instigate battle), and a few others. Thinking ahead about how best to combine your cards and most effectively utilize your limited actions is key to succeeding in Blood Rage: Digital Edition.

Sharpen the Axes

Combat is interesting in Blood Rage: Digital Edition. There are several different areas on the board, each with spaces for three to five total units. When a player tries to pillage an area  gaining a reward  other players have the option to move units in to contest it. Once every player has declared which units are part of the fight, they each select a card from their hand to add before comparing total strength.

Cards can be wildly different. Some cards are just massive strength bonuses. Some cards are extremely tricky, forcing opponents to destroy units or play a new card instead. Some cards actually reward you for losing the battle!

Once all cards have been revealed, the player with the most strength wins. Every other unit that participated in the battle is sent to Valhalla; they cannot be resummoned until the next age. If the final score strength is a tie, everybody loses. Classic Vikings: if they aren't the strongest, they'd rather be dead.

At the end of an age, one of the areas on the board is destroyed by Ragnarok, constricting how much space players have to work with and destroying all units inside that space. Players reveal their secret quest cards and gain points if they achieved the criteria on the cards, all dead units return to the supply, and the next age begins. At the end of three ages, the highest point total wins.

Board Game Battles

If all you want is to play the tabletop version of Blood Rage on your computer, then look no further. Blood Rage: Digital Edition is exactly that. The ability to play against AI players is nice  I've played dozens of games of tabletop Blood Rage — and the hardest AI players in the digital version are extremely difficult to beat. Obviously, you can take it online as well, where you can match up against friends and play ranked games to climb the leaderboards.

There's a tutorial mode that teaches you the basics of Blood Rage pretty darn well, too. You'll still probably feel the wrath of Thor a few times once you jump into the actual game, especially if you square off against someone who is familiar with the game already, but the tutorial is a great starting point. There's a lot of intricacy to Blood Rage: Digital Edition, despite the "big, loud berserker" look of it.

One thing that might be tough to newcomers is being able to figure out exactly what is what at a glance. Modern tabletop games, especially ones like Blood Rage that boast detailed, extravagant miniatures, try to be identifiable at a glance. Blood Rage: Digital Edition looks great (and faithful to the tabletop game) when you get up close. Zooming in to admire the detail makes it impossible to see the big picture of the board, however, so a lot of the visuals get muddled.

Blood Rage: Digital Edition Review — The Bottom Line

  • A faithful recreation of the popular game
  • Looks good up close
  • AI can be challenging, even for experienced players
  • New, exclusive monsters not found in the tabletop version available as DLC
  • Can be tough to gauge the big picture of the board at a glance
  • Not many bells and whistles
  • Can be tough to learn why things happen if you don't already know the game

Blood Rage: Digital Edition is a really strong port of a popular tabletop game. It's a great way to play Blood Rage with friends who you don't get to physically be around very often, or for people who want to play the game but have trouble getting a group of people together.

What you might have trouble with, however, is learning the game completely if you don't already have a grasp of the rules. The tutorial is fine, but figuring a board game out with friends is often the best way to learn the individual rules and strategies. Blood Rage: Digital Edition may also have trouble holding your interest if you aren't already a fan of the game, as the tactile aspect of tabletop gaming is one of its central draws.

Overall, Blood Rage: Digital Edition is a great way to try the game if the cost of the tabletop version scares you. It's significantly cheaper to buy it digitally. From there, you'll probably be able to determine whether you want to battle for Yggdrasil with the big boys.

[Note: A copy of Blood Rage: Digital Edition was provided by Asmodee Digital for the purposes of this review.]

Huntdown Review: A Blast From The Past Fri, 22 May 2020 17:10:21 -0400 diegoarguello

Action sequences in Huntdown usually go in a dozen different ways, but they are nothing short of spectacular. You can power slide on the floor to dodge a bullet, get close enough to an enemy to kick them off a cliff, and bounce a grenade back with the timed hit of a baseball bat in the span of a few seconds.

More often than not, your character will spit funny and often goofy lines of dialogue to accompany the mayhem. "I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher..." sings John Sawyer as he incinerates enemies with a flamethrower.

I didn't expect for a Johnny Cash song to get paraphrased in Huntdown, but it's only one of many throwback references present in the game. After all, it's a living homage not only to retro shooters but also to the movies and cultural movements that took place in that era.

Huntdown Review: A Blast From The Past

At this point, it's not surprising to stumble upon another indie title bent on capturing the simplistic and stylish essence of retro shoot 'em ups. Blazing Chrome proved it was possible to iterate just enough on the Contra formula to bring back some of the genre's former glory, and there are many other examples out there, each offering their own new ideas and quality of life changes.

I was expecting Huntdown to follow a similar approach, at least from trailers alone. It certainly checks all the right boxes: gorgeous pixel art, a deft mix of synth and '80s electric guitars that embellishes the soundtrack, and a whole lot of guns to shoot while running full blast in beautiful 2D environments.

It's not that action isn't the main focus, but it's rather a paced rhythm that pulses through the game itself. Trying to rush through enemy groups will often end in a quick death, and ignoring the use of cover will be punished time and time again. Yet, once you've learned the basics, such as the possibilities surrounding the dodge button that aren't just sideways, it all starts to click.

And that's when this take on the genre really begins to shine.

You immediately know what to expect from Huntdown's setting. It's a dystopian future where criminal gangs run the streets, and the police can't control them. But instead of an elite force mopping up the streets, bounty hunters are the ones on the front lines. Along with John Sawyer, Anna Conda and Mow Man are contracted to find and eliminate a long list of targets throughout 20 levels, each corresponding with four distinct factions.

All three characters can be selected at any time (though changing them during a level will force you to restart from the beginning), and there's even a local co-op mode for up to two players. Aside from dialogue and their base weapons (a starting gun that doesn't run out of ammo and a throwable weapon that takes a few seconds to recharge after use), they're basically the same. Still, it's in Huntdown's wide variety of actions and how enemies react to them that it makes the biggest difference.

That first sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this review is a common series of events that is ever-present, as the game demands these micro-decisions in order to survive. Taking cover is essential, but enemies are varied enough that this isn't the only way to tackle confrontations. Everything about Huntdown centers on destruction and shooting everything on site, but it rewards experimentation, too.

At first, you can blast through levels with ease, picking up shotguns and SMGs using them until they're empty. As part of the gameplay loop, these are supposed to be discarded for other options, and they play as chess pieces on a chessboard. Do I want a close-quarters weapon to try and rush through a roof and gain some aerial advantage? Or would a machine gun and some careful traversal make for a more efficient job, letting me take down enemies from afar?

However, this feeling of ease transitions into something more nuanced the more you play. Those seemingly effortless first levels feel like a quiet tutorial compared to what comes next.

Massive, heavily armed cars full of punks wearing clothes straight out of The Warriors show up frequently, while a giant mech awaits you at the end of the first district. After that, you can expect hockey aficionados coming in packs, samurais, drones, mysterious beings riding hoverboards, and many more that I don't want to spoil.

Boss fights, in particular, are some of the most inventive encounters I've experienced in a long time, iterating on one of Huntdown's primary principles: unique and diverse 2D spaces. Every environment in the game is used in a dozen interesting ways, putting you on the edge of your seat. 

You never feel limited by the game's perspective. Instead, you often benefit from it, making the most out of enemy and environmental designs.

The sheer variety of environments in Huntdown is striking, and they never cease to amaze me. There are ancient temples, decaying cities, and old factories, a massive stadium now turn into an arena and a dilapidated movie theater with iconic posters on the wall. Some areas are accented by cherry blossoms fluttering in the sunset or rain falling steadily in the night. But I love them the most when little surprises burst in from out of nowhere.

There's a moment in Huntdown where you're stuck in an empty subway station, and the exit doesn't unlock until you've fought several enemy waves that arrive on trains (making for the most stylish entry possible). But you also end up running and dodging projectiles in mid-air as a monster truck starts chasing after you. 

It doesn't always work as intended, sadly. It's never made clear what you can and cannot dodge, and you're expected to find out by simple trial and error. Increased enemy variety also comes with an increase in difficulty that feels at odds with itself towards the end of the game, at times pitting you against enemies with no means of defense beforehand.

And in local co-op, reviving your teammate is simply counterproductive. You need to crouch and press a button several times until you fill up a bar, but instead of resuming the action, there's yet another animation before you can bring them back to life. Those extra couple of seconds leave you ridiculously exposed, even after you have timed the attack patterns on a boss fight. 

Huntdown Review  The Bottom Line

  • Inventive and rewarding moment-to-moment gameplay
  • Carefully crafted scenarios
  • Interesting enemies and some of the best boss fights in the genre
  • Pays homage to several, but crafts its own interesting setting


  • The 2D perspective isn't flawless, and some design choices hold it back 
  • Some of the dialogue lines are a bit too childish

Huntdown understands the genre and its influences, and it carves its own path. It's short enough that you can play through it on a single sitting, taking four to six hours, depending on the difficulty you choose. You don't need to bother with experience points or procedurally generated elements here. It's all run, shoot, destruction. 

Everything is given to you from the beginning, and the game quickly becomes one of skill, timing, and dexterity. I laughed and punched the air many more times than I could count when playing Huntdown, especially when the game's environments rewarded my curiosity. 

Despite a few missteps, the game is a genre showcase, proving the genre still has room for iteration and uniqueness. When the vision is as stylish in presentation as it is in design, you end up with Huntdown.

[Note: A copy of Huntdown was provided by Coffee Stain Studios for the purpose of this review.]

Maneater Review: Sharky Soul Food Fri, 22 May 2020 09:00:02 -0400 Jonny Foster

Maneater is an open-world action RPG unlike any other. 

You take control of a bull shark from a humble pup right up to mighty megafauna across various fictional Gulf Coast towns that are teeming with ocean life for you to consume.

From harmless seals, turtles, and catfish to deadly hammerheads, orcas, and sperm whales, there are plenty of creatures for you to devour, though the bipedal species are the most exciting prey. 

Believe it or not, there is an actual storyline to Maneater, too; you aren’t just massacring wildlife and humans without rhyme or reason (though there is a lot of eating involved.) 

Instead, Maneater takes a reality TV show approach to its action, following you and a shark hunter named Scaly Pete, who, of course, has made you his nemesis, which may or may not have something to do with you eating his hand.

The commentary from Chris Parnell (of SNL and 30 Rock fame) is a particularly pleasant surprise, and while I couldn’t quite shake the thought that it was Jerry from Rick and Morty telling me about shark attacks and marine biology, his aptly sarcastic delivery really makes Maneater’s humor shine.

Maneater Review: Sharky Soul Food

Maneater doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are pop culture references and dry comedy spread throughout, which is perfect for the “comfort food” action gameplay of a shark terrorizing coastal towns. 

However, combat is much deeper than you might expect. On top of the standard "press RT to bite" attack, you have a dodge that leaves rival predators open to counter attacks. The shining jewel of Maneater's combat is the Tailwhip ability, though. 

By holding prey in your mouth, you enter a brief window of time dilation to aim before flicking your prey at incredible speed towards a target using your mighty tail. 

Words don't do justice to how good this feels; you have to try it for yourself. Leaping from the depths with a turtle in your mouth, slowing down time, and torpedoing the tiny reptile at an unsuspecting human is the same brand of catharsis as tossing God of War's axe.

Maneater also does a good job of keeping its gameplay interesting by continually introducing you to new locales with different predators and new prey to snack on. 

From the endless depths of the ocean to the dingy bayou, every location is varied and visually stunning. 

Each location also has a more powerful Apex Predator lurking in its depths that you can lure out by dwindling its food supply, which is a clever mechanic that adds some believable flavor to a game about a rampaging killer shark. 

To top things off, Maneater features simple but engaging RPG mechanics with unlockable evolutions that can be swapped out and upgraded. These add an extra layer of customization to everything, especially with the bone and bio-electric sets, which completely change the look and playstyle of your shark.

Your evolutions are fed by the nutrients that you acquire whenever you eat anything in Maneater, which gives everything you do a feeling of purpose. 
Whether you're focusing on missions, aimlessly chomping wildlife, or hunting for collectibles, everything gives your nutrients to power up your shark. 

I will say, though, that the gameplay started to feel a bit repetitive by the time I was done with Maneater — after all, you are a shark, eating and killing is all you really know. 

There are numerous collectibles to elongate the game's playtime if you’re a collectionist, but you can power through the main storyline in about 6 to 10 hours. 

Maneater Review — The Bottom Line

  • Deep combat and evolution systems make Maneater surprisingly fun 
  • Exploring the variety of gorgeous underwater environments is a delight
  • Dry humor and commentary from Chris Parnell is the perfect accompaniment
  • A little short on content for its price, especially on PC without any achievements to shoot for

While I experienced a few minor bugs and glitches in my playthrough, they weren't severe enough to worry about. Overall, the experience was clean.

I would, though, recommend purchasing Maneater on console if you’re interested, rather than PC. The controls are obviously built for a controller, and the absence of achievements on the Epic Game Store leaves the content feeling a little thin.

In a time of global crisis, however, a game where you can turn your brain off and eat anything and everything in sight is just the kind of detachment we need. Even if it wasn’t on your radar at all, Maneater is a title that will gobble you up for a few hours of blissful escapism. 

[Note: A copy of Maneater was provided by Tripwire Interactive for the purpose of this review.]

Saints Row The Third Remastered Review: Ugly on the Inside Thu, 21 May 2020 10:15:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

In my years away from Saints Row series, I remembered Saints Row The Third as my favorite in the franchise.

While the first two games weren't yet free from their GTA-clone shackles and the fourth went overboard with some mechanics like superpowers, I thought the third game was the sweet spot for Volition's outlandish series. In 2011, it established its own personality and carried the series to new heights.

Replaying it with fresh eyes nine years later as Saints Row The Third Remastered has had an unexpected effect on me. It looks prettier than ever, but the series' always sophomoric writing has never been more skippable.

Saints Row The Third Remastered Review: Ugly on the Inside

In Saints Row The Third, the Third Street Saints gang has risen to remarkable fame and fortune. Not yet seated in the Oval Office as they will be in later games, 2011's Saints Row The Third still makes it clear that the titular anti-heroes are a household name. They even have their own energy drink.

Moving the series from Stilwater to Steelport was a wise choice nearly a decade ago, and with this remaster, it's never looked better. But that's not to say it looks great. Saints Row has never been a series chasing high fidelity and lifelike characters, and the new coat of paint Sperasoft puts on this years-old sandbox is well done, if in traditional remaster form. 

This isn't one of those remasters that borders on a remake. Instead, this is Saints Row The Third made prettier. That's not a high bar to clear in 2020. Most noticeable is the skybox, which benefits from one of this generation's greatest advancements: natural light. Gone are the overcast greys of the original game; now, evenings and mornings look marvelous as they soak the open city streets in gold.

Nighttime looks better too, with reflections coming off of puddles like a current-gen game should allow, but there's also a lack of contrast when the sun goes down which makes some of the darker scenes too dark at times. Textures have been improved across the board, but characters still look like rubbery Dreamworks rejects.

In the city of Steelport, there are plenty of activities to do and much of the first two acts are interspersed with mandatory missions that act as introductions to these repeatable side quests. Saints Row The Third offers the best bundle of side attractions in the series, with stuff like Professor Genki's mascot-beating obstacle course, Super Ethical Reality Climax, or the fan-favorite insurance fraud, which has players sprint into traffic to get run over and rack up money from the drivers you're scamming. 

Combined with this, there's a fun city takeover mechanic which will take place in the post-game for most players. This turf war plays out more like Monopoly: Gangland Edition, where you buy properties that give you control over districts and pay dividends as you go. This is a better post-credits mop-up directive than many sandbox games offer and works well in tandem with the game's many activities, giving players lots more to complete and unlock after the story is beaten.

As this is a remaster, you're right to assume all previous DLC is included. Like Saints Row 4, this causes some balancing issues by giving players some of the best vehicles early, like more than one type of hovercraft vehicle which immediately makes driving obsolete for any player who doesn't restrict themselves from using them.

It also unlocks three story chapters that do more absurd things with the Saints, like film their low budget sci-fi movie. There's nothing about these extra chapters that is especially different from the main game in mission variety or mechanics, so they're to be taken as more of what you already got, only now you can do them whenever you want as the missions start in your quest log right away.

It was interesting to see just how much of a foundation the third game provided for the fourth, which originally came two years later in 2013. Playing the games backward as I did over the last six weeks, I still came away from the pair believing Saints Row The Third is the better game mechanically as it governs itself just a bit, still allowing for ridiculousness at every turn, like dropkicking into hijacked cars.

But it never rises to the absurdity of the skyscraper-leaping, flying, and superpunching abilities you get in Saints Row 4. Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling like something was off with Saints Row The Third Remastered

Plenty of fans are likely on board for a modest makeover of a game they liked before, but I wonder how many will find they've outgrown this series over the years. To my surprise, this remaster's script left a sour taste in my mouth, and I say this as someone who found the story dumb in 2011.

The writing in this series has always been bad, the kind of bad that seems deliberate, like no fart joke would be shot down in the writers' room. But I now see that the series didn't just find its gameplay sweet spot in 2011, it delivered its most immature brand of humor ever.

In Saints Row 4, most of the "nutshots" and slaps with dildo bats are inflicted on silly-looking alien enemies that are meant to embody evil. There is no nuance to be seen, and though the story is a lowpoint in the series, at least you can rely on the understanding that your severely flawed delinquent of a protagonist is always punching up, literally and figuratively, to take on their alien overlords.

But in Saints Row The Third, you spend most of your days fighting gang turf wars with three other crews all joined by their apparent shared interest in pimping women.

Saints Row The Third has an especially ugly outlook on women. Other than two of your crew members (and maybe your created character), the game's countless woman characters nearly always serve one of two roles: sex workers and exotic dancers. What's worse, these nameless, naked redshirts are typically used as fodder in shootouts, literal human shields, or otherwise locked in cages, getting beaten, or being put down with dialogue that I didn't find funny in 2011.

Nine years later, it really stands out as puerile and out of touch. I struggled to find the joke when one character called a woman "a useless whore." 

Now, there can be games that depict violence against women in some poignant context. There can be games where a character is portrayed as the villainous cautionary tale for saying this sort of thing. Or there can even be games where the humor is regressive and irreverent but still clever. 

Saints Row The Third is none of these things. I expect the series' biggest fans and maybe even its writers would scoff, "You came to Saints Row expecting profundity?" But that's not it. I just think if you're going to depict women the way Saints Row does, you should either have a point to make, tell better jokes, or admit your sense of humor is more poorly tuned than a radio broadcasting only static.

I didn't anticipate this kind of big-picture concern over Saints Row The Third. I know not to expect smart writing, certainly not even humorous writing. But this time around, SR3 gave me a gross feeling. In my previous review for a game in this series, I hoped Volition would share more on the sequel they have planned. After revisiting Saints Row The Third, I'd rather see evidence of an improved writers' room first.

Saints Row The Third Remastered Review — The Bottom Line

  • The best side activities in the series
  • Remastered visuals make Steelport pretty for the first time
  • Mechanically, SR3 is the sweet spot for the series
  • Terribly written with jokes that would only land at a middle school lunch table
  • A remarkable distaste for women 
  • Feels late in an industry that is moving past remasters to fully blown remakes

Saints Row The Third is a conundrum. The things I like best about it feel like series highpoints. Things like the side missions and the absurd but slightly reined-in mechanics are vital and well done in SR3, but this project feels born too late in an industry that has largely moved past middling makeovers in favor of true, gorgeous remakes.

On top of that, Saints Row has never had writing that would impress even a high schooler, but in Saints Row The Third, it's downright ugly at times with its outlook on women in particular. I do expect I can continue to enjoy Saints Row in the future, provided the writers hit puberty first.

[Note: A copy of Saints Row The Third Remastered was provided by Deep Silver for the purpose of this review.]

Before We Leave Review: A Peaceful City Builder with a Big But Tue, 19 May 2020 14:47:03 -0400 RobertPIngram

When I last checked in on Before We Leave in February, the game was still in alpha, but it made a solid first impression that had me anticipating the full release. With the game's final version dropping, it's fair to say that the alpha build was a fair representation of the final product, for good and for bad.

Before We Leave is a real-time strategy and city-building game for players who wish those games had just a bit more in common with the Animal Crossings of the world. If you're in the market for a game to help you relax and kill surprisingly more time than you might first think, then it might just be the game you're looking for.

Before We Leave Review: A Peaceful City Builder with a Big But

Before We Leave is a post-apocalyptic game, but whatever image that description puts in your head is probably wrong.

The closest Before We Leave gets to the drab colors and devastated wastelands of most post-apocalyptic games is in the occasional tile containing some old technology  though even those spaces are represented by bright lights of red and green — and a few piles of old metal that make up a sliver of a fraction of a percent of the total spaces on each planet.

And there will be plenty of planets, provided you play long enough and well enough to get there.

As the game starts, your five colonists emerge from an underground bunker to find a total lack of any civilization, and they possess a near-total lack of knowledge on how to build one. Shy of a few basic structures like huts and potato patches, any developments in society will need to be researched, from the complexities of space flight to the idea of cooking food before eating it.

As your colonists, called peeps, first poke their heads above ground, they have just one island to explore. The game's tutorial mode is great for slowly leading you through the process of establishing life on the planet, building to the abilities you need to repair an old wooden boat found on one of the island's shores. Once your ship is up and running, it's time to hit the seas and search for new lands.

This is a good time to pause and talk about the look of Before We Leave. While the game primarily relies on bright, simple designs, the unique structure of its planets and the passing of time creates some breathtaking scenes. The sun rising on the horizon creates a lovely tableau, and with unexplored tiles staying absent, you get some truly wonderful moments as your ship begins circumnavigating the glove and filling it out in strips.

As you explore the open seas, you'll come across a variety of islands, as well as two ice-capped poles. Two of those islands will be large enough to merit colonies and will play a crucial role in the next phase — taking to space, with the help of an old rocket from the before-times.

It's at this point that the game is capable of both showing its best elements and its worst. The movement to other planets brings a new level of intrigue to the game, as well as a certain element I won't spoil here but will certainly appear in any one-sentence pitch you make if you recommend the game to friends. And the process of building the engine you need to repair the rocket can see you slip into a relaxing auto-pilot.

Unfortunately, this can also be where the game grinds to a halt. To repair the rocket, you need to significantly expand your production and acquire large quantities of various resources, some of which are themselves produced from other harvestable resources.

Even when it goes well, there can come a point where your engine is up and running, but the high totals mean you're left sitting and waiting for your peeps to finish the job for an annoyingly-long time — even with the passage of time at full speed.

When it goes worse, you run into my primary reservation about giving Before We Leave a full-throated recommendation. While the game takes a relaxed approach to gameplay  to the extent that the worst thing that can happen to your peeps is they become unwilling or unable to work  that doesn't mean your colonies can't grind to a halt.

Colonial structures in Before We Leave often feel like they hang on a razor's edge, and one small oversight in your priority list can quickly lead to a stagnated population, with the solution either hard to identify or frustrating to implement. When this occurs, your relaxing, de-stressing game suddenly becomes its own source of agitation.

Before We Leave Review — The Bottom Line

  • An excellent option for players looking to relax and unwind in a low-stress setting
  • The comprehensive tutorial guides players through the early stages before unfolding into the full game
  • Getting peeps to do what you want, even with the help of priority levels, can become an incomprehensible puzzle when the system breaks down
  • Not all players will enjoy the rote approach to establishing production on a new island

Before We Leave comes close to hitting a home run. While it was never going to be a game that would absolutely knock your socks off or have you on the edge of your seat with anticipation, it's a great way to relax and unwind. It would be a can't miss if it weren't for the risk of running into one of those irritating logjams.

I played through several campaigns in Before We Leave for this review, and I experienced such struggles a few times, scattered between my first playthrough and one of my last. Ultimately, if you're willing to look past a few hiccups, it's a wonderful way to spend an evening or long weekend. 

[Note: A copy of Before We Leave was provided by Balancing Monkey Games for the purpose of this review.]

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Review: Scared, Screwed, and Loving It Fri, 15 May 2020 15:22:47 -0400 Mark Delaney

Virtual reality has been on the market for years now, but it still can't seem to climb out of its middling rut. In time, we'll see whether Half-Life: Alyx is the revolution Valve and other VR evangelists hope it is, but we can't see that far in to the future from here.

I've long found myself a believer of the tech and I root for it to succeed, but I'm not blind to its faults. With that in mind, I think The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners captures my thoughts on VR as a whole pretty well.

It has some body-tracking issues which naysayers will rightfully find to be too familiar an issue with VR setups, but if you've already got a headset at home, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is a can't-miss addition to the wild west of VR.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Review: Scared, Screwed, and Loving It

Saints & Sinners puts players in the American deep south as a lone survivor in Robert Kirkman's undead landscape. The first-person game is a mixing pot of several genres, and each of them is awesomely implemented.

Every level exists as a large hub and offers at least one main location you'll want to hit, like an early-level mansion in the dilapidated streets, but there are always countless ways to approach it.

In this first example, I was able to climb through one of several windows, crawl through a crawlspace, search for an unlocked door  which revealed walkers on the other side  or find a key to enter. I could even climb the side of the house and crawl into the upstairs. This gives the game an unexpected immersive sim-like freedom, as though a bit of Deus Ex or Dishonored snuck into this zombie VR title, and it quickly makes it so much better than I expected.

There are RPG elements too. You head out on a skiff by day and scavenge all sorts of scraps while on your missions. Anything from bottles to shoes to broken guns can be thrown into your backpack and you'll need to manage inventory space as it's quite limited given all the scraps scattered about each level. With that in mind, you'll want to know what to bring back with you, and for that, your safe space at an old party bus in a cemetery acts as your crafting hub.

Anything from food and medicine to guns and shivs can be built here with a simple-to-use VR layout. Excitingly, some of the first weapons you can craft are Lucille and Rick's python. These are given different names  I suppose because they're not the real Lucille and python  but the nods are obvious and welcome. 

Each level contains at least one friendly human survivor too. You'll have to look for them as they're wisely not broadcasting their whereabouts to the hordes, but find them, and they'll offer trades and give you side quests. These always end with rewards you'll not want to miss. I made it a habit to first inspect a level for these survivors as the backpack space was always worth what they were offering, even if it sometimes meant I had to first get my hands dirty on their behalf.

Though it tells an original story in the ever-widening lore bible of The Walking Dead, it retains several important hallmarks that franchise fans will both expect and adore. Namely, the zombies aren't the only threat. As you get deeper into its lengthy 15-hour campaign, you'll have to contend with unfriendly surviving humans too.

No Walking Dead story is complete without a Big Bad either, and Saints & Sinners understands this. Told mostly through collectibles and cutscenes, the story is fun to chase, even as the diary entries often hamper the gameplay with voiceovers that can bury more important sounds, like incoming walkers.

Within each level, you'll have several objectives, optional and mandatory, but you decide how to explore and when you leave. If you only need a specific crafting resource, you can return to any level, grab that one item as soon as you find it, and take off. Conversely, you can stick around until your watch beeps and the church bells ring out through the bayou, inviting a horde to descend upon your location. 

It's in these moments where Saints & Sinners best captures the feeling of surviving in its harsh world. Before the church bells ring, a level will have dozens of walkers, but they're somewhat spread out. You'll often have to fight two at a time  three at a time is thankfully rare — but that's about it unless you choose to Pied Piper them around town (don't do that).

But once the bells go off, your survival odds dwindle to nearly nonexistent. Half a dozen or more walkers at any time can surround you, and if your shots are off or you miss a killing blow to the brain, you're screwed. 

This makes stealth actions, like crouching past the gaze of the undead, crucial, and even more important is managing your health and stamina. Cruelly, most of the game's healing items will either raise health or stamina, but lower the other, giving players a personal puzzle to work out: "when do I eat this energy bar to boost stamina knowing it will hurt my health at the same time?" I asked that question a lot, and for me, the answer was usually, "when I need to get the hell out of here." 

Saints & Sinners is exhilarating in these moments, like a mad dash to the skiff with a full backpack as the ominous bells ring out.

The game's PSVR controls are smartly mapped onto the mandatory wands, but tracking of movements is sometimes faulty, leading to some annoying game-over screens. As this is true Walking Dead, nothing short of a blow to the head will stop the zombies from eating you, and while guns and, to a lesser extent, two-handed weapons, are reliable and fun, one-handed melee weapons are more troubling.

In the loading screens, the game reminds players that penetrating the brain requires methodical movements, not swift ones, and though I got better at this motion over time, I still missed more often than what felt fair.

A whiffed killshot means the zombies grab you and you have to shake them off, taking some lost health in the process. With a horde of a few zombies, it is often the case that once one grabs you, you get stuck in a loop where you're shoving them all off one by one until you're dead. Thankfully, the penalty for death is minimal. You keep level progress and must retrieve your loot before dying again.

Cheap player death is supremely unsatisfying and reminds me how much further VR has to go. I don't know how long I'd last in a real zombie apocalypse, but I know I failed some killing blows in Saints & Sinners merely because of faulty movement tracking. A real zombie kill shouldn't seem easier than my virtual attempts, but it often feels that way.

Luckily, the rest of the controller layout is intuitive. It smartly combines the 45-degree turns seen in so many VR games with headset directing for an experience that never turned my stomach. Controls like holstering quick-equip weapons and pulling out a flashlight, journal, or backpack never failed me. Only some melee weapons did, but that's an important part of a game about stabbing zombies in the brain. These controls won't leave you nauseated, only aggravated.

Even when this did get annoying, it is sometimes easy to forgive a game that lets you smash a bottle against a car to make a last-ditch defensive item, or demands you really yank on the barbed wire bat to pull it out of the freshly killed walkers.

Other than those moments of poor tracking, Saints & Sinners delivers an immersive zombie survival VR experience. It has a sense of presence as only VR can provide, like the dread of a walker spotting me as I peer around the "corner" in my living room. 

Saints & Sinners has the gameplay loop of my all-time favorite zombie game, State of Decay: head into a dangerous world, take what you can to survive, and try to make it home to stash it all, slowly building up your arsenal to take on greater threats. That loop is made more exciting in VR, though I can't deny it's sometimes thwarted by the headset and wands too.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Review — The Bottom Line

  • Open level design driving player choice
  • Well-implemented RPG elements like streamlined crafting and inventory management
  • True horror tension without crippling death penalties
  • Side quests and NPC interactions add replayability
  • The church bells!
  • Audio logs drown out more imp